This article is featured in the Nov. 9 issue of the Magazine.
Fan-shaped spouts of gray whales dot the horizon as we reach the protected waters of Laguna San Ignacio along the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Baja California Sur. Minutes later, a 40-foot gray passes close enough for us to see the clusters of barnacles on her skin and to smell the potent breath from her dual blowholes. Compared with a typical New England whale watch, where even a few sightings and maybe a humpback breach or two make for a good day, this is already an amazing cetacean experience. But unlike those trips back home on often crowded big boats, a half dozen of us are bobbing in a 22-foot panga as the skiff’s operator, who is also a local fisherman, guides us toward what we hope will be a close encounter of a very special kind.
We’ve come to pet the friendly whales of Baja.
San Ignacio is one of three lagoons in Baja California Sur at which Eschrichtius robustus end their annual 6,000-mile southern migration from Arctic waters to mate and give birth. While the other calving areas — Laguna Ojo de Liebre (also known as Scammon’s Lagoon) to the north and Magdalena Bay to the south — attract friendly whales and are open to visitors, San Ignacio is the least touched by industrial or other development. And its relative isolation means there are fewer boats, making San Ignacio a unique if somewhat hard-to-reach destination from Boston.
Several tour companies — including some offering direct charter flights to the lagoon from San Diego or even Cabo San Lucas — arrange trips to San Ignacio during whale-viewing season, which runs from roughly December into April. We’ve chosen the do-it-yourself approach, flying from Boston to Los Angeles and then taking Alaska Airlines nonstop to the historic town of Loreto on the Sea of Cortez in Baja California Sur. With its laid-back fishing-town vibe, Loreto is the antithesis of Cabo San Lucas, which is trying to get back to its hopping self after taking a hard hit from Hurricane Odile this September. Loreto’s waterfront promenade, old mission, wide-ranging marine activities, good restaurants, and affordable prices make the town worth its own trip.
After a few days, we rent a car and drive north on well-maintained Route 1, occasionally slowing for cattle on the road. We pass cormorants drying their wings atop cactuses in the morning sun and stop to explore Bahia Concepcion’s crescent beaches, including Playa El Coyote, where migrating whale sharks, the world’s biggest albeit harmless fish, entertain a few kayakers. After passing Mulege (popular with American ex-pats) and Santa Rosalia, we cross the Baja peninsula in time for lunch in the zocalo, or, plaza, of the small town of San Ignacio, lined by date palm trees and dominated by an impressive mission founded by Jesuits in 1728. Our five-hour (with stops) drive from Loreto ends on a stretch of suspension-jarring washboard dirt road leading to the whale camps of Laguna San Ignacio.
Our camp was jointly operated by Antonio’s Ecotours and Baja Expeditions (Antonio’s will run it solo this season and Baja Expeditions will operate Campo Ramon). Like the other half-dozen camps on the lagoon, accommodations are rustic but comfortable. Our small wooden cabana is basic and clean, with a porch offering a full view of the lagoon. It has a sink but no bathroom; the sawdust composting outhouses nearby are odor-free and the solar-heated outdoor showers adequate. Excellent meals, usually fish caught that day, are served in a large common building, where pangueros and other employees mix with guests and where resident naturalist Edgar Burgos Arce discusses whales and their habitat. At night, power is limited to what’s stored in solar batteries, so “8 p.m. is midnight here,” he says. And your cellphone and Web connection probably won’t work.
The camp’s name — La Fredeira, loosely translating to “the fryer” — tells the near-extinction-to-tourist-attraction history of the Pacific gray whale. Nineteenth-century whalers hauled their catch to this spot to render the blubber for oil. Back then, local whalers referred to gray whales as “devil fish” because of their tendency to ram and smash whaling boats to bits. Now we want these ocean behemoths to come right at us.
The trip providers at Laguna San Ignacio, which is part of the protected El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, must have permits but mostly regulate themselves. Only a small section of the vast lagoon is open to whale viewing, and no more than 16 pangas can be out at once and for no more than 90 minutes per trip. Most important, operators are not supposed to approach whales, though we do see that rule occasionally broken. “We are in their house and the whales decide if they want to hang out with us or not,” says Jesus “Rana” Mayoral, owner of Pachico’s Eco Tours. “To me, the real magic is when you stop and see a whale turn around and it comes to you, instead of us chasing them.”
