Local naturalist writes story about whales – Monterey Herald

Local naturalist writes story about whales – Monterey Herald

James Dorsey worked as a resident naturalist for 22 seasons, interacting with gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon. He eventually wrote a book about it. (Photo courtesy of)

Imagine this. You’re in a small boat, floating in 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 feel a shiver run down your spine, but you’re not afraid. And neither are they.

You really feel connected to each other, to every mammal.

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

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

(Thanks to the image)
(Thanks to the image)

James Michael Dorsey worked as a resident naturalist on the water for 22 seasons, working directly with gray whales in the San Ignacio Lagoon. He eventually wrote a book about it.

“If a mother whale dies, her calf will starve,” Dorsey said, “since whales don’t adopt orphans. I’ve come to recognize individual whales by their color patterns, birthmarks, and propeller-strike scars. I’ve even seen whales with old harpoon wounds. And I’ve seen whales approach the boat, looking for affection.”

In the spring of 2023, Dorsey published “The Lagoon, Encounters with the Whales of San Ignacio,” the latest edition of 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 stories about my interactions with the people who work in the lagoon, members of a vanishing culture,” Dorsey said, “who live in absolute wilderness, 35 miles from civilization. They live there because they love whales and feel it is their duty to protect them.”

Dorsey’s own story began on his 25th wedding anniversary with his wife, Irene, when the couple set out on an eight-day, long sea kayaking trip. Within their first hour on the water, a pod of killer whales came up to their boat, close enough to touch, a life-changing experience that marked the beginning of 15 years of sea kayaking to return to the magic they felt among whales.

“After we encountered the orcas,” Dorsey said, “we wanted to go find the gray whales. We went from San Diego to the lagoon, about 400 miles ‘south of the border’ on the Pacific side of Baja. That’s how I started working as a naturalist there.”

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

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

Dorsey writes of painted caves with heroic images on the walls, depicting religious ceremonies held there, having to do with whales that lived 25 miles out to sea. In the San Francisco Mountains, one of many along the spine of Baja California, he says, there are about 400 sets of painted caves, but only a few bear the painted images of whales.

“The only way these people could have seen a whale,” he said, “was to find one dead on the beach. They couldn’t have looked for it in their dugout canoes.”

Affinity and advocacy

James Michael Dorsey, a Los Angeles native and lifelong resident, anticipated the traffic congestion and static weather conditions that accompanied rising home prices in Culver City. He and his wife sold their house “for about 18 times what we paid for it” and bought a brand-new house six years ago in Marina, where the coastal climate is constantly changing. They love it.

Yet they are often outside the city, where they have contact with whales.

“I’ve actually had two parallel careers,” Dorsey said. “As a certified cetacean naturalist, with expertise in whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions and seals, I worked for 25 years as an onboard naturalist on whaling boats out of various ports in Southern California. And I was a resident naturalist at the gray whale nursery in San Ignacio Lagoon. I currently work for a whale watching company in Moss Landing.”

James Dorsey (with thanks to)
James Dorsey (with thanks to)

And he writes books about his experiences.

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

“I didn’t know about our connection to whales until I got involved,” he said. “Now I just try to teach people that these are intelligent, sentient beings, and we have no reason to kill them or capture them in amusement parks.”

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