Whale Watching – the Grays
On the horizon what looked like a puff of smoke appeared. “Did you see it? Did you see it?” The blow of a whale off in the distance.
Sitting on a remote beach in Cabo Pulmo, I took this to be a good sign. At least one migrating whale had reached del Cabo, Mexico.
Shoulder-season travel can be a gamble for both weather and natural attractions like whale watching. But in order to keep our costs down, we pretty much have to skip high season. I booked a stay in Magdalena Bay on the west coast of Baja California, Mexico for early January keeping my fingers crossed that we would get lucky on the arrival of the whales. My hopes were up.
Driving in Mexico
I have to admit, I was a bit nervous about driving ourselves up the coast. In Costa Rica tourists in rental cars can be targets for theft. All the guide books I was reading warned against driving at night. Fearful of highway bandits, I booked two nights in the village to allow extra daylight on both ends of the 5 hour car journey.
Good thing too – on our way out of San Jose del Cabo, we missed the turn for the Starbucks and I couldn’t do a road trip without a latte in hand. A second missed turn leaving Cabo San Lucas provided an impromptu tour of the residential neighborhoods north of the hotel district. Finally, we decided to use some of our precious international data with google maps to make sure we got back on track.
Once outside of Cabo, the countryside takes over. As we rounded a corner near Todos Santos the real safety issue sat on the side of the road. An overturned, stiff and bloated cow was just off the pavement. No visible damage to the cow, but dead nonetheless. Ah, the car must have taken the damage. We hadn’t gone far when we came upon a second roadside victim.
Mystery solved – the cows are the real threat at night. That strengthened our resolve, no driving after dark!
Puerto San Carlos
Magdalena Bay serves as the primary fishing ground for the 6,000 residents of Puerto San Carlos on the west coast of Baja California. In the early spring, female gray whales and their newborn calves seek the shelter of the Bay to gain strength and size before beginning the long migration back up the Pacific coast to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska. A few enterprising locals realized some years ago that the whales would draw tourists from Mexico City and all over the world. Bringing with them a mix of new jobs to the community.
Our tour host, Marco, told the story of his father making his way north at the age of 14 to find work in Arizona. First shining shoes then as his English improved, so did his prospects. Having met this charming man, I was not surprised to learn that he convinced his new American wife to return to Mexico with him to this small fishing village where they would raise their family. The father started a business hosting seasonal whale watching tours in the Bay with a vision for future.
When Marco finished high school, he was sent to live with his mother’s family in Phoenix to learn English just as his father did. Thanks to his dual US/Mexican citizenship, Marco is free to travel between the two countries and his bilingual skills are now a valuable asset. After a few years working in the US, Marco returned to the village and is now surpassing his father’s business. Marco runs his own tour company and partners with a Bed and Breakfast run by his girlfriend and was about to open a new adventure camp for guests that wanted an even more remote experience.
Marco was a wonderful host flipping between languages for his guests that came from other parts of Mexico, the States and Europe. Although, I was glad to have studied a tiny bit of Spanish since not many people out in the community here spoke English. (We had extra time to explore the village thanks to my nocturnal cattle precautions.) It helped for ordering at restaurants and shopping at the local grocery. I’m sure that more locals will learn English over time as increasing numbers of mono-lingual Americans make their way to the Bay.
The Whale Watching Tour
Our tour departed shortly after dawn with just one other couple on board. A second larger group was to be off in their own boat. Pretty quickly we saw dolphins playing in the waves. After passing a buoy stacked with sea lions, we paused at a small island filled with Pelicans and other birds. All good omens in my book. (If you remember I have a Passion for Pelicans.)
Sharing their catch, a couple fishermen let us get to know some of the native shrimp. (Wouldn’t be surprised if they landed on someone’s plate that evening.) My friends, the pelicans, hovered nearby to chomp down any bycatch that was getting tossed back in the Bay.
Returning to our main focus, we paused at the mouth of the Bay for quite a while to no avail. Scooting back in to the Bay we were making our way toward a stop at Marco’s new camp near the tiny village of Puerto Magdalena.
And then…Score! A mother and calf pair were surfacing.
The mothers have to teach the newborns to breath since it is not automatic as it is for humans, surfacing frequently to take a breath. The calves stay close to their mothers for food and protection from predators.
During their time in Mexico, the calves build up their blubber stores with milk that is 53% fat. The mothers also will teach their young how to eat in the relatively shallow bays. Gray whales dive down then roll on their side while sweeping up bottom sediment. The water and sediment are forced out as they close their mouth while their comb-like baleen plates act as a filter to trap the actual food.
Our tour boat rotated turns with 3 other small tour boats getting close enough for cameras but not passing in front of the pair. Some curious whales – called friendlies – will approach the boats close enough for passengers to touch them. No such luck for us. But this was an amazing day spent just as I had hoped it would.
Later in the season there are more boats in the Bay viewing whales but there are also many more whales to see. I didn’t get a good sense if it starts to feel crowded since the Bay itself is quite large.
After nearly an hour, it was time to say farewell to the gray whales.
I’m very glad that an industrious young boy made his way to the States all those years ago. His family spanning the border paved the way for us to share the experience and wonder of the gray whales in his hometown.
Here’s some of the video I took on this trip. You’ll see the calf surfacing several times while trailing a bit behind or just on the right side of the mother.
Keep an eye out for my upcoming post on the Humpback Whales! How about you – have you had any whale encounters?