SAN IGNACIO LAGOON
- FEBRUARY 6-10, 2023
On top of that, this isn’t one of our “typical” dive trip reports since it didn’t involve any diving. So what can we say about it? How about . . . Fabulous!!!
Some explanation is in order.
The eastern Pacific Gray whale performs one of the longest known animal migrations, some 12,000 miles round-trip, from the Bering Sea down to Baja California and then back. The reason they go down to Baja is for the females to give birth and for the males to try to find a female with whom to mate.
Some years ago, fishermen in the area of San Ignacio Lagoon on the Pacific side of Baja about 250 miles NW of Cabo San Lucas, realized that many whales were coming into their lagoon, giving birth to their babies, nurturing the babies while in the lagoon, and then taking the babies on the trek back north to the feeding grounds.
And while this realization of the overall process was developing, another facet became apparent: Some of the whales were “friendly” and actually sought out – or at least tolerated – human interaction with the pangas in the area. And thus, a tourism industry was born.
San Ignacio Lagoon is now a protected area from January to June and a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the whales come and let nature take its course. There are perhaps a dozen or so “camps” for whale watchers who flock to the area not only to see the whales, but hopefully touch them as well. The whales not only seem to enjoy this, as much as we can assume a whale “enjoys” anything, but they’re the ones who initiate the contact. As the guides will tell you, “It’s all up to the whale.”
This destination has been on our radar for quite some time because Baja Expeditions, who we used to deal with in the Sea of Cortez when we booked the Don Jose, was one of the first operators in the area. After the death of BajaEx founder Tim Means a few years ago, Nautilus Dive Adventures in Vancouver – who we also deal with a lot (Socorro, Guadalupe, Cabo Pulmo) – bought Baja Expeditions with the intent of continuing and improving the whale watching/interacting experience.
Two other things to know about this trip: It’s relatively short (5 days overall with travel – similar time structure as a Guadalupe trip) and it’s not cheap ($3,195 for this one). But you’ve got plenty of opportunities to go meet the whales.
You fly to Cabo on Day 1 and overnight. On the morning of Day 2, you have a 2-hour flight out of the Cabo airport in a small private chartered plane, land on a dirt airstrip, take a 30-minute panga boat ride over the to Baja Expeditions camp (called “Camp Timo” after Tim Means), get brunch while you’re given a briefing and the lay of the land, and later that afternoon, it’s off to search for whales. It’s a short ride as the start of the protected area is about a 15-minute panga ride away.
Days 3 and 4 are full-day whale searches. You generally – weather permitting – do three forays over the course of the day. (It’s all somewhat similar to how we’d schedule dives on a dive trip.) The marine park is open – there’s a ranger who enforces this – from 8AM-5PM each day. Each panga radios in for permission and is limited to no more than 90 minutes in the reserve. Additionally, there’s a limit of 16 boats in the reserve at any given time. If you’re boat #17, you have to wait until someone leaves.
We would go out at 7:45AM so we’d be at the area at 8AM. When our 90 minutes was up, we’d then go beach the boat along the shores of the lagoon, report in to the ranger, and spend about 45 minutes on shore. Then we’d go out for excursion #2 for another 90 minutes, heading back to Camp Timo when we were done in time for the 12:30PM lunch. We’d take a break after lunch – you can wander around the camp and explore the nearby mangroves or just hang in your glamping tent (“glamorous camping”) – until 2:30PM when we go out for search #3. That would get us back in by 5PM which left time to shower, check pictures, hit the bar for happy hour, or just relax until diner at 7PM.
The 5th day feels very busy because it’s your final watching day as well as transit back to Cabo day. You need to pack up before your 7:45AM whale watching departure, then you do a somewhat abbreviated search (45 minutes or so) because you need to be back up at the airstrip around 9:30AM to get ready for the 10:30 flight back to Cabo. That puts you at the SJD airport around 12:30PM which worked out great for us as we had a 5:55PM flight back to LAX.
Our group was nine strong, with eight veteran Reef Seekers travelers and one newbie. Joining us were Lisette Lieberman & Henry Gittler, Sue Krauth & Teresa Herbert (the newbie), Marilyn Lawrence, Patti Wey, Shirley Parry, John Lumb, and me (Ken Kurtis).
The other thing I liked about this is that it was literally a Monday-Friday trip. (As I’m writing this, it seems like we were gone for longer than 4.5 days, and I mean that in a good way.) We took a Monday afternoon non-stop out of LAX, overnighted at the Aeropuerto Hotel next to SJD (nothing fancy but nice enough), Nautilus picked us up at 7:30AM the next morning and took us to the private terminal at SJD, and off we went. On the back end, we were back in our homes by 9PM Friday night.
