GUERRERO NEGRO, Baja California Sur, Mexico “The gray whale is
proudly Mexican and one of the friendliest creatures on earth,” our
guide, Victor Achoy, told us as our tourist bus rumbled down a
dusty street toward the lagoon. “And if you are lucky today, you
will be able to touch one.”
Our hearts quickened. We had seen photographs of tourists
reaching over the sides of wooden dinghies to stroke the rubbery
backs of these gentle giants. The idea of actually pressing the
flesh with a wild animal that weighs up to 70,000 tons and measures
the length of a city bus was at once scary and immensely
As many as 25,000 “friendly grays” migrate south each year from
the icy Bering Sea to mate and calve in the warm-water lagoons and
bays off Baja’s Pacific Coast from late December to March. For
reasons that still stump scientists, gray whales seem oddly
fascinated by their human visitors. These gregarious mammals swim
up to tourist boats as if to say hello, sometimes lifting their
heads out of the water or lingering long enough for a rub on the
back. Newborn calves swim alongside mothers, often resting atop
their backs when they tire.
With commercial whaling now illegal, some surmise that gray
whales simply have no reason to fear humans. Grays were harpooned
to near extinction in the 19th century but by the 1990s, their
numbers had made a stunning comeback.
Migrating grays winter in any of three lagoons in Baja
California. We had come to the northernmost. Laguna Ojo de Liebre,
also known as Scammon’s Lagoon, is located in Gray Whale Natural
Park near the salt-mining town of Guerrero Negro, about 425 miles
south of the U.S. border.
Our sturdy little panga bobbed and pitched in the choppy water.
We were 14 tourists about half American, half Mexican snugly
bundled in life vests and rain slickers. Our eyes scanned the
“Over there!” someone yelled.
A whale back emerged. Judging by its large size, our first
sighting had been a female, we learned from our captain, Naman
Maciel, who works for a Guerrero Negro outfitter called Malarrimo
We had a few more sightings that morning but a close-up
experience eluded us. It was Dec. 26, the inaugural day of
whale-watching season. With the water still cold and choppy, the
few grays that had arrived in Laguna Ojo de Liebre were simply not
in the mood for a meet-and-greet. Windblown and a little wet from
the spray, we clambered out of our panga. There was always next
On the boat, it’s best to wear a waterproof jacket or
medium-heavy windbreaker. Clients should also bring warm clothing
or thermal wear, tennis shoes, rubber boots or old shoes. And some
may need motion sickness pills or patches. Sunglasses and sunscreen
Bow spray and some wind are inevitable, so bring a protective
hat or scarf, and a plastic or waterproof bag to protect camera
equipment. Light rain is also possible. From January through March,
daytime temperatures can range from 37 to 77 degrees.
To capture whale sightings on film, bring still and/or video
cameras with plenty of film and extra, fully charged batteries. A
35-millimeter zoom lens is adequate, but a 200-millimeter lens is
better. ISO 200 film is a plus, as is lens cleaning tissue and a
Tour operators offering 10 percent commission on whale-watching
expeditions include San Diego-based Baja Expeditions Inc. and Baja
California Tours Inc., based in La Jolla, Calif. Through late
March, Baja Expeditions offers a number of five-day whale-watching
trips to San Ignacio Lagoon, with accommodations aboard the Don
Jose, an 80-foot floating hotel. Clients fly from San Diego to an
airstrip near the town of San Ignacio. Cost is $1,925 per person,
including charter air flight from San Diego.
Once a year, Baja California Tours offers a seven-day, six-night
expedition at a cost of $1,429 per person double occupancy. Cost
includes motorcoach transportation from San Diego or La Paz and air
return, plus three whale-watching excursions to three lagoons.
ON THE WEB:
Baja California Tours, Inc.
Baja Expeditions, Inc.