A week of whales, water and wildlife in Baja California

By | Category: Travel destinations
a Bay in Mexico's Baja region

The scene that awaited us in Baja

Funny how a sound can change from an irritation to a delight, just by knowing its source. Last week, while camping in a little dome tent on a secluded beach near Loreto, in Mexico’s state of Baja California Sur, my husband and I found it hard to sleep due to a repetitive slapping noise. We surmised it was a tent cover flapping in the breeze – but were too exhausted to investigate. At dawn, drinking our coffee with the others from our tour group, we discovered that the slapping was actually from manta rays jumping out of the water. Much to our dismay, we wished we HAD investigated. How magical it would have been to watch their acrobatics under the moonlight!

Loreto Bay National Marine Park in the Sea of Cortez attracts people for the whale watching in Magdalena Bay which is nestled within the barrier islands of the Pacific coast, one of the major calving and nursing lagoons for grey whales. Grey whales make one of the longest migrations of any mammal on earth. Every year of their lives, these enormous creatures, measuring up to fifty feet and weighting 30-40 tons, swim more than10,000 miles roundtrip, from the feeding grounds of the Bering, Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of the Arctic to the birthing and nursery lagoons in Mexico.

Landing in the small but very modern airport in Loreto, (the easiest way to get there involving only one change of flight would be via Los Angeles in the USA; any other way will require at least two changes of plane,) we were then whisked away to our hotel across the street from the expansive boardwalk fronting Magdalena Bay which is a popular place for walking, running and people-watching. During the 15-minute ride, we were excited to see a roadrunner dashing off into the desert landscape, replete with towering “giant cardón” cactuses.

cactus on the hillsode

one of the many giant cactuses (or cactii) I saw

The Sea of Cortez was named to UNESCO’s world cultural and natural heritage list in 2005, and is renowned throughout the world for its abundant and unique sea life. Perhaps most beloved are the grey, blue and other whales which come to the warm waters of the National Marine Park (created in 1996) each winter .The park, which prohibits large fishing boats, extends over 38 miles along the coast and 21 miles offshore, and is home to five desert islands, including the Coronado Islands.

From late January to mid-March is the best time to watch the whales and in January it can be a little cool so take a jacket to wear.  We were some of the very few people about. When we asked a shop proprietor where everyone was, he laughed and said, ”This is too cold for us locals! But we’ll come out for the Carnival tonight. You come too!” He explained that Loreto has its own annual, and very popular, version of “Mardi Gras,” a small town event with a parade, concert and boxing matches on the boardwalk.

We then visited the stone Misión of Loreto, built originally in 1599 by Spanish Jesuits as a shrine to the “Virgin of Loreto,” later made into an actual mission in 1700. Since then, it’s been reconstructed in Baroque style to repair the damage of several, severe earthquakes The small museum is worth a visit, open Tuesday-Sunday from 9-1 p.m. and 1:45-4 p.m., charging a nominal fee. There are many other missions within driving distance, such as the De Santa Rosalía de Mulegé Mission, located in the town of Mulegé. This beautiful stone building is considered “the jewel of the Baja California Missions” because of its stunning architecture.

kayaking

Me kayaking in a truly beautiful region of the world

Loreto is very popular with sport fishermen and some people from the US and Canada spend their entire winter season here. Yet, the town feels very authentically Mexican. When we sat on the curb with the locals to watch the rather endearing home-grown parade later that afternoon, we noticed a nice mix of tourists and townspeople. Several floats in the parade featured blue and grey whales, made of papier mache and fabric, with little girls dressed as mermaids, baby whales, and the like. Nothing like New Orleans or Mazatlán, but festive and fun all the same. Afterwards, we stopped by the lush patio of Orlando’s for an amazingly inexpensive ($20 for two, including beer!) early dinner of the best chile rellenos and enchiladas poblanas we can remember enjoying.

Our guide, Axel was educated as a marine biologist and was knowledgeable, so when someone asked about the photo he had seen of people actually touching a grey whale, wondering if we too would be able to do that. “We offer whale watching, not whale touching,” Axel replied. “We don’t want people to come with ‘touching’ as an expectation. If the whales approach us, that’s fine but it’s up to them. We must stay 90 feet away from them, especially from the babies, but they can come to us.” We all whispered to each other that we hoped that would happen.

whale being photgraphed

Did I realise I was going to get that close?

The next morning, after a hearty buffet breakfast at the hotel, we loaded into our van for a two-hour journey to another small town, Lopez Mateos, where we would embark on our whale watching portion of the trip. The town is so tiny that speed bumps are made of thick ropes strung across the road! We passed the high rocky mountains of the Baja peninsula, al covered with a mixture of endless cactus, small ranches, roaming longhorn cattle and goats.

