Saturday, April 11, 2015

Touching Gray Whales

Our winter in Baja had so many magical moments on or in the water-- kayaking the gorgeous Bahía de Concepción and Balandra Bay, snorkeling Cabo Pulmo, swimming with sea lions at Isla Espiritu Santo, and touring Land’s End at Cabo San Lucas

As special as each of these experiences were, they could not come close to our final , incredible day on the water-- when we would each get to touch (and be touched by) the gray whales of Laguna Ojo de Liebre just south of Guerrero Negro, on the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur.

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We had arrived to Mario’s RV Park in Guerrero Negro the night before after stopping to quickly tour the town of Santa Rosalia (more on that in the next post!).  The morning of our early February tour began foggy and overcast.  Fingers were crossed that the marine-layer would burn off by the time we hit the water!  While these Guerrero Negro winter morning tours can sometimes be quite chilly, our morning was to be in the 60’s, so not too bad at all.

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At 8:00am, Hans, Ursula, and I boarded a white passenger van with a group of 6 Canadian RVers who had come down to Guerrero Negro from San Felipe to do the tour.  They were a fun and laughing bunch which made the 45-minute ride from the RV park to the Lagoon go by quickly.

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The only English-speaking guide of the day would be our van driver, but she did a great job telling us what to expect during the boat tour, and giving us a good history of the town and the salt mine (which we had to drive through to get to the boat dock at the Lagoon).

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Guerrero Negro started in the 1950’s as a “company town” for ESSA (Exportadora de Sal, S.A.), a venture started by American businessman Daniel Ludwig.  He believed the natural tidal flood plains of the desert area just south of Guerrero Negro would make an ideal location for salt production, and he was right.  Business flourished and the town quickly grew to a model company town.

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Besides building a vast infrastructure of dikes, drying beds, salt washing, and loading facilities, the company also built a neighborhood of U.S.-style suburban homes, parks, school, and a large company store for the benefit of its employees and their families.

A few years ago, when the land lease was up for the American owners, the Mexican government partnered with Japanese giant Mitsubishi to assume ownership of ESSA.  It is currently one of the largest salt producers in North America.

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The vehicle at the top of the salt dune is a giant Cat earth-mover, which moves the salt onto a large conveyor that then loads barges to transport the salt to an island in the Pacific a few miles away where it is then loaded onto sea-going ocean tankers (as the waters of the Lagoons are too shallow for these larger vessels).

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After passing the salt docks, we arrived to the tour boat dock (shared by all 3 Guerrero Negro whale tour operators). 

The Ojo de Liebre Lagoon is protected as part of the Reserva de la Biosfera de El Vizcaíno, the largest preserve in all of Mexico (protecting over 6 million acres of coastal waters and desert, including the 3 main breeding lagoons for gray whales).

Visitors are only allowed in these waters via licensed (and highly regulated) tour operators, and must wear life vests and display a wrist band showing payment of the park fee if the boat should ever be audited.  So as we departed the van, we each were suited up with wrist bands and life vests!

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It was then time to take our seats in the panga.  Our van driver gave us some final instructions, and we were then off for our “3 hour tour” with our Spanish-speaking captain!

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Being the only “solo” on board, I lucked into a seat at the front of the boat where I’d be able to video and photograph all the action.  For most of the day, I used my waterproof GoPro Hero 3+ mounted to a GoPole stick.  This turned out to be the first trip I ever ran out of storage space on my 32GB card before running out of battery power for the GoPro (thankfully, the card filled after all the whale action as we headed back to shore!).

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After a speedy (and briskly cool) ride the few miles from the dock to the mouth of the lagoon, our captain slowed the panga to a soft idle and pointed us to our first (of many, MANY) whale sightings.

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I had been whale-watching years ago in the Boston area and Hans and Ursula had gone on tours in Hawaii.  We both were amazed at how much closer the whales came to the small pangas here in Mexico.  Partly due to the shallow and relatively limited space of the lagoon (still so large you can’t easily see land on all shores, but small from a whale’s perspective)!  But also due to the sheer number of whales here—by February, they were estimating close to 2,000 whales in this lagoon!

