(more photos at bottom of page)
In the winter of 2001, my parents invited me to join them on a trip with Baja Expeditions to visit the gray whales at San Ignacio Lagoon. Famous for their "friendly whales," (ballenas amables), tourists and researchers have visited the lagoons on the west coast of Baja California for decades. Hundreds of gray whales gather there in the winter after a long migration south from the Bering Sea where they spend the summer feeding; in the protected, shallow lagoons the pregnant females give birth while the single females and adult males breed. A number of the resident whales appear to enjoy interacting with humans and willingly approach small boats for prolonged periods of time, often coming close enough to touch. Naturally, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to go!
We left Juneau in early February and flew to San Diego where we spent a day at Sea World before flying in a DC3 down to San Ignacio. The weather was clear and the flight over the peninsula gorgeous. Once on the ground, we ate a picnic lunch at the edge of the lagoon and watched the whale blows and dolphins that were already visible in the distance before driving half an hour to Camp Ramón. The village of San Ignacio is mostly a seasonal fish camp and the population is tiny; we saw only a few huts by the shore, but heard about "downtown" San Ignacio a little farther inland where some 72 students go to school in a two-room school house, (we did visit the school). Our guide José told us about the history of the town as we drove and explained the presence of thousands of mounds of shells littering the desert as far as the eye could see for miles on either side of the road. The lagoon was once rich in scallops and other shellfish which the fishermen used to clean on the desert. Seeing the countless millions of shells it was not hard to imagine how the population of these animals became depleted. Shellfishing is now restricted but fishermen ply the lagoon from small pangas for groupers and other fish.
The camp was extremely isolated but quite comfortable. There were three clusters of three canvas tents, each of which was outfitted with two cots. (Luckily, the trip was not sold out, so I got a tent to myself). My parents were uncomfortably cold, but I found the sleeping bag and liner just the right temperature and slept well every night. Despite being in the desert, camp was anything but warm! The wind howled every day, keeping us in long sleeves despite the vigorous sunshine. I had anticipated being able to watch the stars at night, (clear skies and no light pollution for miles), but the wind drove me inside each time I tried. I did have a good look at Venus, however, and found the Andromeda galaxy before I gave in one night. Each cluster of tents had its own outhouse with a bucket in the bottom of it into which we threw sweet smelling sawdust as needed; there was no roof and the crew removed and cleaned the buckets every day so the outhouses were really quite pleasant. Baja Expeditions composts the sewage away from camp, minimally impacting the environment in that as in all that they do. Outside each outhouse was a large canister of water over a sink that drained into another bucket that we could use for washing hands and brushing teeth. A small mirror was hung up as well, which most of us tried to avoid due to the wind, sun, salt spray, and lack of showers. We could actually shower--I did once--with solar heated bags of water which the crew set out in the sun every morning. We hung them up in the wooden shower stalls and used the water sparingly to make sure we didn't run out. Though it was pretty tolerable, I wasn't moved to repeat the experience. The communal tent had a long table, sandy floor, and library with natural history books. The food was excellent and delicious vegetarian entrees were graciously made for me at every meal.
We spent five nights at the camp with three full days of whale watching, going on excursions onto the lagoon by panga, (skiff), in the morning and afternoon. There were three boat drivers, but we accidentally went with one particular driver on all but one or two trips. The inner part of the lagoon is reserved for the whales, so we stayed in the half closer to the mouth. The whale watching was good, but all in all my family came home a little disappointed. We got close looks at lots of whales--the lagoon was teeming with them--but on each trip the friendly whales were discouraged by other whales from visiting. Calves approaching the boat were vehemently prevented from doing so by several mothers and, at other times, single adult females tried to reach the boat but were prevented by the males that were attempting to mate with them. Apparently the males are reluctant to approach boats so the females will come up to escape the males, sometimes hovering upside down beneath the boats so the males can't reach them. We certainly did see a lot of vigorous mating activity! Flying tails, roiling water, rolling bodies, and even the reproductive organs of excited males, (commonly referred to as the "BPP" at camp--the big, pink...well, you get the idea). Sometimes seemingly reluctant females will lay on the surface with their bellies skyward, forcing the males to lay next to them, which exposes their anatomy to us and sometimes culminates in successful matings right there at the surface. We were told that all gray whale matings involve at least two males per female and that certainly was the case for all the mating activity that we saw.
No friendly whales came close enough to pet, though. During the last ten minutes of the last trip we did finally come across a mother and calf pair who were quite friendly and willingly approached the panga, but never quite close enough to touch. I was thrilled just to have some whales take an interest in us, but ten minutes went by too fast and then we were forced by regulation to leave the lagoon as we'd met our time limit on the water. I know more than anybody that wildlife in unpredictable, but I was nevertheless bitterly disappointed. A few of the other guests touched whales on other boats, but I got the impression from the crew that our trip was on the low end of the excitement scale, though they never said as much. The lagoon is the southern home for many migratory birds, so my mother and I were able to see many new species and even some we were familiar with--like surf scoters--which are common around Juneau in the summer. We walked the beaches bird watching and looking at all the myriad bones that covered the sand, many of them from cetaceans; we found a turtle shell, bottlenosed dolphin skull, baleen, and all kinds of other things which tempted us to smuggle them back to the States. Regardless of U.S. law, though, Baja Expeditions is very strict about not taking even so much as a shell off the beaches so as to leave them as interesting for future guests as they were for us. We also walked to the mangroves nearby, but there were only two kayaks available at the time so we weren't able to explore them. Below are a few pictures that I took of the wildlife with my automatic Pentax 35 mm, 140 zoom.
Click for enlargements and captions
Wildlife in Southeast Alaska
Whale Watching in the Sea of Cortez (2001)
Whale Watching in Magdalena Bay and Sea of Cortez (2004)
Whale Watching in Magdalena Bay (2008)