Grey Whales of Baja California

Something incredible happened a little over 40 years ago in San Ignacio Lagoon, the lagoon that cuts into the desert for 16 miles from the Pacific Ocean, in the middle of Baja California.

Early one morning, a pangero by the name of Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral, launched his little 18’ boat into the lagoon to fish, as he had almost every day of his life. He turned off the motor for a short time because it was Spring and there were some Grey Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in the Lagoon. He, as well as the other fishermen, were always wary of their behavior because just 100 years before, this Lagoon ran red with their blood. Whalers started slaughtering the whales in San Ignacio Lagoon for their oil  in 1860 and had given them the name “Devil Fish” because they often attacked the whaler’s boats to protect their young. San Ignacio Lagoon was the last Grey Whale breeding ground to be found by Charles Scammon,, and he, among others, was instrumental in bringing them to near extinction in the world by 1934.

 

Gray whales baja california sur
Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral

Today, something was different. To Pachico’s complete amazement, the Grey Whale he had stopped his motor to avoid, swam directly to his boat and leaned its head on the side, looking Pachico straight in the eye. When he returned to his village that evening, Pachico told his friends and family that he was sure the whale wanted to be friends – the first recorded incident of this kind in the world.

Grey Whales grow up to 45 feet and weigh up to 40 tons, and considering their past behavior, no one believed Pachico when he said that a mammal that huge wanted to be “friendly”. But, that was the beginning of what we now call the “Gentle Giants” of San Ignacio Lagoon.

Pachico passed away recently, and will be remembered by a great many people as the “whale whisperer” of the Lagoon.

Grey Whales Baja California

 

Each year, the Grey Whales begin the longest migration of any mammal on earth, from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to the birthing lagoons in Baja, 12,000 miles roundtrip. And, their numbers have increased steadily. Since that first friendly interaction, the adult females have trained their newborns to come up to the boats, often seeking to be petted, scratched, and to play with humans who are happy to participate.

 

Gray whales Baja California
Grey Whales Baja California

In 1936, Grey Whales became protected in the U.S., but they still are at risk worldwide, as other countries continue whaling. And, although the lagoons in Baja that are considered whale nurseries are protected by the Mexican government, in the 1990’s Mexico, in collaboration with Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan, proposed a 116-square mile industrial salt plant in San Ignacio Lagoon. This plan was officially abandoned in March, 2000 due to efforts by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) which spearheaded millions of people worldwide to oppose industrial development in an area that is a World Heritage site, a Mexican biosphere reserve, a whale sanctuary, and a migratory bird refuge.

What can you expect if you decide to visit San Ignacio Lagoon and experience the Grey Whales?

The lagoon remains pristine (some say desolate) and is one of the only places in the world I have ever visited over a 25 year period that is still pretty much the same as when I first visited. It is about a one hour drive on a bad road from the oasis town of San Ignacio to the Lagoon, where there are few places to stay, so many people just come for the day. And, the places you can spend the night are built to be environmentally conscious, meaning there will be composting toilets, wind-powered generators, solar-powered lights, and everything you use will have been trucked in from great distances, so there is not much waste.

It is a quiet place, and other than seeing the whales, there is not much to do. If you are a bird- watcher, there are 225 species of birds around the lagoon, many of whom live in the mangroves at water’s edge. Some of my favorites are osprey (which are very numerous – you will see nests everywhere), loons, Cape Pygmy Owls, peregrine falcons, and vermillion flycatchers.

Grey Whales come to the lagoon for two reasons: to mate and to bear their young. They begin arriving in December and January, and people generally visit from January until April. This is a windy time on the Pacific and can often be quite cold. Morning is the best time to go out on the water, as the winds are not as strong as they can be later in the day. And, since the whales are protected, an authorized guide is required. There are many, most of whom are fishermen during the remainder of the year, and you can easily find a guia to take you.

 

Grey Whales Baja California
Grey Whales Baja California

There are several rules concerning the whales that are non-negotiable. One is that the whales cannot be harassed; they come to your boat – you do not pursue them. Another, is that you cannot physically get into the water. And, the time that we are allowed into the viewing area of the lagoon is strictly limited to 1-1/2 hours per boat. As you get close to the entrance of the designated area in your little panga (the same types of boats that Pachico used 35 years ago, are still used by the guides) you will pass a marine captain who monitors activity.

Last year, when I visited, I met a woman marine biologist who was traveling to various whale watching sites around the world to see how they were regulated, if they were. She told our group that San Ignacio Lagoon was not only the model for the sites in Baja, but the best of any she had visited, worldwide. Other places often allow the boat captains to follow the whales at high speeds, and pursue them for photos (and tips to the boat captains), and it would be easy to have an accident. And, if harassed, the whales could decide to discontinue coming there. We are fortunate to have such beautiful interaction with these “friendlies” in San Ignacio Lagoon – as one person once told me: “I kissed a whale, and it was her idea”!

 

Grey Whales Baja California
Grey Whales Baja California

Timeless Baja provides several adventures that include experiencing the Grey Whales of San Ignacio Lagoon, for further information please contact us at info@timelessbaja.com

 

Deborah Stephens

d.stephens@timelessbaja.com

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