SAN IGNACIO LAGOON - March 18-22, 2024

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

I’ve got a new saying about this trip: It’s not whether you touch the whales, it’s whether the whales touch you. And I don’t see how anyone with an ounce of humanity in them could do this trip and NOT be touched by the whales.


We’ve just completed our second journey down to San Ignacio Lagoon on the western side of Baja California. To get there, we took a jetBlue non-stop from LAX to the Cabo Airport (SJD), overnighted at the Aeropuerto Hotel adjacent to the airport (more on that in a moment), flew for two hours the next morning in a small private plane from SJD up to the San Ignacio Lagoon airstrip, and then it was a five-minute ride (if that) to our camp.


Some details and lessons before we get into the meat of this report.


One of our travelers ended up having to cancel for medical reasons about a week before we left. He hadn’t gotten trip insurance. Had he done so - it generally costs about 5-10% of the overall trip costs - he would have gotten all of his money back. Instead, he’s out-of-pocket.


Another one of our travelers booked himself out of Ontario instead of LAX (he lives close to the Ontario International Airport) but that meant he had to do a connecting flight through Phoenix which ended up having a mechanical problem and got cancelled. The airline couldn’t get him into Cabo in time for our small plane flight so he had go home the next morning. Fortunately for him, I was able to get him rebooked for another trip in a few weeks and the airline refunded him his initial airfare since they’re the ones who messed up his trip. Ironically, two other travelers also flew out of Ontario but on a different flight which went through Dallas and had no problems at all. There’s always an element of luck that plays into some of this.


So we ended up being 10 strong: Henry Gittler & Lisette Lieberman (both did the trip last year), Henry’s sister Beth Kuhn and her husband Mike, Ron & Debbie Hench, Tom Turney & Jill Boivin, Tim Waag, and me (Ken Kurtis).


The trip was organized through Baja Expeditions which is now owned by Nautilus Dive Adventures. We started doing Sea of Cortez trips on the Don Jose with Baja Expeditions back in 1988 and we’ve been dealing with Nautilus since 2008. So we’ve got history with both and I may use the company names interchangeably in this report. And even though they’re operated separately, they’re both under the Nautilus (really Icarus Aviation) umbrella. (I also always find it ironic that a company who now does 100% of their trips in Mexico is based in Vancouver, Canada, but that’s a separate story for another time.)


As I mentioned above, the Baja camp is located a stone’s throw from the San Ignacio Lagoon airstrip. This is different - and better IMHO – than it was last year because we simply got in a van and drove to the camp. It also makes it a lot easier for Baja to re-supply the camp as needed because it’s easier for them to drive supplies in than to fly them in and then panga over to the old location.


The camp itself is nothing fancy but a marvel when you stop to think about it. Because they operate in a protected area, the Mexican government requires them to remove everything at the end of the season (mid-April) and then rebuild everything when the season starts again (January). And basically, the camp is a little city with electricity, running water, sewage, accommodations, dining facilities, cooking facilities, and boat access. It’s quite remarkable when you stop and think what an undertaking this must be and how you’ve basically got all the comforts of home at your disposal. (The food was quite good, BTW.)


There are also two styles of accommodations in camp. One is known as “glamping” (glamorous camping) and the other is luxury. The main difference is the size of the tents. The glamping ones are similar to canvas Quonset huts (roughly 150 square feet) and the luxury one are rectangular and about 50% larger. The luxury folks also have a separate dining area so I don’t know if the food offerings are the same or not. The price difference between the two is around $600. We chose the glamping side.


It’s also important to understand that this is a different schedule than a typical Saturday-Saturday dive trip. These are basically 5-day trips, including travel to Cabo. Fly to Cabo on Day 1 and overnight. You fly to San Ignacio Lagoon on Day 2, landing around 10:30AM, and get an orientation, a small lunch, and then you’re off for two whale-searching/watching excursions in the afternoon. Day 3 is a full day with early breakfast (7AM), two morning whale-watching trips, lunch in camp, a single afternoon whale-watching trip, all of which puts you back in camp by 4:30PM. There are snacks in the bar area, a naturalist presentation around 6PM, dinner at 7PM, and then you go to sleep. Day 4 is a repeat of that sked. Day 5 is breakfast, an abbreviated whale-watch, back at the airstrip shortly after 10AM, and fly back to Cabo around 10:30AM which gets you to SJD around 12:30PM, leaving time to fly home that same day, especially for us West Coasters. So this trip was literally Monday morning through Friday evening for us.


