Mexico - Baja California
( Nature’s Beauty / Animals & Wildlife )
One of the world’s most awesome adventures must surely be visiting the incredible gray whale (la Ballena Grise) in its natural habitat. Each year these gentle giants, which can weigh up to 35 tons and can measure up to 15 meters, leave the cold Arctic waters off Alaska about October when the frigid waters begin to freeze, signaling it is time to begin their 8,000 to 9,000 kilometer journey south (the longest known migration of any mammal). It takes about 3 months for them to travel from the Bering and Chukchi Seas to the warm breeding lagoons of Baja California Sur. The female whales are larger than the males—it is thought their greater size is to accommodate the huge calf in their abdomen. The females enter into one of three lagoons located along the west coast of Baja California (Bahía Magdalena, Laguna Ojo de Liebre, or San Ignacio Lagoon) to give birth to their calves. Usually the males do not enter the lagoon, but linger in the deeper waters at its mouth. Most species of whales have their babies in the open ocean, but the gray whale chooses the warm, shallow water of these protected lagoons as its nursery. At birth the winsome calves weigh in at over a ton (the size of a small car) and are approximately 5 meters long. Then, in the space of a few months, thanks to their mothers’ rich milk, they more than double their weight (gaining about 150 pounds a day) and by the time they are ready to start the long journey back north, they have grown to about 6 meters in length. The life span of the whale is over 40 years (some scientists speculate they can live 60 years or more). In a female’s lifetime she will usually have about three babies with a span of three years between each pregnancy, which has a gestation period of 12 months. The calves usually stay with the mother for about a year and are then sent off on their own. In the course of researching and detailing our own trip, we struggled with conflicting information and recommendations of just what to see, where to go, and how to pace it. Based on our own travels and experiences, we now feel confident in sharing with you what to consider when planning your journey. WHERE TO GO: You can spot many different types of whales all along the coast of Baja, but since the bays and lagoons have a defined space, they offer a superb opportunity to view a high concentration of gray whales up close. Plan to visit one or more of the three bays where the gray whales migrate each winter. These three bays are Bahía Magdalena, Laguna Ojo de Liebre (nicknamed Scammon’s Lagoon for the whaling captain who discovered the bay), and San Ignacio Lagoon. Of these three bays, Laguna Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio Lagoon offer by far the best whale-watching. The two most accessible bays are Bahía Magdalena and Laguna Ojo de Liebre. Although Lagoon San Ignacio requires a difficult two-hour drive along a bumpy, ill-kept road from the town of San Ignacio, this is our personal favorite place for whale-watching because the boats are smaller, the journey through the lagoon to where the whales can be seen is shorter, and the experience is more personal (staying at a tent camp is rather like a house party—you quickly make friends with your fellow guests). Nevertheless, San Ignacio Lagoon is not recommended for everyone: it is less accessible and has no hotels. The only accommodations are in a few tent camps, and these would appeal only to the more adventuresome traveler who doesn’t mind roughing it. Very important: It is a bit confusing when you read advertisements for whale-watching. Several companies offer whale-watching tours or boat trips that leave from La Paz and explore the Sea of Cortez. Indeed, these are fun trips that enable you to see an incredible amount of wildlife (including whales), but be aware, if you really want to see the whales, you must go to one of the three bays mentioned above, where the gray whales come to have their babies. LOCATION OF THE BAYS: Bahía Magdalena (closest town, San Carlos) is the most easily accessible place to watch whales if you are flying into La Paz. It is about a two-and-a-half-hours’ drive northwest of La Paz or about a two-hour drive southwest of Loreto (both La Paz and Loreto have international airports). Laguna Ojo de Liebre (Scammon’s Lagoon) is located near the town of Guerrero Negro, on the main Highway 1, about a five-hour drive northwest of Loreto or about a ten-hour drive south of Tijuana, the border town with the USA. San Ignacio Lagoon is located approximately midway between Laguna Ojo de Liebre and Bahía Magdalena. The closest town is San Ignacio, on Highway 1, but it takes two hours to reach the lagoon from the highway because the gravel coastal access road is extremely rough. WHICH BAY TO CHOOSE: All three bays mentioned above provide wonderful whale-watching opportunities and no experience can ever be duplicated or guaranteed—so, which to choose? Laguna Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio Lagoon are considered to offer the best likelihood to see mothers and babies up close. It is a tossup which of the two is better—both are excellent. On the other hand, Bahía Magdalena has the advantage of being the closest destination to see the whales if you are staying in La Paz. Our advice: if you have the luxury of unlimited time, visit all three bays. If time is limited, just include Bahía Magdalena and Laguna Ojo de Liebre, since access to San Ignacio Lagoon is more difficult. If you want to concentrate on just one bay, we