Whale Watching in the
Sea of Cortez
and Bahia Magdalena
Blue whales and friendly grays
February, 2004

Photo Gallery

Narrative Trip Report

Day 1, Search for the Elusive Blue
Day 2, Drenched by a Blue Whale
Day 3, Harassment and Sanctuary
Day 4, Eye Contact

My friend the gray whale calf

1. Search for the Elusive Blue

Background: Around New Year, 2003, I took advantage of an unsurpassable deal at Baja Outpost.  A rustic resort in Loreto, Baja California Sur, on the Sea of Cortez, I'd visited it once before in 2001 (read my earlier whale watching and diving trip reports).  Larry and I purchased two weeks for the price of one and sold one week to my parents.  At less than $1000 for the two of us to take part in six days of water activities plus lodging for seven nights and breakfast and lunch every day, we couldn't refuse.  Originally, we scheduled the vacation in October of 2003 in order to catch manta rays, whale sharks and better visibility than our last trip (in March).  Unfortunately, I fell ill with meningitis after a dive trip to the Bahamas in August and used up all my annual leave (and more) recovering.  Feeling a bit cheated out of our Bahamas vacation, we decided not to wait a whole year for our next trip but to brave the cool waters of Baja in February.  Although we would arrive during the off diving season, we'd be right in the heart of whale watching season and were determined to see blue whales this time and grays.  We weren't disappointed.

It took us two days to fly from Juneau to Loreto with an overnight in Los Angeles.  Aerolitoral (Aeromexico) took us in a small 26 passenger prop plane from LA to Hermosillo on mainland Mexico; there we switched planes and headed to Loreto.  On board I was greeted with Coca Cola Light, that succulent Mexican diet coke infinitely more flavorful and satisfying that its American counterpart.  The peanuts, too, seemed particularly delightful, rich and salty with a touch of lime.  We stepped off the plane at Loreto into summer temperatures overlooked by an orange sunset and palapas thatched with palm fronds.  Inside the minuscule terminal, we claimed our luggage from the conveyor belt, (a mere 20 feet long), walked through customs with a green light and piled into a cab bound for our hotel.  Ten minutes later, Leon Finchman, proprietor of Baja Outpost, met us at the compound.  The guests milling around the outdoor tables gave us newcomers curious looks while Leon gave us a quick tour and briefed us on the changes since our last stay.  As soon as we could, we dropped our bags and headed for La Palapa, one of our favorite restaurants and the object of many fantasies about Baja.  When my plate of chips arrived accompanied by a heap of guacamole and two bowls of salsa, I knew I was finally back in Mexico.

Sunday, Sea of Cortez: After a breezy night full of wind in thatched roofing (which I mistook for rain), we indulged in breakfast at Baja Outpost with the usual continental spread of yogurt, cereal, fresh fruit (bananas, watermelon, papaya, pineapple), fresh squeezed orange juice and assorted bakery goods, (eggs and toast available by request at the kitchen).  We met our fellow guests and discovered that high winds had frustrated the previous day's attempt at whale watching.  It was the coldest winter in Leon's memory and winds continued to be a problem for the duration of our trip.  That morning, however, the prognosis looked good--calm seas, sunny skies, and ten people all willing to climb into a panga in search of the largest animals in the world.

