I have to say I was surprised how many of you emailed me telling me to keep talking about Baja whales. Luckily for you, there are very few things I enjoy more, so I could go on all day, except it would annoy my editor.
Most people have never seen whales – except for the captive whales that live at SeaWorld – due to their large size and insistence on living in the ocean. Once in a while, you can take a boat off the California coast and see a gray whale migrating to and from Alaska, where it lives most of the time.
However, I want to see more than glimpses as they pass between December and April. I want to see their makeup pit and also their birthing center, which happens to be located in three different Pacific lagoons off Baja California. When you get there the whales are swimming and hanging around. The ladies who have just left the delivery room guard their young, waiting for them to grow strong enough to swim back to Alaska.
These lagoons are also the aquatic honeymoon suites for the whales, where they mate to make more calves. Now, that’s the truth: it takes three whales for two of them to mate, which makes for a pretty unique threesome. You see, whales are heavy. And if two whales decided to do it, well, you know, they would come to the surface. So a third whale is needed at the bottom, to hold the female upright so she can be available for romance. I saw this happen once, and it was remarkable.
There are several ways to visit the lagoons of Baja. You can hop in your car and drive down to San Ignacio – a journey that takes around 15 hours depending on where you are and how fast you drive. It’s a paved highway all the way. And an exciting adventure.
“But, Marla,” you tell me. “I don’t want to do all that work.” I hear you. Keep reading.
“But, Marla,” you add. “What about COVID-19?” Well, I can’t really advise you on that except to say that COVID is everywhere, as you know, and I feel much safer in the countryside outdoors in Baja than at home. None of us came home sick. I have taken many trips this year and have not been sick on any of them. The risk is therefore yours.
You can go with a travel agency such as Baja Discovery, Baja Expeditions, Whale Magic or Magdalena Bay Whales. (This is the most expensive option). They have different ways to get you to the whales and they will accommodate you in their lagoon side whale camps.
You can also hire a company in Loreto or Cabo San Lucas to take you on a long day trip, but I don’t recommend this as they will take you to Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos. I hate it there because the boat captains are crammed into a narrow channel and – the only time we went – the whales were stressed and harassed. No, don’t. If you want to go to Magdalena Bay, go to the small hamlet of San Carlos where the whales are not surrounded.
On this trip, we flew Alaska Airlines from LAX to Loreto, a pretty town on the Sea of Cortez, renting a car at the airport. Keep in mind that whale season is peak season in this part of Baja, so you’ll want to book ahead for everything. We spent the night at the budget Casa Castaneda, which I found on Booking.com. The next morning, we began the five-hour drive northwest to San Ignacio on Baja Highway 1. It offers spectacular views north over Bahia Concepcion and then over the Vizcaino Desert (a site UNESCO World Heritage Site).
It’s a paved highway all the way. I highly recommend getting a guidebook before you go, to learn some necessities about driving in Baja, like never driving at night. No, you don’t need a 4×4. A passenger car is fine. Bring a small cooler with water and snacks.
When we arrived in San Ignacio, we checked into Ignacio Springs Bed and Breakfast, which offers luxury yurts by a beautiful river. There are also several other hotels in the area. The next morning we were picked up by a driver from Antonio’s Eco-Tours, who drove us 1.5 hours to the lagoon on a road that is now mostly paved. It costs more to pick up, but I recommend it. Otherwise you’re tired of driving before you even get to the whales.
Antonio’s and a few other places also offer shore-based whale camps, with tiny cabins or tents you can rent. This option is expensive, but you hear the whales breathing in the lagoon all night long, which is remarkable. I did that and today I prefer to stay in town.
We got out in a small fiberglass boat called a panga and spent the next 90 minutes watching and frolicking with gray whales. It was magical. You can’t always be sure to have a friendly whale encounter, but often in San Ignacio the whales will come to your boat to say “hello”. It is one of the most exciting experiences I know.
As you know I’m gimpy these days but it doesn’t matter that I have trouble walking because the guys on the boat just picked me up and dropped me off in the panga. They even had a wheelchair accessible outhouse in their camp with a ramp.
Then the guys helped me get my gimpy out of the panga and back to shore. We had a delicious lunch of fish tacos and returned to our yurts, where we had a nap and then a nice dinner with cerveza. The next day, unfortunately, we had to return to Loreto and catch a plane back home the next day. We definitely could have spent a few more days in Baja. Never mind. There’s always next year.