pixel

Baja Fever
By Greg Niemann

Scammon's Saga

By Greg Niemann

Charles Melville Scammon

Today, one of the most exciting encounters Baja California visitors enjoy is to get close and actually pet a whale. Over the past few decades, whale watching excursions to the lagoons of Baja California have become a big business with numerous operators offering a wide range of trips. But it wasn’t always that way. Baja’s gentle whales were once hunted and harpooned in bloody frenzies.

Conservationists of today shudder when they recall the mass slaughter of the California gray whale in the mid-1880s. But at the time, while it was a bloody business, no one gave a thought to slaughtering the species to the brink of extinction, and whaling was considered a romantic and adventure-filled life.

While his name is synonymous with the carnage, Charles Melville Scammon was not only one of the most successful whalers of his time, he was also one of the most literate. He was a very fine artist, a self-trained naturalist and an accomplished writer. He was keenly intelligent, self- confident and destined to command.

Born in Maine in 1825, he took to sea on the East Coast and came to California with his wife in 1853. For 10 years he commanded his own whaling vessel all along the Pacific coast, hunting the gray whale from his home port of San Francisco.

He began to astonish other whalers by returning to San Francisco with a ship full of whale oil after only being out a short time. What did he know or discover that they didn’t?

Scammon had accidentally discovered a lagoon halfway down the Baja California peninsula that can be entered only through a long narrow mouth. He tried to keep his lagoon secret but other whalers from San Francisco followed him to discover where he found all the whales.

Gray Whale

The shallow Ojo de Liebre Lagoon (Also called Scammon’s Lagoon) and the San Ignacio Lagoon are the breeding grounds of the California gray whale. Prior to the discovery by the whalers there were an estimated 18,000 to 22,000 whales migrating there each year from colder Alaskan waters.

The gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is a formidable animal; from 16 feet at birth they can reach a length of 49 feet, weigh up to 36 tons and live between 55 and 70 years.

The common name of the whale comes from the gray patches and white mottling on its dark skin, which are scars left by parasites. They have two blowholes on top of their head, which can create a distinctive V-shaped blow at the surface in calm wind conditions.

Filling the public demand for whale oil were the adventurous whalers who now could increase their profits by increasing their yield. They headed into the Baja lagoons in record numbers. Scammon soon had competition.

Scammon wrote in 1860: "The following year found us again in the lagoon, with a little squadron of vessels, consisting of one bark and two small schooners. Although this newly discovered whaling ground was difficult of approach, and but very little known abroad—and especially the channel which led to it—yet, soon after our arrival, a large fleet of ships hovered for weeks off the entrance, or along the adjacent coast, and six of the number succeeded in finding their way in.

Whaling

“The whole force pushing the whales that season numbered nine vessels which lowered thirty boats. Of this number, at least twenty-five were daily engaged in whaling. The different branches of the lagoon where the whales congregated were known as the 'Fishpond', 'Cooper's Lagoon', 'Fort Lagoon', and the 'Main Lagoon'. The chief place of resort, however, was at the headwaters of the Main Lagoon, which may be compared to an estero, two or three miles in extent, and nearly surrounded by dunes or sand-flats, which were exposed at neap tides.

“Here the objects of our pursuit were found in large numbers, and here the scene of the slaughter was exceedingly picturesque and unusually exciting, especially on a calm morning, when the mirage would transform not only the boats and their crews into fantastic imagery, but the whales, as they set forth their towering spouts of aqueous vapor, frequently tinted with blood, would appear greatly distorted. At one time, the upper sections of the boats, with their crews, would be seen gliding over the molten-looking surface of the water, with a portion of a colossal form of the whale appearing for an instant, like a spectre, in the advance; or both boats and whales would assume ever-changing forms, while the report of the bomb-guns would sound like the sudden discharge of musketry; but one cannot fully realize, unless he be an eyewitness, the intense and boisterous excitement of the reckless pursuit, by a large fleet of boats from different ships, engaged in a morning's whaling foray.

