It was dinner time on board the National Geographic Seabird, and Lindblad Expeditions founder Sven-Olof Lindblad captured the attention of diners at his table. As the ship cruised along the west coast of Baja California Sur, the conservationist and explorer spoke of the idea of elation, especially the thrill that comes over people when they discover and understand the wildlife of a new way.
“For one person, the exhilaration may come from seeing a massive animal in the wild for the first time. For another, it may be learning the physics that allows a forty-tonne whale to move through the ocean. water as we walk through air,” he said. Explain. “Once you have that feeling, you want to have it again and again.”
Lindblad spoke from a deep well of professional and personal experience. He has led the expedition cruise line for over 40 years. His father, Lars-Eric Lindblad, is widely known as the man who helped bring conservation-minded travel to Antarctica and the Galápagos Islands in the 1960s. recognition around the world, sparking a lifelong interest in ecotourism.
I had joined Lindblad for a trial run of the company’s new whale-watching route in Baja’s Magdalena Bay. The trip is part of a set of five- to nine-day programs designed for travelers who find longer trips difficult to schedule. I was also looking for a future trip with my own family. Ever since we had kids, my husband and I have missed the moments of mental expansion we experienced on African safaris, and we’ve been looking for new adventures to share with our marine-loving teenagers.
Turns out Baja was the perfect place to find them. Every winter, female gray whales give birth in these waters, especially in the protected lagoons of Magdalena Bay and Almejas Bay. From January to April, these creatures nurse their offspring and teach them to swim with and against the currents. The animals need to build up their strength for their spring migration, when they travel more than 10,000 miles to the nutrient-rich Arctic.
Lindblad has been running whale-watching tours in the lagoons for decades, but the size and noise of its ships have kept the creatures at bay. Four years ago, the company obtained permission to operate Zodiacs (which pose little threat to marine mammals) inside the bay. The much smaller and relatively quiet vessels allow the company to focus an entire voyage on close encounters with the curious calves and their gentle mothers. On this trip, our small group was guided by Lindblad himself. He seemed as eager as all of us to see what the ecosystem looked like.
I had flown from Los Angeles to the city of Loreto, taken a three hour bus ride to the Port of San Carlos, and then, after boarding the 31 cabin Seabird, slept soundly as the ship sailed south through the night. The next day, for our first excursion, we boarded Zodiacs to sail through Almejas Bay, the southernmost part of the 60-mile-long lagoon system. Eagle-eyed travelers soon began reporting sightings. “There’s one to two hours!” “I see one to four! “Another at seven o’clock!” Gray whales can be difficult to spot from afar, as they smash less frequently than other species and lack dorsal fins. But on this day, the males would spy or poke their heads just far enough out of the water to reveal their steely eyes. Although scientists can only guess the reason for this behavior, it made for a glorious game of “I Spy” for our group.
“Here’s a way to understand how little we know about the behavior of gray whales,” said naturalist and photography instructor Steve Morello. “Imagine watching someone walk to the end of their driveway every day to get their mail and basing your judgment of them on that task alone.” It killed the engine. The waves lapped our boat and we all listened to the thumps, moans, rumbles and growls unique to this species.
“If you look to your right, there’s one right next to us,” Morello said. No more than 20 feet from our starboard side, I could see the vent and gnarled back of an adult male. Perpendicular to the Zodiac, a second barnacle speckled body rose to the surface.
In a flirtatious display, the creature’s giant fluke skimmed the surface, hissed left, then right, skimming just enough water to playfully splash us. Our exclamations turned into high-pitched cries. As the whale descended, I covered my mouth and shook my head in disbelief. Back on the ship that night, I told Expedition Leader Paula Tagle that I had had more and more intimate sightings that day – dozens of them, in done – than on all my previous whale watching trips to Maui, Alaska and Washington. Combined state.
While we slept, the Seabird sailed in an area of Magdalena Bay where only about 30 boats have permits for excursions. Most are chartered for guests staying at resorts in Cabo San Lucas, Loreto, or La Paz, all within significant driving distance. But because we had spent the night on the water, we could watch the whales frolicking at sunrise each day.
On the second day, passengers split into groups to search for cows and calves. We were watching another spy round on the horizon when I heard the phrase “tea party” crackle over Morello’s walkie-talkie. It was a guide code for friendly whales, so we zoomed in.
We arrived to find a 40 ton mother scratching her back on the wooden hull of another boat. I could see a smaller shadow hovering just below her – the wary mother seemed determined to keep her own body between us and her little one.
When the shadows disappeared, we leaned over the Zodiacs and tickled the water with our fingers, trying to attract the whales. Eventually, the mother returned, pushing her baby to the surface. The calf nudged our Zodiac with its nose and kept its head above water, accepting our naturalist-approved petting and posing for photos for a good 40 minutes. When the young whale started to sink, it did so slowly, its left eye glued to us until the last second. I immediately recognized that exhilarating feeling of discovery that Lindblad had mentioned at dinner.
At a conference on the Seabird, Naturalist Adam Marie explained that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, gray whales were hunted for their blubber in these same lagoons. The animals were easy targets because they stayed close to the coast. Now, 85 years after the Mexican government enacted official protection, the gray whale population is finally believed to be at or above pre-hunting levels, rebounding to 27,000, according to one estimate. But because males live an average of 40 to 60 years, and some up to 70 or more, the creatures around us were likely direct descendants of those they preyed upon a century ago. The one who just splashed on us might have been very much alive to see his loved ones chased away.
Gray whales are fiercely protective of their young, and reports from whalers are replete with descriptions of females destroying skiffs, injuring or sometimes killing crew members, earning them the nickname “evil”. In less than a generation, could an entire species have forgotten what we are capable of? The unfettered curiosity we had seen in the whales took my breath away, and I was struck with both the shame of human actions and the sense of responsibility to do better.
During the final days of our adventure, we explored the mangroves by kayak and paddleboard, cycled the dunes on fat-tire cruisers, and cruised beaches strewn with sand dollars. None of the passengers missed the sunset barbecue on the beach on our last night. As I watched the fire, the urge to bring my family to this place overwhelmed me. I snuck up to Lindblad and asked if I should come back with my kids, maybe even their grandparents.
“I’m 68,” he told me, “and until tonight I didn’t understand the inner workings of the sand dollar. If I was here with my kid, we would have learned this together. There’s no generational divide on a trip like this. It’s completely open to everyone, all of us, to discover.”
And, I thought, to become addicted to euphoria.
Lindblad Expeditions is offering a five-night Wild Baja Escape: Whales of Magdalena Bay from $3,810. A version of this story first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the title Close encounters.