Diving with Devilfish

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

The lagoons of Baja California are legendary. In these harsh scythe-like expanses, California Gray Whales have birthed and nursed at the end of their seasonal migrations since time immemorial. Life seems stripped to the bare essentials here, where the desert meets the sea. It is a world of raw beauty, but it is also a place of pain. In these lagoons the Gray Whales were slaughtered to the point of extinction in the last century.

Today the lagoons are protected. San Ignacio, in particular, is a sanctuary and part of a biosphere reserve protected by decree of the President of Mexico.

California Gray Whales have recovered somewhat from the brink of extinction. In fact, the U.S. Government no longer worries about their survival and has removed them from its list of endangered species. This may be premature, because we dont know what their historic numbers were and because they now face new threats.

On one hand, whaling still exists. The International Whaling Commission permits so-called aboriginal hunting of this species. One hundred twenty-four Gray Whales may be taken each year. Virtually all of these are allotted to aboriginal peoples of Siberian Russia but, beginning this year, the Makah Indians of Washington State may kill five whales.

Conservationists are concerned about the effect this expansion of whaling will have on the relationship between Gray Whales and humans farther south. In the last few decades, we have come to understand whales as a culture, with its own traditions, songs, rules and regulations. During the whaling era, Gray Whales were known as devilfish for their violent defense of their young. Since the moratorium on whaling, the animals have grown more comfortable with humans, going so far as to allow whale watchers to stroke the heads of their young. This new culture of trust could be seriously undermined by a resumption of whaling.

On a more significant scale, the whales birthing and nursing grounds are at risk from human development. The Mexican Government and Mitsubishi Corporation have joined forces to build a mammoth salt mine and processing plant at San Ignacio Lagoon. The plant promises to bring acoustic disturbance, increased turbidity and ship traffic to the supposedly protected reserve.

During the past few months, my team and I have become increasingly concerned about the Gray Whales and have traveled to the lagoons of Baja California to film them. Their world is changing and we wanted to witness both their grandeur and their plight.

For the marine cinematographer, Gray Whales present both challenges and rewards. The setting, though visually spectacular, is hard to bring to life on film. The light is flat and harsh and so is the landscape. Windblown dust penetrates every nook and cranny of dive and photo equipment. Lenses are easily scratched, threads pitted, watertight seals can start to leak. And the event itself;contact with whales;is such a subtle phenomenon. The film subject isnt really the person or the whale but the feelings of the person interacting with the whale. Filmmakers try hard to capture this special moment, but what we usually see on film is the image of people, squealing with delight, leaning out of boats and stroking the head of a whale. Important, but not exactly visually dazzling.

We have sought always to find new angles on this subject. For one film on cetaceans, we found a spot where incoming waves rose to significant heights beyond a sandbar at the entrance to one of the lagoons. The whales gathered at this spot and literally surfed the waves into the lagoon. We captured remarkable footage of this recreation from underwater and from a helicopter. It broke up the monotony of the boat shots and presented a side of the whales no one had seen before.

Now we are back with a different crew. How will they react to the whales? How will the whales react to them? First, we work hard to establish trust in the conventional way: in the boat.

It is always important to remember the lagoon is a nursery. The mothers are very protective of their young. As members of a species that once slaughtered them, we must respect whatever cues their collective memory or traditions may have imparted about us. It is a remarkable and moving spectacle when they bring their babies to the whale watching boats to be stroked by tourists. Without wishing to anthropomorphize the whales, their approach seems an act of tremendous wisdom, even of sage reconciliation;and of hope for the future. Of course, the skeptics could also be right;they might just be using us as cleaners, hoping to rid themselves of barnacles. Yet even this is an immense statement of trust in a species;humans;who were once their mortal foes.

The whales spontaneous and universal goodwill is not so clear underwater. Here they remain very wary. Some members of the team consistently frighten them away;not by their motions but by their heartbeats, their inner excitement, so palpable to the whales who are constantly monitoring our unexpurgated biorhythms. The whales hear something they dont like and they disappear into the green gloom.

In the end, we get our footage. Louis Prezelin, a veteran cameraman, is a quiet, gentle presence in the water. He is accepted by the whales. Slipping around and among them in the murky shallow lagoon, he observes not only their immense bulk and legendary strength but their surprising agility and awe-inspiring tenderness with one another. The murky water is not an impediment. On the contrary, it gives the moment a mythical quality and comes to symbolize our incomplete comprehension of the essence of these magnificent creatures.

It is this side of the whales that we have come to see;the culture or civilization of whales. As always, the questions raised by close observation make it more urgent for us to ponder their future and to secure their protection.