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Doreen Walton Headshot

Travelling North

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For as long as I can remember, whales have been surfacing for breath in sun and rolling storms; turning and buckling their vast bodies, as they travel through my head. And for years, I've been talking to anyone who will listen about following the annual migration of the grey whale from Mexico, where they give birth, to their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic.

This year though, I stopped talking about it. Instead, at 5 a.m. one morning in late February, I found myself and my two-year-old in a minivan, being waved across the U.S. border by armed officials, en route to Baja, Mexico.

I'd joined a tour group for the Mexico leg. As the light began to illuminate the shacks in Tijuana I caught glimpses of my fellow whale pilgrims, mainly silver-haired, neatly kitted-out Americans with a sprinkling of Brits.

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. That 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.

Over dinner we adopted several honorary grandparents, including one of the guides, a kind-hearted grandfather of two, hailing from San Diego, who made me think, in a good way, of Droopy Dawg.

The lagoons of Baja, where the grey whales mate and bear their young in the early part of the year, offer warmth and, crucially, safety. To enter from the ocean they must navigate through shallow waters and a network of sandbanks, which keep out marauding killer whales. The route for us was a dusty drive through sand dunes, overseen by fish eagles.

Once you are out on the water, it's a different world, and the whales welcome you in. I watched in disbelief as a calf stuck its barnacled nose out of the water right next to us and blew sea-breath and spray in our faces. "Go away whale," ordered the indignant two-year-old. "It's holy water!" exclaimed Droopy Dawg, and it didn't take long before all of us were elbow deep in sea, splashing to attract the whales and shrieking in delight.

A mama more than 10 metres long snoozed close by, with just her blowhole protruding. Her baby played energetically for about half an hour under and around the boat. "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 stopped directly underneath me. I put both my hands on her and she slowly rolled over, eyeing me from either side. I was being scrutinised by a dinosaur. The two-year-old sang "twinkle, twinkle little star..." and her calf came and splashed up into our faces, practically nose to nose. I stole a salty kiss.

An endearingly gruff, retired military man and his wife, I'll call them Cindy and Al, had travelled from Savannah, Georgia. Cindy nearly fell out of the boat with excitement when she patted her first whale. "You enjoyed it so much you need a cigarette afterwards," Al teased.

Our little skiff was its own universe, not always as serene as the underwater world. There was a low hum of dissatisfaction about some aspects of the tour. I kept my head as close to the whales as possible, breathing their breath whenever they came near, joining in with "twinkle, twinkle..." and trying other songs. It seemed to me that the whales 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. One woman grumbled if she didn't land a pat each time we went out. An otherwise jolly lady complained that the reputation of one guide as a "whale whisperer" was undeserved because the guide wasn't sharing her seat at the back of the boat, which the whales seemed to prefer.

After a week, Droopy Dawg and most of the group left. Five of the younger members stayed on for several more spectacular long drives with the tour leader. He proved to have excellent taste in location and great knowledge of, and passion for, the whales. Less happily, we had a passionate disagreement over whether or not child life jackets should be provided on the next boat.

I tried out another company for our final day on the water and decided to fly back. It would be easier than several more days driving, and I had learnt that one of our travel companions "couldn't stand the sight of children." So we amicably waved the group goodbye.

We explored the Sea of Cortez in the company of two wonderful lady adventurers from Montana. It swells up, convex, as though it's going to spill out over the earth, and is home to giant blue whales.The two-year-old echoed my thoughts, "Have a little swim, mummy, like a whale." I dived into the cool, deep waters but then mistook the shadow of the boat for a whale coming up from below, and scrambled back onto the boat in terror.

At the airport I was asked for our Mexican visas and realized the tour leader had all or any paperwork. "You are in the country illegally," pronounced the immigration official. A Mexican prison cell flashed before my eyes. But after a short interview, and a small 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.

What lies ahead for us, and for the whales, as we travel north to their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic? Next stop, the cliff tops of Palos Verdes, Los Angeles.

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