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Frankly, I wasn’t sure I’d be as impressed.
Winter whale-watching trips in Baja get passengers very close to the action.
I was right and wrong. Mighty cetaceans are but a small part of the overall whale-watching experience at Laguna San Ignacio on southern Baja’s rugged Pacific coast. During a three-night tour with San Diego-based Baja Expeditions last March (the prime time to play with baby whales), I was blown away by our campground’s setting — stark and bleak as a moonscape with white and green tents flapping in chilly winds. Planets and stars glistened in black midnight skies. Beaches littered with driftwood, rocks and whale skeletons had a desolate beauty.
Solar-heated showers, amazingly aroma-free outhouses, abundant hearty meals and chilled beer made the camp far less spartan than it first appeared. Our group of 19, aged 8 to 80 (more or less) bonded at long communal dining tables in the main tent, where local naturalists, artists and an amazing fisherwoman described whale behavior and their community’s lifestyle.
It’s hard to believe people actually live at the edge of one of Baja’s most remote lagoons. But Laguna San Ignacio’s 300 or so year-round residents have established a community rich in tradition and hardscrabble self-sufficiency. Families live in modest cement block homes surrounded by ghostly mounds of sun-bleached white clamshells. Most rely on fishing and whale-watching tourism for their income, casting their nets for lobster in summer and piloting skiff-loads of foreigners from December to March.
Regardless of its small size, Laguna San Ignacio’s schools have credentialed teachers, computers and abundant learning tools and supplies. Thanks to a small group called Baja School Friends, classroom shelves are stacked high with crayons, notebooks, flash cards and microscopes.
The volunteer group grew out of a 2001 Baja Expeditions tour. Dick White, a Texas whale enthusiast, visited San Ignacio’s schools during that trip and immediately wanted to give the teachers and students all the supplies they were missing. Ever since that first trip, he’s encouraged friends to experience whale-watching with Baja Expeditions. He’s also assembled an impressive list of donors to help improve the schools. Their money goes toward piles of school necessities and learning aids.
I visited the school with a group of benefactors during my trip. Dozens of shyly grinning children wearing matching green sweatshirts with the white Baja School Friends logo greeted us with crayoned whale pictures. White rushed about making sure all classrooms had sufficient supplies. Other Baja School Friends contributors, who had never even been to Laguna San Ignacio, went misty-eyed as they accepted drawings from the kids and exchanged Spanish and English chatter.
But the whales were calling, and our visit ended far too quickly. We rushed back to camp for a quick family-style lunch and then boarded our assigned skiffs for the afternoon lagoon tour.
During our three-night expedition nearly everyone in our group had gotten close and personal with a whale at least once. Anytime someone yelled "whale!" it seemed our skiffs would surely overturn as passengers rushed to get close to a curious baby. However, I always seemed to be on the wrong side of a precariously tilting boat.
Gray whales the size of buses were extraordinarily friendly and seemed to be clowning around as they nudged the boats and blew geysers from their spouts, drenching our outstretched arms. Typically, a 16-foot-long baby surfaced beside the boat, followed closely by its 40-ton mother. Both floated close enough to the boat for humans to rub their barnacled sides and even stretch out to kiss their skin. Sometimes the whales suddenly disappeared, only to reappear on the other side of the boat just as I’d made it through the jumble of bodies and arms on the first side.
Finally, when the cry arose, my fellow passengers pushed me to the boat’s edge and held onto my ankles as I reached toward a gray mass beneath the water’s surface. Suddenly, a huge mouth filled with what looked like sharp tiny teeth opened around my hand. I’m not sure exactly what I yelled at the moment, but I was quickly corrected by whale pros saying I’d encountered the whale’s baleen. Whatever. I jerked my hand back, then reached out and stroked the baby’s face.
Like countless whale-watchers before me, I could swear it communicated a friendly greeting. Just like the young schoolchildren excited to meet friendly strangers, the whales seemed to thoroughly enjoy their human encounters. The combined experiences might not have transformed my life, but they certainly left me gushing much like my awestruck friends.
As with all adventure trips, agents need to explain the rigors of Baja whale watching. Some companies base their trips in La Paz or Loreto on the Sea of Cortez and drive across the Baja Peninsula to Laguna San Ignacio and other prime whale-watching spots. Clients are responsible for flights to the jumping-off points. Baja Expeditions has its own plane, an amusing 955 Convair, built in San Diego, and flies clients from either San Diego, Tijuana or Ensenada. Other companies drive their clients down Baja to the lagoons. Most trips involve catered camping by the lagoons.
Baja Expeditions offers flights to San Ignacio as well as whale-watching cruises from La Paz. The rates for trips combining direct flights and camping at San Ignacio start at approximately $2,295 per person
Commission: 10 percent
Baja’s whale-watching camps sit above the lagoon in a starkly brown and barren setting. Tents are outfitted with two beds separated by a nightstand, two chairs and hooks for damp clothing. Clients will enjoy the trip more if they bring along these small luxuries:
• Polarized sunglasses for spotting whales under the water’s surface• Waterproof jacket and pants for wet boat rides• Clothespins for hanging wet clothing on outside lines• Pre-moistened towelettes for sponge baths (solar-heated showers are in high demand and only open at certain times)• Ultra moisturizing lotion for dry, desert skin• Thermal coffee cup for taking your morning java back to your tent• A book light for reading and writing in your tent• Disposable waterproof cameras for candid shots while on boats• Lightweight thermal shirt and warm sweatshirts for chilly nights (and windy days)• Cash and checks for shopping at the camp store, which carries logoed caps and sweatshirts, locally handcrafted jewelry, photos and paintings