We loaded on to 12-passenger skiffs, captained by rugged Lopez Mateos men, and went off to find scores of pairs of grey whales – mothers and calves cavorting and jumped in unison around us, under us and next to us – to our unmitigated delight and whoops of joy.  We saw the spray shooting up from their double blowholes and could even feel and smell it Gazing out in the distance, we saw blows from countless other whales. “It’s like a whale highway here!,” someone enthused.

grey whale in between two tourist boats

and the answer is yes; you will get as close as this

The grey whales are dark slate-grey coloured and are covered by characteristic grey-white patterns, scars left by parasites, and many also had pinkish barnacles encrusted on their backs. Babies are darker grey, and are at least 16 feet in length as new-borns. Cormorants, pelicans, gulls and frigate birds flew and swooped about, cawing and crying – while the salt air fragrance added to the exhilaration. “Holy mackerel,” a participant shouted. “they’ve gone under the boat!” Somehow, these enormous, yet graceful creatures would repeatedly swim under our boats without us feeling the slightest impact. We all agreed that they seemed “friendly,” or at least curious about us, and Vicente, our captain, told us that if we bent down to splash the water with our hands, they just might come closer – and let us touch them? It didn’t happen on that excursion, but there would be three more chances in the next two days.

Our whale campsite was comfortable and very remote – on a long stretch of barrier island beach in the National Park. Two-person tents were set up for us upon our arrival, and we arranged them with our sleeping bags, pads, liners and personal baggage. Our motherly cook, Rosalia, prepared delicious buffet meals of authentic Mexican dishes, such as huevos a la mexicana and chilaquiles for breakfast, fish tacos and chicken mole for dinner under a sparkling starlit sky, and casual lunches of sandwiches and tostadas. We always had a “happy hour,” replete with beer, wine and some type of harder stuff, along with crisps and salsa, veggies and dip, and the like. At sea kayak camp, we were even treated to such fare as warm pineapple-upside-down and chocolate cakes, amazingly baked on propane stoves. Indeed, despite the abundant physical exercise – hikes, kayaking, setting up camp, most of us probably gained a few pounds on the trip.

preparing a meal

meals are al fresco! I just don’t have to cook

It was an unforgettable scene to see the group all sitting at our long tables on the beach, beers and wine set out, while we were thrilled to see many whales “spy-hopping” (holding their heads and upper bodies vertically out of the water, sometimes for up to almost a minute!,) along with pods of acrobatic dolphins and seabirds with our binoculars and long lenses. Indeed, we resisted Axel’s invitation to attend his “whale lesson” inside the large group dome tent, as we couldn’t’ tear ourselves away from watching the real whales (but did enjoy the lesson very much the next day.)

The following two days, we went on three more whale watch boats. On the morning ride, I was astonished when a five-foot wide baby tail (or fluke) came up the side of the boat, right before me. I was speechless as I stroked the iconic shape, which felt like wet rubber. It was only a few seconds, but I’ll never forget them. Over and over, mothers and babies slid from left to right under out boat while spouts rose in all directions from blowholes – grey whales were around us as far as the eye could see. They came so close we could smell the fishiness of their breath from the blowholes’ spray. “I never dreamed it could be THIS incredible,” my seatmate cried out.

close to a grey whale

we got even closer than before

On the fourth morning of the tour, we packed up for the boat ride back to Lopez Mateos, where we enjoyed  a fish and shrimp lunch before heading back to the hotel for a much-needed shower and comfortable evening in Loreto. Next day, after a brief 25-minute van ride, we were off to Sea Kayak camp in Loreto Bay National Marine Park, where we hoped to see the famed blue-footed boobies as well as the sea lions which are residents of the bay. If we were VERY lucky, we might even spot a migrating blue whale.

Axel and two new kayak guides gave us kayaking instruction and safety rules. “We call the tandem kayaks ‘divorce’ tests,” he joked. “If you can make it together through this, your marriage will last!” Indeed, it took us a while to get ‘synched’ but we were soon paddling as a group. Each day we paddled some two to three hours, with lunch breaks, and also had hikes and snorkeling excursions. One night, Axel gave us a laser-pointer lesson on constellations as hundreds of hermit crabs scurried silently around us.

snorkelling in Baja

this is a paradise for snorkellers

The morning awoke us with wildly loud seagull squawks and, as we sleepily emerged from the tents there in front of us was a gorgeous, rosy sunrise glow moving down the high cliffs on the other side of the bay. The men in our group played on the beach, skipping stones, while we women sipped our coffee and nibbled on papaya. It was such a different world from being in a resort.

We were dazzled by the Caribbean-like shades of clear turquoise and brilliant blue of the bay’s waters as well as the silky soft sand. Snorkeling here was outstanding – although we definitely needed our wet suits. Brown, barren, cacti-dotted rocky cliffs in all directions made for surreal landscapes – highlighting the beautiful water below.

Our last night, we went as a group to La Palapa restaurant in Loreto –where we feasted, toasted and felt dazed, a bit, at our week spent in other-worldly Baja.

And I am still bragging about my baby whale tail rub.

 

By the way, kayaking trips started in September; combinaation tours start in late January and run through March; San Ignacio whale camp runs mid-January to mid April.

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