Whale Watching in Baja
Blue Whale

We’re taking our first family vacation in Mexico, and some friends told us that we should go whale watching. Can you tell us more about what we can expect?

Sure! First of all, you can expect to be amazed. Depending on where you choose to go in Mexico, for a reasonable price you and your family can actually enjoy a close up view of the whales, and maybe even have a ‘hands-on’ experience! There are actually several locations in Baja California where whale-watching is possible.

Okay, so where in Baja should we go if we want to see whales?

It all depends on which season it is, what kind of whales you would like to see, and how close you want to get to them.

Every year, the California gray whales travel between 5,000 and 6,000 miles from Alaska and Siberia down to the coastal lagoons of Baja. This journey southward takes between two and three months, total. It is actually one of the longest animal migrations on Earth. Wonder why the gray whales travel so far every year? Instinct. They make this trip so that the pregnant females can give birth to their young, and other breeding age whales can mate.

If you want to have an experience with these California gray whales, your best options will be to go to one of three Pacific coastal lagoons – Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Laguna San Ignacio, or Bahia Magdalena. The whales come to these lagoons for the natural protection, shelter and warmer waters that the coastal reserves offer.

If you are interested in other kinds of whales, such as Blue whales, you may want to go to the beautiful Sea of Cortez, on the Eastern coast of Baja.

In the Sea of Cortez, you will have a good chance of seeing not only one hundred foot Blue whales… but also Humpback whales, Sperm whales, Minke whales, Finback whales and Orcas. If you’re lucky, you may even have the special experience of seeing schools of dolphins and Pilot whales, too!

If you decide to go to the Sea of Cortez, make a point of visiting La Unica, near the Bahia de Los Angeles, where more than twenty-three species of whales and dolphins have been sighted. The water is so clear and rich in nutrients that there is an abundant food supply for marine mammals and birds.

The Bay of Banderas has become known over the years as the preferred breeding ground of both Humpback and Orca whales. The best time to visit this area is between November and April, when the Humpbacks and Orcas are mating and/or giving birth.

However, if you are traveling between the months of May and December, your best bet will definitely be the Sea of Cortez ~ since Finback whales are permanent residents there.

What’s so great about whale watching?

Whales are amazing creatures. Not only are they among the largest creatures on Earth (Blue whales ARE the largest living creatures on the planet!) but they are also among the most gentle and friendly, and very family oriented. Whales were given a bad rap by whale hunters (who called them "devilfish") starting in the 1600s, because some mother whales were violent in the water when protecting their young from harpoons, but what good mother WOULDN’T do anything to protect her baby?

Sadly, gray whales were hunted nearly to extinction in the 1850s after humans discovered their calving lagoons. Luckily, the International Whaling Commission finally gave the gray whale full protection in the year 1947, and the gray population has made a terrific recovery in the last 60 years. There are now somewhere between an estimated 19,000 and 26,000 gray whales in existence.

The whales have been very forgiving of their earlier slaughter by humans. These days, thanks to their protected status, mother whales are not fearful and will often nudge their baby calves up to the edge of a human boat so that they can be petted. Whale watching is a very safe activity, and provides an incredible opportunity for two intelligent species to learn from each other.

Best of all, the whale watching industry has provided much-needed jobs to local fishermen who have depleted the fish population in these areas to near-extinction. Whale watching has provided great economic benefits to areas where it has become a major part of local tourism. Without harming the whales in any way, whale watching provides an opportunity for humans to interact with whales for educational, recreational, scientific and economic purposes. There is no down side!

Can you tell me more about the protected calving lagoons? I’m having trouble deciding which one to visit.

Sure! Let’s start off with Laguna Ojo de Liebre, which used to be called "Scammon’s Lagoon." According to local folklore, they named it after Captain Charles Scammon, the Yankee whaler who first ‘discovered’ the lagoon in the mid-1800s. Our guess is that the locals had known about this lagoon for centuries.

Laguna Ojo de Liebre is the lagoon closest to the northern border of Baja. It’s about halfway down the Baja peninsula, and sits about 20 miles to the coast from Guerrero Negro. That town itself isn’t particularly lovely, but it does have some acceptable hotels that are not too expensive. However, you can also choose to camp under the stars near the lagoon itself, which could be more fun. The best part about Laguna Ojo de Liebre is that more whales choose to visit this lagoon than the other two, so you have a better chance of encountering whales here. Between 1,500 and 2000 gray whales (including calves) spend time in this lagoon each year!

Although it has a colorful and inviting history, the next lagoon to the south has been the subject of a lot of controversy during the past few years. Laguna San Ignacio is a two hour drive from the historical town of San Ignacio (which, incidentally, has a nicer selection of hotels than Guerrero Negro). The lagoon itself, however, is situated in a relatively impoverished rural area with only a few hundred residents.

Travelers who prefer off-the-grid camping will love the handful of rustic local ecotourism camps which boast either tents or plywood cabanas. Nothing fancy here – you’ll be showering from bags of water warmed by the sun, using outhouses, and any light that you don’t bring with you from home will come from solar panels rather than electricity. We like to call this "getting back to the basics"!

Laguna San Ignacio is much beloved by whale watchers for its large population of "friendlies." These are whales who are so gentle and accustomed to whale watchers that they will actually come right up and nuzzle against your boat, allow you to pet them, and sometimes even balance a boat on their chest to take it for a little ride.

So, what’s the controversy? For several years, conservationists have been trying to stop the building of a major salt production plant on this site. If built, this plant (originally intended to be a joint venture between the government of Mexico and Mitsubishi) would seriously endanger the several hundred whales who journey to San Ignacio Lagoon every winter in order to give birth and wait for their calves to become strong enough to migrate northward to Alaska.

