Sometimes, when traveling, you wake up in the middle of the night and aren’t sure where you are.
When you wake up to the splashes and explosive exhalation of massive gray whales cavorting in the shimmering moonlight, a few meters from your tent, you aren’t sure you are awake.
Thanks to Row Sea Kayak Adventures for hosting me in Baja,Mexico for this whale watching adventure. All opinions are my own.
In February of 2019, my husband, 10 year old son and I traveled to Mexico with ROW Sea Kayak Adventures to view gray whales and their babies in the Magdalena Bay, the southernmost stop on their annual migration. This is where many mother whales calve and linger with their new babies. Non pregnant/breastfeeding females and male whales also breed in these warm waters. There are no natural predators here. The water is relatively shallow and quite calm. For me, it was a bucket list trip.
We’re no strangers to Pacific gray whales. The same gray whales that we’re traveling south for, do an annual swim-by our Southern California neighborhood. We’ve been lucky with our sightings. We’ve watched them watching us, mischievously waving a tail before taking a deep departing dive. Most of our sightings have been off the coast of Laguna Beach with Dana Wharf Whales. But during the migration season we occasionally spy gray whales from the shore as well. Spotting puffy whale spouts on the horizon never gets old. Whales make rainbows when they come up for air. It’s a reminder that the sea is full of life, magic and mystery.
In Baja, however, the sea is more full. Here, we are told, we will see hundreds of these animals, closer than we’ve ever dreamed.
Our Baja whale watching adventure begins in the small town of Loreto, on the eastern side of Baja, near the Sea of Cortez. This area is famous for blue whale sightings but that isn’t what we are there for, at least not on this trip.
ROW Sea Kayaking Adventures are famous for their Whale Watching in Baja combination trips that include both kayaking in the sea of Cortez and a visit with the gray whales on the Pacific side, but we limited our trip to the camping portion in Magdalena Bay. The tour company is pretty accommodating and can help you plan and customize the perfect journey for your group.
Loreto is a sweet place to launch from, as there are direct flights from LAX via Alaska Airlines. In just a little more time than it takes to go out to lunch, we found ourselves in a whole other world. Loreto is charming. The first of the many famous California Missions is here, and Loreto was the original capitol of California. There’s a large USA expat community here and this means many places to stroll, shop, eat or enjoy a drink.
Tip: Try the handmade paletas and ice cream at La Michocana in Loreto. Here you will find unusual flavors like cactus, tequila, and mango with lime and chile. And if sprinkles are your thing, they do that too.
We stroll along the marina after we arrive, taking in the glorious sunset and listening to the waves lapping the shoreline. Giant pelicans circle above the fishing boats as they come in with the daily catch. While the fishermen tie up on the near side of the jetty, the birds put on a fishing show of their own, kamikaze diving into the ocean on the far side of the rocks. One after another they swoop and dive. Their graceful silhouettes look superimposed – cut in black against the purple and orange sky.
Our van picks us up in Loreto, early in the morning. We travel west, up and over the rugged, jagged mountains to the Pacific coast of Baja. It only takes two hours to reach the small fishing village of Adolfo Lopez Mateos. This travel time includes a pit stop at a local gas station, where we load up on local junk food and snacks. Our guide warns us to keep this stuff locked up at the campsite, along with our shoes and daypacks. Mischievous coyotes roam at night and will steal anything that looks interesting.
The port area is a wide plaza with a few gift shops and scultptures. You can charter a skiff, or “panga” here. Pangas are what the locals call these wide, open, flat bottomed boats. Traditionally used for fishing, local fisherman have adapted their schedules and their boats to accommodate tourists during the whale season. While you can certainly charter your own panga, you are best off booking through a reputable tour company like ROW, who sees to all the details before, during and after your trip, and takes care of accommodations as well so you can explore more.
As we suit up in our PFDs (personal flotation devices) we observe local school groups heading out. Teenagers nudge each other and pretend to spy whales from the shoreline in an international game of “made you look!” that needs no translation. Everyone seems excited, even the boat driver. Whalewatching never gets old.
The tension is palpable as we jet away from shore. We are 9 strangers thrown together in this boat, as if by chance. We shift awkwardly in our bulky outerwear and foam vests as the boat goes thwomp! Thwomp! Thwomp! A sudden rainstorm has stirred up the water, but our captain and panga don’t seem to mind. We’re bucking up and over every wave wetly and defiantly. There is a moment where seasickness seems like a possibility, and getting soaked a certainty. What have we gotten ourselves into?
You cannot say this, of course. To even breathe doubt is to jinx yourself. But you can’t help but think it, despite being told the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor. Six long minutes pass as the dock disappears behind us and we head out into the bay. My cell service is starting to disappear and I answer one last text.
Then just like that, she surfaces. She is lichen spotted and impossibly massive. Not so much gray as black and white with gray and orange colored spots. Her loud exhale sounds like a wet version of a horse’s snorty sigh. She’s about 20 yards away sliding confidently along the surface. Her baby swims beside her, smaller, shinier, and less speckled. She still looks new.
The rain stops then. The boat driver cuts the engine. Time freezes. We all forget about our PFDs and dive awkwardly for cameras, lenses, cell phones. The next hour is a blur. I barely sit down as one whale after another emerges from the murky green waters. My thighs strain as I consider the merits of a standing panga boat workout routine, camera poised. This might be my favorite workout ever.
