It’s time once again for our annual trips down to Baja to commune with the whales and to share this awesome place with other travelers. This will be the 7th year that Jerry and I (Journey’s with Loomis & Jones) have led groups down here to experience some of the great things that are available in this very safe and beautiful part of Mexico.
Baja is truly a world of peace and tranquility.
“Whatever it is that makes one aware that men are about is not there. Thus, in spite of the noises of waves and fishes, one has a feeling of… quietness.” John Steinbeck – The Log from the Sea of Cortez
The Baja California is part of the Sonoran desert ecologically covering about 100,000 square miles and including most of the southern half of Arizona, southeastern California, most of the Baja California peninsula, the islands of the Gulf of California, and much of the state of Sonora, Mexico. This desert environment supports many life forms encompassing some 2,000 species of plants and is the home of a very diverse bird population.
Although I am not a birder as such, when visiting each year I often am excited to see the magnificent frigatebirds, red-billed oystercatchers, osprey, pelicans, blue-footed boobies and many other seabirds. If any place could make a birder out of this traveler it is certainly Baja! I would have to say that my favorite are the frigatebirds – soaring overhead they look like pterodactyl, those prehistoric flying dinosaurs and the Osprey a beautiful fish eating bird of prey frequently found watching over their nests high above the cliff or at the tops of the telephone polls on specially designed platforms.
Snorkeling with Sea Lions and watching dolphins play in the bow wave of the boat are great experiences. These playful creatures seem to enjoy racing in the bow wake of our pandas and the nimble sea lions race by snorkelers sometimes blowing bubbles in surprised faces. It can be a bit unnerving when you are in their home and in the water, a place where we are not as comfortable!
Even with the remarkable sea life, the real reason many folks make the pilgrimage down to Baja each year is to see the whales.
Mexico has done a remarkable job of helping to protect this important ecological and tourist attracting natural community. Most notable were the efforts of the Mexican government to establish two important gray whale lagoons in Baja California Sur as sanctuaries. Scammon’s Lagoon and San Ignacio Lagoon were declared protected areas in the 1970s.
While the United States was busy destroying its Pacific coastal wetlands, Mexico set aside two of the largest remaining wetlands on the Pacific coast of North America as gray whale refuges. This it seems, was a remarkable achievement for a country not necessarily known for it’s positive environmental record.
The hunting of gray whales was outlawed in 1946, and their numbers have since rebounded from an estimated low of about 500. The Mexican government strictly regulates access to these lagoons to ensure that any human activities do not affect the whales while they are in the quiet, protected lagoons of Baja California.
The protected bays of Baja’s central Pacific coast proved irresistible to early 20th-century whale hunters, who blocked the bays’ exits and slaughtered the gray whales that gathered there each year. These whalers entered the Baja lagoons in small wooden rowing boats (roughly the same size as the whale-watching pangas we use today) and harpooned them. But in the face of the slaughter the whales fought back – chasing the whaling boats, lifting them out of the water, ramming them with their heads and dashing them to pieces with their tails. They would “fight like devils”, so the whalers dubbed them “devilfish”. Even today the panga operators tell me that they can tell if a whale is irritated by the slapping of their tail.
What a difference 100 years makes, today these Grey whales are widely regarded as the friendliest of all whales: it’s often hard to tell if we are watching them or they are watching us.
“I have noticed them; sometimes they have noticed me; and I am reminded of something which a certain kind of person is rather prone to forget – that there are other creatures in the world beside himself.”
“Baja California and the Geography of Hope”, Joseph Krutch
Spending time with them is arguably one of the greatest wildlife experiences on Earth. Nowadays, somehow, they seem to understand that we come in peace. Today’s whales seem to positively welcome whale-watching tourists into their breeding lagoons and, far from smashing our pangas (small fishing boats) to smithereens, they instead seem to welcome us to their home. They seem to have forgiven us for all those years of greed, recklessness and cruelty. They trust us, when we don’t really deserve to be trusted. It’s a truly humbling experience.
“They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.”
—D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), “Whales Weep Not”
Due to the diligent efforts of the Loreto community, you can add to the above protections The Bay of Loreto National Park that was officially created by Presidential Decree and approved by the Mexican Federal Congress on July 19, 1996. A “Sister Park” to Channel Islands National Park in the US, the Marine Park covers 797 square miles in the Gulf of California, ranging from Isla Coronados in the north to Isla Catalana in the south. On July 14, 2005, the Park was added to the United Nations’ list of protected World Heritage Sites. With over 800 species of marine life inhabiting the Gulf of California, many of them currently endangered, the need for protection of these areas is great. Many endemic species of plants and animals are found here including the largest mammal on earth, the Blue whale.
Seeing a blue whale is a dream of many folks. Having taken groups down here for this experience for the last seven years I have to say that it’s nearly impossible to prepare someone for their first encounter. An average-sized blue whale is astonishingly enormous: the largest animal known to have ever lived on earth, longer than a basketball court and weighing as much as 200 tons. Quite simply, it takes your breath away. When one of these animals surfaces near the boat, you are hooked for life.
It’s worth travelling all the way to Baja for this single experience alone.
Gray & Blue whales form part of the culture, history, politics, and geography of Baja, one of Mexico’s most isolated states. These animals have helped to shape the world around them and the people who share the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific lagoons of Baja California Sur with them. One could argue that whales in many ways represent our destructive past and a hopeful future.
“The whole Baja California peninsula is an energetic place, and it’s incredibly alive.” Gael Garcia Bernal