Learning about other cultures is a key reason why families travel. We long to learn about the complex languages, unusual customs, unique lifestyles and convoluted histories that inform and define the cultures of our neighbors. From this learning often comes empathy, a feeling of solidarity – a connection. And this feeling need not stop with our fellow Homo sapiens.
Take the gray whale for example. The gray whale migrates 6,000 miles from Alaska to Baja every year to mate and give birth in the protected lagoons of the Baja peninsula. Young whales enjoy the warm, carefree time in the lagoons, and new whale mothers prepare their babies for the long journey back north, fattening them up and teaching them how to swim, dive and even surf to gain strength.
Whether human, whale or another species, families gather and travel. For some, it is instinctive or a matter of survival. For others it is a yearning for adventure and discovery. The places where they cross paths – places like Baja, where humans and gray whales can today interact freely and without fear – are magical and the experiences are unforgettable.
Difficult but Important History
It hasn’t always been easy to find and preserve these exceptional places. In the 1850s, gray whales were discovered in the Baja lagoons by a whaler named Charles Scammons, who, along with his colleagues, proceeded to hunt them almost to extinction. Stories from that time abound of the lagoons running red with the blood of the slaughtered mammals. Sailors even started referring to gray whales as devil fish because the mothers would fiercely attack boats in futile attempts to protect their young. Humans and whales, two species with large brains and complex languages, were locked in battle.
Then the government banned the hunting of the whales and protected the lagoons, and by the 1970s local fishermen started noticing some “friendlies” – gray whales who would come up to their boats to look them in the eye, respond favorably to touching and seemed intent on communicating. Had the whales forgiven man for his transgressions?
One of Charles Scammons’ direct descendants heard about the human-friendly behavior of the whales and in 2011 visited the lagoons to ask forgiveness for the actions of his forbear. Eye witness accounts tell of four pairs of mother and baby gray whales surrounding his boat and, as he apologized for the actions of his ancestor, staying with him for an hour, exuding forgiveness and grace. The younger Scammons returned home, filled with the peace he had long sought.
Back to Today: Just Imagine…
So just imagine a baby gray whale sidling up to your boat and looking you directly in the eye. Or a gray whale mother and baby repeatedly luring you over the side of the boat to pat them, then blowing water on you each time, clearly enjoying the game. These are wild beings in their natural habitat. They have not been trained to do this. They do not get treats to do this. They do this because they want to.
The whales are choosing to bring their calfs to meet humans. The joy of this connection is impossible to overstate, and once human children realizes that the ocean is filled with personalities full of intelligence and humor, living in families much like their own, then it all becomes much more personal when they learn about the challenges facing our oceans today. Our children have friends to protect.
Or take the California sea lions of Baja. When you visit them at their homes you’ll find the youngsters inviting you and your children into games of chase or tag, and nipping at your flippers when you have to swim away due to exhaustion. At that point they may contentedly present their bellies on the surface so you can give them a nice rub. This is not a gimmick. This is not a show. These are our fellow fun-loving, family-oriented mammals sharing the joys of being free and wild because they want to, because it’s their culture, because it’s fun. More ocean friends are made.
Understanding Our Responsibility
We learn about the values and cultures of other peoples and species not just by how they interact with us, but how they interact with each other too. According to the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, humpback whale songs are grammatically complex and loaded with information. It is clearly a language. Last year, we saw an orca luring a baby humpback whale away from its parents. The parents sang out mightily for help – and it came! Four mature humpback whales converged on the scene from three different directions and drove away the orca. The baby was saved.
Just as traveling to meet people from other cultures helps us see that we’re all just people, so too does traveling to meet animals from other species help us see that we’re all really just inhabitants of the same planet, many of us with similar family and community values. Homo sapiens, of course, are at the top of the food chain, but as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben taught us in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Teaching our children to make friends with fellow mammals in the ocean helps them understand the importance of responsibly using their power to preserve the homes, languages and cultures of their friends.
Bryan Batson Jáuregui (center), along with her husband Sergio Jáuregui, is the founder and owner of Todos Santos Eco Adventures and Los Colibris Casitas in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Bryan first went to Baja on a sea kayaking trip with her sisters in February 2000. She enjoyed the whole trip so much that two years later she married the guide. Since then, Bryan and Sergio have built their business into one of the leading adventure travel companies in the Baja peninsula.
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