Don Pachico Mayoral, the first man to make physical contact and develop friendly relationships with some of the gray whales of Baja, Mexico, is gone.

A stroke took him on Tuesday, October 22, 2013. He was 72.

Carl-Safina in conversation with Don Pachico Mayoral and his son Jesus in 2012 Photo: David Huntley

I met Don Pachico on the shore of San Ignacio Lagoon a couple of years ago while filming the “Destination Baja” episode of our PBS series, Saving the Ocean. We had a memorable conversation that, in his honor, I’d like to share with you.

Gray whales give birth in the lagoons of Mexico’s Pacific Baja coastline, and migrate to feeding grounds off Alaska. During the whaling era of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, they got a reputation as being very fierce. When they were harpooned they would turn on the whale boats and smash them to bits. Whalers thought them unusually aggressive.

After commercial whaling was finally banned here in 1947, the species began to bounce back.  There are now more than 20,000 Gray whales, a healthy population.  But their fierce reputation lived on among the fisherman. Mexican fishermen, in their small skiffs, greatly feared them.

“Every fisherman used a piece of wood to bang on the boats and scare the whales away,” Don Pachico told me. “Nobody had anything nice to say about them.  They were known as the Devil’s fish.”

All that changed one magical day in 1972.  Pachico was out fishing with a friend when a large whale startled them by surfacing just inches away from the boat.

“My partner and I were both afraid,” Don Pachico recalled. “The surprise was so intense that our legs were shaking.”

But instead of threatening the boat, the whale just cozied up to it, and hung out.

Photo: Carl Safina

And that’s when Pachico decided to bridge the gap. “I touched the whale very gently and the whale remained calm.” He was remembering the event from four decades earlier, but it was obvious that the memory remained vivid. “Minutes passed, and I kept petting her, until my fear went away.”

“When you reached out and you touched that first whale,” I asked, trying to imagine his astonishment, “how did it make you feel?”

“It was sublime for me,” Don Pachico said, “because when I saw the size of the whale and I was so small by comparison, I gave thanks to God.”

Eager to share the gift with others, Pachico began taking tourists out to see the whales, and the lagoon’s now-famous whale-based tourism business was born.

“That day,” I said, “you and the whale, you made peace.  Peace between people and whales. And I think that you changed the world a little that day.”

“Whales were heavily hunted by humans,” Don Pachico acknowledged, “yet they are very friendly towards us, and they forgive all the damage we did. That’s why I have a lot of love and respect for them.”

And that’s why I and thousands of others have a lot of love and respect for Don Pachico Mayoral. He brought a great gift to the world. He has left that gift with us, in our keeping.

Watch Don Pachico on the “Destination Baja” episode of our PBS series Saving the Ocean at:

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