I had some concerns before we left, namely that Nautilus was saying we were limited to 25 pounds of baggage per person total due to weight restrictions in the small plane we’d fly out of Cabo. The good news was this meant everyone could likely be carry-on only, which certainly sped things up when we arrived in Cabo because we didn’t have to wait at baggage claim and there was no line at Customs. But the bad news for me personally was that my camera, lenses, and laptop alone weigh around 10 pounds, my lightest bag comes in at 3 pounds, and that doesn’t leave room for much else, especially when they recommend layers of clothing (the temps range from high 40s at dawn to 80+ during the day) like windbreakers, sweatpants, hats, and jackets. They also cautioned that things might get wet in the boat, so you might need duplicates to have something dry to wear back in camp.
In the end, it was much ado about nothing. They not only said they’d make accommodations for my camera bag, but when we loaded up the plane, no one weighed anyone’s bags nor seemed too concerned about weight overall. That doesn’t mean if you do this type you should pack a steamer trunk. But a few pounds over doesn’t seem like it’s going to be an issue and many of our people came in around 20 pounds overall so, as a group, we were within the weight limits.
A unique feature of this adventure is the two pieces of gear you’ll be loaned once you get off of the plane: A life jacket for the boat rides and a pair of shin-high white rubber boots. (They of look like groovy 60s go-go boots.) It sounds weird at first, but the boots are a lifesaver.
At Camp Timo, the lagoon has an extremely shallow-sloping shoreline. So there’s no way to construct a dock. The pangas pull in as close as they can, but that’s not all the way onshore. That means to get to the pangas, you’re wading into the water. The good news is it’s REALLY shallow. The boots are about 20” tall (almost up to your knees) and the water is generally about 15” deep. So it’s possible to get into the panga without any water coming in through the top of the boot. But you have to watch the incoming wavelets in case there’s a “big” one that might cause a boot flood. Fortunately, I only had one minor water intrusion during our stay. You’ll see us all wearing our boots in the group shot we took at the camp on the SmugMug slide show. Once off the boat, we’d go back to our rooms, change into “regular” shoes, and give the boots a rest.
The aforementioned wind put a damper on our first afternoon there (Tuesday) as there were whitecaps everywhere and the rangers closed down the marine reserve due to the water conditions. So we just explored the camp, hung out, and made do.
Wednesday morning the wind had died down a bit and things looked promising. But it also felt REALLY cold, especially with the wind. My thermometer said 49º. So the thing to know, especially this time of the year, is that the morning – certainly before the 7:10AM sunrise - can be bitterly cold, especially with the wind, but then things would warm up nicely as the day wore on, as much as 80º by the afternoon. So dressing in layers became a valuable skill.
After breakfast we clambered into our assigned panga with dive guide Jesus – his father Pachico was the first to discover the “friendly” whale interaction – and panga captain Paco. They both were excellent. Off we went, arriving at the marine reserve a little after it opened at 8AM. The reserve is the southern end of the entire lagoon and is maybe 5 miles long and 2 miles wide, so covers a decent amount of area.
It probably took us all of two minutes (if that) to spot our first whale. Simply put, they’re everywhere. Most of them are mother/calf combos but there are also solitary females and a few solitary males. The easiest way to find a whale was to watch for the mist of the exhalation blow. You’d also see smaller blows which were from the babies. And the calves always stayed right next to mom so when you found a baby, you found a momma too.
Here’s what you look for while on the water:
• The blow of a whale (when it catches the light just right you see a rainbow and it’s known as a “rainblow.”
• The tail (fluke) of the whale, which meant it was diving deep and would be gone for a few minutes
• A pectoral fin lifted out of the water if the whale was on its side
• A spyhop when the whale is vertical and sticks its nose straight up out of the water
• A breach, where the whale rockets to the surface and explodes out of the water, to then come crashing down with a huge splash (and sometimes they breach three or four times in a row)
But the ultimate is to run into a “friendly” whale which is one that’s on the surface and not only tolerates a panga close by, but will initiate contact with the boat by swimming over to it. At that point, aside from everyone getting giddy over the encounter, cameras are clicking and hands are going over the side and into the water to touch, scratch, and rub the whale. (The skin is rubbery soft and has an amazing amount of give to it.) If you’re REALLY lucky, the whale will lift its snout out of the water and you’ll be able to hug it or even kiss it on the nose. (We didn’t get that lucky.) But as the guides will remind you, it’s all up to the whale. Although they’ll maneuver close to a whale on the surface, they won’t chase the whale and it really is up to the whale to come to us.
