Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Marc Riley

14th December 2009

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments;

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My 2009 galavanting stared in earnest (a small suburb of Manchester) in February. I undertook what was to be my most extreme wildlife venture yet. A two week boat (that’s BOAT – not SHIP) trip from San Diego down the coast of Baja to end up in the Sea of Cortez. Home to the richest Cetacean population in the world allegedly, all in search of as many different whale species we could find, and anything else we might stumble across along the way.

The first couple of days were most memorable for a hellish second day at sea which – although I’d been warned about – I wasn’t prepared for.

Thirty-six hours into the trip, we passed over a large stretch of ocean which, due to some natural (but decidedly evil) tidal shenanigans sent the boat rocking back and forth…and side to side for a good 12 hours. Up to this point I considered myself to have a pretty good pair of sea legs. Not particularly attractive – and I suffer from ‘five-a-side knee’ – but that aside I expected my previous exploits at sea to stand me in good stead, and to enjoy this wild section of the blue. Wrong.

As I remember it, I sat in a chair, lodged into an alcove for a good 6 hours. Not moving. Not looking at the gi-normous swell emerging and disappearing….emerging….disappearing. My brain felt as though it had rocked loose in my skull and was lolling around, its movement dictated by the direction of every house-high swell we encountered. Kindly concerned passengers brought me drinks from time to time, possibly making sure my frozen posture didn’t indicate a premature death.

The boat (The Spirit of Adventure) held about thirty-five people, including six crew. Brilliant people. Lovely boat.. but, if you were to look at it you would hazard a guess at it housing perhaps half as many bodies. Lets put it this way – it wasn’t exactly the Love Boat. There was no Captains Table, no Casino, no Ballroom.

The cabins were tiny… there were two showers between everyone…I was in bed for 9pm and up every day at 6am.

When I told my dad this his quipped ” and that’s supposed to be a bloody holiday!?”

So why – I wonder – was it two of the best weeks of my life!?

From Day 3 it was sunshine and adventure all the way.

The trip was led by a chap called Mark Carwardine. I first got in touch with Mark about eight years ago to ask him for some advice about whale watching in the British Isles. He kindly didn’t ignore my request, and since we’ve become good mates.

He does this Baja trip twice a year and he told me it would be an event I’d remember for the rest of my life. Well I’ve got a really poor memory – but ten months down the line I can still recall every last waking moment.

This is how it panned out…a truncated account you’ll be glad to hear.



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The Humpbacks were breaching, head slapping, tail slapping, fin slapping. One mother was showing her calf how to do these moves …her splendid actions followed immediately by her calfs noble attempts. We saw four aggressive male Humpbacks bumping and intimidating each other in the hope of some casual sex (with a female) at the end of it, often throwing their entire 50 foot / 30 tonne body completely out of the water.

The Blue whales were, as expected, the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Most whales, (even the Fin whale -the 2nd largest species after the Blue – at up to 70ft) come to the surface, blow… then their back appears.. then the dorsal fin.. by which time the head and front section of the body had submerged… followed by the rest of the body, and if you’re lucky, with certain species, a proud rearing of the tail-fluke before their deep dive. But with a Blue whale.. it comes up.. blows… then more of it’s back breaks the surface..then more..and more. ..and more. It’s like a bloody U-Boat!!!. Anything up to 85 feet of the most impressive and largest animal ever to have lived. It really is a staggering sight. The tail-fluke which signals the deep-dive is particularly wondrous with the Blue whale. From tip-to-tip the width is that of goal-posts.

The Gray whale experience was amazing too. We left our mobile home (The Spirit of Adventure) anchored in the Mexican whale sanctuary of Laguna San Ignacio and boarded little boats called Pangolas (?). …. and trundled off over the gentle waves to be met by worryingly friendly gray whales. They come up to the boat. Mothers push their young right up to the boat…. the calf raises its head out of the water to see the excitable watchers on the boat… and sometimes even invite a ‘touch’!

It sobering to think many of the older whales would have been around when whalers used to be waiting for them upon the exit from the lagoon. Why they’re so friendly now who can say. Maybe they’re forgiving.. maybe they have an even worse memory than I have?

Over the two days we were anchored in the lagoon we were surrounded by Gray whales. I came out of the galley only to be met by the sight of a whale breaching out of the water about 500 yards from the boat! I excitedly told one fellow traveller what she had just missed, behind her..and she told me he’d done it 4 times in the last 5 minutes.

I had a ‘hands-on’ experience with two different Grey whales. Someone described their skin as feeling like a hard-boiled egg… and yeah – I’d go with that.

Mark did the last Chance To See TV programme with Steven Fry, the last episode in the series pretty much covered our exploits off Baja. Apart from swimming with Whale sharks with Miss Baja. I never did that.

The success of the trip was largely down to five things. The obvious wealth of wildlife in that part of the world. The experience, generous disposition and knowledge of our hosts Mark, Rachel and Suzi. The remarkable fellas who crewed the ship…and the other ‘trippers’ on board. All lovely people.

We flew back from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego… said our goodbyes… and as I lay on my bed, to my horror, I could still feel the swell of the sea rocking my bed about. That was a feeling that stayed with me for a good few weeks on dry land.

And still I say- two of the best weeks of my life.

My family were hoping this trip would finally satisfy, and perhaps put an end to my craving for endless hours at sea hoping to see these Leviathans….needless to say, it merely served to fuel it!