Humpback Whales, Mexico

Liz Duncan travelled on our 'Mexico's Monarchs, Humpbacks and Birds' holiday and submitted this entry to our writing competition.

Humpback Whale, Mexico

Transferring from land to sea always feels awkward and unnatural. Of course, it depends what species you are. We smile at wildlife documentaries where penguins dive effortlessly into the sea but flail their way back onto the beach. Have you ever watched people trying to get into a boat from the beach? It always involves at best wet feet and an ungainly lurch, and at worst, a slip and fall flat on one’s bottom.

I am getting on a boat at San Blas on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and take my seat on the hard metal bench. We are changing environments, from ours as land-living mammals, to the ocean where Humpback Whales reign supreme. It’s a glorious sunny morning in February, and a million miles from cold, dark England. That in itself would be enough to lift the spirits, but for some of us on this trip, seeing these animals is a lifetime’s ambition, and getting on this boat is the culmination of a long journey to fulfil that goal. Most of us are not in the first flush of youth either, but what distinguishes Naturetrek groups is that people do not see the barriers to fulfilling ambitions, just the goal at the end and they will do whatever is required, regardless of age or fitness. Helping us all achieve this today is Karel, our local guide and boat captain, Daniel.

It takes only 10 minutes of sailing out into the bay before Daniel spots a whale, two whales in fact, a mother and calf. We jump to our feet, people lurch around grabbing cameras and Daniel reminds us to respond slowly and quietly, for our own sakes and so as not to disturb the animals. We clutch our binoculars, searching for a glimpse of a fin or tail but, at the moment, the whales are gently swimming and only a dark gleaming back and dorsal fin is momentarily visible. We have to get our eye in. I wonder how the whales might view this noisy human rabble, competing to get the best shot? But behind me is Mary who has waited a long time in her life to see this sight, and she is quietly standing, just watching, holding onto the rail, soaking up every moment of this unique experience which only gets better and better.

The mother and calf swim majestically on, apparently unworried by our boat which keeps a careful distance. The pair are inseparable: sometimes side by side, sometimes the mother is below her calf. She gives birth in this sheltered warm bay, and while she nurses her calf, she does not feed, waiting till they start the long journey north to the feeding grounds in Alaska.

Now we settle down to watch, finding our sea legs, steadying cameras, and are rewarded by a longer breach and our first view of a magnificent tail fluke. These enormous creatures have such presence, such elegance and power in the water. It is hard to comprehend their size: 16 metres long, up to 40 tons in weight. Imagine the amount of muscle power necessary to launch an animal of such size out of the water.

There are a couple of other boats following the whales now. Daniel is careful to leave the 100 metres that is required for licensed boats. But one boat accelerates between us and the whales. Daniel tells us to watch – the mother Humpback may react to the disturbance. He knows his whales: just a couple of minutes later, having dived deep, she bursts out of the water, straight upwards, fins wide, like a huge torpedo, and lands backwards with an enormous splash. It’s hard to keep quiet, impossible not to gasp out loud. She goes down, and then comes up again, but this time accompanied by the calf who doesn't quite manage to get to vertical and who collapses back into the water. But we have our one shot on camera: a mother and calf Humpback Whale, side by side, breaching. A most treasured souvenir of an unforgettable moment.

Daniel has an underwater microphone and we can actually hear the song of a distant whale. Only the males sing; the sound travels long distances. It is such an iconic sound, used to relax a thousand meditation sessions for stressed humans.

But there were other great experiences that morning too, which under other circumstances would be great wildlife moments in their own right: sailing round small islands covered in Blue-footed Boobies (such an unfair name for wonderfully individual birds with feet that Jimmy Shoo would do well to emulate) and brown pelicans; and the air full of frigate birds like menacing drones.

We return to San Blas to pore over our photographs, the breaching Humpback remains my screensaver, taking me back to that wonderful morning. But I also remember that only a few decades ago, the call of the Humpback was endangered by whale hunting, and this is in fact a conservation success story with the numbers of whales now recovered to several thousand. That fact only adds to the positive experience of briefly sharing an ocean with such magnificent creatures.

Read more about our 'Mexico's Monarchs, Humpbacks and Birds' holiday.