Over the course of our seven forays into the reserve (three on Wednesday, three of Thursday, and one on Friday), we saw hundreds, maybe even thousands, of blows. (We also saw a number of rainblows.) We saw lots of flukes and pecs sticking out of the water. We saw a bunch of spyhops. We even saw a number of breaches, a few of which we caught on camera and which you can see in the SmugMug slideshow.
One breach was almost too close for comfort. On our third trip on Wednesday, we suddenly noticed a commotion maybe twenty feet off the rear left side of our panga and we were both pleased and stunned to see a 40-foot whale come flying out of the water and land (breach) right next to us. Needless to say, something like that gets your attention. It also underscores how it helps to be looking in the right direction at the right time because the whole thing was over with in a few seconds.
On our second Thursday trip, we had another really great experience as we went further south by the lagoon entrance from the Pacific and came upon a group of what we think were as many as 10 whales. There were flukes and pecs and blows everywhere. We think they may have been feeding because it’s fairly shallow there or it could have been some early mating behavior as it seemed there were a few (larger) males around. But it was pretty spectacular to sit in a small boat with all of this whale activity going on all around you.
We were told the wind might come up a bit in the afternoon. And because that second trip was so wonderful, and also because I had taken about 400 shots (thank you 6fps Nikon D610), I decided to slip the afternoon trip and stay in camp to go through what I’d shot that morning. John Lumb and Marilyn Lawrence also chose to stay in camp. It turned out to be the wrong choice.
The rest of our group went out with Jesus and Paco and the first 87 minutes of the whale watch were rather sparse and uneventful. But, as they told us, when they had about three minutes to go, the magic happened as they spotted a whale on the surface and as they approached the whale, the whale approached them as well. It turned out this was Mancha (as in “Man of La”), a well-known friendly, and Mancha was quite eager for some human contact.
For the next 5-10 minutes, Mancha delighted our group and encouraged plenty of touching, scratching, rubbing, and thrill-of-a-lifetime experiences. Everyone in the group got to directly interact with Mancha and Sue Krauth got off a phenomenal shot (I’m quite envious of it) of Mancha’s eye looking straight at two of our group. It’s in the SmugMug slide show as the fourth image in the “Pix Taken by Other People” section. But you can’t look at that eye and tell me there’s not a high degree of awareness and intelligence behind it. Amazing.
When the group got back to camp and let us know what had happened, the goal for our final Friday morning trip became obvious: Find another friendly for John, Marilyn, and Ken so that everyone in the group would then have had an up-close-and-personal encounter. But that was going to be easier said than done because the Friday morning trip was only budgeted at around 30 minutes instead of 90, because we had to then hightail it north to the lagoon airstrip for the 10:30AM flight back to Cabo.
So we left camp Friday morning right at 7:45AM to be at the reserve at the stroke of 8:00. But it was choppy, a little cloudy, and there wasn’t much action going on. It didn’t look good. We saw a few blows, but they were at a distance, and the clock was ticking. Jesus and Paco decided we could stretch our time a little bit but there seemed to be not much activity going on. And just when it seemed like this would be a bust, one of the other captains radioed Paco and uttered the magic words: “We have a friendly at our boat.”
Luckily, the boat was only a hundred yards away and we turned towards it. And as we got closer, we could see the whale interacting with the panga. It was none other than our friend from the day before. Mancha.
What was amazing about this was that there were three pangas in the area. Mancha engaged panga #1 for a while, then moved over to panga #2 and interacted with them. And then as luck would have it, Mancha turned towards us (panga #3) and came right over. Oh my.
Mancha came right up to the side of the boat and a bunch of eager hands plopped into the cold water to start rubbing and scratching. I was firing off shots as fast as I could but even I eventually set my camera down to give Mancha one good caress. We didn’t get as long an encounter as they did the afternoon before, but John and Marilyn as well as I got to make contact and how often do you get to say that you were petting a whale?
And with that, Mancha departed our panga and we departed the reserve and headed for the airstrip, with wide grins covering all of our faces. It was the perfect way to end the trip. A few hours later we were back at the Cabo Airport and that evening flew home with incredible experiences burned into our memories.
As I said at the outset, this is a short trip but it really didn’t seem like we were only gone 4½ days and again, I mean that in a good way. It’s also the type of trip that once you’ve done it, you’ve pretty much done it. I could see doing it twice, but I couldn’t see someone doing this year after year. But we’re going to do it again and I’m already looking at dates for 2024. So if all of what you just read is causing you to think, “I’d like to do that,” than you should give us a call or drop us an e-mail and let’s see if we can’t get you to become a whale-hugger too.