Six whales trail behind us, their spouts popping to announce their presence like intermittent geysers. We are so close that I can see the way their blowholes work, opening and closing as they rise and then re-submerge. Up ahead a young whale “spyhops.” It’s an adorable move where they swim in a vertical position with their head out of the water so that they can have a look around. Whales have terrible eyesight, and comically, I imagine the baby whale bespectacled and squinting as he checks us out.
My husband pinches me. “Is this for real?” he asks. My son stares mute and wide eyed.
If you are whale watching in Baja in Magdalena Bay, you really are pretty much guaranteed to see whales, often more than a dozen at a time. Some of the whales are extra friendly, approaching the boats and allowing you to respectfully touch them. But this is up to the whales. The boat drivers don’t chase them. They wait for them to come to you. There are so many whales that at times it is like watching the jets line up on the runways at LAX. Spout after spout line the horizon, shadowy shapes moving beneath.
We wait to see if any of the whales want to engage with us, but they all seem to have other activities on their mind. They swim by and move on. So do we. Soon it is time for lunch, and we head towards the campsite on Magdalena Island.
Magdalena Bay is so tranquil because it is protected by two long, narrow barrier islands. The space between these two protective islands is where the bay opens to the Pacific. Locals refer to the opening as the “boca” or mouth. The whales access the Pacific thru this portal and travel back and forth all day long. The larger and more southern island that forms the bay is Santa Margarita Island. To the north of the boca is Magdalena Island. Not many visitors get a chance to stay on Magdalena Island, which is a protected wildlife area. It is also the most ideal place to view wildlife, particularly from the ROW campsite, which is quite close to the boca.
Magdalena Island itself is little more than a strip of sand with ever changing dunes and thick mangroves. There are tiny coyote that lope along the beach late at night, sea turtles, and thousands of birds that nest here. Dolphins and sea lions live nearby, and of course the whales. Sand dollars and shells dot the shoreline.
Sitting in plastic chairs, along the beach of the campsite is like sitting on your front stoop in a busy neighborhood, watching all the kids play. It’s surprisingly comfortable, considering how remote it is.
If we were concerned about comfort, we needn’t have been. Our supplies were taken care of by the company and brought over beforehand, via a separate boat. This includes clean sheets, pillowcases and sleeping bags for our canvas cots. Sleeping tents are arranged with two cots per stand-up tent, with room for a third if you don’t mind being close. Solar lanterns give light inside the tent and help you navigate the sandy path to the rustic WC, located further down the beach.
Tip: Consider bringing along a device like the go-girl to make late night potty trips a little quicker, or even a female urinal as you might not want to trek all the way to the outhouse at 3 am. It’s perfectly ok to pee anywhere that the waves reach, but it’s a lot easier for men to pee in the ocean, than women.
A larger dome-shaped tent is the hub of camp. Here is where we are served chilaquiles and fresh grilled fish, fresh cut fruit and salads. There is no electricity on the sandbar, no wifi and minimal cell signal. But there is beer, wine, coffee and plentiful fresh water. Everyone gets their own reusable cold/hot cups and we write our names on them with a sharpie.
Over the next two days we quickly settle into life at camp. The schedule revolves around multiple whale watching expeditions and mealtime, with a lesson about local wildlife here and there. Charts, maps and diagrams fill the dome and an impressive collection of sun bleached bones provide hands on materials for us to investigate.
We go for a hike across the sand dune island and on the way back my ten year old finds a dolphin skull, which he reverently carries back to camp to add to the collection. He’s the only kid in the group, but the guides and other adults along for the trip make him feel comfortable and special. We all feel pretty lucky to be here.
On the second day, we head into the mangroves and meet some local fishermen who are bait fishing. They show us their catch, and impress us with their fast net throwing skills. Further along we see herons, ibis, more pelicans and other majestic birds. Our guide also takes us to a secluded beach where the skeletal remains of a blue whale linger. These whales are not found in the area, but the carcass washed into the bay and ashore during a storm. The bleached bones that remain are the size of a shipwreck.
We are just getting used to our lives on the island, it seems, when it’s time to go. The last panga pulls up to shore for us and we’re all a bit sad our time here is over. We all agree we could continue whale watching in Baja for several more days, if time permitted.
Perhaps it’s because it’s our last day, and we are already so thrilled with the entire experience, that our final gift feels so special. Not far from camp we are greeted by a curious and friendly gray whale. Our guide seems to know her, and the boat captain sings her name. He pulls out an empty jug and tosses it to the guide so that she can splash water with it. Whales like it when you splash, and sing, and call to them.
Soon she is playing with us and other nearby pangas, giving our boat a nudge and swimming beneath us with a fin raised. It happens so fast that I don’t have time to change camera lenses.
My son reaches to give her a high five. My husband touches her and comments that her skin feels a bit like a neoprene wetsuit, and softer than he expected. She is so close that we can see the whiskers on her chin. Did you know that whales have whiskers?
We can hardly believe our luck in the magical moments that follow. The entire experience is surreal. It feels like a dream. Are we really interacting with a massive gray whale? What is life?!
She follows our boat for a time, coming back twice more to play and making us all feel special, somehow changed by the encounter.
Whale watching in Baja is truly a bucket list trip, but no need to wait for that bucket list, or limit yourself to only going once. ROW Sea Kayak Adventures makes it easy, and quite affordable.
In fact, I can see this becoming an annual tradition.
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