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Whale watching in Baja California

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If you only take one wildlife holiday in your life, this is the one you must do - it will change your life forever, says Chris Breen of Wildlife Worldwide.

I’m lucky enough to have been travelling the world looking at wildlife and enjoying (almost) every moment of it for around 30 years now – but I have finally found the ultimate, the finest, the absolute pinnacle of wildlife viewing in the natural world and, amazingly for me, it is not in Zambia, its not even in Africa. It’s seeing grey whales in their calving and breeding grounds in Mexico’s San Ignacio Lagoon.

The grey whale population on the western side of the Pacific was decimated by 20th century whalers and was all but eliminated, and it was not much different for the eastern Pacific population.

The greatest mammal migration of all

But populations of those on the eastern side of the Pacific (the Californian grey whale) have recovered to a very great extent and are know known to number in the region of 21,000 individuals. Every year, after being born in San Ignacio Lagoon (and two other lagoons along the Baja peninsula), they embark on the greatest mammal migration of all and head north, hugging the coast of America and Canada to Alaska and the Chukchi Sea, not feeding until they get north of Monterey Bay. There are many obstacles along the way for the grey whales heading north (and south) but the most dangerous of these is the large number of orcas (killer whales) lying in wait to pick off the young unsuspecting greys as they emerge from the lagoons.

Those that make it to the northern reaches of the planet spend the summer months consuming gigantic amounts of crustaceans and building up their fat reserves before heading back down to Baja and San Ignacio to arrive again in January of the following year. In all they travel 19,000 kilometres (or 12,000 miles) each and every year. Truly staggering as a statistic in itself, but even more so when you consider that for the three months of the year that they are in Baja California they don’t feed at all. Why? Because there is nothing for them to feed on in the three key lagoons that they frequent. 

They seem to have forgiven us

So, what is so amazing about seeing the grey whales here? Well, for one, having been decimated by whalers, who used to call them ‘devil fish’ because they fought so hard to stay alive (many whalers were killed), they seem to have forgiven us. Many of the whales that are being seen in the lagoon today are whales that were alive during the time of the intense whaling period – a time when they were needlessly harpooned by people from skiffs (small boats) about the same size as the ones that we use for whale-watching. We have our own ‘harpoons’ of course, in the form of cameras with big lenses and the newly developed GoPro cameras that can record video and stills underwater on poles, but none of this seems to bother them, we are friendly admirers and not aggressive aliens.

Secondly, not only do they allow us to see them at close quarters, they also actively seek us out. The mothers bring their newly born young to the boat and lift them up on their backs or their bellies to see the boats and be caressed by us. They love to be splashed, they love their mouths stroked and their baleen plates touched, they love the sound of the whooping we make, and our song, our applause and happiness… and they come back for more and more and more. And if they come over for attention and you don’t give it to them, then what happens? Simple. They head over to a boat with people that will.

This is a completely natural wildlife experience; it is the only one on earth where the mammals involved actively seek human attention, human touch, human interaction. And, they so obviously enjoy it. It is quite extraordinary.

The whales have the entire area in which to roam

It is a well regulated experience and it is not a contrived one – there are only a handful of camps in the lagoon area and, while the camps combined own a total of 26 boats, there is a strictly controlled, self-administered system that allows only 16 boats to be in the whale-watching zone at any one time. Even then, they are counted in by a ‘gatekeeper’ (who notes precisely how many people there are on each vessel) and they can only be in the zone for a maximum of 90 minutes. The whale-watching zone itself covers a pretty small proportion of the lagoon and the whales have the entire area in which to roam. The contact is entirely at the ‘request’ of the whales themselves, the boat drivers being true experts in their field.

So, like I said at the beginning of the article: if you only take one wildlife holiday in your life, this is the one you must do. It is a most incredible experience and it will change your life forever.

For more information on whale watching holidays in Baja California visit www.wildlifeworldwide.com/locations/san-ignacio-lagoon