recommend Laguna Ojo de Liebre, because it has an abundance of whales (50% of all the babies are born here) and it is easily accessible by a good road. WHEN TO SEE THE WHALES: The whales can be visited from January through mid-April. The optimum time to see them is in February and March. HOW TO SEE THE WHALES: Although whales can be spotted from the shoreline, without a doubt the best way to see them is by boat. It would be a waste of money to go so far to see this marvel of nature, and then not be able to enjoy the adventure to its fullest. There are several ways to view the whales—we have listed below some of the options, information on closest towns to the whale-watching areas, and recommended pacing. ESCORTED TOURS BY CHARTERED PLANE: There are several tour companies that operate chartered flights in February and March from the United States to see the whales. One of these, Baja Discovery, offers tours that depart by bus from San Diego, California, cross the border to Ensenada, where the trip continues by a charter plane to an airstrip near San Ignacio Lagoon. Another, Baja Expeditions, offers tours using a charter flight from San Diego to San Ignacio Lagoon with a stop en route for customs. A third company, Baja Ecotours, arranges charter flights for groups leaving from San Diego. Baja Ecotours also accepts guests at their tent camp who arrive by their own private plane or car. For more details, visit www.karenbrown.com. Usually these tours spend four nights at a tent camp near the lagoon, returning on the fifth day to San Diego. Days are spent whale-watching, hiking, bird watching, and kayaking. See800-929-2252 from the USee our website, www.karenbrown.com, for more information800-843-6967 www.bajaex.com. www.bajaex.com 800-843-6967. INDEPENDENT ARRANGEMENTS BY BUS: If you are on a tight budget, the least expensive option for whale-watching is to take a Greyhound bus from San Diego to Tijuana, and then a take a first-class bus (ABC Bus Line, Tres Estrelles de Oro, or Transportes Aguila) from Tijuana to Guerrero Negro where you can visit the whales in the Laguna Ojo de Liebre. Call the Tijuana Bus Terminal for schedules and rates (664-626-7101). Before arriving in Guerrero Negro, make a reservation at the Hotel Malarrimo. The Achoy family, who own the hotel, also operate whale-watching trips, so when you book your room, reserve a place on one of their tours, which leave the hotel by bus at 8 am or 11 am. After a few days in Guerrero Negro, you can either return home or continue on by bus to San Ignacio where you can arrange a whale-watching tour to San Ignacio Lagoon (about a two-hour drive from town by a rough road). INDEPENDENT ARRANGEMENTS BY CAR: Another choice of transportation is to drive your own car south from San Diego on Highway 1, but this is a long, arduous journey best suited to those with lots of time. Much easier than driving down the long Baja Peninsula is to take a commercial flight from Los Angeles or San Diego to Loreto and rent a car. There are good hotels in Loreto, but no exceptional places to stay in any of the towns close to where the whales congregate. Of the three lagoons where whales can be visited, the most convenient is San Carlos (Bahía Magdalena), which you can easily visit as a day trip out of Loreto, but the whale-watching here cannot compare with either Guerrero Negro or San Ignacio Lagoon. The town with the best accommodations is Guerrero Negro, near Laguna Ojo de Liebre. Once you arrive at any of the three lagoons, you can book an organized tour to see the whales. It is extremely important during the height of the season (especially in February) to make an advance reservation for whale-watching excursions, since they are sometimes sold out a year in advance. Another option is to drive to one of the coves and hire one of the licensed guides (often local fishermen) who linger nearby with their boats, called pangas, to take you out into the lagoon or bay. Note: There is no guarantee that there will always be someone available to take you out without a prior reservation. TOURS ORIGINATING IN MEXICO: In Loreto the hotel Posada de Las Flores offers packages to see the whales. These tours vary in length from three to eight days and one, their five-day “Kiss the Whales” tour, is very similar to the routing we suggest in our itinerary. What makes this tour so hassle-free is that one phone call can wrap everything up—when you book a room at the Posada de Las Flores, you can also reserve a tour. If none of the packages offered are quite right for you, request a quote on what it would cost to have a tour designed to suit your needs. Another possibility is Baja Ecotours, which offers a flexible program of group tours or individual travel arrangements to San Ignacio Lagoon. Baja Ecotours, tel: USA 877-560-2252, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.bajaecotours.com. CRUISE SHIP: During the whale-watching season, cruise lines sometimes offer whale-watching itineraries. Most of these ships have a naturalist aboard, adding greatly to the experience. However, before signing up, read the brochure carefully to be sure the ship is going to one of the three lagoons mentioned above where the babies are born. Also, be sure that the cruise offers the option of excursions on small boats that go into the bay because you can’t see the whales up close from a cruise ship. Note: Some of the ships (especially those from La Paz) go only into the Sea of Cortez, and this is not where you find the greatest concentration of whales.
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