The friendly gray whales of Laguna San Ignacio

Don’t we all have those special events and experiences that we dream about, look forward to, plan for, and then count down the days until they arrive? When they finally do happen, they seem to be over too quickly. We might say that an experience was life-changing, and we might go back to everyday life vowing to be somehow different because of it. And then too soon, everyday life reasserts itself and things go back to the way they were. We might remember the experience with fondness, but it’s behind us now.

Three years ago I had a truly life-changing experience. It was a trip I’d wanted to make for years. It was the first and only vacation I ever took without my late husband. We’d had many great vacations together, but his idea of a fun vacation simply didn’t include activities like flying in a small plane and camping on a remote beach. At the time I couldn’t imagine that he’d be diagnosed with cancer four months later, but I was certainly grateful that he encouraged me to take the trip without him.

My solo vacation brought me the great privilege of traveling to Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California Sur, Mexico. This is one of the few calving grounds of the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale and the only one that is still essentially pristine. There I stayed for several days at a primitive camp and enjoyed whale watching up close and personal! Some of the calves and their mothers are “friendly” — they swim right up to small boats and seem to invite touching. This behavior began in the 1970s when, for unknown reasons, some of the mother/calf pairs began approaching local fishermen. Some of those fishermen, including my host, saw an opportunity in ecotourism.

Not all the whales are friendly, but those who are seem genuinely curious and engage with boats and passengers in a playful way. I briefly tapped a couple of calves during my time there. As great as the touching is, however, the truly life-changing moment occurs when a gray whale rolls on its side and LOOKS at you — making direct eye contact from mere feet away.

I came home from that trip deeply moved, profoundly grateful, and vowing to return again someday.

Fast forward almost three years. CFL and I were talking about adventure travel — exotic places we’d like to go and things we’d like to do. He mentioned Laguna San Ignacio.

I hadn’t forgotten my vow to return! I was instantly ready to do it again.

We went with the same company as I used last time. Baja Ecotours is based in San Diego and operates in partnership with a local entrepreneur and his extended family who operate Campo Cortez at the lagoon. We (along with about half of our tour group of eleven people) actually booked our tour through a Puget Sound area whale advocacy group called Orca Network.

We all gathered in San Diego on March 4. Early the next morning we boarded a charter bus to Ensenada. There we all squeezed into a very small plane for the two and a half hour flight to Laguna San Ignacio, about halfway down the Baja California Peninsula on the west side. We landed on a dirt runway and were met by our hosts with a cooler full of ice cold beer. We then boarded an ancient school bus for the nearly ten mile trip to Campo Cortez.

Laguna San Ignacio and the surrounding region are a national park, thanks to the efforts of environmentalists and local citizens to protect it against development. In 2010 these groups successfully stopped the Mitsubishi Corporation’s plan to build the world’s largest salt works at Laguna San Ignacio, thus saving the calving grounds. The Mexican government has authorized about a dozen primitive camps and allows whale watching in small (14-16 foot) boats within a small area near the mouth of the lagoon.

According to a census taken a couple of days before our arrival, there were nearly 400 whales in the lagoon (about twice as many as were present when I was last there three years ago). About 220 were mother/calf pairs and the remainder were adult stragglers who hadn’t yet begun their northbound migration to the Arctic (mothers and calves are always the last to leave).

During our three full days in camp we were treated to twice-daily whale watching trips. The time within the whale watching area is a closely-monitored 90 minutes each trip. 

The whales wasted no time getting acquainted! As soon as we entered the whale watching area and idled the boat engine, there were whales everywhere. Everyone in our group got to touch a baby whale on our first outing. By the end of the three days, I’d touched babies on four out of our six trips. Here’s CFL getting to know a baby whale.

Usually, the moms simply hang close by while “junior” plays. Sometimes a mother will lift a baby onto her back (as if to say “look at my beautiful baby!”) and then nudge it closer to the boat. But for two of the mothers, that wasn’t enough — they wanted to be touched too! I suspect that these particular whales had been friendly when they were babies, and they were just doing what they’d always done… there could be second or even third generation “friendlies” by now.

Patting the snout of an 18-foot baby gray whale is awesome enough — but when a 40-foot mother comes to gaze into your eyes and be petted, the intensity of the experience is simply beyond words. Sadly, I have no eye photos… those moments happen so quickly.

On the morning of our last day (trip 5 of 6) we met up with a baby whale that simply could not play with us enough! Think of an enthusiastic, slightly gangly, but exceedingly playful puppy. This guy (or gal) literally came to each of us on our boat one by one and lingered for extended patting, rubbing, and scratching. He stayed so close to the boat for such a long time that I and others actually KISSED him on the snout. Meanwhile mama repeatedly swam under the boat, bumping it gently and lifting us partly out of the water. It was a wet, slightly wild, and most unforgettable ride.

Among the adults at the lagoon, we saw too many spy hops to count, multiple breaches close by the boat, and a bit of flirtatious behavior. These whales were not interested in interacting with us, but our nearby presence did not prevent them at all from going about the business of being gray whales.

That’s one of the many things I love about this place. At first it almost seems that we are imposing on their lives… maybe crowding them with our boats… maybe getting in their way. Then I watch them gracefully swimming to us, around us, under us. They know we are there. They could avoid us but they come to us. They could knock our boat right out of the water, but they rub and bump it gently. Their eyes shine with curiosity, playfulness, and intelligence. They are as entranced with us as we are with them.

It is a meeting of minds and hearts.

Their trust of us — we members of the species that hunted them almost to extinction — is a great gift.

I have other stories to tell about this trip — the camp itself, the bird life, and (of course) some great beer tourism moments while in the San Diego area. I have lots more photos to share. But this is enough for today.

I hope I have given you a taste and whet your appetite for more. If you ever get the chance… believe me, you will not be disappointed. This is a genuinely life-changing experience.

2 responses to “The friendly gray whales of Laguna San Ignacio

  1. Lori, this trip must indeed be life-changing. I can’t imagine how glorious it would be to have such intimate social encounters with these great mammals! Wow! I do hope you’ll post tons of photos! How delightful to have a special person share this with you, this time. Your memories connected with the first experience are poignant and special, too. I’m sure your thoughts were very deep, and balanced by the beauty of the surroundings and experience. :-)

    • Debra, yes, it was especially sweet to be able to come back to Laguna San Ignacio with someone who appreciated it the same way I did.
      I’ll try to post again with more photos later today or tomorrow… meanwhile I want to get out of the house and go for a long run!

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