Sleepy west coast towns suddenly come to life when its the season for whale watching on Baja. There are only 3 places in the world that grey whales give birth…all on the Baja. The main areas to view the grey whales: Scammon’s Lagoon (Ojo de Liebre), Bahía San Ignacio, Bahía Magdalena.
Guerrero Negro is a dirty, dusty town with flat terrain and strong winds whirling dust in your eyes. It’s the first town you come to when crossing into Baja California Sur and the hub for whale watching at Scammon’s Lagoon. It is a busy salt-producing town; the flats along the coast are mazes of small lagoons encrusted with salt crystals. This desolate area looks beautiful in a strange way, reminding us of crusty snow back home.
The official whale watching season starts about Dec 15th, but not all whales get the memo (!) so they straggle in, one at a time to several bays of the Baja. You can book whale watching tours from several places in town. In hopes of seeing whales from shore we drove south of town and took a dirt road about 25 kms out to the coast; Laguna Ojo de Liebre, the Mexican name for Scammon’s Lagoon.
As you enter the official camping for Ojo de Liebre there is a whale watching centre. This is where you schedule your whale watching tour (and eat at the restaurant!) Friends of ours had booked a tour with their 2 girls for this morning. We knew we had to be here well before their scheduled leave if we hoped to catch a tour, too.
Let’s Make a Deal
The full cost of $810MX per adult plus $600MX per child amounts to $4,620MX (approximately $330CDN) for a 2 hour tour for 7 of us. Sure, for some people that might look like a good deal. But considering that everybody in our family has been on plenty of boats (we’ve lived on a couple) and we’ve all seen a variety of whales in the wild makes us unwilling to pay full price.
People keep saying that Mexicans like to barter so we thought we’d give it a try. We’re willing to dicker and possibly lose out on the opportunity. So nothing to lose. Lots to win!
With kids in tow Everette and I approach the ticket booth and in pathetic Spanish we give her our proposal. We have $3,000MX pesos to spend on a whale watching tour today for my husband’s birthday (pointing at him!). Seven of us are ready to go. Would anybody take us out?
She does some figuring on her calculator. She’ll have to talk it over with her ‘boss’ who is currently down at the boats. So we wait.
Whale watching on Baja isn’t in full swing yet and other than 2 fellows already booked in, nobody is clambering to go out on the water. Did they want our business, or not?
She calls us back. She’s punched a total on the calculator: $3,060. Absolutely, we’d be willing to pay that! And before we know it we’re snapping our lifejackets up and climbing aboard a panga.
On the Water
Our captain’s name is Gil. The two dudes we join are Noah and Emil from England….and we’re off on Princesa in search of grey whales (ballena gris) come to calf (and/or mate) off the shores of Baja Mexico.
Gil knows how to spot them; he takes us directly to the vicinity of the grey whales without approaching too closely. The engine idles as we’re bobbing, waiting anxiously to see them for ourselves. Gil’s been taking tours out for 4 weeks already this whale watching season and he’s yet to see a baby (calf).
By April there will be about 3,000 grey whales in this bay alone. Mamas, babies… and males wanting to mate. Only half of the calves will make the journey to Alaska in the spring. One quarter will die by orcas waiting for them as they leave the safety of the bay. And the last quarter will die of disease.
We hear a spout. Excitement arises. A female whale glides through the water, breaking the surface. Barnacles cling to her skin.
Off in the far distance we see whales breeching.
It always feels good to be out on the water…when its calm like this. Hearing the waves lap against the bottom of the boat. The salty breeze blowing in our hair. The sun shining on our faces.
The activity starts to increase. We see more whales breaking the surface.
And then the magic.
Happy Birth Day!
A baby breaks the surface of the water. Who’s more excited, us tourists or Captain Gil? He’s giddy like a child in a toy store. It’s the first calf he’s seen this season and his excitement is contagious. One baby, possibly born during the night; maybe its just a few hours old. He’s snapping photos with his phone. I wonder if he’s going to post his photos to FB.
It’s magic! We’re watching the calf’s first day swimming. Copying mama. Side by side they glide. They’re aware of our presence. We sit quietly bobbing in the ocean wondering where we’ll spot them next. They glide back and forth beyond our reach. Mama is always positioned between us and the boat.
Until she isn’t! All of a sudden the calf comes towards us. Gil is shouting “No baby!” like he knows what’s about to happen. The rest of us are oblivious.
Baby comes alongside the boat and then bumps gently near the motor…no blades are turning. Thrilled with how close we got to a calf we hope he/she is okay. And I wonder if mama speaks some correction to her newborn baby. To stay away from that boat of onlookers.
Mama is pacing back and forth while baby continues to check us out. At starboard Everette reaches out and touches baby as he/she glides passed. Happy Birthday to the two of you!
Baby continues to swim in and around us, enamoured with the boat and the bright orange people aboard. Mama heads our way, diving below the panga shallow enough that we can see her massive body pass underneath. Maybe mama is giving instructions; showing how to pass by without making contact between her and the boat.
We’ve been here long enough. Time to let mama and baby do their thing undisturbed.
There’s few pangas out on the water as far as I can see. The only boat I spot off in the distance has our friends on it. The whales have the bay mostly to themselves. We reposition ourselves and wait patiently in the stillness.
We’re told that whales are mating here, too. That it can take 3 to mate; imagine that!! One to help lift the mating couple up, because they are so damn heavy!
A whale is spy hopping off in the distance. Another is breeching; mama’s with newborns don’t breech. They are busy keeping a close eye on their baby’s safety. Making sure they get all the air they need. Lifting them up to the surface if necessary.
It’s a short boat ride back to the wharf from whence we set out less than 2 hours ago. We’re all chattering about the successful tour and thanking Gil over and over for the morning on the water. As we’re heading up the wharf Gil tells us he wants a photo of him alongside of our big family. Noah obliges and snaps the picture.
We all linger around the patio, reminiscing about the whales, talking about all we’ve learned from the experience, and exchanging info with the Britts. It’s only noon and already we’ve had a hugely successful day.
I disappear for a moment with a Mexican lady and return with a humungous tres leche pastel (3 milk cake). It had been hiding out at the restaurant for a day since the skoolie didn’t have enough space in its fridge. We’ll share the birthday cake with good friends we’ve met from Vancouver Island, then probably play some cribbage and just relax the rest of the day. Another birthday in the sun and warmth of Baja Mexico. What could be better?
P.S. A few mornings after our whale watching on Baja a panga passed by with a dead calf aboard. It may be part of the way of nature but its still a sad sight. As soon as they are born they have to fight for their lives. Not all of them win.
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