Photo of the Week: Gray Whales of Baja
My Photo of the Week brings us across the southern US border in Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula. The peninsula stretches nearly 800 miles from Tijuana in the North to Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip. The water that surrounds it, whether it’s the protected Sea of Cortez or the wide open Pacific, is teeming with life. Of course, the life I was after was the biggest of them all: whales.
We began our journey in the small and relaxed resort town of Loreto, which is well known in the whale watching community as one can regularly find blue whales, humpbacks, fin whales, dolphins, orcas, and more rare species. We spent one full day out in the seas off Loreto encountering a stunning area of wildlife and calm conditions, but what really drove us down here would be found on the western side of the peninsula. Over on the other side, one can find three large lagoons: Magdalena Bay, Scammon’s, and San Ignacio. In these three protected lagoons, gray whales come to give birth to their young and mate in numbers that are hard to fathom. We were set to visit San Ignacio, which is located in the middle and is the smallest of the three. While San Ignacio doesn’t have the largest population of wintering gray whales, they are more densely packed together here meaning you can see more during a single outing than the other two. However, what really sets this location apart from the rest is what many call the “friendly gene”. The gray whales in San Ignacio act friendlier towards the boats and spectators giving one the rare opportunity to pet a wild whale.
We drove from Loreto to San Ignacio, which is about a 5-hour drive on a fairly smooth and paved highway. The last 15 miles to reach the camps/eco-lodges is a dirt road, which was pretty hard on our rental. However, we made it to Campo Cortez, which is run by Baja EcoTours. The camp consists of 15 or so small cabins located on the water’s edge overlooking the lagoon and the gray whales that occupy it. We were there for four nights with 3 full days of whale watching (hopefully whale petting!). San Ignacio has a few different camps and other large vessels that operate tours, so to control how many boats are in the lagoon with the whales, they came up with three solutions. The first was to create a whale viewing area inside the lagoon where you could watch the whales. This way, if the whales wanted some privacy, they could venture off somewhere else and not be bothered. Secondly, they have a “sheriff” who controls what boats are in the lagoon and makes sure each one only gets 1.5 hours with the whales at a time. Third, they created a time period between 8-5PM when folks are allowed to be with the whales. All these rules may seem excessive at times, but they are necessary to make sure the whales continue to thrive.
Each day we had two whale watching sessions and they always went by too fast! We would load up in the small boats along the rocky shore and then motor for about 10 minutes to get into the viewing area. Once there, the engine was effectively put into neutral and we watched the whale bonanza happening around us. At times, there may have been 30-40 whales within ¼ mile of the boat. They performed all sorts of surface behaviors from breaching, spy-hopping, fluking, rolling around, and much more. However, the best part is when the whales approached the boat on their own time. Most encounters, you wouldn’t even see the whale until they appeared right beneath the boat, sometimes bumping it out of the water a bit! Sometimes, a juvenile or adult whale would come up to the boat for a few minutes to check us out and rub along the bottom of the boat. Occasionally they would lift their big noses (rostrums) out of the waves, giving everyone onboard the chance to pet and scratch off some barnacles. Other times, we would be fortunate enough to find a mother and calf pair where mom would decide to either let the calf play and interact with us or keep them busy with some training exercises against the current and tide. No matter what happened, it was a thrill to be among these giants as they welcomed us into their home.
The most amazing thing about these moments is when one considers the fact that just about half a century ago, we were hunting these whales in the same waters that we come to play with them today. How this species has forgiven us for nearly wiping them off the face of the planet is beyond comprehension and something everyone visiting these lagoons should think about. While the gray whale population has since rebounded, climate change will surely affect their feeding grounds in the Arctic, which is something we will need to take quite seriously over the coming years if we hope to keep this species around.
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Check out my Photo of the Week: Moss Glen Falls
Hey, I'm Chase Dekker, a wildlife and nature photographer looking to share my stories and expertise with as many people as possible. My blog gives you a glimpse into my life as a photographer - whether it be stories from my travels, or guides on how to make your own trips as successful and special as possible.
I hope to give you valuable insight on everything from travel, to animals, to photography tips and more!