By Rodrigo Manterola
Table of Contents
The whales of San Ignacio (video)
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Whale watching in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja
Journeys and Migrations to Campo Cortez
Where to go?
Baja offers many option for whale watching on both the Pacific Ocean, and the Sea of Cortez, but if you want to have a full experience visit the pristine lagoon of San Ignacio, Baja California Sur
When to go?
Whale watching season is from January to April. For gray whales.
Whales have been spotted before and after these months but in lesser numbers.
Humpback whales and blue whales also visit the peninsula from early November to April. Cabo San Lucas and Loreto are excellent options for these two species respectively
Departing our home in Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the Baja peninsula, we set off in our faithful wanderly wagon, an old Chevy campervan, to spend 3 months working as whale watching guides at one of the fishing turned whale watching eco – camps.
The family who runs Campo Cortez has become next of kin to us, and the travelers who spend long hours to get to this remote location arrive feeling this bond, this connection; a warm welcome for the weary whale watching adventurers.
However, the objectives of these tourists remain largely congruent to those of us and the local family; the main reason why everyone gathers together in this focal point is …the whales.
This ancient expedition carried out by many generations of whales is the reason why the population of the whales has been brought back from the brink of extinction.
The warm lagoons of Baja California provide the perfect nursery for whale calves, safe and away from harm, crucial for the initial stages of developing life.
Taking guests out whale watching in small pangas to be at eye level with these gentle giants is an honor, watching people’s lives change almost instantly as they reach out their hands, hesitantly at first, to make a physical connection with their water-dwelling mammal counterparts.
Life at Campo Cortez
Even after one trip out on a boat, the group who have witnessed these beautiful moments of life together, now have a connection of their own.
Peeling off life jackets and salty sleeved rain gear, happy campers chat and babble excitedly about the experience they have just had. Some, whilst in a different life might not agree on many subjects, are now concurring with each other, verifying each other ponders and questions about what has just taken place.
No rest for the wicked – the guides keep one eye and ear on the elated guests, the other on the kitchen and impending lunch.
Guests are set free from schedule to go and take some time out, let the impact of the recent events sink in, and the stresses and strains of the normal life that they have left behind temporarily drain out – a necessity that is sometimes overlooked on these adventure holidays.
Some guests have wandered off, incidentally back to the point where we first launched the boats to go and see the whales – not as much of a coincidence as it seems.
Lunch-time comes and goes, guests are already lining up at the door dressed in their whale watching gear, ready for the next trip.
A regular schoolboy error, considering we are now coming to the hottest part of the day, and there is still an hour to go before we depart; leaving guests only to sweat it out in their lifejackets and sun protecting buffs.
Rodrigo leads the way on “cool living” – having grown up in Mexico, he holds the secrets on how to deal with the intense heat, which involves a no-fuss attitude. “Why rush” is his motto, “we’ll still get there, just a lot cooler and with a lot less drama”.
The group, including me, who grew up in rainy Ireland, realize the nonsense of our ways and, kicking agendas and conformity to the curbside, follow Rodrigo’s ‘Tranquilo” mantra and ditch the layers, find a shady spot by the water and dream out to sea.
Others use the time to read, write journals, nap or use the facilities one last time before their next 2-hour boat ride – equipped with a bucket for emergencies as toilets on pangas mean less room for the whale watching gangs.
It just so happens that an Osprey nest sits atop of the main outhouse, which results in extra toilet stops made by guests with cameras in hand.
Patience is a virtue – spotting the boat captains getting the boats ready for the afternoon trip after a nourishing lunch is a cue for the guides.
The Whale Watching Trip
Whale watchers are gathered, groups are administered and we set off, this time launching from the rocky point as the outgoing tide has left the boats with little water to travel.
Local knowledge goes a long way. Only these boat captains, having grown up and spent countless days and nights guiding their boats around the lagoon, know the “lay of the land”, as it were.
Literally speaking, the bed of the shallow lagoon is made up of deep channels and patches of shallow ground.
Low tides mean the captains have to follow their noses and steer the boats through these deeper channels, these same channels being used by the whales to avoid running aground, and also to take some time out during periods of strong currents, allowing them to drop below just enough to avoid being swept away.
The odd moment we hear the “phud” sound of soft sand being parted by the keel of the boat – guests immediately start to unlace their boots or ditch their wellies, keen to get involved and help out, misreading the calm expression on the captains face as the politeness of not wanting to ask for assistance.
Double-checking, Lorna looks at Roberto and, smiling, the Pangero just nods his head and says “Todo Bien”… A signal for all clear, Lorna tells the now disappointed guests that there is no need for a push, as the “phud” sound turns back to the familiar “gurgling” sound of water hitting the side of the boat.
And we’re off again! More relaxed now and in tune with each other’s spirits, relationships are quickly formed amongst whale watchers.