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Ursula got a few outstanding shots of the mama gray whales with their babies.  These calves were likely just a few weeks old, yet already over 15 feet long!  The mothers were nearly twice as big as the panga (at nearly 40 feet long)!  The whales stay here until late March or April before starting their mammoth migration north up the Pacific coast to Alaska where they spend their summers.  Then in October, they swim all the way back to these lagoons in Baja to breed and start another cycle of life.

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Seeing these giant creatures this close was so amazing, that I soon had both hands trying to capture the experience—my GoPro rolling video, while my point-and-shoot captured stills!

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When booking this trip, I feared it might be some kind of exploitation scheme where wildlife would be harassed simply to earn some tourist dollars.  But the boat captains have been highly trained here to never chase or harass the whales.  Every single encounter, yes every last one of them, was a result of these gentle giants coming up to seek contact with us (and, never us chasing or intruding on them).

I had heard that mother gray whales would “push” their babies up to the tour boats to allow their calves to feel the touch of a human.  But I honestly didn’t believe it until witnessing our first encounter.  A mother was floating still at the surface as our panga slowly approached and stopped about 100 feet away.

We silently watched as she soon began to drift her huge body sideways towards the boat.  As she approached, we noticed her calf right alongside of her.  She was actually using her body to push the calf closer and closer to us!  But, as soon as she got the calf within about 10 feet, she dove under the boat taking the little guy with her.

No worries, though! There were plenty of other mothers wanting to be more sociable.   At times, we had up to 3 pairs of moms and babies around the boat waiting for their turns to come get petted by the gleefully shrieking humans!  In every instance, the mom would position herself beneath the calf to push it up out of the water enough so that we could touch them.

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Hans was the first one to touch a whale.  Then I got the opportunity, and then Ursula.  We each will never forget this very special wildlife encounter any time soon!

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After giving their calves some loving, the moms would often give us a little “thank you” in return by waving their giant tales at us.  Whoever doesn’t believe whales are capable of communicating with humans needs to take a ride on one of these tours!

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Finally, it was time for us to return back to shore.  As our panga began to speed away, one whale jumped up to breach for a final “hasta luego!”  I think she was smiling Smile!

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If you have the bandwidth and desire, here is a 14-minute YouTube video of my GoPro clips from this magical day. 


About halfway through this video, the music stops briefly for you to hear our most humorous whale-human encounter of the day.  After letting the red-headed Canadian woman, Judy, give her a pat,  one mama whale then gave her a big blast of spray.  Judy quickly dubbed her new wet head of hair a “Whale-do” and we all roared with laughter!

As we passed the salt dunes on our way back to the dock, we stopped to quickly say hello to a small group of sea lions sunning themselves on a buoy--

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A final group shot with our terrific captain, and we were back in the van heading home.  What an amazing day!

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Mario’s runs whale tours from January thru March or so, but February is usually when whale populations are peaking, and your best chance to see and touch mother and baby gray whales (email them about a week ahead of time for reservations before arriving).  Our half-day tour was 650 pesos (around $45 USD) per person and included a small sack lunch and drink.  An absolute “must-do” if you visit the Baja!

8 comments:

  1. What a wonderful memory, and a bargain to boot!

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  2. One year I was able to get within 5' of a whale on the shore of Camano Island..I was standing on the beach..Just amazing to be so close.
    Upriverdavid

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  3. Truly magical and surely a highlight of your winter in the Baja. Great photos.

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  4. This excursion is going on my bucket list!

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  5. My brain is exploding with the beauty and excitement of such a close encounter. I have seen these beauties up in Alaska, and swimming by Whidby Island, but to be this close....WOW!! Wonderful movie. Putting this on my must do list for sure. Thanks!!

    ReplyDelete

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