Magdalena Mexico Whale Watching From a Baja Island Camp
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

Waking up to see gray whales swimming by is magical enough, but watching mamas and babies cavort just a few feet away on the water is an experience unique to the Baja Peninsula.

Magdalena Mexico whale watching

"There's another one!" someone shouted as the giant back of a mother gray whale broke the surface less than 20 meters from our small boat. "Look at the baby!" someone else shouted and where she pointed, one was poking its head out of the water right next to another boat, close enough that the travelers on there could touch it.

I wouldn't go so far as to call it cute though. A baby gray whale can weigh close to a ton when it's born, then gains 60 pounds or more (27 kilos) per day in its early months. The front of it is all mouth and snout, looking more like a curved crab claw with eyes than a mammal's face. Still, it's a baby whale!

baby gray whale Baja Mexico

There are places all over the world where you can go whale watching, but in the Baja Peninsula of Mexico, the big creatures are not just passing through. From roughly mid-December through early April, humpbacks, blue whales, and gray whales come here by the thousands, joining the whale sharks and big fish that make Baja one of the most wildlife-rich waters in the world.

On the Pacific Ocean side of the peninsula, two major breeding grounds create areas where the gray whales are either mating or having babies in naturally protected lagoons. In the whaling days before petroleum lamps and then electricity, this was a disaster for the whales themselves. Harpooning them in the 1800s was like the cliché of "shooting fish in a barrel," especially once rowboats and strong men gave way to steam ships and harpoon guns.

Now that we're in more enlightened times, I could use a rechargeable headlamp to find my way back to the camp tent at night instead of using whale oil to see in the dark. We now ride in boats to where the whales are gathered, but only to observe them up close instead of attacking them.

Apparently the instinctual memory from those violent days has not stuck around in the gray whale consciousness. Now Magdalena Bay and San Ignacio Lagoon are either maternity wards or a whale version of a swinger's resort when the creatures arrive, depending on where in the cycle the various females may be.

The mothers that give birth that year then treat the lagoons like a pre-school and playground. After the baby pops out, mama needs to feed it and teach it life skills like breathing, diving, and swimming. Mama gets a little tired and cranky after doing that for weeks on end, so after a while she sends the kids out to play. "Go visit that noisy boat with the puffy vest animals in it," she tells the child. "If you get close enough they'll pat you on the head."

I did pat a baby on the head on an earlier Baja adventure, but I was on the move a lot that trip and wanted to just chill with the whales a bit this time. In the other lagoon up north you have to drive forever to get there and the whales are too far away to see from the shore. In Magdalena Bay, in contrast, we see a few swim by in the glassy water as we're eating our eggs and tortillas for breakfast on the beach.

You can ride from the other Baja coast over to Puerto Lopez Mateos from La Paz or Loreta for the day and join a group with a boat driver heading out. It's a at least four hours through the cacti and scrub brush to get there though, for just one chance of whale-spotting on the water. Sometimes the big beasts just aren't in the mood, so all you got out of all that was a day on the water.

As we headed out on our boat after arrival we saw a school of dolphins six minutes in and a few whales in the distance after 12 minutes, so it wasn't a bust. Then the seas got really rough and it was hard to hold a camera steady when a rare whale appeared. Eventually we headed to shore as a few passengers started to look pale.

Baja Magdalena Bay whale watching camp at sunrise with Sea Kayak Adventures

Camping in the Magdalena Bay Dunes

Since we were to be camped out on a beach near an inlet where they were swimming around, it was no big deal that the first jaunt was underwhelming. We had three more excursions in the coming two days to make up for it on this Baja tour with Sea Kayak Adventures.

Nobody would make the mistake of calling our tented camp "glamping," least of all my wife. She roughed it plenty when we were young round-the-world backpackers on a shoestring budget, but now she has a bad back and an aversion to substandard bathrooms. For us guys the bathroom was the surf lapping against the shore, so no big deal. But the ladies (or anyone doing number two) had to learn and use a procedure involving sawdust, a bucket to be emptied, and a bin for toilet paper—far more daunting than just hitting a flush handle, especially at night. A latrine in the dunes can really make you appreciate the many other advances made since the whaling days.

Warm sleeping bags on cots with sleeping pads kept us off the ground though and the dining tent was a giant dome plenty large enough for everyone to stand up in. The dome also provided a little group warmth at night. Although this was April in Mexico, the desert by the sea can get surprisingly cold at night. Our pre-packing thoughts of frolicking in the ocean and basking on the beach disappeared the first evening like a coconut floating into the sunset.

Magdalena Bay barrier island sand dunes

We took a hike across the dunes to keep the blood pumping as the sun was going down and walked around one end of the barrier island to return. "The camp is never in the same place from one year to the next," said our tour leader Terry. "These islands keep moving and we were probably 25 or 50 meters into what's water now when I first started coming here. Sometimes I come back for a new season and don't recognize the place."

Mating and Motherhood in Baja, Mexico

After breakfast and coffee soon after sunrise, with a few whales lazily rippling the water and shooting mist out their blowholes in the distance, we headed back out on boats to catch up with them. It's a strange feeling trolling the waters in an area where you know there may be a dozen whales underneath you at any given time. You drift along for a while in silence, then may see one rise up beside your boat like a mythical sea creature. At one point we heard a loud "Whooooosh" to one side and then got sprayed with a shower that smelled like a fish market.

Gray whales won't win any beauty contests though and they're frustratingly difficult to photograph. Their parasite-scarred dark gray skins blend in with the sea water and unless the mother breaches or does a "spyhop" move to poke her head out and see what her kid is up to, all you see is a dark hump until they dive. There's no dorsal fin, just a series of bumps along the spine. Often the mother and youngster are swimming together though, plus sometimes a group of frisky singles will create a thrashing of five or six bodies doing who knows what. At one point in our afternoon excursion we could spin around 360 degrees and see six or eight whales breaking the water at different times.

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