Where to tickle a grey whale

Ever had an idea that just wouldn’t let you go? A bee in your bonnet? I wouldn’t mind a bee. They sound busy and useful. But I’ve got whales. A whale in your bonnet hasn’t got the same ring to it. It’s large and inconvenient, and has got me into a tricky situation with Mexican immigration officials lately.

For as long as I can remember, the whales have been swimming through the murk; surfacing for breath in sun, rain and rolling storms; turning and buckling their vast bodies as they travel through my head. And for years, I’ve been talking to anyone within earshot about the grey whales, and wanting to follow the route of their annual migration, from Mexico to the Arctic.

This year though, I stopped talking about it and instead, at 5am one morning, found myself, and my two year-old, squashed into a minivan, being waved across the US border by armed officials, en route to Baja, Mexico.

Nervous of travelling alone with a child in Mexico, I joined a tour group. As the light began to illuminate the shacks in Tijuana, our driver got lost, and I caught glimpses of my fellow whale pilgrims, mainly silver-haired and neatly kitted-out Americans.

The two year old slept soundly in his car seat while the rest of us pogoed through the desert, past cacti waving and the odd one doing the finger. In the evening we arrived at the small town that was to be our home for the next week. Hot, sweaty and burping avocado and tortilla chips.

The tour leader was there to greet us with a grunt worthy of any tetchy walrus. Luckily most of the trip participants were friendlier. The two year old adopted several pairs of temporary grandparents over dinner.

I stole a salty kiss.

The lagoon where the whales mate and give birth to their young is hidden behind sand dunes. They are safe in there: to enter from the ocean they have to navigate their way in shallow waters through a network of sandbanks, which the marauding killer whales don’t care for. The route for us was a dusty drive, overseen by fish eagles. Out in the little skiffs on the water, it’s a different world, and the whales welcome you in.

I watched in disbelief as a baby came up to the boat and stuck its barnacled nose out to be patted. The two year old shouted, ‘Go away whale!’ when it blew sea-breath and spray in his face. But it didn’t take long before we were all elbow deep in sea, patting, tickling and shrieking in delight.


A mama more than ten metres long snoozed a short distance from our boat with just her blowhole protruding, while her baby played with us energetically for about half an hour; diving under the boat, bumping it and coming up either side up for attention. ‘We’re free day-care’, laughed one ecstatic lady.

The grey whale is the only living descendent of a species of whale that lived 30 million years ago. One mother came and sat in the water directly underneath me. I put both my hands on her and she slowly rolled over, eyeing me from either side. I was eye to eye with a dinosaur. The two year old sang ‘twinkle twinkle…’ and her calf came and splashed up into our faces, practically nose to nose. I stole a salty kiss.

‘You are in the country illegally’, pronounced the immigration official. A Mexican prison cell flashed before my eyes

Buddy, a retired military man, and his wife Sandy, had travelled to see the whales from Savannah, Georgia. Sandy nearly fell out of the boat with excitement when she first touched one. ‘You enjoyed it so much you need a cigarette afterwards,’ drawled Buddy.

The boat was a little universe of its own, and not always serene. There was a general hum of dissatisfaction at the shabby motel and the disinterested walrus guide. I kept my head as close to the whales as I could, breathing their breath whenever they came near. I joined in with ‘twinkle, twinkle…’ and tried out some songs of my own choosing. It seemed to me that they came when we sang. Who they came to was fast turning into a sensitive subject though, as everyone became addicted to their daily fix of whale love.

Elbows of some group members became sharper as they jostled for prime whale patting seats. An unsmiling British couple scowled and muttered if a whale approached anyone else. One guide, Pammy, was introduced to us as a whale-whisperer but Michelle, a former nurse from Oregon, complained that this was because she refused to give up the position at the back of the boat, which the animals clearly favoured.

After a week the honorary grandparents went home and we were left for the second leg of the trip with the walrus, Michelle and the aforementioned delightful British couple. ‘Can’t stand the sight of children’, said the man. I decided to leave them all to their own special brand of joy and 3-day drive, and to make my own way back.

‘You are in the country illegally’, pronounced the immigration official. A Mexican prison cell flashed before my eyes.

We explored the Sea of Cortez. It swells up, convex, as though it’s going to spill out over the earth. We found giant blue whales; so close we saw their tails skim under the water. Spouting; breathing and submerging several times; and then diving for about 15 minutes before reappearing. We also found new travel companions, a couple of lovely grannies from Montana. And I dived in, down into the deep, deep waters. After a short swim I mistook the shadow of the boat for a whale coming up and clambered out in terror.

There was a slight hitch leaving Mexico when I was asked for our visas and realized the walrus had all paperwork, if there ever was any. ‘You are in the country illegally’, pronounced the airport immigration official. A Mexican prison cell flashed before my eyes. But after an interview and a $50 dollar fine we were soaring up into the clouds. As we waved goodbye to the whales and to Mexico, I tried to collect my heart from the bright waters below, simply mind blown.