Travel Guides: Gray Whales of Baja California, Mexico
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PS: The photos in this article were not taken on the cameras mentioned. While I have used the cameras I recommend below a lot with my students I do not personally own them so I don’t have photos to show from them. These shots were taken on the Sony Alpha 1. =)
Travel Guide: The Gray Whales of Baja California, Mexico
The lagoons of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula have long been a natural sanctuary for gray whales. The grays make one of the longest migrations on earth every winter to reach these special waters and find mates or give birth & raise their newborn calves before starting the long journey home. In this weeks travel guide I’m going to take you through how to visit one of the most amazing whale watching experiences on our planet, as well as give you a little history on why these are whales are so special and how to come home with some awesome photos of the encounter. So let’s get started!
Why Should You Go?
In my travels I have yet to find another whale watching experience that comes even remotely close to the encounters you can have with gray whales in Baja. Imagine playing peekaboo with a curious 12 meter (40 ft) long ocean giant that is within arms reach of you. So close that you can see the details in their beautiful eyes as they look right back at you. The gray whales that visit Baja showcase a strange behavior that is not seen anywhere else in the world. For some reason they seem interested in humans and what is going on above the water. Boats will sit with the engine off and curious gray whales will come to check it out. If you splash the water a little with your hands they’ll sometimes even place their head under your hand and lift it from the water. It’s surreal. But what’s even more incredible is that these whales only show this behavior in the lagoons of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico. Once they leave the lagoons they stop doing it. They don’t do it while migrating to Baja or on their way home. They don’t it at their feeding grounds in Alaska or Canada. It’s remarkable and so beautiful that I have personally seen it bring numerous humans to tears. There’s a bit of local legend and history behind it which I’ll cover later.
But it’s not only these up close encounters either. Grey whales seem to really like spy hopping – where the whale sticks its head out of the water to essentially check out what’s going on at the surface. They also breach, launching themselves into the air and splashing back in. Plus we’ve seen mating behaviors, calves nursing & playing with mom, feeding behaviors, and much more. I’ve even witnessed a mother lifting her calf out of the water on her rostrum as if she wanted to introduce us to her new baby Lion King style!
When to Go?
The gray whales normally start to arrive in January and by late in the month there’s already a good amount of them at the lagoons. But keep in mind, they are making a roundtrip migration that ranges from 16,000 to upwards of 22,000 kilometers (10,000-14,000 miles) long. It is one of the longest migrations of any animal on earth. In 2015 a grey whale broke the previous record for mammals by traveling roughly 14,000 miles from Russian waters to Mexico and back.Even crazier is they take this entire journey within only a few miles of the coast line – providing a new standard for truly ‘taking the scenic route’. With that being said, some years they do arrive a little late or a little early. The gray whales will remain in the area though until usually early April. If you’re looking for greatest chances of seeing a lot of whales I’d aim for anytime in February or the first half of March. With that being said there are usually grey whales in the area from usually early January until mid/late April.
How to get there?
There are quite a few areas to see the gray whales including Bahia Magdalena (Puerto San Carlos), Bahia Almejas (Puerto Chale), Lopez Mateos, Guerrero Negro, San Ignacio, and more. For this article I’m going to focus on the Bahia Magdalena Complex, which covers the 3 areas closest to the major airport of Los Cabos International Airport, La Paz International Airport, and Loreto International Airport. The Bahia Magdalena complex is the technical grouping of the area which runs from Bahia Almejas (Puerto Chale) in the south, up through Bahia Magdalena (Puerto San Carlos), to Adolfo Lopez Mateos in the north. This area is insanely rich in biodiversity and ecosystems and one of my favorite regions in Baja. Not only do you have these massive waterways you also have some of the most important mangroves in Baja as well as sand dunes, mountains, and low lying plains. It plays host to an incredible amount of birds from osprey & bald eagles to numerous migratory sea birds.
The Bahia Magdalena complex is located about 5 hours north of Cabo San Lucas by car, or 3 hours north from La Paz, or roughly 2 hours west from Loreto. There aren’t any closer commercial flights, so unless you are looking at booking a private charter flight those are your 3 closest jump points. Los Cabos International airport in San Jose del Cabo has by far the most options in terms of flights both internationally and within Mexico. It’s one of the top 5 most connected airports in all of Mexico. From Cabo or La Paz you can catch a bus to Ciudad Ciudad Constitución or Insurgentes and then a smaller bus or taxi into Puerto San Carlos or Adolfo Lopez Mateos or Puerto Chale – the latter being a bit more difficult. The issue with this is the buses into these smaller times run at odd times and schedules tend to change often. They also usually only run once or twice a day. So while this is probably the cheapest option it’s also the most difficult. A better option would be to rent a car and drive there or go with an operator that runs Grey Whale watching expeditions & tours like Dive Ninja.
