Local books: Local naturalist writes a tale about whales

For 22 seasons, James Dorsey worked as a resident naturalist, in contact with gray whales in the San Ignacio Lagoon. Ultimately, he wrote a book about it. (Courtesy photo)

Imagine. Tucked into a small boat, you’re floating within the San Ignacio Lagoon, a sanctuary in Baja California, when a 40-foot gray whale swims up to the side of your boat and looks you in the eye. You sense a shiver race down your spine, but you are not afraid. Neither is she.

In fact, you feel a connection, one mammal to another.

The whale, with her calf beside her, is hoping you will place your hand in the water, so she can lean into it and feel the gentle stroke of human touch. She will pause, patiently, while barnacles are snapped off her rostrum or snout and, perhaps, stick out her tongue to be scratched.

Every winter, Eastern Pacific gray whales reportedly migrate some 7,000 miles from waters northwest of Alaska, down to Mexico, known as “the nursery,” where their calves are born. There, mother whales train on “how to be whales,” so they are ready to endure the 7,000-mile return north.

(Courtesy image)
(Courtesy image)

For 22 seasons, James Michael Dorsey worked as a resident naturalist on the water, in direct contact with gray whales in the San Ignacio Lagoon. Ultimately, he wrote a book about it.

“If a mother whale dies, her calf will starve to death,” said Dorsey, “since whales do not adopt orphans. I have come to know individual whales from their color patterns, birthmarks, and scarring from propeller strikes. I have even seen whales with old harpoon wounds. And I have seen whales approach the boat, seeking affection.”

In the spring of 2023, Dorsey published, “The Lagoon, Encounters with the Whales of San Ignacio,” the latest edition among four books, following “Tears, Fear, and Adventure” (2006), “Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails” (2014), and “Baboons for Lunch” (2018).

“My first three books are personal narratives of my interactions with the people who work in the lagoon, members of a vanishing culture,” said Dorsey, “who live in absolute wilderness, 35 miles away from civilization. They live out there because they love whales and feel it’s their duty to protect them.”

Dorsey’s own story began on his 25th wedding anniversary with his wife, Irene, when the pair embarked on an eight-day, long-range sea kayaking trip. Within their first hour on the water, a pod of Orcas came up to their boat, close enough to touch, a life-altering experience that launched 15 years of sea kayaking to return to the magic they felt in the midst of whale pods.

“After encountering the Orcas,” said Dorsey, “we wanted to go find the gray whales. We went down from San Diego to the Lagoon, some 400 miles ‘south of the border’ on the Pacific side of  Baja. This is how I got started working there as a naturalist.”

Next year, Dorsey will lead a “travel with the author” trip to San Ignacio, giving lectures to educate, and presentations to inspire his passengers.

“My book, ‘The Lagoon,’ is the definitive work on that part of Baja and the phenomenon of the gray whales. It also looks at the natural history of the area,” he said, “including the indigenous people, with a great emphasis on the mystical connection between native people and whales.”

Dorsey writes of painted caves with heroic images on the walls, depicting religious ceremonies held there, which dealt with whales 25 miles away in the ocean. In the San Francisco Mountain range, one of several along the spine of Baja California, he says, there are some 400 sets of painted caves, but only certain ones bear the painted imagery of whales.

“The only way for these people to have seen a whale,” he said, “would have been to discover them deceased on the beach. They couldn’t have been seeking them out in their dugout canoes.”

Affinity and advocacy

Born and raised and living out his life in Los Angeles, James Michael Dorsey considered the gridlock traffic and static weather conditions, paired with escalating home prices in Culver City. He and his wife sold their home “for about 18 times what we paid for it” and, six years ago, bought a brand-new house in Marina, where the coastal climate changes constantly. They love it.

Yet they are often out of town, communing with whales.

“I’ve actually enjoyed two parallel careers,” Dorsey said. “A certified cetacean naturalist, with expertise in whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, and seals, I have worked for 25 years as an onboard naturalist on whale boats from several Southern California harbors. And, I was a resident naturalist in the gray whale nursery in San Ignacio Lagoon. I currently work for a whale- watching company in Moss Landing.”

James Dorsey (Courtesy photo)
James Dorsey (Courtesy photo)

And, he writes books about his experiences.

Dorsey has given presentations about the sentient nature of gray whales and their affinity for human connection at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, the Monterey Public Library, and the Monterey Chapter of the American Cetacean Society. Yet  his newest book, “The Lagoon,” is an alchemy of love story and memoir about his deep connection to the gray whale.

“I was ignorant about our connection to whales until I got involved,” he said. “Now I’m just trying to educate people that these are intelligent, sentient beings, and we have no reason to kill them or trap them in theme parks.”

“The Lagoon, Encounters with the Whales of San Ignacio” is available on Amazon and other e-commerce sites.

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