Marine Mammals Book

“Numbers of them will be fast to whales at the same time, and the stricken animals, in their efforts to escape, can be seen darting in every direction through the water, or breaching headlong clear of its surface, coming down with a splash that sends columns of foam in every direction, and with a rattling report that can be heard beyond the surrounding shores. The men in the boats shout and yell, or converse in vehement strains, using a variety of lingo, from the Portuguese of the Western Islands to the Kanaka of Oceania. In fact, the whole spectacle is beyond description, for it is one continually changing aquatic battle-scene."

While Scammon’s description of the slaughter seems repugnant to most people a century and a half later, the 19th century was not known for its sensitivity in such matters. Indeed, the American bison was almost totally wiped out by “sportsmen” who shot into herds of the beasts from trains, leaving their carcasses to rot in the plains.

When Scammon left whaling, he returned to San Francisco and in 1874 published "Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America” and “An Account of the American Whale Fishery." His wonderful pencil and water color sketches and systematic description of marine mammals were considered scientifically sound and used for decades. You can still buy his books today on Amazon.com.

Later he entered the U.S. Revenue Service and commanded a cutter in Alaskan waters until he retired in 1882. He died in 1911 at age of 86.

Once the slaughter of the California gray whales began it never stopped completely until 1937 when Mexico and U.S. forced international laws to protect the whales. The international agreement of 1938 protects all members of the species wherever found.

It appears the agreement came just in time. One source estimates that the whale population by the 1930s was down to only about 250 animals. By all accounts, the current California gray whale population is now back to its strength of 150 years ago. An Orange County Register article estimated there are 24,000 whales, even more than their historical strength.

Whale Watching - Whale Petting

Today’s organized whale watching dates back to 1950 when the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego was declared a public venue for observing gray whales; the sightings attracted 10,000 visitors the first year.

Five years later, the first water-based whale watching commenced in the same area, charging customers $1 per trip to view the whales at closer range. Over the following decade, the whale watching boat trip business spread throughout the west coast.

In the late 1970s the industry mushroomed world-wide, enhanced by newer operations in New England. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s whale watching grew and operations were getting started in Baja California. By the year 2000, 11 million world-wide participants generated an income to operators and supporting infrastructure of approximately $1.5 billion.

A 2009 study estimated that 13 million people went whale watching globally in 2008. The industry generated $2.1 billion per annum in tourism revenue worldwide, employing around 13,000 workers in 88 countries.

The whale watching business is still booming, and the breeding lagoons halfway down the Pacific coast of Baja California are considered some of the world’s best venues, where personal encounters are commonplace, where the “gentle” or “friendly” whales regularly approach boats to be petted and photographed.

It’s an ecological reversal from when Scammon found a lagoon that now bears his name. He was a man of his times and did what society wanted, and did it well. His name should serve as a reminder to us of the precarious balance to nature.


About Greg

Greg Niemann is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit Greg's website.

4.7 112 Reviews
  • user logo
    Charles Gee
    From logo

    Incredibly fast and painless. Paid about $180 for a month of coverage. It was easier than going on line.

  • user logo
    Chyla Nava
    From logo

    Great, easy to use service. I haven't had to file a claim (and hope I never have to) but the online portal is very easy to use, and it's...

  • user logo
    Kierian Kuklok
    From logo

    I have been a customer for years and when I really needed them they stepped up in every way. I had a freak accident to my car and they...

  • user logo
    Lourdes Montoya
    From logo

    Easy, fast, and affordable.

  • user logo
    Aj Cornejo
    From logo

    Reasonable prices and we thought best chance to actually get results if we needed them.

  • user logo
    Adrianna Dorsey
    From logo

    Great company, great prices, and even better customer service. We've lived in Baja for 7 years and have used them for the past 6years....

  • user logo
    Gary Counts
    From logo

    So convenient and easy to navigate thru the online process. I'll never use any other Mexican insurance service!

  • user logo
    Joey Digiovanni
    From logo

    Easy to work with 😉. Always courteous and helpful. Have used them for all trips to Mexico. Easy website to navigate

  • user logo
    Jolene Bibian
    From logo

    Shauna at Baja Bound was AWESOME!! We had specific questions about how to quote the policy based on our vehicle type and she was super...