According to an April 3, 2005 article reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle (see sources below), despite the efforts five years ago of former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo to pull the plug on this salt production plant, Baja businessman are still dropping by the homes of the locals, offering to buy thousands of acres of salt flats next to the lagoon. So, if you’re interested in visiting this "friendly" place, perhaps you should plan your trip sooner rather than later!

The last protected calving lagoon in Baja is Bahia Magdalena, approximately 800 miles south of the US/Mexico border. This bay attracts the largest density of whales, although the average total population of whales that visit this lagoon each year is usually only around 250.

The bay itself is sheltered by low barrier islands, which make for calm waters. Surrounded by sand dunes, mangrove-lined estuaries and desert flora, it is a spectacular, austere haven for our whale friends. In addition to the gray whales, local wildlife includes ibis, herons and egrets.

Camping here is energizing and very peaceful, but if you’d rather have a "real" shower, there are two nearby towns where you can stay at a variety of hotels, Puerto Lopez Matteos and Puerto San Carlos.

It is important to note that each of these lagoons is a government protected reserve, and that you cannot whale watch without a permit. Towing your own boat down to the lagoons in order to see the whales would be a waste of time, as only registered motor boats with trained guides may be used for whale watching. Also, sea kayaking is not permitted during the whale migration in either Laguna Ojo de Liebre or in Laguna San Ignacio. You may sea kayak in Bahia Magdalena, though!

Blue Whale

How does it work? What is a typical whale-watching trip like?

Well, according to Danny Palmerlee’s 6th edition Lonely Planet guide to Baja, you have several options to choose from! Some families prefer to pay for a private tour from local boat-owners, which is the most cost-effective route. The typical cost of renting a boat and its owner (per hour) for six people is $30 to $50 USD. You can arrange these tours yourself by simply walking down to the docks on the morning that you would like to go whale watching. However, if nobody in your party speaks Spanish and your ‘panguero’ (boat owner) doesn’t speak English, you won’t have the same kind of educational experience with the whales that you may be looking for.

Another choice is to either have your hotel help you arrange a guided tour with a bilingual guide, or to seek out one of the local tour companies once you and your family have arrived in town. For example, you can arrange a tour from either Loreto or La Paz to Laguna San Ignacio or Bahia Magdalena. This will cost you somewhere between $50 and $60 USD per boat, and could be well worth the extra money if you would like to learn more about the natural ecology of the environment and the local history of the whales.

Or, if you’re the type of traveler that likes to have all of the details of your journey nailed down in advance, you might want to think about signing up for a multiple day whale watching tour before you leave the US. There are a huge variety of travel clubs and private companies who host these kinds of tours, which often include chartered airplane flights, guides who are not only well educated in the local ecology… but who also speak English, ground transportation and accommodations, food and planned opportunities to whale watch, sea kayak, snorkel, etc. These trips can often be expensive (a five day trip may cost you as much as $2000 per person) but they do take any fear of the unknown out of your adventure, allowing you to relax and enjoy the full experience of Baja.

You can even take twelve day cruises from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, which will voyage along the way through the Pacific lagoons and the Sea of Cortez!

Do I need to bring any special clothes or equipment if I want to go whale watching?

Even though there are no rules for this kind of thing, it would probably be a good idea for you to bring a waterproof jacket or windbreaker, warm clothing or thermals, tennis shoes, rubber boots or old shoes that you don’t mind getting icky, motion sickness pills or patches, sunglasses and sunscreen.

Also, don’t forget to bring a waterproof camera (or to attach your camera to your body in some way so if your boat gets a friendly nuzzle from a whale, you won’t accidentally drop it into the water and ruin all of your Baja photos)!

What’s the story with that fisherman named Francisco and the whales? Did he really start the whale watching industry in Baja?

There are a lot of different versions of this story floating around, but they all seem to be rooted in truth. No matter which one you choose to believe, it definitely makes a fantastic "fish" tale!!!

Here is the version we at Bajabound.Com stick with, as recently reported by Kenneth R. Weiss of the LA Times:

In the year 1972, a fisherman named Francisco "Pachico" Mayoral was fishing with his partner for black sea bass in Laguna San Ignacio when the head of a whale suddenly popped out of the water and began rubbing against their boat.

The two men had been taught as children to stay far away from whales when fishing in the water, because they were said to smash up boats with their powerful muscular bodies.

Francisco and his friend sat silently as the whale submerged, and then popped up on the other side of the boat. It continued to do this, going from side to side of their boat, for 40 minutes.

After a while, Francisco summoned the courage to touch the whale. Rather than attacking him, the whale moved closer and then allowed him to pet it. He and his friend were stunned, and awed by the experience.

Word spread quickly among the local fishermen in their village that the whales were no longer unfriendly toward humans. Francisco’s peaceful encounter with the whale encouraged others to try to pet whales as well, including many enthusiastic scientists. Within a few years, the ‘sleepy fishing village’ outside of San Ignacio became world famous as a place where humans could go to make direct contact with gray whales. In the 33 years since that time, whale watching has become a popular pastime for tourists, scientists, fishermen, environmentalists and locals alike.

For a well-researched and very detailed article about Francisco’s experience, visit Baja Whales.Com
(http://www.bajawhales.com/articles/article_friendly.html).

Sources: Lonely Planet – Baja & Los Cabos
http://www.bajaexpo.com/whales.htm
http://www.physics.helinski.fi/whale
http://www.bajaecotours.com/whale-watching/sea-of-cortez/index.shtml
http://www.bajaseafaris.com/whales.html
http://www.maarrimo.com/ingles.htm
http://www.travelvallarta.com/whales.htm
http://www.bajaex.com/whales/whales.html
http://www.miramar-adventures.com/Baja_Whales.html
http://www.whaleroute.com/areas/mexico/
http://www.sfgate.cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2005/04/03/MNG