A Whale of a Time

Baja tours attempt to bring travelers up close

By: Anne Burke

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 appealing.

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 water.

“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 Eco-Tours.

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 season.


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 are recommended.

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 hand towel.

Malarrimo Eco-Tours


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.


Baja California Tours, Inc.

Baja Expeditions, Inc.

Malarrimo Eco-Tours