When she was 20, Canadian Shari Bondy, who worked on various boats in the Pacific, found her boat swept away by a storm in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, off the coast of Oaxaca. At one point, she fell unconscious, came to herself and discovered that the ship was surrounded by whales, which were preventing the boat from overturning.
She thinks she may have had a near-death experience or something similar because her memories of the event include the whales “talking” to her in a way, telling her she would be fine and – when. she realized she was safe and wanted to thank them somehow – urging her to tell people about it.
She later discovered that it was not uncommon for whales to come to the aid of hapless humans at sea. So back in Canada, she began to study whale behavior and work on tours that brought people see gray whales at the northern end of their migratory route off the coast of British Columbia.
But understanding whales also meant knowing the southern end of that migratory route – in Baja.
On Bondy’s first visit to Baja California Sur in 1988, she heard of a then unknown lagoon in MulegÃ© where whales were so comfortable with humans that they interacted regularly with them, even taking their babies. She decided to check it out.
What was supposed to be a multi-hour visit to Ojo de Liebre in MulegÃ©, also known as Scammon Lagoon, turned into weeks. It changed her life.
She got pregnant with her daughter there, but that was certainly not the only way the trip affected her deeply. The experience with whales at Ojo de Liebre overwhelmed her and she knew she had to study them.
But finding a way to live here and fund his research hasn’t been easy. For a while, she literally lived in a tent on the beach with her daughter and teamed up with local fishermen to organize whale watching tours in English and get advice.
She says she was “flying under the radar” since she didn’t know she needed a permit to do so.
Years passed and after about a decade a guest on the tour asked him what his company name was.
She had never thought of it. It was just an informal thing that she had worked with local fishermen, and most of what she got out of it was the chance to take photos and do other whale research.
This guest suggested that she formalize the organization of the trip and asked her: “What is it?” What are you doing ?”
His response was, âIt’s not really what I do; that’s what whales do. They do this whale magic.
Hence the name she finally gave to her company: Whale Magic Tours.
The travel agency is based in that same lagoon that captivated her so many years ago, but today she works with her now adult daughter, Sirena. Both are bilingual guides who have lived and studied whales for decades.
Unlike other tour operators, they are able to educate visitors from around the world on whale behavior and biology, the history of the lagoon, and tales of human-whale encounters they have witnessed. Bondy says looking into the eyes of a whale is a “humbling, life-changing encounter you’ll never forget.”
During the height of the whale watching season, which runs from January to March, there can be as many as 2,000 mothers and babies in the lagoon.
So why do whales approach people?
One of the reasons is that there hasn’t been any hunting here in living memory, so the whales feel safe.
The other reason is that the whales here are a bit bored.
While in Baja, they devote themselves entirely to carrying their young and preparing them for migration to the north. They don’t even eat. So the groups of humans who come to see them are a kind of entertainment.
They come close and like to be caressed by people’s hands. It’s definitely a learned behavior, like it doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.
In the 1970s, Mexico began implementing the whale protection measures in the lagoon that are currently in place. The El VizcaÃno Biosphere Reserve was created in MulegÃ© in 1988.
Mexican officials have asked Bondy to help set rules for the growing number of humans who go to see whales in the lagoon.
But Bondy’s involvement in the development of this part of Baja did not stop there. A few years after moving to Mexico, she met and married a fisherman from the little-known town of Bahia AsunciÃ³n, MulegÃ©, south of the whale-watching lagoon.
The couple moved to a small house in 2002, when it had no paved roads, electricity or running water. Despite this, they started receiving guests in 2006 and slowly developed into guesthouses.
It eventually became a hotel called La Bufadora, named after a nearby natural vent.
Both companies keep the Bondy family busy, but Shari still wants to do more for this part of Baja. It attracts a certain type of tourist, those looking for something off the beaten track or something more laid back than the popular tourist destinations of Los Cabos and Ensenada.
Despite its growing fame due to whales, the city of Bahia AsunciÃ³n is still not very developed as even with a paved road it is an hour from the main highway. âPeople are too busy to detour and check,â says Bondy.
But it’s worth the trip for the miles of pristine beaches, the fishing, the boat trips to AsunciÃ³n Island and, of course, the fresh seafood, she adds.
Although the visiting season begins in January, Bondy suggests making arrangements now as spaces fill up quickly, especially with limited space due to COVID-19 rules.
â¢ To book a tour with Whale Magic Tours, you can contact them at [emailÂ protected].
Leigh Themadatter arrived in Mexico 18 years ago and fell in love with the land and culture especially its crafts and art. She is the author of Mexican cardboard: paper, paste and fiesta (Schiffer 2019). His culture section appears regularly on Mexico Daily News.