Hunting the Desert Whale by Erle Stanley Gardner (1960)
This is the third of Erle Stanley Gardner's travel book, published six years after Neighborhood Frontiers, which I wrote about a while back. Once again, Gardner is off to Baja California, this time at the instigation of his friend Murl Emery. Emery wants to explore Scammon's Lagoon, an isolated and vitually untravelled part of the penninsula. Because of it's secluded area -- with a mountain range on its south side, a desert and salt flats to the north, a treacherous sand bar causing huge eddies by the seaward entrance, strong tides that bring, bury, and disinter Pacific flotsam, and there being poor [or nonexistent] roads -- Scammon's Lagoon was the perfect lure for Gardner. Add to this the whales. Scammon's Lagoon is a breeding ground for grey whales who make an annual six thousand mile journey from the Bering Sea. Did I mention that the lagoon also hosts a large numger of fierce sharks?
Scammon's Lagoon got its name from the whaler who "discovered" it, or -- according to some legends -- was given its location by a Chinese sailor in Honolulu. (The Mexican name for the lagoon is Laguna Ojo de Liebre, which translates as "Hare's Eye Lagoon"; but why use the name that natives use?) And the lagoon was not really unknown territory. It took quite a while but other whalers eventually discovered Scammon's secret hunting ground. In the late Fifties, heart specialist Dr. Paul Dudley White and airplane manufacturer Donald Douglas were there in an attempt to record the heartbeat of one of the whales. This was over fifty years ago, remember? People did not know that much about whales [Gardner has one chapter titled "Do Whales Talk?"] and (evidently) common sense had not been invented. Let's go out in a small boat and disturb some of the largest critters that ever lived while they are either breeding or giving birth? What could go wrong with that scenario?
Hunting the Desert Whale is an interesting account the sights, people, and sea life of Baja California. Gardner has a great respect for the Mexican people and conveys it well. The book reads well as a time capsule of an era that had rapidly passed. Gardner goes a little bit overboard in countering stereotypes; I've lost count of the times he wrote that Mexicans are not lazy. For Gardner (it seems) the Mexican people are universally kind, welcoming, and generous; compare that view with today's headlines of drug cartels and immigration laws. The land was more rugged, the people more individualistic. Fifty years ago seems far away.
Erle Stanley Gardner had many things going for him and there are many things to admire about him. As a travel writer, alas, he had a lot to be desired. This book has the unfortunate distinction of being both interesting and somewhat dull. Another book for Gardner completists.