Some boats become the “singing boat”, some like to discuss and analyze the science, some prefer to just watch in silence.
Sometimes the boats remain close to one another, allowing for people to call out, in-jokes or encouragement, cajoling each other, clapping and waving in excitement.
Occasionally, Lorna might decide the time is right for a little tune on the ukulele, fondly renamed “Flukulele”, as people join choruses in a bid to serenade the whales.
Lorna steals a glance at Roberto, who manages to keep a straight face, as the Capitan listens to “You are my sunshine” for the umpteen time.
Other times, each boat will take off on its own adventure, in search of whales mainly but also to see the resident and migratory birds, try and spot sea-lions or just to gain a different perspective.
A “teamwork” strategy still applies – if you find a friendly whale (or more likely, if a friendly whale finds you), you let the other boats know, but not before stealing a quick pet and perhaps even a kiss.
The other boats arrive, hungry for affection, and complying with the rule of only 2 boats allowed with one friendly whale, the first boat sneaks out, allowing the two other boats to take it in turns for playtime.
Sometimes the friendly whale has locked on to the first boat and tries to follow, much to the dismay of the other boats.
These captains know how to be unforthcoming and, without giving the game away, signals with an ever so slight nod of the head, unrecognizable to the untrained eye, and gently drift away, allowing the other to drift in silently.
Whether or not the whale stays, is their decision entirely. We remind guests that we can’t and won’t control these beautiful wild animals and as we remain constantly at their mercy, we remain humble also.
We are guests in their home, and we take our shoes off at the door, trying not to knock over the vase of flowers and bringing the only gifts that, at this point, are important – gifts of love, compassion, and gratefulness of being allowed, if only temporarily, into their watery abode.
Now, seasoned whale watchers, the groups gather back at the palapa, showing each other the photos they took, some dreamily remembering in contemplation,
Others laughing and giggling at the frequented whale watching terms such as the obvious ones “Having a whale of a time” or “I kissed a whale and I liked it” to “Rainblow” (when the whales blow air, along with water molecules, from their blowhole, a small prism-like rainbow can sometimes be seen, depending on the angle of the sun) and, the ever-famous, “Pink Floyd” (That’s for the next lesson).
Happy Hour arrives – homemade Margarita is placed on the conveniently located reception area, which is now the bar and totopos (chips) and homemade guacamole and salsa are spread out on the tables.
Some of the GoPro wielding guests have submitted their SD cards for presentation. This is where the IT pros are called as even the most basic of technology grinds everything to a halt, as HDMI cables and mixed SD slot sizes baffle anyone who steps up to the stage.
A cheer rises as one of the guests, Steve, IT specialist from New York, only has to look at the laptop and the tv screen (used only for presentations) and it works
The group is immediately plunged back into dreamy sea scenes of laughing, hugging, playful whales and now-confident photographers, who have long since forgotten about draping their expensive equipment with zip lock bags in a bid to prevent water from getting in, their fingers poised on the shutter, ready to record and document the action.
As we squeal and lament in delight, the cooks are creating a storm in the kitchen, realizing that if they want the guests to eat the tortillas while they are still hot (very important in Mexico), then they are going to have to give Lorna advance warning to turn off the screen – not an easy thing to do when the audience is engrossed in, quite literally, the movie of a lifetime.
Dinner-time is always welcomed as all this fun makes one hungry. The smell of Catalina’s freshly hand-made tortillas gets the mouths watering and the tummies rumbling, as the “tortilleros” are passed around the tables.
After dinner, it’s presentation time and, depending on what night it is, either a presentation on the recently seen gray whale or a snapshot of the diversity of life in El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, the largest wildlife refuge in Mexico.
We try to keep presentations short and sweet as although they are vital parts of exchanging information and knowledge to people who have traveled far and wide to learn of these lands, the fun and action of the day has caught up on most and some struggle to fight the urge to nod off mid-way during presentations.
We know that requests will be made to repeat various parts of the presentations throughout the following day but have also realized that education is key if we want to remain vigilant in our quest to keep people informed and to promote conservation.
Luckily, guided “low – tide”, and “desert’ walks are part of the itinerary, so we are able to physically show guests the proof in the pudding and put the information learned the night before to the test.
Time flies when you’re having fun, time to go home
It’s hard to get tired of seeing people arrive as one person and then leave three days later with a different perspective and, hopefully, a little bit more knowledgeable than when they first arrived.
The three-day adventure zips by and, all too soon, people are already saying their goodbyes and hugging and swapping emails and promises of further contact.
“Three days is too short”, a guest exclaims, “I need one more week”! Rodrigo knowingly smiles and replies calmly “it’s always good to leave a place wanting to come back”, and how true this is.
For a glimpse of a dream is always better than never having one at all, keeping the hearts open and the minds curious means you will never stop learning, and to make eye contact with a whale?
The best medicine in town to soothe a modern – tired soul.
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