Whale Magic at Bahia de San Ignacio, Baja California

The palapa at Kuyima: dining room and gathering place

Whale watching usually means jostling around on a big boat with 50 other people for a quick glimpse of a whale off in the distance. When I learned it could be different–when I saw pictures of people PETTING whales from little fishing boats–I knew I had to go.

Gray whales endure a 5,000 mile migration–one of the longest migrations of any mammal–to three enormous, tranquil lagoons on the Pacific side of the Baja California peninsula. Sheltered from the surging Pacific, they mate, give birth, and raise and nurse their calves to prepare them for the spring journey back to the Arctic feeding grounds.

Map of Baja’s gray whale nurseries

Bahia Magdalena, Bahia de San Ignacio ¬†and Laguna Ojo de Liebre (formerly known as Scammon’s Lagoon) all serve as whale nurseries from December through April. A lively tourist industry, ranging from two-hour boat trips to multi-day packages, lures adventurers from around the globe.

Turtle shell on the beach. Because the sanctuary forbids taking souvenirs, the beach is carpeted with seashells, and there are whale bones too.

Bahia Magdalena, also known as Mag Bay, is the southernmost option and the easiest to access from the resort-friendly southern tip of Baja, Los Cabos.

Laguna Ojo de Liebre and Bahia de San Ignacio comprise the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino, within the enormous El Vizcaino Biosphere reserve. This wildlife refuge, the largest in Mexico, protects 9,625 square miles of unique desert landscape. The strict regulations in action since the sanctuary was established in 1993 merit credit for much of the tremendous recovery of the gray whale population in recent decades.

Many ospreys nest near the lagoon. Coyotes stole their eggs, so Kuyima built nesting towers. In Spanish, it’s aguila pescadora, “fish eagle.”

Some say Bahia de San Ignacio has the friendliest whales. Local outfitters include Kuyima Ecotourismo, Antonio’s Ecotours, Baja Ecotours, and Pachico’s Ecotours.

Most packages last between 4-6 days, and some include spendy direct flights to the lagoon. I’m on a budget, and I’m excited about whales, but I also had other ambitions for my 10-day Baja trip. We settled on Kuyima, where we could rent an outfitted tent for two for $40US a night, and get meals and whale watching trips a la carte. In the end, it was under $500US for two people for two nights, three whale watching trips each, and four meals each. Folks with their own camping gear can pitch tents right by the lagoon, cook their own meals, and save a few bucks. Kuyima also runs a neighboring camp where guests stay in small cabins. Both are right on the beach, steps from the lagoon.

Kuyima’s tent camp. We rented a tent, but other folks brought their own gear or RVs.

Kuyima was perfect for us. Off the grid and powered by solar, they have simple outhouses which were perfectly pleasant, a bathing room where one could take a bucket bath with solar heated water, and a spacious enclosed palapa, where we got meals and margaritas and enjoyed the small library of books about whales and Baja. The staff was helpful, devoted to whales, and spoke English. Our fellow visitors included tourists from Baja and elsewhere in Mexico, Italians, Germans and Americans.

Kuyima cabins, at the adjacent camp

Kuyima cabins, at the adjacent camp.

The sanctuary strictly limits whale watching, to ensure visitors don’t overwhelm the creatures. Only a fraction of the bay is accessible to the pangas (small outboard-powered fishing boats), and the number of pangas in that area at any time is limited. Regulations limit each boat to 90 minutes in the area. Some folks come out for a single boat ride, others stay many nights and take at least two boat rides a day.

But how to get there? The road to Kuyima from San Ignacio is only partly paved, and I had trouble verifying its condition. Kuyima could bring us by van, about 90 minutes, but at unpredictable cost. They charge a fixed price ($110US round trip), to be shared by an unknown number of passengers.

There’s plenty of time to wander the beach at San Ignacio Lagoon.

In the end, my friend and I flew into Loreto with Alaska Airlines. We had our rental car by about 2PM, and drove the 170 miles to the town of San Ignacio by 8PM. We lucked out–our little Chevy Aveo had no trouble navigating the mostly paved road to Kuyima Whale Camp. At $280 and one-and-a-half tanks of gas for nine days, we were happy we decided to rent.

Some call it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I hope not! The thrill of touching whales, the magic of looking one in the eye, the joy of seeing a calf approach with the playful curiosity of a puppy–I’ll be back! And the bonus–Baja California beckons with its dramatic deserts, soaring mountains (as high as 10,000 feet!), 65 islands and 1900 miles of mostly undeveloped coastline. I intend to see a lot more of it.

Sunset with pelicans and pangas

Petting Whales (it’s true!!!) in Baja California

april 2016 1178A light breeze tickles my hair as sunlight dazzles on blue water. Arid mountains rise on the horizon, while the boat gently rolls to the husky hum of an outboard motor.

Deep inside me a thrill blossoms: A gray whale materializes just feet from our panga–a small open fishing boat.

At first it’s a glimmer of murky white speckles–a vague, mysterious hint of movement, barely detectable. As she ascends, she transforms: From shadowy indistinct suggestion to a grey-and-white mottled outline, then all dimension and details are revealed as she breaks the surface and takes a breath, water sheeting off her back.

We all gasp as she and her calf drift alongside our vessel and she emits a glittering blast from her blowhole. The spray drifts over us, pungent with a fishy fragrance reflecting her diet of tiny invertebrates–although here in the breeding grounds of Bahia de San Ignacio, she probably doesn’t eat at all. Instead, she nurses her young calf on 50 gallons of milk a day as she helps it master swimming, diving, and making friends with curious humans.

april 2016 1171

The pair parallel our boat as we motor slowly forward. My heart leaps as mama changes her angle and comes straight for us. She lingers alongside as a half dozen hands reach to pet her. Her skin’s slick and shiny, and has a little give–like a well-inflated wet inner tube. Individual short, bristly hairs emerge from dimples on her enormous lower jaw, and constellations of barnacles and lice are scattered over her body–all harmless.

She rolls over, offering her dappled belly for more stroking before abruptly dropping into roiling waters with a flip of fin and tail.

But they’re not done! Mama and baby hang out. The interest and curiosity are mutual–they approach one side of the panga, engage with us, drop and glide under to emerge on the other side for more caresses. We learn that their eyes are directed downwards, so when they roll away–or spyhop– they are just trying to get a good look at us. Human watching.

90 minutes of whale watching feels like a small miracle. I am forever changed.