Sunday, February 08, 2015

Close Encounters of the Gray Whale Kind

Greetings All,
We flew from Mexico City to La Paz, the capital of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur on Jan. 24.  Here is a map of Baja California Sur, a narrow peninsula that extends along the west coast of Mexico.

Map of Baja California Sur (areas visited are circled)
Every winter hundreds of Gray Whales migrate from their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas to the calm, warm waters of Baja.  Here they mate or give birth to their calves in 3 major bays or lagoons: Magdalena, San Ignacio and Guerrero Negro.  This migration covers 6000 to 8000 miles one way!   Here is a map showing the whales' migration route.

Eastern Pacific Gray Whale Migration Route
We joined our 3rd tour group in La Paz and the following morning drove 4 hours north to the tiny hamlet of San Carlos where we boarded a boat for the 1-hour cruise to our camp on Magdalena Island, home for the next 4 nights.

Camp on Magdalena Island
The weather was colder and wetter than expected but it didn't stop us from going on our first whale watching excursion that afternoon.  Being the southernmost bay, the whales arrive in Magdalena last. We were early in the season and the whales were just beginning to arrive.  We weren't disappointed. Our first encounter with one of these magnificent creatures was a thrill.  Seeing a whale from a small boat on their level is quite different than seeing one from a distance in a large cruise ship.

Close Encounter (photo courtesy of Jessica Pociask, WANT Expeditions)

Over the course of the next four days we made 8 whale watching excursions lasting around 3 hours each.  We observed only adults and mainly females being pursued by 2-4 males.

Courting Gray Whales
Some believe that males actually help one another during the mating process by holding up the female while a second male gets the honors.  That's why you always see more than one male at each mating event.  Others believe that this is a myth and the multiple males are competing to mate.  On some days the whales were friendly, actually approaching our boat and swimming around and even under it.

A "Friendly" Gray Whale Approaches
On seemingly alternate days the whales couldn't be bothered with us.  If we approached too closely, they would dive with a powerful flick of their tails.

Gray Whale Fluke 

They would leave behind a large oval oil slick called a footprint.

Gray Whale "Footprint"

It was best not to pursue them during these days and we went off to view the nearby California Sea Lion colony instead.

California Sea Lions

On our 6th excursion we encountered a very friendly female who approached our boat very closely.  I leaned over the side, about ready to fall overboard to touch her as she glided under the boat!

Come Closer, Come Closer!
It wasn't so much how she felt to my touch but the emotion I felt.  Gray Whales have been hunted to the brink of extinction and to this day are still hunted in the northern extreme of their range.  Yet here was this beautiful female so trusting of humans that she actually approached our boat and allowed me and a few others on board to touch her!  Our trip leader Jessica got a video of this magical encounter.


The whales tend to congregate at the mouth (La Boca) of the bay about 10 miles from our camp.  On the way we'd pass the remnants of an old cannery, now a fishing village.  The Brown Pelicans use what's left of the old pier pilings as perching posts.  They look especially beautiful this time of year dressed in their finest breeding plumage.

Brown Pelican In Breeding Plumage
From camp we were treated to glorious sunsets and sunrises.

Sunrise over Magdalena Bay

All too soon our time with the Gray Whales of Magdalena came to an end.  We'd take with us memories of our close encounters with these amazing animals and wish them well on the long migration back north!

We returned to La Paz to spend a day with the Whale Sharks and California Sea Lions.  A resident population of juvenile Whale Sharks hang out in the bay and people go out to swim with them.  I wasn't completely sold on the idea but was willing to give it a try.  Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate.  It clouded over and started to rain, making it impossible to spot the Whale Sharks.  Instead we decided to head to Espirtu Santo Island to swim with the California Sea Lions.  A colony of about 200 animals hang out here and are used to tourists coming to swim with them.  As we approached we could see many adults and pups clamboring about on the rocks.

California Sea Lion Colony at Espirtu Santo
It was still rainy and quite cold but some in our group braved the elements and went into the water with them.  We passed as I wasn't feeling well but the others had a most memorable experience with the playful pups.  On the way back it continued to rain and we were all soaked and very cold.  We sat in the bottom of the boat with a tarp over us to keep out the worst of the wind and rain.  This is the desert, it's not supposed to rain in the desert!

Packed Under the Tarp!
As we were nearing the marina a friendly pod of Bottlenose Dolphins swam behind our boat in the wake.  It's not clear why they choose to do this but it sure looked like they were having fun.  Marc took a video of the action.


That night we had a very interesting dinner at Restaurant Zarape owned by a local woman, Lorena Hinojosa, who collects Mexican art.  She had on display pottery from all over Mexico and in the banquet room she had reproduction paintings by the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo.  Frida, an art student of Rivera's and 21 years younger,  married him in 1929.  They had a tumultuous marriage, divorcing then remarrying.  Most of Frida's paintings were self portraits depicting the pain she constantly suffered as a result of a serious bus accident in 1925.  In this self portrait, originally painted in 1941, Frida is shown with her parrots.

Frida and her Parrots

The following morning we said goodbye to our group and headed to the airport to pick up a rental car for the drive north to San Ignacio.  We couldn't decide which bay to visit, Magdalena or San Ignacio, so decided to visit both.  We hope our whale encounters in San Ignacio are as intimate as they were in Magdelena!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc 

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