  • user logo
    Rebecca Newell
    From logo

    Great service!

  • user logo
    Maria Elena Smith
    From logo

    Easy and affordable.

  • user logo
    Mehdi Fahid
    From logo

    I reapplied for my Baja Bound Mexican car Insurance yesterday and I spoke to Ms. Shauna. This lady processed my application quickly and...

  • user logo
    Benjamin Driebe
    From logo

    Absolutely fantastic, I already forgot her name because I have a terrible memory but the woman that helped me on the phone was wonderful,...

  • user logo
    richard carr
    From logo

    fast replies and great price!

  • user logo
    Juan Zuniga
    From logo

    I just would like to know if you guys are going to update the fastpass direction any soon, during the month of January the lane changed to...

  • user logo
    Richard Schweiger
    From logo

    Very professional, very helpful, great policy, I couldn't be happier with Baja Mexican Insurance, the friendly smiles and ease of it all in...

  • user logo
    Ryan Frisby
    From logo

    We use them every time we travel to Mexico. Luckily we have not needed their services yet but getting insurance through them is quick and...

  • user logo
    Jan Muhammad
    From logo

    I need a tourist visa for maxico I'm from pakistan help me sir

  • user logo
    Tracy Moore
    From logo

    Very easy, quick, and professional

  • user logo
    robert kepper
    From logo

    They are very good . There website doesn't show you need a title to bring a vehicle across the border.I was stopped and told I had to...

  • user logo
    Edilver Martinez
    From logo

    Our go to Baja car insurance, everytime we take a visit down south . Usually it's for a day trip either for a quick getaway with the family...

  • user logo
    Daniel “Dan M” Markofsky
    From logo

    Third time working with Baja Bound and they made it easy! Thanks!

  • user logo
    Steve Bender
    From logo

    Have never needed to use the insurance fortunately but the website always works great. Can buy a policy in about a minute.

  • user logo
    Jose Paez
    From logo

    Had a great experience getting insurance at Baja Bound, before I always stoped at the border to purchase my insurance, not anymore. By the...

  • user logo
    JUSTINE SERRANO
    From logo

    I purchased insurance through them & CHUBB for our trip to San Felipe. Unfortunately, we had to cancel due to our vehicle having an oil...

  • user logo
    Christian Minor
    From logo

    Team were on point, provided inside information, prices were great and they had my proposal already in the system when I called back....

  • user logo
    George
    From logo

    Excellent customer service

  • user logo
    Kellye Pummill
    From logo

    Fast and easy!

  • user logo
    Jennifer Toups
    From logo

    Baja Bound is and has been my go to Mexico insurance company. The website is extremely easy to use, keeps all your info for a quick...

  • user logo
    Cesar Lopez
    From logo

    Very convenient, great price !!

  • user logo
    Louis Schneidman
    From logo

    I had an awesome experience with Baja Bound. Family owned and highly personal, top notch customer service. I have total peace of mind...

  • user logo
    Phil Noble
    From logo

    If you’re looking for Mexican Insurance that you can trust and feel good about while traveling in Mexico, you’ve found the right place....

  • user logo
    Jeff Bunker
    From logo

    Great coverage options . Price buy and print policy , very quick and easy , highly recommend them when driving in Mexico

  • user logo
    Burrell DeVine
    From logo

    Easy to navigate and very competitively priced! I had to call in and add an additional day, they couldn't have been any more pleasant to...

  • user logo
    Nereyda Torres
    From logo

    Me gusta la asuguranza porque la puedes comprar por un dia y te asegura en Mexico por el tiempo que vas ya sea hasta por mes (Translated...

  • user logo
    james whitmer
    From logo

    Best insurance I've had so far

  • user logo
    Rail1riders
    From logo

    Quick, easy, well designed website and not just for Baja. Good rates for temporal residente gringos. We’re not living in Jalisco. Printed...

