We paddled out to the sleeping whale just after dawn. The water was the same light gray as the sky and it was misty enough so you couldn't tell where one stopped and the other began. The whale could have been floating in the air. All the three of us could see was an inky black slice of its back, and the perspective was so strange it might have been any size, even though we knew that the adult gray whale usually grows to about 40 feet.

The rest of the 18 passengers on Baja Expeditions' whale-watching tour this particular week were still asleep, either camped on the barrier island that separates Magdalena Bay, three-quarters of the way down the Baja California peninsula from the Pacific Ocean, or aboard the 80-foot expedition vessel anchored nearby. It was the first morning of the trip, they were tired from travel. Mostly amateur naturalists, they'd come from as far away as Virginia Beach, Va., and as near as La Jolla, Calif. They'd arrived at La Paz airport midday the day before and had been bused 100 miles north to Magdalena Bay where the vessel is based during "whale season."

Every year from December to March, the gray whales come here from Alaska, and to Scammon's and San Ignacio lagoons further north, to mate and calve. Magdalena is more constricted than the others and tends to have a denser population: after a few days we counted 250 whales in a 15-mile stretch of narrow bay. The vessel would make daily trips up and down the bay or go out to the mouth of the ocean inlet, appropriately called Boca de Soledad, often getting within 20 or 30 feet of mating whales, or mothers with newborn calves. There is a fleet of small launches in which you can row up even closer.

The whales mate in threes--two to actually perform, the other apparently to hold them up and help them from underneath. From the surface, giant fins and tails wave in the air, backs arch, water is churned to foam. Tim Means, the 37-year-old Arizonan who runs the trips, assures you the launches are equipped with plenty of flotation and to just stay with them if they're flipped in the excitement. But the only dicey moment came when a launch accidently separated a mother and calf and she suddenly arched eight feet out of the water almost within arms length.

The lagoons are salty, bouyant and warm for the calves, and isolated: three or four tiny fishing villages in Magdalena's 100 or so miles of sand dunes, ocean beach, mangroves, estuaries and lagoons. You can walk a whole day down the outer beach as I did and never see another human footprint. It makes you think about who you are . . . and you don't come out very high.

Magdalena Bay now belongs to the whales, the coyotes, the jack rabbits and the waterfowl. The fact that the Mexican government is now constructing a phosphate treatment plant up one of the estuaries that might in time destroy a good portion of this wildlife with toxic waste seems strangely remote and insignificant.

So it must have seemed to Capt. Charles Scammon when, in the 1850s, he discovered the mating grounds and began a slaughter that eventually reduced the original 37,000 whale herd to 100 by 1937. Under various protective measures they're now back to about 17,000. In the middle of this wilderness it's still hard to believe the figures, that man could ever begin to make a difference in anything here. You almost find yourself arguing the whales were a special case, that for the rest Baja California is one of those places which will prove immune to civilization.

It was this type of argument exactly that led me and my family to pick Southern Baja to live in for a while. We were looking for a change. Last December we moved from Washington to Todos Santos, a farming and fishing village (pop. 3,000) on the Pacific 40 miles south of La Paz.

Of course the more you travel the more you notice that, no matter where you go, there will always be someone saying: "You should have been here a few years ago before it was ruined." Ever since the blacktop highway down the peninsula was completed nine years ago (before that you had to come by sea from the mainland or by air, unless you were up for almost 1,000 miles of 4-wheel drive), old-timers have been bemoaning the end of old Baja and the arrival of slick four-lane tourism.

To me, though, the present state of the highway itself and the fancy new El Presidente hotels that have been built along it tell a more realistic story. Signs caution the motorist: "No es una camina de alta velocidad" (This is not a high-speed highway). Indeed, in many places 30 miles an hour or less seems sensible over the potholes and around the perennially unfinished bridges.

The huge hotels sit sadly in the middle of saguaros and sand, usually with no one in them except a few staff who have pretty much stopped expecting guests and are using some of the rooms to live in. One tends to think of the hotels as monuments to the bad judgment of the young Harvard Business School graduates who run the government tourist agency and (when things were going better economically in the United States) were quick to pinpoint Baja, along with Yucatan, as one of the coming places. The Yucatan has not done badly, of course, and the recent devaluation of the peso may help tourism here.

Driving down the transpeninsular highway we noticed that much of the new tourism was in the form of campers (we ourselves had a 1967 17-foot Airstream), RVs that stopped in trailer parks instead of hotels. The beautiful little oasis town of Mulege, two-thirds of the way down, was full of them, as were the sheltered, lovely beaches just off the main road along Bahia Concepcion, a few miles farther south. But these areas seemed to be Camper Central. Other places we saw only a few.

