Baby Whale Emergency
Copyright © Judith Shaw
Our Baja camping holiday started with three days kayaking on the Sea of Cortez and ended with three days whale watching in Magdalena Bay. The kayaking was challenging and fun, but wildlife in the Sea of Cortez had been in short supply. I was frantic to see something—anything—alive and warm-blooded in Magdalena Bay. Sea Lions would do in a pinch, but I wanted to see whales.
I needn’t have worried. There were a LOT of whales.
Gray whales swim south to Baja every winter, arriving anywhere from mid-December through the end of February. This year they arrived early and kept on coming. We must have seen fifty on the way to Whale Camp, and an endless stream of whales and their babies swam past our beach. I’d have been happy to sit on the shore all day just watching them swim by, but the panga came to pick us up, and out into the bay we went.
After lunch (seviche, tortillas and fruit salad) we went for a botanical hike in the dunes. That’s when things started to go sideways. A newborn whale, cord still attached, was stranded on the sand about half a mile up the beach.
The whole group was galvanized by the news. We all wanted to run up the beach to help rescue the baby.
Our leader didn’t agree. His position was that there was nothing to be done. The highest tide of the season had beached the whale more than a hundred feet from the water. There was no way to move her back.
Whales weigh about a ton at birth. Covering her with blankets soaked in seawater might keep her skin from splitting, but it would take heavy equipment to move her back to the sea. For that to happen we needed a road, but in this part of Baja there are no roads at all.
Add to this unhappy fact a scalding sun, dehydration and no nursing mother nearby, and the situation was dire indeed. The next high tide was twelve hours away, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as high as the one that had thrown her onto the sand.
There was no obvious solution.
The group was divided: try to keep her alive and maybe prolong her agony, or let nature take its course. In the absence of any way to help her, I came down on the side of nature. As it turned out, I was wrong.
We went out on the afternoon panga to see more whales, but all I could look for was the baby’s mother. Not constructive and very sad.
Before dinner that night the group’s naturalist gave an illustrated talk about whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. I didn’t have the heart for a lecture, and dinner wasn’t on my agenda either. I just wanted to go to bed.
I stood up to make my excuses just as three large bottlenose dolphins swam in close—very close—to shore, chasing something in the small surf. After a brief scuffle a large fish jumped out of the water onto the sand. One of the dolphins followed it right up onto the beach, grabbed it and bashed its head on the sand. Then the dolphin pushed itself backwards into the water, fish in mouth, and all three dolphins swam away.
You know the National Geographic films of Orcas hunting sea lions? The one where they throw the seal into the air and break its neck? That’s what the fish hunt looked like in miniature. It was focused, efficient and brutal. It scared me.
The dolphins I swam with in the Bahamas weren’t violent. They were friendly and playful, not the least bit scary. Okay, dolphins are carnivores with lots of very sharp teeth. I get it. Even dolphins have to eat. But the feeling tone of these three bottlenose was anything but playful or friendly. They were accomplished killers.
Between the dying baby and the thuggish dolphins, my feelings about marine mammals were changing. Truth? Maybe Disney movies were a better bet.
Meanwhile, the stranded whale saga was in full swing. Our kayaking guides were still in the area, determined to save the baby’s life. They worked in shifts all afternoon and through the night, wetting her down and keeping her company. There was nothing else they could do.
Except, as it turned out, there was. Someone, somehow, got cell phone service and organized a small front-end loader to be brought to the beach by boat.
By then the whale had been on the sand for 24 hours.
They used the equipment to roll her—pushing would have scraped the skin off her back—into the surf, and she shot through the water to the two huge females swimming back and forth in front of the beach. All three of them disappeared under the waves.
We heard about the rescue at breakfast. We all cheered, but in spite of a great feeling of relief, I was still anxious and unsettled. Ron and I went for a calming morning walk along the beach, and saw something big and dark lying on the sand. I stayed behind while he went to check it out. I couldn’t face seeing our baby whale lying dead on the sand.
It wasn’t a whale. A large moth-eaten sea lion had come to rest above the tideline. I could cope with a dead seal, especially one that had lived a long, full life.
We motored back across the bay on a sea strangely empty of whales. I felt sorry for the tourists coming in that day. Their introduction to Magdalena Bay’s huge mothers would be very different from ours.
Did the stranded baby make it? We’ll never know, and maybe that’s the way it should be. The odds certainly weren’t in her favor. But we all love happy endings, so I’ll use my author’s prerogative and write one: Debbie, as her rescuers named her, was reunited with her mother, threw off dehydration, starvation and trauma to survive and flourish. Every year she makes the long journey from the frozen north to the warm and placid waters of Magdalena Bay.
From my mouth, as they say, to God’s ear. May it be so.
Watch a video about the baby whale rescue:
Questions? Comments? Whale sightings of your own? Let us know in the Comments section below.