The ten of us strolled several blocks along the edge of the sea to the artificial harbor, lined with identical pangas and alive with kamikaze pelicans.  With ten passengers and two crew, we packed the fiberglass skiff and sped out toward Isla Carmen opposite the town.  Ten minutes later we slowed and idled for half an hour, but saw nothing.  Picking up speed, we zipped on south toward the cut between Isla Carmen and Isla Danzante, following the guidance of a mysterious informant on the radio.  Again we stopped, and nothing appeared.  I finally spotted a blow near the southern tip of Carmen, far in the distance.  With nothing to keep us at our present location, we zoomed off toward it and, 15 minutes later, caught up with three fin whales traveling in a group and pursued them for some time.  The day was flawless, without a breath of wind, the blue sky playing on the glassy surface of the sea and whale skin sparkling in the sun.  These whales weren't particularly cooperative, though, taking only three breaths before diving (flukeless) for about eight minutes and traveling far between breathing cycles.  Larry and I had spent two days with fin whales during our last trip to Baja and were anxious this time for a blue.  He soon spotted flukes in the distance and got excited, (we gathered that finbacks rarely showed their tails), but Captain Kiki said it was a humpback, of (all things).  After a few nice looks at the finbacks, the mystery panga showed up with Leon in it, determined to spot whales for the group.  We switched boats, (his being larger and better powered), and sped off south toward the humpback.  No whale appeared, but blows continued to show in the distance and Leon led us farther south and nearer the mainland where he left us with a "poco y madre."  I had a splendid look at a fin whale calf as he came up and passed beneath the boat.  By then it was nearly lunch time and I was resigning myself to not seeing blues that day.  Expecting to head to a beach for lunch, we instead motored farther south toward the insistent voice of Leon on the radio shouting "azul, azul, azul!"  Zooming away (now some 45 miles south of Loreto) we eventually decided to stop and eat lunch on board while we looked for blows.  Just as food was being distributed, everyone spotted the prodigious blow of a blue whale in the distance.  We took off, but by the time we were half a mile away, it went down.

We were not to be disheartened, however, and soon discovered that there were two blue whales feeding in the area and had only to be patient.  The water around us was covered in patches of what appeared to be brown scum; Kiki told us it was krill, so I scooped some of the clearer water into my palm and studied it.  Indeed, it was alive; in every cubic centimeter, a tiny roundish organism quivered, each one the size of a pin head.  Whenever I tried this, even when the water was apparently perfectly clear, I was rewarded with a soup of zooplankton.  Other times, as we moved at speed, our wake turned red with what I suspect was real krill.  As we drifted on the quiet sea, munching away on lunch, a blue whale exhaled a quarter mile away, the subsequent deep inhale clearly audible in the silence.  We watched as it moved straight toward the boat, the mottled, endless blue-gray body a stark contrast from the smaller, black fin whales we'd seen earlier.  At last, as I watched its 70 foot body arch and roll into the sea eight breaths later, I felt satisfied that I'd at last encountered the elusive blue.

Later, we did have a few other looks at blues before heading back, but it was late and we were far beyond the normal range; just as we turned north, though, Kiki brought us in behind a blue whale just as it fluked (for the first time) into a flawless sea.

In typical Loreto fashion, the winds began to pick up in the afternoon and we encountered a good two foot chop on the way back to Isla Danzante.  Once we tucked between the island and the mainland, however, the island sheltered us and the seas were calm.  Soon we saw half a dozen black fins moving in the water around us and Kiki spun the boat around to entice the dolphins to play.  They needed little encouragement, charging toward the panga and leaping from the water in dazzling displays.  I've never seen dolphins jump like this!  In one section of our wake, dolphins shot straight up, 20 feet into the air like rockets, twisting and plummeting back to the sea.  Then they breached like dolphins and zoomed all around us, the half dozen fins turning into scores of animals.  When they wearied of leaping and surfing, they swam all around the boat and fluked nearly every time they dove.  Miniature calf tails flashed in the sunshine and groups of adults fluked together.

As we reached the northern end of Danzante, we came into larger swells and something failed in one of the outboards.  We ducked into shelter and, after some poking around in the engine and conversations in Spanish, Kiki and Gil (our divemaster turned whale watcher for the day) took us to nearby Puerto Escondido, some 12 miles south of Loreto, where the crew dropped us off to take taxis home.  As Larry and I stood on the beach watching ospreys and gazing longingly at the large (calm) natural bay dotted with elegant sailboats, we wondered why Loreto was built on a shelterless stretch of shore with no natural harbor and nothing to break the full brunt of the afternoon sea breezes.  We never did figure it out.

Day 2, Drenched by a Blue Whale

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