La Jolla tourists take magical trip to see whales in Baja

A member of the tour group reaches out and touches a young whale.  Photo: Nigella Hillgarth
A member of the tour group reaches out and touches a young whale. Photo: Nigella Hillgarth

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By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

A three-day trip to see the gray whale nursery at Scammon’s Lagoon was an “otherworldly” experience, said a tour group of 30 La Jollans, which included renowned Scripps oceanographers Walter Munk and Gustaf Olof Svante Arrhenius, as well as former University of California President and UCSD Chancellor Robert Dynes and his wife Ann Parode Dynes.

“Magical, life-changing,” was how Nigella Hillgarth, executive director of Birch Aquarium at Scripps, described the March encounter. “To get close to a large mammal and their babies, see their eyes — I think everybody should try and get down to the lagoon and check it out.”

Munk said, “If you didn’t have any religion when you went down, you certainly did when you came home.”

The birthing grounds of the migrating gray whale is located near the town of Guerrero Negro, in an extensive Baja lagoon averaging 7 miles wide more than 27 miles inland. About 350 miles south of San Diego, the lagoon was named for whaling Capt. Charles M. Scammon who “discovered” it in 1857, though it was known earlier to Spanish and Mexican explorers.

Scammon at first decided to exterminate the whales before realizing his mistake, then dedicated his life to saving them, according to Wikipedia.

The gray whales congregate in this lagoon during winter to mate, give birth and let their calves grow enough to withstand the long north migration. Up to 2,000 whales and their calves can be found in the lagoon during the peak of the season.

Terry Kraszewski, a La Jolla Shores surf boutique owner who went on the trip, said, “I just felt so connected to them (whales) and the ocean.”

The experience was especially poignant for La Jolla community activist Mary Coakley, who was in the midst of a project to create a life-sized bronze sculpture of J.J., the Orphaned Baby Gray Whale rescued by Sea World which now rests in Kellogg Park playground in La Jolla Shores.

“I don’t even know how to describe it,” said Coakley. “This gave J.J. such a real dimension. I don’t want to say it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip because I want to go back next year.”

Kraszewski, an avowed whale lover, said the opportunity to connect with such awe-inspiring creatures was precious.

“The trust you saw, they kept coming to us time and again to let us touch them and to look in their eyes … They’re so powerful and so big, the size of a city bus … All we could do was grin and cry and hug afterward.”

   
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