It’s a chilly morning and the orange face of the sun has just poked above the horizon, casting sparkling diamonds of light across the gently undulating waters of Magdalena Bay in Baja California Sur, Mexico. As my wife, Shirin, and I stroll down the narrow, sandy beach, our tranquil scene is transformed by a large gray whale that appears twenty feet from the shore, cruising slowly along the coastline. Periodically it raises its head to blow out a deep, resonant burst of air–“WHOOSH.” The plume of misty air hangs momentarily above the water, wafting a delicate rainbow into the breeze before the leviathan disappears. And thus we start our day of whale watching and communing with nature.
We have come to this 30 mile-long bay tucked along on the southwest coast of the Baja peninsula, to see gray whales that have traveled over 15,000 miles from their frigid Arctic feeding grounds to spend the winter and early spring months mating and calving in these safe, warm waters. For me, this is not just any eco-tour, it’s more like a pilgrimage to a sacred place where we can experience an intimacy with these congenial cetaceans not available anywhere else.
I had wanted to do this trip for many years, after a natural history museum director told me, “Of all the nature trips we offer, seeing the whales in Magdalena Bay is my favorite.” When I saw an ad for Sea Kayak Adventures’ whale watching trip, I knew it was time to go.
For Southern California travelers like us, or anyone else who can manage the logistics, crossing the U.S./Mexico border via CBX (Cross Border Express) and flying direct from the Tijuana Airport to Loreto, our meeting point, makes this Mexico trip blissfully easy.
During our introductory briefing in Loreto, one of our two local guides, Amarantha Uribe, sets the tone for our forthcoming adventure: “We humans only care about what we know, so I’m excited to take you to a place where we will see whales close-up. For me, I’m always happy when I’m with them; there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I hope you’ll feel that way, too.”
After breakfast we board our van and head across the Baja peninsula to the Pacific coast town of Puerto Lopez Mateos. The two-hour drive winds through hills that are blanketed by a remarkably lush, green mix of Sonora Desert plants, most notably the towering cacti called Cardóns with spiny outstretched arms like their Saguaro cousins.
When we reach the busy harbor in the otherwise listless town, we sit beside a graceful bronze whale sculpture and watch as groups of Mexican and foreign visitors arrange tours with one of the four authorized operators who charge around $90 per hour for their whale watching excursions. A steady stream of boats, called pangas, busily ferry tourists around the bay throughout each day, an economic necessity since whale viewing season mainly lasts from mid-January to late March, with a February peak.
Soon enough it’s our turn to don our lifejackets, board one of the 22-foot pangas and set out on our adventure. In the morning sunlight the bay water sparkles, the cloudless sky suffuses everything in soft, blue hues and the cool breeze makes me appreciate my warm jacket.
In less than half an hour from the harbor we spot our first whales spouting maybe 50 yards away. Our main guide, Mario Escalera, who has a master’s degree in marine biology and knows these whales intimately, advises us that our boat will stay far enough from the whales to avoid stressing them, but it will be OK if whales approach us on their own. Several of us have heard stories and seen videos about whales coming next to boats to be petted, so we’re hoping to experience that phenomenon, too.
During our two-hour outing, the first of four during our three-day stay, we excitedly shift our gaze (and cameras) from one side to the other as someone softly shouts, “Whales at two o’clock. Another one at nine o’clock!” Indeed, we feel satisfied that the bay has enough gray whales to provide us with ample sightings. Several times we encounter a scaly-backed whale that emerges from the murky water like a shadowy apparition not far away. After expelling a burst of air, the mottled snout and crusty back scythes down into the water, one knobby vertebra at a time. After a dozen or more encounters, it’s time for lunch and settling into our tent camp that Sea Kayak Adventures has set up along the shores of a remote, sandy peninsula. By camping here, we have saved an hour of travel since this location puts us in the middle of the whales’ protected playground and their access point to the open ocean via a channel called la boca (“the mouth”) behind our camp.
Between whale watching excursions, we take leisurely walks along the beach and a guided hike through the Sahara-like sand dunes behind our camp. At mealtime we sit at the long picnic table by the water, always scanning the bay for tell-tale whale spouts while we savor the delicious meals that magically appear from the cook’s small tent. Happy hour drinks, fresh fish and vegetables and home-made tiramisu cake make our first dinner a delight. Before heading to our tents, several of us gaze at an ink-black sky filled with sparkling, bright stars that we seldom see at home. The Milky Way splashes a broad swath above our heads and we earnestly search for our favorite constellations.
Our tents are spacious and the cots, with the help of a foam sleeping pad and warm sleeping bag, are comfortable. We keep the window and doorway flaps zipped shut at all times to minimize the relentless encroachment of fine sand into the tent. I appreciate the soothing silence surrounding us.
Each panga ride is an exercise in patience and luck as we play hide and seek with the whales. The bay’s twenty or thirty whale adults and babies appear at uncertain intervals and locations, so we cruise slowly across the water looking for our next adrenaline “fix” that comes with each spontaneous whale encounter.
Fortunately, we’ve found several babies alongside their protective, gargantuan mothers. A youngster’s smooth gray body contrasts starkly with its mother’s rough, gray and white barnacle-encrusted back. Even though adult whales can stay submerged for almost a half hour, their babies need to surface frequently to breathe which allows us to observe them both for several minutes until we, or they, move on. The babies seem to enjoy playing with their moms, and occasionally with the pangas, too.
At rare intervals we see whales do three remarkable things: fin waving, spying or best of all, breeching. Only in the mornings are we able to observe whales lifting their side fins from the water, waving them around and then disappearing. Several times we spot the angular head of a whale poke out of the water and “spy” for just a brief moment; Mario says that no one knows why they do this. But Lady Luck smiles upon us as we bounce through la boca towards the open ocean–suddenly a whale fifty yards away breeches by thrusting half of its body into the air before crashing back into the water with a mighty splash. We are told that it’s common for breeching to be repeated two or three times, but we are treated to eight awe-inspiring breeches before the show is over.
We return to our camp feeling elated by the abundance of fairly close whale sightings and captivating behaviors we’ve been privileged to witness. Alas, we didn’t have any cuddly whales come up to our boat and allow us to touch them, but I remind myself not to be greedy because overall this experience with gray whales has been a rare blessing.
Sitting at the picnic table, we decompress with some cold beers and homemade margaritas. I notice the nearby white board is adorned with whale caricatures and is titled “Advice from a gray whale.” Whale-inspired words of wisdom invite us to emulate the whales and “swim with the current, breathe, keep calm under pressure, stay close to the ones you love, and be friendly.”
Mario touchingly brings our experience to an end by inviting us into the communal yurt. He asks us to put our arms around each and form a close circle, heads touching. In a soft, soothing voice he whispers,
“Thank you for coming to this special place. The whales give us important messages, if we just listen. They teach us forgiveness, even though we almost hunted them to extinction. They show us what we can accomplish when we work together, because it was only through the international cooperation of Canada, the USA and Mexico that these beautiful whales were saved. My friends, in this time of great divide, remember what we can do when our hearts join together for something good and noble.”
Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer in Carlsbad, CA. See more photos and articles at HansenTravels.com or Instagram @DougHansenTravels
IF YOU GO:
Sea Kayak Adventures, www.seakayakadventures.com, 800-616-1943.
CBX Cross Border Express; www.crossborderexpress.com or 888 CBX INFO.