In February 1972, a 59-year-old Mexican Fisherman named Jose Francisco, “Pachico” Mayoral was fishing for grouper with his partner, Santos Perez in an open 18-foot open panga in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja. A panga is like a Boston Whaler and very seaworthy, they are driven by a “pangero." In Baja they are the water transport du jour. The fishermen of the lagoon were used to the whales but kept their distance as many people at the time thought of them as dangerous “devilfish.” That was an ironic moniker they had born for almost a century and a half, since the days of whaler George Scammon’s.
Pachico loved to tell his story, and this is the version he told me. They were approached by a large female. The whale began to rub on the keel of the boat and Pachico and Santos, now fearing the worst, hunkered down on the floor of the panga. When the whale would not leave, Pachico said he cautiously peered over the side of the boat to find himself looking directly into the eye of an adult gray whale logging alongside his panga. Gathering his courage, he reached over the side and touched the whale. He described the skin as slick and smooth and was startled when the whale pressed against his hand. Santos said Pachico talked him into touching the whale also, but his hand was shaking so badly from fear, he said he never made contact. They both claimed the whale was heavily scarred from prop strikes, and in future seasons, this allowed them to recognize the same whale many times. That day, Pacheco said the whale stayed with them for a half hour. Try to imagine that feeling; an animal you have feared your entire life is suddenly caressing your hand.
That night, Pacheco related the story to a skeptical wife and friends who either thought him mad from the sun, or perhaps a bit too much to drink, but over the next few days, other fishermen ventured out and began to touch the devilfish and all reported the same result. This was world shaking news for people who had shared the water for decades with an animal they feared. Had they always been friendly? Did we only need to reach out and touch them? Soon, wives and children were petting the devilfish and something ethereal was taking place. They began to name the whales and invited their skeptical friends to join them on the water. Pretty soon, the fishermen were taking all their friends out to pet whales.
Readers Digest published Pachico’s story, and, in this version, he was curled up on the floor of the panga, making the sign of the cross and asking the blessed Virgin to spare his life. Later, Pacheco would be featured in an IMAX film and mentioned honorably in Dick Russell’s definitive book, “Eye of the Whale.” I met him years ago in front of his house, the porch overgrown with plants, and the house itself a construction of whatever detritus the lagoon had given up. He wore a faded flannel shirt and sun-bleached baseball hat and I felt myself in the presence of a rockstar. He could have been the poster boy for Hemmingway’s “Old Man and the Sea,” with his weathered, leathery face that was a roadmap of hard times. Everyone who went to the lagoon wanted to meet Pachico and he wore his celebrity with dignity. On a small sand dune across from the house, the aging panga from which he made first contact still sat, a victim of a half century of relentless sun. Pachico spoke of the whale as part of his family and many who knew him well believed him to have a special gift that brought the whales to him. One fisherman I spoke to on a kayak trip knew Pachico and told me he was a Brujo. Normally that would be a male witch, but in Pachico’s case, he meant it more as a “whale whisperer.” Once he told me he often wondered if that first whale was an aberration or if it told other whales it was all right to approach people; I doubt that either case was true. Just like dogs who return with wagging tails to their masters who kick them, I believe gray whales, once hunted to the brink of extinction by man were always friendly; man just never gave them the chance to show it before. Pachico passed on a few years back but today, his family still own and operate Pachico’s whale watch tours in the lagoon and are proud to tell clients about their father.
That first touch was soon almost as famous as Christ reaching out to Adam on the Sistine ceiling as its effect rippled throughout the world. The same year, the Mexican Government created a “Reserve and Refuge Area for Migratory Birds and Wildlife,” The United Nations called for a ban on worldwide commercial whaling, the United States Congress instituted the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the following year, the U.S Congress passed the endangered species act that included the Gray Whale. And it all started with an interspecies touch.
Pachico’s legacy was thrust upon him. Almost overnight he went from a humble fisherman to a symbol recognized the world over as the godfather of whale watching. Also today, every pangero in the lagoon is a graduate of a rigorous naturalist training course so they can take people on the water to meet the descendants of Pachico’s whale. I think of him every time I touch one and have to believe he is smiling.