Jesus’s father, Pachico Mayoral, is credited with the lagoon’s first recorded “friendly” encounter. He was fishing in his panga in 1972 when an adult gray approached. He tried to maneuver away, but the whale kept surfacing nearby, even lifting its head out of the water right next to the frightened fisherman. Mayoral cautiously reached out and touched it. Other fishermen initially didn’t believe his story, but word of the friendly whales soon began to spread.
While responsible trip operators caution that touching a whale is far from guaranteed, that hope is what draws most visitors. As we move slowly ahead in our panga, several mothers and their calves approach (by late March, when we visit, most adult males have already left for their return trip north). Then a whale comes right at us. As big as a school bus, she could easily flip us with one swipe of a fluke. Instead, she sends up a thick ring of bubbles as she dips under the hull, her back lifting us slightly out of the water. Even as we catch our breath from that encounter, another mother nears, this time pushing her offspring toward us. She nudges the calf (it weighs about 3 tons by now) out of the water. Human and whale eyes lock as we stroke the calf’s smooth, rubbery skin. Then, as gently as they came, mother and calf move away.
‘The experience is absolutely transformational,” says Teresa Hill, a retiree from Cambridge who visited Laguna San Ignacio in 2013. “It isn’t just looking right into a whale’s curious infant eyes. Being on the lagoon is like being in another dimension, getting a sudden insight into what it is to be a dramatically different creature.”
Hill’s trip to San Ignacio from Loreto was arranged by Natural Habitat Adventures, a partner of the World Wildlife Fund, which finances scientists who operate a whale research station at the lagoon. “I was happy to have someone else do the planning and driving,” she says. Nat Hab, as it’s known, and other providers offer multi-day trips, including transportation, four nights’ lodging, all meals, and two guided whale trips a day. Day trips can also be arranged, or do-it-yourselfers can just show up at some camps and get on a boat if space is available.
From Boston, it can be cheaper to fly to Cabo San Lucas than to Loreto, but Cabo is a 13-hour drive to San Ignacio. Several Cabo operators offer day or longer trips to see the friendly whales at Magdalena Bay, which is closer to Cabo but less pristine than San Ignacio. But friendly grays are not the only whale game in town: For true whale aficionados, Cabo Expeditions offers a seven-day, 400-mile, multi-species trip through Baja, with stops in Cabo, Loreto, and San Ignacio to observe gray, blue, and humpback whales.
Emily Evans, a marine science educator who worked in Baja for six years as a whale trip and kayak guide, now arranges individual travel to San Ignacio and elsewhere through her Texas-based Custom Coastal EcoAdventure Network. “There is nowhere else in the world where you can have this experience with friendly whales,” she says. “I’ve had some whales let every human on the boat touch them. The whales are sincerely curious about us. They take you into a place where your daily troubles melt away and you feel about two inches tall in the grand scheme of things. That’s the magic of the trips we run.”
But what explains the magic? Why do gray whales exhibit such friendly behavior toward mammalian relatives who not that long nearly harpooned them to extinction in these same waters? “There are different theories, but no one really knows why the whales behave this way,” says resident naturalist Burgos. “Hopefully, that mystery will never be solved.”
IF YOU GO . . .
Travel and Lodging
> Alaska Airlines flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Loreto, the closest international airport to Laguna San Ignacio. Good Loreto lodging options include Coco Cabanas, an easy walk to the town center, and the hacienda-style Posada de las Flores right in town.
Posada de las Flores: 619-378-0103, posadadelasflores.com
> For help arranging whale watching and other Baja excursions, consider:
Custom Coastal EcoAdventure Network: 409-877-4551, customcoastal.com
> Several providers offer package trips to San Ignacio from San Diego and Loreto as well as shorter stays at their whaling camps, including:
Antonio’s Ecotours/Camp Fredeira: 409-877-4551, cabanassanignacio.com
Baja Expeditions: 800-843-6967, bajaex.com
Natural Habitat Adventures: 800-543-8917, nathab.com
Pachico’s Eco Tours:pachicosecotours.com
> To get to San Ignacio from Cabo San Lucas, try:
Cabo Expeditions: 619-752-2294, caboexpeditions.com