One week after departing Taos on a solo camping trip to Baja California Sur, I felt a glimmer of knowing why I needed to travel there.
I arrived in Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Parque Natural de la Ballena Gris y Refugio de Aves Migratoria and acquired one of the last palapas, an open-sided building with a thatched roof, along the bay beside the protected wetlands.
After I purchased a ticket out on the morning panga (a boat) and made camp, I needed to move and to let go of all the driving miles. I launched a vigorous stomp down the sendero shouting,
"Ballenas! Ballenas! Ballenas! Whales, you are out there!"
I didn't know I cared much about whales until that moment. I marched along the path through the protected inlet off the Pacific Ocean. The marsh seabirds eating and roosting at dusk took notice: herons, egrets, willets and an osprey paused and turned their heads.
"I'm here. I'm here. I made it 1,400 miles," I said aloud, without initially knowing this was my destination.
So far the trip had been a passage through inner and outer barren terrain. I came in at the Tijuana border crossing and drove down many long rough desert stretches on poorly maintained roads.
Mostly I was negotiating my own doubts and demons. My head was filled with fighting and failing and fleeing, and my body trailed behind.
Hundreds of miles had passed this way, with me hashing out my spinning thoughts with the saguaro cacti. This is something else that I never knew. The cactus are the best listeners.
They do not ask questions or give advice. They stand tall and sturdy as if they have all the time in the world to receive you. However, when a flock of turkey vultures was perched atop them, I had to quiet down as the vultures right away notice soft spots and peck around in them.
Following the dry land expressing and emoting, it felt good to exclaim out loud to anyone and everyone on my watery walk in the Baja. To those who warned, "The Baja is too dangerous. You can't travel alone there as a woman. You won't be safe," I marched and yelled. Through the hurdles of getting this far, past the military checkpoints, along the lonely dark realms, I lost count of how many times I was asked along the way:
"Viaja sola?!" You are traveling alone?
"Por qué visita Ud. ? Adonde va?"
Where are you going? Why are you here? How long is your visit? All unanswerable questions.
Now, at the reserve, I felt a brief triumph. I am somewhere that I am supposed to be.
The next morning I woke up early in the misty laguna; the weather did not appear friendly for an adventure. I sadly sunk back into my sleepy daze.
I felt the proximity of the whales, the rocking motion of swimming in the waves with them, their low deep sounds moving in my chest. All night they swam through my dreams.
At sunset the night before, I had watched whale pods pass through the channel, my first sightings. They are enormous, stunning creations even from afar.
Later I startled back awake and jumped out of my sleeping bag. The mist was clearing and I ran down the road to see if I had missed the boat.
But blessings were in the air and 10 of us headed out on a short, gentle ride through the clearing fog. Our guide cut the engine and we commenced our nursery visit.
We floated among dozens of whales, a 360-degree immersion. The whales were coming closer, so close, coming to us, the only boat. They were spouting out their blowholes, breeching and diving in small pods.
Mothers with their newborn babies swimming beside us. A stillness descended. Soundless vibrations passed through the water, penetrating my heart. My armor softened and I filled up with tears.
A long time seemed to pass in the quiet, feeling free of worries. I lost time and space for a while.
These massive creatures, weighing up to 40 tons each, were surrounding our boat, gliding, nursing, and playing. For the first time in months, I belonged. My spine had that buzzing up and down electrical charge that signals connection. Connection.
I exclaimed to myself,
"These are my people ...and they are whales!" Hmm, that's strange.
Clearly, this is sacred space and I am among the elders. These whales are wisdom keepers, healers, sounders, birthers of peace and forgiveness. They are far wiser and grander and braver than me.
The gray whales have survived near extinction. They swim 5 miles per hour for three months each way on a 10,000-12,0000 mile round trip. They travel the greatest migratory distance of any mammal, returning to their Mexican home every winter.
We slaughtered them for centuries. Then about 40 years ago, when their species was almost gone, we decided to offer them protection. Prior to that, 1,000s were harpooned for their oil, picked off along the migratory route before ever arriving safely.
The mothers traveling with their offspring were known as the " devil fish" by the commercial whalers. They attacked the boats with such ferocity in a losing battle to protect their pod.
And this morning they have generously admitted us into their sanctuary and allowed us to float in their company. Despite years of attacks, they come up to us, trusting. They are loving mothers and midwives, birthing, nursing and caring for their young together.
I sat there stunned, a small wrecked and grieving human, and they gave me a blessing.
When we returned to shore, I glided back down the road in the sunshine. Two women camping nearby who had introduced themselves the night before surprised me by popping out of their tent and jumping up and down, cheering for me, for the experience. One yelled,
"Come tell us your stories when you're ready!"
They had driven down from British Columbia for the second year to be with the whales as their first visit had been life changing. But I was wordless. What words could come out of my mouth?
Maybe something like...
"I floated with whales in a place like heaven ...and maybe I will be okay."
