Gray whales of Baja’s Pacific lagoons

Back in 2006 Denae and I spent the summer driving around and exploring Mexico’s Baja peninsula.  It was a fantastic trip, and one we did on the slimmest of budgets, but summer proved to be a rather poor season to visit; it was way too hot!  The kind of heat that warms up large bodies of water- the Sea of Cortez- until they no longer cool you off.  Where sunbathing becomes unthinkable and your shade tarp is your most treasured possession.  Of course we’d known about these issues going in so it was OK… sort of.

But that heat got to us after a while, and it affected our enjoyment of the trip to a certain degree (get it?).  Pretty much right after we made it back to the States I was scheming to myself about a trip back to Baja.  I was certain that our return would involve a sea kayak or two, and I was pretty sure we would want to go during the Spring.

Spring in Baja is a favored season.  Starting in March the winter winds are dying out in the Sea of Cortez, the water starts warming up a bit, and equally important for us, the Gray whales are still in the Pacific Lagoons.

For those of us who live on the west coast of the US, Gray whales have a special significance.  These incredible creatures spend their summers in Alaska and Canada, then migrate all the way south down to Mexico in the winter to mate and give birth.  Denae and I have seen them up in Canada in the summer, we’ve seen them passing by the Oregon coast in fall, and now we wanted to see them in Baja.

Whale-watching in Baja is not like other places.  It’s better.  A more accurate description of the activity would be whale-interacting.  For some scientifically undetermined reason, a small percentage of the whales down here actively seek out human contact: they like to be touched.  Both adults and calves.

Yes, in Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Laguna San Ignacio and Bahia Magdelena, you can go out in small boats (called pangas) and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be approached by some of the largest animals on earth- and they’ll act like puppies begging for attention.  Any more written description than that is just going to be clutter; watch this video and you’ll see what I mean:

As far as logistics go, our first stop was Laguna Ojo de Liebre, aka Scammon’s Lagoon.  It’s just inside the state of Baja Sur near the small windswept town of Guerrero Negro, a fairly easy two day’s drive from the US border.  You can stay in town and arrange trips through many places, but we drove out to the ejido a few miles south and camped at the laguna for a few dollars a night.  Actually, our first try at getting to the ejido was thwarted when someone flagged us down partway through the washboard road and said we’d be turned back if we kept going: there was a tsunami coming (!).  This was, of course, back in March when the calamitous Japanese earthquake occurred.  We drove back to Guerrero Negro and read up online about all the disturbing news, but at least determined that we weren’t about to be swept away.

The next morning, March 12, we drove back to the ejido and set up camp, paid our $40 usd each and were out on our 1.5 hour panga trip.  This day was my backiversary: exactly a year after I broke my back in a skiing accident.  The boat ride was so incredible we decided to stick around and do it again the following morning, which was Denae’s birthday.  I wanted her day to be very special; her previous birthday had been somewhat subdued by it’s hospital bedside location. Luckily this second day was even better than the first with lots of contact with whales, which was vindication for Denae: she’d been telling people for months that she’d be petting baby whales for her birthday, and getting some strange looks.  After all this we still hadn’t had enough of the whales, so we figured we might as well do it again at Laguna San Ignacio.

San Ignacio town is a pretty little date palm oasis in the desert, and the laguna is about 40 miles west over some pretty rough gravel/dirt/sand roads.  We’d planned on getting a ride there from town in a shared van, but the cost only becomes reasonable if several people are going, and they weren’t.  Once more into the breach, trusty old Ford Escort Wagon!  It was a bit of a rough ride, half of it after it got dark, and had Denae holding her breath as we careened high speed through sandy stretches, the undercarriage plowing off the top inch or two of sand between the wheel ruts.  Somewhat miraculously we didn’t get stuck, and made it to camp Kuyima where we set up our tent in the lee of our car to protect it from the howling winds.

Kuyima proved to be a pretty professional outfit complete with English speaking staff, and would be a good option for anyone wanting to see the whales (and if you’ve read this far and don’t want to go, one of us is doing something wrong!) but needing a little logistical hand-holding.  Their website has lots of good information.  Once again, the boat trip was indescribably amazing, after which we successfully drove back to San Ignacio town for the night.  The next day we headed south to the Sea of Cortez for phase two of our trip: a grand sea kayak expedition.

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2 responses to “Gray whales of Baja’s Pacific lagoons

  1. I never get tired watching your whale video!

  2. Kuyima sounds like the option for most of us less adventurous travelers! Especially if we didn’t have to drive to get there.

    I’m so glad you guys got to do this whole thing.

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