One of the greatest things about traveling is getting to see wild animals in their natural environments. I’ve watched zebras grazing in Kenya and condors sunning themselves in California, and every time I encounter a creature so real and alive in its actual space, I admit to getting a little fuzzy inside. That’s the way things should be.
So when I found out we were going whale watching in Magdalena Bay during my trip to Baja California Sur, Mexico, I was stoked. I’ve seen whales swimming in the ocean from a distance, but nothing came even close to what we encountered on this trip.
Magdalena Bay is located on the Pacific side of the Baja California peninsula. From January through March of every year, hundreds of gray whales migrate to the bay from the Arctic, some 6,250 miles away from Mexico. Magdalena Bay is warm and offers an ideal place for the whales to mate and give birth (alternating between the two every other year). It’s a quiet body of water protected by the Mexican government. Only ten small boats are allowed on the water at any given time (at a cost of 800 pesos per boat per hour), and they work under very strict regulations regarding boat type, noise and pollution.
With these conditions in mind, we set out in our six-seat boat to spot the massive gray whale.
And how massive they are …
When our guide pointed out the first whale, I almost couldn’t believe what I was looking at. Adult whales can reach 55 feet in length, and even the babies are quite large at 13 to 17 feet in length and up to 2,200 pounds at birth. The whale was sitting on the surface of the water, basically just floating and relaxing. Only part of its body, perhaps 25 feet of its back, was visible. It hung on the surface for a few minutes, blew a puff of water out of its blowhole and sunk below the water line.
Our guide was an expert at spotting the whales. There was a change in the water patterns as the whales came to surface. They would often hover on the surface for a few minutes or dip above and below the water line before blowing water out of their blowholes and diving under. It’s when they dove under that we got the best views of their tails, and since none of them jumped out of the water while we were watching, the tail sightings were a highlight of the trip.
There were several pairs of mother whales with their babies. The babies stayed right near their mothers, and the water they cleared from their blowholes didn’t go nearly as high as that sprayed by the adults. It was hard to get a really good look at any of the whales as they tended to keep their distance, but one mother and baby got within six feet of us. The tail on the mother was nearly as long as the boat!
Rumor has it that sometimes the whales will approach the boat and visitors can actually touch the creatures. I wasn’t really comfortable with this idea as I imagine it’s just not a natural way to interact with the whales, but luckily none of them came close enough to be touched.
We stayed on the water for more than an hour, slowly moving across the surface as we waited for the impressive gray whales to show themselves. It was a lesson in patience and a sure way to leave a person humbled. Every time I see a creature like this in its natural habitat, it reminds me that humans are just a small part in the great big circle of life. It’s the ultimate warm and fuzzy feeling.