Baja California, Mexico – The Kiss of The Devilfish
Grey whale guarantee
The San Ignacio Lagoon is one of four lagoons on the west coast of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula that provide a nursery for California grey whales. The whales migrate along the entire length of the North American coastline each year, feeding in food-rich Arctic waters in the summer but giving birth and breeding in the sheltered waters of Mexico between late December and April. A 16,000km round trip, it is one of the longest migrations of any mammal.
I had joined a Festival of Whales trip, led by renowned whale expert (and friend of Wanderlust), Mark Carwardine. Mark is addicted to Baja California’s whales, visiting every year. Now I could understand why.
On our first evening Mark filled us in on what to expect. We were staying right on the shore in an eco-camp but would be going out into the designated whale-watching area of the lagoon twice daily in small boats. The whale-watching is carefully monitored; there is a strict limit on the number of boats allowed in the area at any time, and a sheriff sits on a headland, recording the boats and numbers of passengers. We could stay in the whale-watching zone for only 90 minutes.
I’ve been on lots of whale-watching trips and I am used to being told that sightings are not guaranteed. But a smiling Mark stressed that this was different. Of course we would see the whales, lots of them. And what’s more they would be friendly whales. “We don’t head in the direction of every whale we see,” he said, “there are too many of them! We judge what mood they are in, and then see if they will come to us.”
Our first boat trip gave us a good taster of what to expect. Having reached the zone, we bobbed around, marvelling at the whale action going on in every direction: the blows of mothers and their calves; the arching dives, which best revealed the dinosaur-like ‘knuckles’ along the whales’ dorsal ridges; males breaching; the occasional spyhop of a curious individual, popping its head up to look around. It was hard to know where to look, and whether to keep a camera focused or scan with binoculars.
And it wasn’t just the whales keeping us entertained. Every few minutes we would catch the flash of a pelican dive-bombing the ocean, searching for fish. The occasional turtle would swim nonchalantly by. And bottlenose dolphins would pass, surprisingly introvert compared to their cousins in other parts of the world. “Please cheer when you see them,” Mark said. “They don’t usually get any attention here because they are competing with the friendliest whales in the world.”
Just then, a mother and baby whale appeared within 3om of the boat. Our pangero (boatman) grabbed a plastic scoop and started splashing the water. “Baby, baby!” he called pleadingly.
“Never tap on the boat,” Mark explained. “But splashing the water is good and can attract them.” We lent over the side and tentatively splashed. “But don’t fall in…” Mark added, “there are some big sharks in here – bull sharks and great whites.”
The whales moved off, and it was already time to return to base. We were thrilled with the morning’s whale-viewing but Mark and the camp’s guides kept stressing that better was still to come. “You were too quiet!” one of the guides laughed. “The whales like noise. I know it’s not very British, but you have to scream, shout and sing.” On that afternoon’s boat trip we tried harder, splashing the water like crazy, and calling to the whales in a bid to attract them. To our astonishment it worked, with most of us achieving our first whale touch – and even kiss. Back on shore we laughed, we hugged, we cried.