A Whale of a Tale

I know it’s been too long since the last post. I do have several excellent excuses, but that will have to wait until the end because we had a great adventure this week.

Yesterday morning, Leslie and I got (relatively) up close and personal with some humpback whales, courtesy of Vallarta Adventures and expert guide Nikki from the U.K. Whale watching is one of Puerto Vallarta’s biggest winter tourist attractions. The humpbacks arrive in early December every year and by the end of March they migrate north again to their feeding grounds.

Northern Pacific humpback whales – we learned from marine biology Ph.D.candidate Nikki – come to Puerto Vallarta for the winter. Good choice. We did the same thing! Mexico and Hawaii are their two main winter breeding grounds.

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This is about as close as we got to the whales. Vallarta Adventures has a plane that searches for whales and let the Zodiac captain know where they are.

Our group of about 25 made the trip from the Puerto Vallarta maritime terminal to the mouth of the Bay of Banderas in a fast Zodiac (400 hp). On the way, I got a chance to see some boobies! Blue-footed boobies, that is. A kind of waterfowl. Since we were in the middle of the bay, we saw them in flight and couldn’t see their blue feet. Two of them flew right beside our Zodiac for at least a minute (see the brief video below), pacing us perfectly. Then they zoomed ahead and cut us off!

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But the main event was the humpbacks. We saw several groups of two or three whales in the Bay of Banderas and just outside the mouth of the bay in the Pacific Ocean. Nikki told us humpbacks rarely travel in groups. But we saw several groups of two or three, and it was amazing!

She was excited to see the whales feeding, since they normally don’t feed in the breeding grounds. They feed like crazy on their way to the Bay of Banderas, but they usually fast during mating season. Nikki spotted a krill floating in the water and was able to scoop it up for us to see. This is what whales eat – like a shrimp and a little smaller than a honeybee. Sorry I didn’t get a photo of the krill, but I will show you – in the series of three photos below – what it looks like when the whale dives. Once you see the tail go under the water, it will be awhile before Leviathan comes back up, gathering krill as it rises. Nikki said, “The biggest part of whale watching is whale waiting.”

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You can’t see markings on this fluke, but each whale has unique markings on the underside of its tail. Nikki said the markings are like human fingerprints. Researchers can identify each whale they see.

The highlight of the morning, though, was seeing a baby whale – a calf – with its mother. “Couldn’t be more than three months old,” Nikki said. Later she added, “We believe humpbacks may live 100 years or more. So we hope this newborn will migrate with its mother, and come back to these waters next winter. And we hope he or she keeps doing that even after all of us in this boat are gone.”

Baby humpback was breeching like crazy. “It’s very playful,” Nikki said. See the video below, and turn up the sound to hear Nikki’s commentary in English and Spanish.

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There was a third whale, a male, along with the mother-calf pair. But Nikki said we “should not assume that’s Daddy because that’s not how humpbacks live. That’s probably a male that wants to mate with this calf’s mother.” Humpbacks can be quite solitary, she said, noting that if we see two whales together they could be a male-female pair or more likely two males. She said researchers almost never see two females together during mating season.

If you’re ever in Puerto Vallarta, be sure to do your touristy-type stuff with Vallarta Adventures. They do a great job. The marketing people that sell for them, though, can be very aggressive. We’ve learned to say, “Vivimos aqui, amigo” (We live here, buddy. We ain’t tourists.) They leave us alone when they hear that.

Yes, it’s been awhile since the last post. I hope you think this was worth the wait. I did mention some excellent excuses.The biggest one is that the patio and small pool we have are actually magnets that attract us and keep us in place! See what you think!

Hasta luego!

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Wouldn’t you hang out here as much as possible? With an adult beverage in hand? Thought so.

 

Butterflies and a white horse

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Leslie and her horse got along great.

Show of hands, now — how many of you thought you would ever see Leslie riding a horse? I know you just can’t wait for the explanation, so here we go.

On Thursday, we went to Santuario Sierra Chincua, a monarch butterfly sanctuary high in the mountains about a three-hour drive from San Miguel. This is  one of the places where the mariposa monarca spends the winter.

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Monarchs love milkweed, but there is none in the sanctuary. So they eat as much as they can on the migration.

They migrate from Canada and the northern U.S. down to Mexico every year. Millions of them. And we spent a few hours with them.

 

Leslie and I went with five other people and Daniel, our driver. Getting there was not easy or fun. The van ride is very long and sometimes quite bumpy, and there’s not much to see along the way. But Daniel did a great job and got us to the sanctuary.

Sierra Chincua sits a little above 8,000 feet, and the difference in elevation is obvious — it’s cooler and breathing is slightly more labored, for example. We had a choice of walking up a dusty trail to where the monarchs were, or paying an extra 100 pesos to ride a horse. If you want to come back on the horse, that’s another 100 pesos. So we shelled out 400 pesos (about $20 USD) and we both mounted up. The horses were very gentle, and guides led us the whole way.

We dismounted after a 30-minute ride and walked a bit farther up a narrow trail into the forest. Soon we could see butterflies. They were in the trees, on low bushes and plants, flitting through the air. They were everywhere. They flew right past us sometimes.

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Butterflies everywhere. 

Daniel taught us how to tell the difference between males and females, and he said many males die in the sanctuary after mating. He said that last year there was snow in the sanctuary, which is highly unusual. Many butterflies died. He also explained that birds eat dead butterflies, but only the body. The wings are toxic to birds. Sure enough, we found several places where wings were lying on the ground, but there was no butterfly body.

We could only see a small part of the sanctuary, which covers several acres. But in the small area where we were allowed to stand, we could look up into the sky and see them wafting around. We could look into the forest and see trees heavily laden with butterflies at rest. And there was no sound. All you could hear was the wind in the trees. Amazing!

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Those are clusters of monarchs taking a nap in the trees. You can also see them flying.

Then it was time for a late lunch. Daniel took us to one of several small restaurants in the sanctuary compound, where he said the owner made a great mushroom soup. Several people, including Leslie, had the soup and all agreed Daniel was right! I had a potato and chorizo quesadilla, and it was fantastic. The hot sauce they served with it was great too. And really fresh hand-made corn tortillas — so much better than store-bought. Even better than our favorites, El Milagro.

Daniel explained that the local indigenous people make a living by taking care of the butterflies, and of the tourists who come to see them. They start as children, offering to watch your car for you while you’re spending time with the butterflies. As they get older, they work as horse wranglers or guides, or they do other work in the sanctuary, such as selling tickets or working in maintenance. Most don’t get paid much, if at all. They depend on tips, so our group tipped well.

According to Daniel, former Mexican president Vicente Fox provided substantial funds to build a nice entrance to the sanctuary, as well as quality buildings for restaurants and gift shops. This made the experience better for the tourists, and helped the people who work there.

Next time, arts and culture in San Miguel de Allende. Spoiler alert: There’s lots of culture!