La Paz, the capital city of the state of Baja California Sur, has more than doubled its population in two years and now is home to more than 100,000. But it's not a tourist town. It's a duty-free port where Mexicans from the mainland come to shop and take advantage of the high wages. One of the more perplexing sights in La Paz is the departure of the ferry back to the mainland with every man, woman, and child carrying their new Sonys, playing them, and comparing prices.

The real tourist area--the world-class hotels, the jet-set villas, the yachts, the charter boats, the gringo-hustling locals--is where it's been since long before the highway: Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the peninsula. But this year, due to Mexican inflation and the U.S. recession, even those hotels were struggling to turn a peso.

For the rest, it's a tough, hostile country. You don't stroll around here, you hike . . . with boots that can stand the flinty rocks, pants that can deflect the thorns, a long-sleeved shirt and wide-brimmed hat so you don't get fried by the sun. And you don't hike at midday, even in winter. The air's so clear and dry there's nothing to stop the sun. At night, with no atmospheric insulation, the temperature drops 20 degrees and the stars burn a little crazily. Poetic observers are fond of pointing out that it's a "geography of hope": the fact that anything at all can survive here shows a certain potential for the ultimate survival of the world.

The brown hard mountains hang over the purple sea with only a handful of oases in between. In August, the average temperature over a 24-hour period in La Paz is 88. Rainfall is zero to five inches a year. The state plant is the cirio catus that grows to about 40 feet and looks like the tail of a giant rat buried upside down in the ground. It's the most surreal thing I've ever seen growing.

If you look on a population map, Baja still has about the same density as the Sahara Desert or the Arctic Circle. People who live here still tend to think of themselves as islanders, separate and apart from the rest of Mexico. The Spanish took 150 years to establish their first permanent settlement here in 1697, and after another 150 had only a few missions and ranchos. Even now, dire predictions are made for the future of the large agricultural district in the center of the peninsula, which is said to have an exhaustible water supply.

In Todos Santos where we live, one has to dig 30 feet for water now, whereas 15 years ago a river ran through town and the now-defunct sugar industry was at its peak. One is reminded of those grander days by a defunct hotel, defunct movie theater, several abandoned red brick refineries and haciendas. The water table continues to drop. When it's gone, what will stop Baja from completely reverting to the desert?

So except for naturalists, surfers, off-the-road freaks and fishermen, much of Baja California remains, as they say, "unspoiled." In Todos Santos we can leave our car or house open and vacant for days at a time. Gringo women are treated like exotic princesses. The police and other officials seem to expect nothing more out of you than a smile and a wave . . . no mordidas, no shakedowns--at least not yet. The climate's too dry for marijuana or poppy growing, and since the entire peninsula is a free zone there's no reason to smuggle anything in.

Unspoiled indeed. We arrived in Todos Santos after dark, felt our way out an old dirt road to the ocean. We stopped when we hit the sand and went to sleep. In the morning we saw we were on a golden curving beach with purple mountains in the distances and fields of crops in between. Frigate birds, gulls, pelicans and mackerel chased huge schools of bait through the clear water. There was no one else in sight.

Every once in a while, about a quarter of a mile offshore, we could see huge whales breaching and spouting. A few miles from camp, where the beach dropped off steeply into open ocean, the whales would come within 100 feet or less of the shore. Eventually, I signed up for the whale-watching trip.

Every minute or so, while we paddled toward it, the whale raised its head so its nostrils were above water and took a breath. The exhale sounded like someone sighing through a pipe. We'd been hearing it all night, sitting up in the dunes under the blazing full moon watching the whales roll in the silver water.

I shot a picture when the whale was about 10 feet away and then held the camera on it, waiting, until the shiny black barnacled skin filled the screen and we were too close to snap it. I wrapped the camera in a rain poncho against a dousing, knelt in the bow and stretched out my hand. If I could touch the whale for just a second, it seemed, if I could just feel it, I could become part of it. I could fit into this place. The skin would be warm, I felt sure, almost like a human's . . . the whale actually seemed to be waiting for me.

Just before I could touch it, the huge black slab sank in front of us. It didn't appear to be swimming, just sinking, but then an upwelling appeared all around the boat as if we were in a swift, deep current going over a rock. Another welled up about 20 feet away.

"Son las huellas de ballena," said Juan, the boatman. "They are the whale's footprints."

(Baja Expeditions, P.O. Box 3725, San Diego, Calif. 92103, phone 714-297-0506, runs week-long whale-watching tours as described from December through March, currently charging $895 per person plus air fare. Another operator is Adventures International, 4421 Albert St., Oakland, Calif. 94619, phone 415-531-6564, which offers one-week cruises from San Diego, for $960 per person, to watch whales in Mexican waters from January through March 1.