This was day seven of my 31-day journey. I did not know yet that later in the trip I would get to spend two more days with the whales.
I then began to research the gray whales and to create an itinerary focused on nearness to them.
Las Bellenas Grises Mexicanas (Mexican gray whales) spend two-to-three months in the protected warm lagoons of the Pacific Ocean along the Baja peninsula. In addition to Ojo de Liebre, they also temporarily reside in Laguna San Ignacio and Bahia Magdalena, and I went on to visit both areas.
An estimated 20,000 gray whales are on the planet now, the majority making this annual journey from the Arctic summer feeding grounds to the Baja and back. Mature adults are 50 feet in length, up to 40 tons in weight and can live up to 70 years.
The elders of the current population along the Baja would have potentially witnessed the brutality of whale hunting days and losses during migration. If whales carry cellular memories as we do, their collective whale consciousness includes mass generational violence.
Yet they now show an interest in connecting to us. One flick of a tail could capsize the boat, but that is not their intention.
During my third visit with the whales, we traveled in an inlet where recent counts showed more than 1,000 whales were present. As we headed further out into the cove, we passed dolphins, sea lions, flying fish and purple jellies, many shorebirds and ships hauling salt out of the mines.
I became aware of how tenuous the habitat is for all of the creatures who reside there. Still so many threats to survival endure. Beyond the proximity to the largest salt-making facility in the world, climate change is leading to temperature changes and fluctuations in food sources.
Also, humans continue to pollute, kill for sport and I heard a recent account of people chasing down the whales on jet skis outside of San Diego. More alarming, our president is expanding the use of echo sounders, a sonar devise used for oil drilling exploration up and down the coasts despite evidence that it damages sea life.
Returning to our destination this day, the bay was abundant with mating whales and young playful whales, apart from the nursery. Imagine whales everywhere.
I felt like a tiny alien visitor on a whale planet. This time a few other small boats were spread out over the bay. Clusters of three to four whales mated beside us repeatedly in quick, combative looking frenzies.
Other pods swam circles around us. Some came beside the boat and spouted water onto us. It felt like a frolicking playground. Again, we were noticed and welcomed.
Timeless time started back up that afternoon. I felt that a whale would be approaching below, and we would touch. That was an unexpected sensation.
I began to hum, and to soften my bony cage of protection. I let my hand dangle over the side, feeling along the surface of the water, opening myself up to contact.
Soon a pod of three young whales greeted our boat by circling us, playing beneath us, then pushing against the boat and rocking it. They surfaced and spouted water onto us.
One of the whales surfaced against the side of the boat and we put our hands on him. He was cool, wet and blubbery, then sharp and crusty in spots with barnacles.
Minutes passed and we kept petting him. He submerged and returned, rising back up to the surface, rolling up on his side. I rested my hands on him, close to his big eye. We looked at each other, eye to eye.
He showed me somewhere deep and far. He took me to a vast place, such as outer space or the ocean bottom. I floated with his group.
Somehow we were up in the stars, drifting in the layers of realities. No boundaries, no sharp edges existed, only warm fluidity. This was like visiting with the angels. It was like drifting in pure light. As this ancient and advanced whale guided me through the higher realms, despair lifted.
I needed this. To be seen...by a whale. To be lovingly cared for.
It had been a harsh stretch of life recently. I lost a son seven months ago.
I've nearly lost his brother, too. Two sons, amazing ones, cherished ones, my beloveds.
Both are still here flourishing on the planet. And I am living in an unfathomable place.
When my one son left my life last summer, the steady foundation of family and home fell away. So did safety and security and any previous sense of self. I couldn't find me at all. Gone too - sleep, ease, the taste of food, the capacity for joy.
The whales can understand loss like this. My guess is that they know the alchemy of energetic transformation.
They held me and floated me along. They took me into their care.
They said, swim with us, stay in our pod. We will show you the way back, across the border, through the scary stretches, through the depths. It's okay to keep moving and even to keep loving.
These benevolent beings gave me solace where there was none to be found. And that really was all that I was seeking with this journey, a reprieve from pain.
Thankfully we saved the whales. We now have consensus that people who harm whales are criminals. Can we imagine that the whales have a campaign to save us?
They are healing the waters as they go, penetrating the shadows and trusting enough to keep on living. They remind us of the role that we have generously been given on the planet.
We are caretakers, not conquerors. We can love more and destroy less.
The beautiful gray whales are now on their way back to Alaska and my 4,347 mile journey ended with the return to Taos.
The grief has not lessened. It is just as unbearable.
I wish it was as others have promised: Oh, you will work through the stages and eventually feel better. But I am not at all accepting.
Fortunately, most nights I join the whales.
"No, no estoy viajando sola. Estoy con las ballenas."
I am not traveling alone. I'm with the whales.
And they are showing me the way.
Carrie Moon is a freelance writer and adventure traveler living in Taos.