Among the Great Whales of Baja and the Sea of Cortez

BY LISSETTE VALENTIN

Encircled on the west by the mighty Pacific Ocean and on the east by the nutritious and calm Sea of Cortez or Gulf of California aptly coined “the world’s aquarium” by Jacques Cousteau, home to everything from populations of sport fish to pods of orcas, it’s no surprise that Baja California Sur, the world’s second-largest peninsula is a must-visit for those in search of one of the most spectacular wildlife-spotting experiences on our planet and one of the best destinations in the world for whale watching.

In the mid-1970s when a curious whale approached a group of fishermen, it stuck its head out of the water and kept coming closer. This made the fishermen incredibly nervous, but one of them conquered his fear. He held out his hand and touched the whale. In some bizarre way, this proverbial peace treaty has developed over the years into a unique whale culture. These are the descendants of the few grey whales that survived the horrors of the whaling era. Many mothers are now teaching their calves to interact with people. At a certain age, they actively encourage the youngsters to approach small boats, sometimes even lifting them towards the surface, as if introducing the calf to people for the first time. This is how the local fishermen switch from fishing to whale tourism. With the ever-declining fish stocks, these whales are fast becoming the backbone of the local economy. 

During the winter months of December to spring early April, something magical happens, almost the entire world’s population of grey whales, humpbacks and 2-3,000 blue whales migrate from the Arctic waters of Alaska; it is one of the longest known migrations of mammals and one of nature’s greatest spectacles, to the shallow lagoons and bays of Baja to socialise, mate and give birth.

There are only three places in the world where the grey whales will give birth to their babies, all three are in Baja! 

We often see minke whales, fin whales, orca killer whales, pilot whales, and rafts of athletic dolphins and curious-looking porpoises, you should expect to take off from different locations all along the peninsula.

Whale watching tours on the Sea of Cortez are mainly run out of Cabo San Lucas, La Paz and Loreto while you can get close to the whales, do not expect the same kind of personal interaction that is experienced in the Pacific lagoons. Most of the whale watching is done in pangas, these are locally made 22-foot boats, which are open and can accommodate up to ten people or zodiac speed boats.

On the Pacific side, the Northeast spots are Laguna Ojo de Liebre, or Scammon’s Lagoon, and  Laguna Guerrero Negro situated within the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaíno—a World Heritage site)   located just outside the town of Guerrero Negro. Ninety miles south there is another lagoon a bit more remote than the others called Laguna San Ignacio which opens to the Pacific but there is no development of any kind nearby. This lagoon is said, by many, to have the friendliest whales more than any other location. To interact with them in such a playful manner is a truly joyous experience.

Bahia Magdalena 365 miles south of San Ignacio is the southernmost location that the grey whales visit. A series of canals and estuaries stretch along the coast for over one hundred miles. This bay is unique because it is so long with so many entrances. To arrange whale watching tours go to San Carlos, the main port in Mag Bay, located 36 miles from Ciudad Constitucion which is on Highway 1. Forty miles north is Puerto López Mateos, which sits on the northern end of Bahía Magdalena, a small town devoted almost entirely to whale watching.

In the sparkling Sea of Cortez at The Loreto National Park you can set out in search of the elusive blue whale, the largest animal to ever live, it can grow to over ninety feet in length and the fin whale, the second largest. The blue whale is also the loudest, a screaming blue whale can be heard for several miles underwater. They seem to favor the islands near Loreto. Here there is also the place to occasionally spot minke whales, orca killer whales and pilot whales.

Four hours south of Loreto in the shallow waters right off the Bay of La Paz is a natural destination for whale sharks. Large populations of these fish congregate between October and April to feed just offshore from a spot of barrier land called El Mogote. By the way, they’re not whales, they’re actually toothless sharks, the largest fish on the planet, but no reason to fear them, whale sharks are docile creatures—filter feeders sucking up tiny organisms like plankton and krill to amass a bodyweight of up to 30 tons. 

Even further south in Cabo San Lucas between the iconic Friars rocks at Land’s End and the Gorda Banks seamount, humpbacks are often active and you may witness them tail-lobbing, flipper-slapping, and breaching, frolicking in the waters, usually pretty close to shore, these whales are capable of performing some of the most spectacular acrobatic displays on Earth.

These are also the whales that are famous for their singing, male humpbacks singing plaintive is filled with a baffling medley of moans, groans, snores, squeaks and whistles. You will need to drop an underwater microphone, or hydrophone, into the water, to listen to this mesmerizing, unforgettable live concert. It can spark a roller-coaster of emotions: soothing and melancholic, shocking and unsettling and awe-inspiring. Human words just don't do justice to the longest and most complex song in the animal kingdom. 

This is the last spot on their winter migration before they begin their northward bounce, most whales appear to leave their “friendly” behavior behind once they start their voyage and are not known to approach boats anymore. Our planet’s wildlife is usually best enjoyed from a distance, to preserve both their safety and ours. The situation in Baja is not the norm and the formula is unique to these lagoons and bays. This is an inspirational look at how one community’s relationship with whales has undergone a wonderfully bizarre transformation.