My bedroom floor is, currently, a sea of gear of one kind or another. Camera lenses form stacks behind a tide of travel documents, notebooks, field guides and hastily scribbled lists on the back of old envelopes. At least some of the latter are actually helpful – a few of them, however, are baffling weeks and months after they were written. For now, I daren’t discard any of them lest they suddenly make sense again. My walking boots sit on top of a pile of Paramo outdoor clothing. Old camera film cases are labelled with the various types of pills they’re to keep dry – anti-malarials, altitude sickness, seasickness, painkillers, antibiotics.
What could all of this portend? Shortly, I’ll be hitting the road to begin, in earnest, the research for my next book, more of which in due course. As I’ve been threatening to write a blog post for as long as I can remember, I’m trying to put that right now before I’m incommunicado for a while. Well, relatively incommunicado – I’ll be keeping my Twitter feed @dunnjons going whenever I have a phone signal, but don’t fancy trying to write a blog post on an iPhone. The laptop will stay safely at home…
I’m only now back from the first short foray of 2019 – a trip to Mexico primarily in search of some hummingbird stories, but with the added bonus of some birding opportunities, time spent with hatchling turtles, and Humpback Whales almost within touching distance. Breaching, flipper-slapping, spy-hopping, lob-tailing whales? There’s no ignoring an opportunity like that.
The hummingbirds were fairly muted – a brief foray to Mexico City chasing a dark, sad story was counterbalanced by a day in the Pacific hills searching for Mexican Hermit, a relatively recently recognised species that I wanted to see for myself. I found one, but like many of his hermit-kind he wasn’t particularly cooperative and proved camera-shy, preferring to lurk in the dense undergrowth and make only the briefest, lightning fast forays into the light. I could hear his wings beating far more than I could see him. Even the much commoner Cinnamon Hummingbirds feeding on flowering cacti were unusually unapproachable.
Those Humpback Whales though… they were exuberantly , extravagantly extrovert. The first whale I met, out on the Pacific, was a solitary, younger animal. Solitary insofar as it wasn’t with any of its own kind – but it had company of another kind, a pod of bothersome, boisterous Bottlenose Dolphins that frolicked around it on the water’s surface, their high pitched squeaking and whistling betraying their excitement.
The whale had clearly had enough of their attentions – it thrashed its tail repeatedly at them and, for the first time, I heard a whale’s voice – a deep, primal groan that sounded exasperated with all the attention it was receiving from its small distant cousins. Whenever it dived the dolphins would mill around the surface before excitedly rushing back to join the whale when it reappeared, to its evident frustration.
Further offshore we found a party of five adult whales interacting with one another. One animal in particular was the focus of much close attention from the others – was this a female? What followed was a remarkable sequence of behaviour, with several whales jostling one another at the surface, and much demonstrative action – slapping their tail flukes and pectoral flippers on the water to loud, cannon-like effect and occasionally, spectacularly, breaching fully out of the water to land in an immense flurry of waves and spray.
These breaches were predictable only insofar as they were prefaced by the whale in question diving with a characteristically exposed tail above the water that suggested a deeper dive was taking place. When and where the whale would emerge, explosively and improbably, one couldn’t tell. 25 tons of marine mammal would suddenly rise, and rise, towering out of the water, hanging in the air for split seconds before falling sideways back to the sea’s surface with immense effect.
I’ve spent plenty of time watching Humpback Whales before, but this was easily the best encounter I’ve enjoyed to date. I’ve a few writing projects on the go at the moment, one of which is a new marine mammals book, so this Mexican adventure was a research trip that ticked a few boxes at once. That statement sounds so dry and clinical – the reality, of course, was that spending time with some of the smallest, most highly evolved birds and some of the largest mammals on the planet was both humbling and incredibly inspiring. The perfect appetiser for the incredible adventure I’m diving into in the weeks and months to come…