On February 26, my friend Steve and I left San Diego
for the west coast of Baja. We're both employed as biologists
that work with endangered species, but we had never
experienced the endangered gray whale except at a distance.
After stocking up at Trader Joes and a five-hour drive,
we arrived at the Old Mill Motel in San Quintin and
had a wonderful lobster dinner, the biggest lobster
we'd ever seen on a plate! The next day we continued
south past El Rosario, where the road turns inland,
and soon stopped to gawk and photograph the cirios (boojum
trees), which are related to our ocotillos but are single-trunked
and taper at the top, looking as if they originated
in a Dr. Seuss book. We stopped to admire the blue palms
in Catavina then decided to continue driving all the
way to Guererro Negro, which borders Scammon's Lagoon.
But it was very windy with no boats going out, and the
tour boats were booked for the next day, so we reserved
two spaces ($49 each) for the following Saturday on
a whale-watch boat with Mallarimo, which includes a
great tour company, a hotel and wonderful restaurant.
We continued south to San Ignacio and stayed at a funky
$25/night hotel owned by Oscar Fisher, who I "met"
in Bruce Berger's book "Almost an Island."
It was exciting to meet a character I'd read about,
and I asked him if he'd seen Bruce lately and he mentioned
that Bruce comes through San Ignacio about once a year
and visits him and other friends.
We left the next morning on the rumored-to-be-bad
dirt road to San Ignacio Lagoon, allowing 2 hours to
get there for the whale-watch tour ($45 per person)
we'd reserved the previous day with Kuyima, the best
local tour company for whale-watching (they do tours
of local cave paintings as well). Except for a rocky
1/4 mile up a hill out of the town of San Ignacio, the
road was great, and we arrived with an hour to spare.
We'd packed all our camping gear and lots of water and
food, but Kuyima has a simple but wonderful lodge right
on the edge of the lagoon with great meals, and they
rent tents and camping equipment, so we barely touched
our food, and most of the camping equipment stayed in
the back of my truck.
At 10 am, after a short lecture on safety, our small
panga put out into the lagoon, and we soon were surrounded
by whales spyhopping (sticking their heads up out of
the water) and approaching us. We could see why gray
whales are called a baleen whale, so named because of
the bristly-fringed plates called baleen on either side
of the whale's jaw. The baleen filter ocean water to
catch small animals in the water. When mothers with
their newborn whales surfaced and approached the panga,
it was tough to stay calm--the feeling of being so close
to such gentle and huge (babies weigh over 1,000 pounds
at birth; adults weigh 30 to 40 tons) animals is indescribable!
We were treated to a wonderful seafood dinner that
night and chatted with some new friends from England
who'd shared our panga. The next day was very windy,
so instead of going out to see whales again, we returned
to San Ignacio for breakfast and drove to Santa Rosalia
for the day, about 40 miles southeast and on the Sea
of Cortez. Santa Rosalia was the former base of a French
copper mining company, with wonderful architecture dating
to the late 1800's.
Thereafter, we returned north to Guererro Negro and
stayed at the Hotel Caracol, had another wonderful seafood
dinner at Mallarimo, where we returned the next morning
to board a small tour bus for Scammon's Lagoon. After
a half-hour bus ride along a dirt road posted with platform
poles for nesting ospreys, some already with young birds,
we were given life jackets and loaded into pangas to
see more gray whales. Scammon's Lagoon is much larger
than San Ignacio and more accessible if you're driving
from the north. As in San Ignacio Lagoon, we were soon
surrounded by gray whales, and some members of our boat,
through exclamations of joy and tears, were able to
touch their barnacle-decorated heads.
Beginning the drive home the next day, we stopped at
a military checkpoint and looked at the car next to
us, happy to see the British friends we'd made in San
Ignacio. We joined them for lunch at the La Pinta hotel
in Catavina, sharing whale stories.
We could have taken a slow drive home, stopping in
Santo Tomas for the wineries and in Ensenada for trinkets,
but we had to get back to work the next day, so we crossed
the border in Tijuana near midnight (only a 20-minute
wait!) Sunday March 1, talking about when we'll go back
for another whale experience.
by Kathy Keane