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

4. Eye Contact

Saturday, Magdalena Bay:  I was willing to be content with my single day of gray whale watching in Magdalena Bay.  However, on the morning of our sixth and second-to-last day, we met a new group of tourists at Baja Outpost who had spent the previous day in the lagoon and were bubbling over with tales of friendly whales and how whale skin feels.  Of course, I was a little envious, though I tried to hide it.  Larry and I had planned to spend our seventh day on an island, laying on the beach and hiking around the desert rocks.  Instead, he was gracious enough to suggest that we return to Magdalena Bay for more whale encounters and another chance at friendly grays.  Our two groups of friends immediately decided they'd join us, so we set it up with Leon.  At 7:00 am the next morning, eight of us set out in two vans.  Not far into the mountains, one of our our companions fell ill and soon had to stop the car to vomit (or try to) at the side of the road.  Her condition deteriorated during the drive until we finally stopped at a pharmacy to pick up some medication.  Valiantly, she endured the 2.5 hour drive in the hopes of spending a third day in the lagoon.  By the time we reached its shores, however, she turned right around and drove back to Loreto with her husband.  I was to come down with the same symptoms (and more) later in the day, but thankfully they held off until the drive home.

We were sorry to lose them, especially as the day turned out to be so spectacular.  We headed out into a quiet bay with not a single whale in sight.  After half an hour at speed, we finally spotting some blows in the distance toward the mouth of the bay.  Just as we saw a whale breach in that direction, our captain stopped the boat in the middle of nowhere.  A mother and calf were there, all alone, and I sat and patiently watched, figuring that as soon as they turned tail to head away from us, we'd pick up speed and get where the excitement was.  Boy was I wrong!  It immediately became apparent that these whales were neither skittish nor disinterested, and the calf kept poking his head above the surface to take a look at us.  Both animals approached the boat  closely, moving beneath it and alongside.  After only about five minutes, the calf swam just beneath my wriggling fingers, turned on his side and bumped the keel of the boat with his nose.  This threw the side of his body above the surface and, before I knew it, I was stroking his side!

Most of us had a pat on that encounter, but it turned out to be the first of many.  Every few minutes the mother would dive, followed by the calf.  Two or three minutes later the baby would come to the surface alone and approach the boat, but not close enough to touch.  Once his mother came up, he was less inhibited and would begin teasing us, splashing around at the surface just out of reach, eyeing us above and below the water and generally having a thoroughly good time.  After fifteen minutes or so, the mother came to the surface for good and floated about 30 or 40 feet away, totally motionless, watching while her son played with us.  It was evident that the mother had checked us out, deemed us safe enough, and sat back to observe her calf from a distance.  He was one of the most dazzling individuals I've ever met.  It was clear that he was overjoyed to be with us, and his boisterous personality was infectious.  After about five minutes with the people, he'd swim back to his mother, roll around on her nose for a little while, then come charging back to us.  The great unlikely looking rostrum of his would poke up, inches from our fingertips, the little yellow whale bristles sticking up from his dimples.  To all of us he came and let us run our fingers all over his head.  For a creature of the sea, I was amazed at how much he seemed to enjoy the feel of water splashing over him as he swirled around and sloshed about on the surface.  Once, he rolled over and let me feel the the three pleats of his residual throat pouch, already full of baby barnacles.  The water was so clear we could clearly make out his face under the surface.  I'd brought my underwater camera and shot about 40 photos of the calf with my wide angle lens.  I was completely unable to frame shots, so I just pointed the lens in his general direction.  Many of the photos below (and the one at the top of this page) are of this friendly calf and his mother.

It was with some reluctance that we left that charming baby whale and his complacent mother and moved toward the mouth of the bay.  There, we were again greeting by scores of whales as well as half a dozen or more whale watching boats packed with tourists.  Totally content with our encounter, I wasn't too concerned with what we'd find there.  After some idling around, it became apparent that there were only two curious whales in the area and these were moving between the boats.  We could see where they were from a distance by the excited tourists pointing into the water.  Though they never surfaced near the boats, everyone could see the white shapes beneath the surface coming quite close.  After our previous visit, Larry developed the brilliant idea to bring his dive mask and poke his head in the water to take a look at the whales.  The bay water had been so clear with the mother and calf that he hadn't bothered to try it until we were with these two adults.  He came up from his first attempt blown away by what he'd seen and strongly encouraging us to try it out.  It was an experience to surpass any whale encounter I've ever had, including the friendly calf!  The difference between seeing the shape of a whale a few feet beneath the surface from above the water and seeing with crystal clarity the entire animal from below the surface is...well, it's indescribable.  Suddenly, I was in the presence of whales.  And more than anything, suddenly I could interact without the whale needing to stick its nose into the open air!  The moment we put our faces into the water, the whales looked up at us.  Every feature of their body was clearly visible--I'm sure the other tour boats wondered at our shrieking excitement.  The photos below give an idea of what we saw, but the visibility was much better than it turned out on film.  Once, a whale some 30 feet below us noticed us watching it and rose from the depths straight to us, coming within a foot of our hands, (see the last row of photos below).  Another time, we ducked our heads in and watched a whale roll on its side about five feet beneath us, holding eye contact while the boat idled at the same speed at which she was swimming.  We were sought out by the eyes of whales!  Once, we watched as the two curious whales swam side by side beneath us, slowly disappearing out of sight and much deeper than anyone could see from the surface.  Their pectoral fins overlapped a little and would gently touch on and off as they swam.  When their heads disappeared, I could see that one whale was smaller than the other, their flukes a good five feet ahead of his/her partner's.  I can't imagine a more fantastic day of whale watching.

I highly encourage everyone to visit those friendly whales...it took me five days of whale watching to have a friendly encounter.  It may take more or less for you.  But bring a swim mask, it's worth it!

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