  • user logo
    Matt B
    From logo

    I always use Baja Bound to source my insurance while traveling to Mexico. Fortunately, I have not had to file any claims. I do appreciate...

  • user logo
    Refugio I. Rochin
    From logo

    Excellent online and by direct phone. Spanish and English with proven response to questions. Website is very informative about driving in...

  • user logo
    Kelly Carney
    From logo

    Yara is very helpful and explains everything. Love working with companies like this.

  • user logo
    Slumdog Gump
    From logo

    Changed some money. Good rate and friendly people.

  • user logo
    Jeff G
    From logo

    Went down to TJ June 11 2020 No problems going into TJ but the way back was a ordeal 6 hours in line to get back into the USA but no...

  • user logo
    don letson
    From logo

    Great renewal process, if only south Dakota would do the same for car registration.

  • user logo
    len buckholtz
    From logo

    SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD. OLD GUYS LIKE THAT. WILL DEFINITELY USE IN 6 MONTHS IF STILL RUNNING AROUND THE WILDS OF BAJA.

  • user logo
    Susana Judd
    From logo

    Easy, quick and fair prices. Easy to deal with if needed.

  • user logo
    Seismic Waterfinder
    From logo

    Very excellent service, needed insurance for Mexico, price was fair. The custumer service rep was Yara

  • user logo
    Nicolas Dervé
    From logo

    Very good ans very fast. We hope all will ben good if we need it.

  • user logo
    Blake Glassco
    From logo

    I will never drive south of the border without Baja Bound in my center console. I was in an accident a couple hours south of Ensenada and...

  • user logo
    JohnPaul Gemelli
    From logo

    Baja Bound could not have made it an easier ... also, I made a mistake and called them having to leave a message ... but, they called back...

  • user logo
    Jeff Brandt
    From logo

    so far so good, however I have read good things about them

  • user logo
    Sengoz N
    From logo

    SERIOUS.

  • user logo
    Kenneth Trass
    From logo

    Getting a policy was simple, Provided more than provider for price comparison.

  • user logo
    Esther Valencia
    From logo

    Super easy to purchase just the coverage you need when crossing the border in your own car. I especially appreciate the fact that I was...

  • user logo
    Larry Cottingham
    From logo

    Great service, very helpful people there.

  • user logo
    Luis Cortes
    From logo

    Easiest way to purchase insurance when traveling to Mexico. I have used their service for the last 7 years and it only gets easier and...

  • user logo
    j dougher ty
    From logo

    EZ Peasy insurance purchase. Great service every time I've used them. Had to cancel one time when my travel plans went away - no problem....

  • user logo
    Paul Niehouse
    From logo

    Extremely easy to acquire a policy. Many options available. Reasonable rates.

  • user logo
    Colin
    From logo

    Super-easy and instant. Very happy with initial purchase.

  • user logo
    Howard M Elster
    From logo

    2nd year with Chubb. No problems

  • user logo
    Cyndee Congrove
    From logo

    Great customer service, quick, friendly staff helpfully answered all questions, very patient with my learning curve on a new product. Would...

  • user logo
    Art Eugenio
    From logo

    I've had Baja Bound insurance for more that ten years now with thousands of miles logged in Baja. Fortunately, I've only had one fender...

  • user logo
    Gabe Matthews
    From logo

    Where do i start..... you dont know you have good insurance until you have to actually use it. I have had Baja Bound INS for over 5 years...

  • user logo
    keith berkley
    From logo

    Been going to baja for 45 years. This is best insurance company i have come accross.

  • user logo
    Ryan Perkio
    From logo

    I have been using BajaBound Insurance for 15 years - multiple trips per year. Their website is easy, their coverage is great, and the...

  • user logo
    RaMon McBride
    From logo

    I have not had any claims thus far so rating is based on ease of purchase.

  • user logo
    Larry French
    From logo

    By far the best service for Mex insurance in Baja. They are personally there for you if you have problems south of the border.

  • user logo
    Tudor Thomas
    From logo

    Baja Bound makes buying insurance for going south of the border as easy as it gets. The website is the easiest I have used and the staff...