Whale Watching

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

On February 26, my friend Steve and I left San Diego for the west coast of Baja. We're both employed as biologists that work with endangered species, but we had never experienced the endangered gray whale except at a distance.

After stocking up at Trader Joes and a five-hour drive, we arrived at the Old Mill Motel in San Quintin and had a wonderful lobster dinner, the biggest lobster we'd ever seen on a plate! The next day we continued south past El Rosario, where the road turns inland, and soon stopped to gawk and photograph the cirios (boojum trees), which are related to our ocotillos but are single-trunked and taper at the top, looking as if they originated in a Dr. Seuss book. We stopped to admire the blue palms in Catavina then decided to continue driving all the way to Guererro Negro, which borders Scammon's Lagoon. But it was very windy with no boats going out, and the tour boats were booked for the next day, so we reserved two spaces ($49 each) for the following Saturday on a whale-watch boat with Mallarimo, which includes a great tour company, a hotel and wonderful restaurant.

We continued south to San Ignacio and stayed at a funky $25/night hotel owned by Oscar Fisher, who I "met" in Bruce Berger's book "Almost an Island." It was exciting to meet a character I'd read about, and I asked him if he'd seen Bruce lately and he mentioned that Bruce comes through San Ignacio about once a year and visits him and other friends.

We left the next morning on the rumored-to-be-bad dirt road to San Ignacio Lagoon, allowing 2 hours to get there for the whale-watch tour ($45 per person) we'd reserved the previous day with Kuyima, the best local tour company for whale-watching (they do tours of local cave paintings as well). Except for a rocky 1/4 mile up a hill out of the town of San Ignacio, the road was great, and we arrived with an hour to spare. We'd packed all our camping gear and lots of water and food, but Kuyima has a simple but wonderful lodge right on the edge of the lagoon with great meals, and they rent tents and camping equipment, so we barely touched our food, and most of the camping equipment stayed in the back of my truck.

At 10 am, after a short lecture on safety, our small panga put out into the lagoon, and we soon were surrounded by whales spyhopping (sticking their heads up out of the water) and approaching us. We could see why gray whales are called a baleen whale, so named because of the bristly-fringed plates called baleen on either side of the whale's jaw. The baleen filter ocean water to catch small animals in the water. When mothers with their newborn whales surfaced and approached the panga, it was tough to stay calm--the feeling of being so close to such gentle and huge (babies weigh over 1,000 pounds at birth; adults weigh 30 to 40 tons) animals is indescribable!

We were treated to a wonderful seafood dinner that night and chatted with some new friends from England who'd shared our panga. The next day was very windy, so instead of going out to see whales again, we returned to San Ignacio for breakfast and drove to Santa Rosalia for the day, about 40 miles southeast and on the Sea of Cortez. Santa Rosalia was the former base of a French copper mining company, with wonderful architecture dating to the late 1800's.

Thereafter, we returned north to Guererro Negro and stayed at the Hotel Caracol, had another wonderful seafood dinner at Mallarimo, where we returned the next morning to board a small tour bus for Scammon's Lagoon. After a half-hour bus ride along a dirt road posted with platform poles for nesting ospreys, some already with young birds, we were given life jackets and loaded into pangas to see more gray whales. Scammon's Lagoon is much larger than San Ignacio and more accessible if you're driving from the north. As in San Ignacio Lagoon, we were soon surrounded by gray whales, and some members of our boat, through exclamations of joy and tears, were able to touch their barnacle-decorated heads.

Beginning the drive home the next day, we stopped at a military checkpoint and looked at the car next to us, happy to see the British friends we'd made in San Ignacio. We joined them for lunch at the La Pinta hotel in Catavina, sharing whale stories.

We could have taken a slow drive home, stopping in Santo Tomas for the wineries and in Ensenada for trinkets, but we had to get back to work the next day, so we crossed the border in Tijuana near midnight (only a 20-minute wait!) Sunday March 1, talking about when we'll go back for another whale experience.

by Kathy Keane

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