What’s the easiest way to see grey whales?
Of course driving is not what everyone is looking forward to doing on vacation. Plus you might not want to drive in foreign country or deal with handling all the logistics like renting a car, finding hotels, etc etc.. For this, I’d recommend going with an operator that runs gray whale trips to Bahia Magdalena. Personally I think Dive Ninja Expeditions runs the best trip to see the gray whales. They handle everything and make it super easy – including transportation, accommodation, whale watching, visiting the mangroves & dunes, and so much more. Plus its all done with sustainability in mind while supporting local research & conservation programs. They take you to all 3 of the different areas in the course of a 5 day trip. Plus their guides are super knowledgeable and teach you fun facts about the area and whales on the drive up there. If you can’t make one of their regularly scheduled 5 day trips, they also offer private mini trips that can be as short as 1 night or as long as you’d like to spend with the whales.
Where to stay
Of the areas we are focusing on, Puerto San Carlos has the most amenities, but keep in mind all of these locations are small fishing towns. In San Carlos check out Villas Mar y Arena or Lore for accommodation as well as for their onsite restaurants. Hotel Alcatraz also has great food too. There are also a couple whale camps out on the island, but I personally have not yet tried them and have heard mixed reviews ranging from horrible to awesome. So for the time being we’re going to leave those out of this guide until I can check them out myself. In Lopez Mateos I like Whales Nest hotel but there are some nice spots on AirBnB as well. For lunch in Lopez Mateos I’d recommend grabbing food at the whale watching marina. There are a few spots side by side here, but my favorite is the one furthest to the left. It can be a bit of mission trying to sort accommodation in these areas during the gray whale season as there aren’t a lot of options so they fill up pretty quick. This is another great reason to go with an operator like Dive Ninja that offers multi day gray whale watching expeditions and trips. They already have everything sorted so you can just enjoy the whales and not have to stress the rest.
Weather & What to Pack
Baja’s gray whale areas in the winter can get a little bit chilly. The mornings tend to be cool and the afternoons pretty warm. Some days there can also be a dense marine layer covering the water. But as soon as the sun starts to get higher in the sky the fog will burn off and the clouds open up to bright sunny days. For this reason I highly recommend dressing in layers that are easily removed. Normally in the morning I will board the boat wearing shorts with my windproof & water resistant Rainier pants over them. Then on top I layer a t-shirt, hooded sweatshirt, and my Arc’teryx jacket to block the wind & any moisture. I’ll have a beanie to keep my head warm and a Buff to protect my face from the sun and wind. A layered set up like this is perfect for the cool damp mornings. The windproof & water resistant outer layers keep you from getting chilled or wet early in the day – especially when that morning marine layer is around. By late morning usually it’s already much warmer and I’m down to just shorts and t-shirt.
Do I need any dive gear?
No need to pack any dive gear for this trip unless you are planning to do some diving in Los Cabos or one of the other jump points. One thing to note here is that it is HIGHLY ILLEGAL to target getting in the water with any whale species in Mexico. All whale species are protected here. Mexico follows similar regulations to the Marine Mammal Protections acts that you find in the USA and Canada. “But how do you get these underwater shots then Jay”, I hear you asking… Well, this is the fun part! Wildlife photographers are a clever bunch! The underwater photos you see of gray whales are taken by leaning over the edge of the boat and holding your camera just under the surface. The whales get close enough to the boat that even a super wide fish eye lens can sometimes not be a wide enough.
What camera gear should I bring?
Lets start with topside – personally I really like the Sony 100-400mm G Master lens for the gray whales as well as Bahia Magdalena in general. It’s a great combo of reach and being able to hold it steady on a small boat. I find 600mm lenses a bit too much to comfortably shoot from the panga style boats we see in Baja. I also carry Sony’s 1.4x teleconverter in case I want to get a little bit more reach. When the whales are close to the boat I’ll switch to the Sony 16-35mm as it gives me a bit of range.
