A Whale’s Tale

Every year like clockwork, something amazing and environmentally precious occurs in the warm waters surrounding the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Multiple species of whales migrate over 5,000 miles from the cold northern waters of Alaska and the Arctic to mate and give birth. Blue and Humpback whales occupy the southernmost tip of Baja and the Sea of California while Gray whales make their nursing grounds in Baja California Sur, Mexico’s Magdalena Bay region.

By mid-February to mid-March, the bulk of the population has arrived in the lagoons, filling them with nursing, calving and mating Gray whales. Males and females without new calves are the first to leave the lagoons. Pregnant females and nursing mothers with their newborns are the last to depart, leaving only when their calves are ready for the journey, which is usually late March to mid-April. Often, a few mothers linger with their young calves well into May.

Fun Facts: Whale calves drink up to 50 gallons of high-fat milk a day! Gray whales measure 16 feet in length for newborns and 43-49 ft. for adults (females tend to be slightly larger than adult males). Newborns are darker gray to black in color. A mature gray whale can reach 44 short tons, but typically range from 17-36 short tons.

This March, I was very fortunate to be asked to join Lindblad Expeditions and its leader, Sven Lindblad, along with a host of their best naturalists, oceanographers, biologists, conservationists, world-class photographers and other industry veterans on board the National Geographic Sea Bird for an intensive 6-Day/ 5-Night itinerary, Inside Magdalena Bay: Where the Whales Are.

For the first time in 15 years, Lindblad returned to the Magdalena Bay region, specifically the southern part of Almejas Bay off the coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico. This region is tightly controlled and monitored. They issue less than 35 tourism permits each year to ensure as little impact on the Gray whale populations as possible. The purpose of this expedition sailing was to ensure that the new highly focused Gray Whale itinerary and activities would work for future expeditions to the area. Lindblad also wanted to obtain valuable feedback on how they could support the scientific, environmental and local communities for a sustainable future, while involving their guests in the process. It was obvious from the start that Sven Lindblad and his team are 100% committed to these endeavors in every country and community they visit.

Sven Lindblad, owner of Lindblad Expeditions, giving the daily briefing.

Adam Maire, undersea specialist, teaching Gray Whales 101.

Steve Morello, photographer and biologist, explaining how mangroves grow.

At our first morning briefing, Sven laid out the plan for the day’s whale watching expedition in Almejas Bay; he was quick to caution that although the hope was to see plenty of whales, there were no guarantees.

As we set out in the Zodiacs to meet up with our guides, the local Pangueros, all eyes were peeled on the horizon hoping to see the telltale heart-shaped blow mist as they surfaced for air. Just as our guide began telling us that they had seen hundreds of whales in the last several weeks in Almejas and Magdalena Bays, he suddenly shouted, “bellena, bellena!” He pointed excitedly to the horizon where it looked like fence posts had sprouted all along the mouth of the bay. Jackpot! These “fence posts” were actually a dozen or more spyhopping and breaching whales in the distance. Throughout the afternoon, many of the whales swam directly up to the boats for closer inspection, and one boat even sighted a rare albino whale!

By the end of the day, everyone’s smiles were huge, cheeks windburned and we were filled with anticipation of more opportunities to watch and interact with these magnificent mammals.

The next day took us to the northernmost part of Magdalena Bay. We went through the narrow, ever-shifting Hull Channel with hopes of more whale sightings. Lindblad has been coming to Magdelena Bay for many years, and without the expert local guides and pilots led by the Comacho family, navigation of this channel would be dangerous— if not impossible.

After a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, and hashbrowns, we loaded up in the Zodiacs with our local guide and naturalist du jour. We motored a few miles from the ship to the heart of the bay where most of the mothers and calves spend their time. Within moments, we could see and hear the blows of the whales as they traversed the bay. We spotted lone whales spyhopping and rolling in the swells and several mother/calve pairs making their way slowly along the coast. Some whales even came right up to the boats for a pat or stroke, while seeming to encourage their young to do the same.

For hundreds of years, the Gray whale was hunted almost to extinction and earned a reputation as the “devil fish” for its aggressive defense against fishermen. Now a protected species, Gray whales have rebounded and adapted to a new normal and are noticeably curious and friendly.

I’m not one who normally gets seasick or motion sick, but after 5 hours of hanging over the side of the Zodiac as it tossed and rolled in the windswept swells and spun in circles tracking the whales as they swam around the boat, I was down for the count.

Thank goodness for the onboard doctor who provided some relief, but by the afternoon, quite a few members of my group were more than ready for a break.

After lunch, everyone had the option to go back out whale watching or head to the shore to explore Boca de Soledad, a small sandy barrier island just at the northern mouth of the channel. We could ride fat tire bikes along the hard-packed sand, or leisurely wander the beach and dunes looking for shells and sand dollars.  Since there was a limited number of bikes, I opted for a long solitary walk while beachcombing. So many pretty shells! It was a great way to stretch our legs and relax before returning to the ship for sunset cocktails on the upper deck.

The next day, we unanimously agreed to get an early start for more whale watching before starting our return trip through the canal. My sole purpose that day was to put the camera down and enjoy the experience in a more tactile way. It’s so easy to get caught up in capturing the moment on film. I was the only person in my group who didn’t get to experience touching a whale the day before; fortunately, I didn’t have to wait very long. We had been motoring around the bay for about two hours observing several single whales and mother and calf pairs, when suddenly one of the mothers and her calf approached our Zodiac. The calf playfully swam up and under the Zodiacs, sometimes nudging the bottom with its nose or swimming on its back underneath us. All the while, mom swam patiently alongside, occasionally surfacing and blowing mist into our faces.

Finally the baby, ever curious, slowly approached my side of the Zodiac, popping its head out in front of me, just out of reach. I excitedly splashed the water and spoke baby whale gibberish, trying to coax it closer. When it did, I totally seized the moment and reached out to softly stroke and pat its jaw several times before mom decided it was time to move along.

I was excited to cross this off my bucket list! Without a doubt, my day was made.

Although this itinerary is shorter, it’s nothing less of an amazing experience. Although the NG Sea Bird is a much smaller, basic and more functional ship than the rest of the Lindblad Expedition fleet, it more than makes up for it with the class of experienced, educated staff and guides, meals and activities that made everything feel top notch.

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