Book Report

Whales, Touching the Mystery by Doug Thompson.

Whales, Touching the Mystery by Doug Thompson. New Sage Press. Troutdale, Oregon. 2006.252 pp. 24.95.

Why are whales now friendly with whale-watching humans, and how can they forget and forgive us for hundreds of years when whale hunters slaughtered them? (Well, they are whales, that’s how, they aren’t elephants. Nobody can hope an elephant forgets and forgives.) Only recently, with many species of whales nearing extinction, have most countries decided it is important and necessary to protect whales..

Growing up in landlocked Illinois, I’m fascinated by the mystique I feel about the gray whales I’ve touched In Baja. I read all of the books and articles I could find; everything available about the whales we see here each winter, but this book is different than most of what I’ve read. The focus is on the author’s theories of why these mammoth creatures have decided to seek communication, and are now befriending the humans who not so many years ago hunted them almost to extinction. We cannot understand their language, and we have no accurate method to gauge their intelligence except by human standards. There are many other mysteries surrounding the world of whales. For most of recorded history, whales have been called “devil fish”, and they’ve been hunted commercially almost to extinction. Why, they seek interactions with us now?

The first person we know to have had a friendly interaction with the gray whales who migrate thousand of miles south to have their babies in Baja lagoons, was Francisco ( Pachico) Mayoral, and this historic event first happened in San Ignacio Lagoon in 1972. A gray whale approached several fishing pangas, swam under the boat, and then gently rubbed against Pachico’s boat! Afraid at first, Pachico sat still and watched, and after some time, he gradually felt more curiosity than fear, and began to stroke and pet her head. Interactions between whales and humans changed in Baja from that time on.

The author notes that the panga fishing boats that friendly whales now approach are basically the same size as the whale boats used only 70 years before, and that some of today’s whales must have been alive then, and have memories of when they were hunted. it is estimated that there may have been 20,000 California gray whales in Baja in 1850, and less than 2000 whales only 20 years later. Before whaling, gray whales faced few threats and swam our oceans with killer ( orca) whales as their only predator. This went on for thousands of years, until whaling began. Because it’s believed that gray whales live up to 200 years, it is reasonable to think that at least some of them must remember the time when they were hunted relentlessly, and how strange that even so, they now seek closeness to humans. Well, lke we mentioned above, we don’t know much about their intelligence.

“This book and the DVD on the back cover, offers hope for the future of of gray whales as well as other marine mammals and whales, and thus also, hope for all of us. A quote by Jane Goodall, on the cover summarizes the importance of this book, and the importance of whales on man’s very existence and future. The tone and information is different from other educational books on whales, which speak more to the differences between species, their physical data, and some history. Thompson writes of their thinking processes and of the very soul of the whale.

The book has 10 chapters in two parts, part one is about Laguna San Iglacio, which is on the Pacific side of Baja, about 600 miles south of the border. Part two describes the migration and habits of grey whales and the history of whaling. Additionally, the book includes a DVD, two pages of listings of online resources, and directions to the whale watching camps near San Ignacio. The author, Doug Thompson, has led many trips into Baja and mainland Mexico. He is an active marine naturalist and conservatist, who has spent 30 years studying and doing research on cetaceans.

Part two also focuses on gray whales, and gives us a brief history of whale hunting. Whales are protected today, although Japan still ignore the ban on whale hunting. Yet, it has not been long ago that whaling was an admirable and dangerous occupation, for only the bravest, or foolish or desperate of sailors. In 1857, one Yankee whaling captain, named Scammon, became famous, and a hero of his day, by trapping and killing thousands of whales in a lagoon near Guerro Negro, a few hundred miles north of here, which now bears his name. It is said that the water ran red with blood from some of the nursing mothers and baby whales that were slaughtered there.

The author has used his knowledge and experiences as a commercial fisherman (when he was in college), to write and present educational programs with his goal of adult awareness of conservation, (and some with Shari Lewis, for young children), and he has led expeditions to San Ignacio Lagoon for whale watching. His web site is

 Doug Thompson has an exciting theory that the gray whales are trying to share important insights and information with humans, and that we can do so through their closeness and touch. What do you think?

I do believe you will enjoy reading this book, and watching the DVD. The book, Whales, Touching the Mystery, is available at my bookstore named El Caballo Blanco in Loreto.