Underwater I’m shooting with my Sigma 15mm Fisheye in a Nauticam housing. You want as wide as possible for this. The visibility usually isn’t the best in the lagoons so you’re aiming for shooting when the gray whales are close and as we mentioned before they aren’t the smallest of animals. Plus keep in mind you will be essentially shooting blind so you want solid autofocusand a close focus distance. Also highly recommend a Go Pro on a telescoping stick. This is probably the only time you’ll ever hear me say this as I hate humans running around with cameras on sticks shoving them everywhere. But this is one of those very rare occurrences it’s actually quite good to capture video.
Last but not least, let’s talk drones. Some of the gray whale areas have banned drones and others are ok with it and some require permits. So definitely check the local regulations before you take off. Also if you haven’t flown from a small boat you may want to skip trying for the first time here. There are a lot of birds in this area – including some that see drones as prey like magnificent frigate birds, osprey, and bald eagles. With that being said there are some really incredible landscapes that really can only be captured via drone such as the mangroves or sand dunes. I’m currently using the DJI Mavic 3 Pro. I love the long battery life and the slightly bigger size makes it easier to take off / land from your hand while the boat is rocking or coasting with the wind.
Why are these whales so special?
During the golden age of whaling, ships descended on these lagoons and hunted the Californian Gray Whale almost to extinction. They actually stopped hunting them only because there were so few left that it wasn’t commercially viable to hunt gray whales in the eastern Pacific Ocean any longer. You can find old accounts of the whaling activities in these areas that describe the waters of the lagoons turning red from all of the blood of these poor creatures being devastated for profit. It’s mind blowing and heart breaking to think that this was still going on in the last century. All of the gray whales that you see in these areas are the direct descendants of the few that survived the horrific whaling era. But bizarrely it’s almost as if they have come to forgive humans for the atrocities of our ancestors and are now very curious of us.
There’s a legend you will most likely hear of how a local fisherman back in the 1970’s reached out to the water and a gray whale lifted its head to meet the hand. Creating the proverbial peace treaty between the gray whales and humans. The story is quite sweet and will always be told that it happened in whichever area you are in at that moment. But it is a beautiful example of how humans and whales could potentially coexist in a positive way. The story requires a bunch of background as well as learning the history of Baja’s ‘devil fish’ to really understand why this moment was truly really special, so I’ll save that for a future article. In good news, the California Gray Whale’s populations have remarkably rebounded and are considered to be stable now. Currently the IUCN’s Red List of Endangered Species sets their conservation status as ‘Least Concern’. So when you are out on the water and lock eyes with one of these majestic ocean giants just in front of you, take a moment to appreciate how hard their journey has been to get to this moment — and how lucky we are to be able to encounter them.
Local Insider Tips
I highly recommend taking some time to explore the landscapes and ecosystems in the area. Some of the most important mangrove systems in all of Mexico are in this area. Cruising through the mangroves on the boat is reminiscent of being in the Florida Everglades and feels like you are in another world all of a sudden. There are also beautiful sand dunes to explore. Keep an eye out for little paw prints too and maybe you’ll get lucky and see one of the local coyotes that inhabit the area. Stop by Villas Mar y Arena for sunset as it has one of the best views for sunset this time of year. Make sure to send a ‘hello from Jay Clue‘ to the team for me too! Lastly, if you enjoy eating seafood everything in this area is actually artisanal caught right in the area. The area is very productive in terms of fisheries and that is the main industry. A lot of the whale watching captains work as fishermen when not taking out tours. Make sure to ask your guide or captain to take you for lunch on the island if you are based in San Carlos. There’s a tiny restaurant right on the beach that is run by some of the local fishermen who live on the island.
Gray Whales Trip Quick Recap – TL:DR
When to go: Mid January through early April. My personal favorite is February and early March.
Marine Life: Gray whales, humpback whales, dolphins, osprey, bald eagles, tons of sea bird species, and sea lions.
Air Temps: Average highs: 24-27C (75-80F), average lows: 14-18C (57-64F)
Photo/Lens Type:Fish eye for underwater, then a wide angle & telephoto for topside.
Experience Level: Anyone. This is a non diving trip.
Who to dive with: Dive Ninja Expeditions runs awesome 5 day gray whale expeditions as well as private trips & experiences ranging from 1 night to 10 nights.