First, a Moon travel guide titled


popped up on our bookshelf. Second, a Baja California website made its way onto our computer's "Favorites" list.

My husband was hinting at a possible vacation to San Ignacio, Baja California, Mexico, to see gray whales up close and personal on their winter migration from the Bering Straits.

The problem was, our accommodations would be tents and sleeping bags, and I'm no camper. For me, a vacation requires a hotel with all the amenities - not winter camping.

But I booked the trip anyway - the whale pictures on our computer were calling me.

In San Ignacio, our tour guides took us to our final destination: Rocky Point, an ancient seabed formation on the Pacific Coast, separated from the mainland by a narrow channel. After a 20-minute boat ride, we got settled in our tents as the orange-red sun hovered on the horizon.

Just as impressive as the scenic safari-style whale camp were the sounds of the whales breaching and blowing bubbles only yards away.

We've petted dolphins and stingrays in controlled environments such as Disney World and Discovery Cove in Florida, but seeing these gray whales out in the wild was something different.

Our guides took us into the far reaches of the lagoon in small motorboats called pangas. There were about 380 whales of all sizes and ages, and we soon became part of the "whale soup," watching mothers and calves bonding and breaching, spyhopping (poking their heads above the surface), and blowing air.

Our boat operators respectfully waited for the whales to approach the pangas rather than chase them. Waiting for encounters took patience, though, because only 10 percent of the whales were "friendly."

While we were fortunate just to be in the neighborhood of these gentle giants, I wanted to look one in the eye. Sure enough, an hour into the ride, we came across another panga engaged with a mother whale and her calf.

My heart raced. Our boat nearly tipped as the five of us tourists reached out to touch them. The baby's eyes opened and closed as we caressed his head and mouth. He seemed to love the interaction as much as we did.

The thrill of communicating with these mammals surpassed anything I'd ever found in a zoo. Some of us were speechless; others, myself included, practically jumped into the water.

Touching a whale is like fondling a rubber wetsuit. But to look one in the eye makes it personal.

As the mother whale nudged her baby toward our outstretched hands, it made us wonder - just who was watching whom?

Mary Cantelope lives in Plymouth Meeting, Montgomery County.