Unlike a dive trip, where we’re going to be hitting different sites each day, on this trip, you go back to the same place every day. That’s because that’s where the whales are. San Ignacio Lagoon itself is enormous. But the southern end of it has been designated as a protected whale observation area. It’s probably five miles north/south and a similar distance east/west.


Speaking of whales, the whales in question are Pacific Grey Whales. They have one of the longest annual migrations known, some 12,000 miles from their feeding grounds up in Alaska to the birthing/mating areas in a couple of lagoons in Baja. (There are two or three other lagoons in addition to San Ignacio.) The whales -generally pregnant females - arrive as early as December, give birth, and then the mothers spend the next few months teaching their calves how to swim and breathe and exist as a whale. The calf during all of this will feed on the mother’s milk but the mother doesn’t eat anything. Eventually, the mother and calf will leave the lagoon and head back up north to Alaska, cruising by Southern California on the way. The calves at this point are vulnerable and the mothers are exhausted and hungry and that’s another reason why there are Orca pods along the way waiting for them, because the calves can sometimes make for an easy meal and the mother is too tired to fend off the Orca. Balance of Nature at work.


One thing we noticed that differed from last year was that there were noticeably fewer whales in the observation area. Last year, the whales were everywhere and it was quite easy to find a mother/calf pair to follow. Not so this year. My estimate would be that there were perhaps 25% of the numbers we saw last year.


The naturalists at the camp said this is due to El Nino. The whales leave the colder waters of Alaska for the warmer waters of Baja to give birth. But now they’re encountering warmer water earlier on their journey. This may have resulted in premature births before the whales reached the lagoons and it may also have meant whales turned around sooner to head back north. The life cycle is very water-temperature dependent and El Nino disrupts that. When it’s La Nina, which keeps the waters cool, the opposite can be true.


Regardless of the number of whales around there are a set of rules that the boat operators have agreed to so that they can be self-regulated rather than regulated by the Mexican government directly. There can be no more than 16 pangas in the  observation area at any one time. Pangas are limited to nine passengers. Pangas can be in the observation area for no more than 90 minutes. They must keep a “respectful” distance from the whales but it’s OK if the whale approaches the panga. They can’t get between a mother a calf. When the whales are close, they must keep their engines running – so the whales can hear them – but have the engine in neutral. If the whale choose to come to the boat – and it really IS up to the whales – it’s OK to touch but avoid the blowhole, eyes, and tail. And for any of the trips out where you’re doing two whale watches, after your 90 minutes is up, it’s OK to beach the boat at one of the large sand islands at the edge of the lagoon, wait 30 minutes, and then go back in for watch #2. (They actually have a ranger who monitors all of this.) Whew!!! But it all seems to work.


The other fun thing for me personally – and some of you may have watched some of these – is that Nautilus/Baja owner Mike Lever asked me before we left if I’d be interested in doing a number of short reports about what was going on with the whale watches each day I was down there. Mike also told me they had one of the boats hooked up with a special Wi-Fi (called StarLink) that would enable us to go LIVE from the boat in the lagoon while we were searching/watching. And they wanted to post these on their Instagram and YouTube channels. They even sent their social media director, Aline Rivas, down to be cameraperson. So when I’m being asked if I’d like to do a bunch of “Ken Kurtis LIVE from San Ignacio” webcasts, the only possible answer is YES!!! We did about a dozen short reports overall and one live 15-minute webcast from  the boat while we were interacting with the whales. You can see these on the Nautilus YouTube channel.


While this is a “short” trip, it’s pretty tightly-scheduled so that you can get everything in. Over the course of our time in camp, we made nine trips out to look for the whales. And when you go, there are four things you’re hoping to see: [1] Whales on the surface exhaling while swimming (pretty much guaranteed), [2] Spyhops (we saw plenty this year, as you’ll see from the pix), [3] Breaches (none this year), and [4] Close Encounters of the Grey Whale Kind where the whale comes to the boat and you can touch them (four of our folks got that, six of us got skunked).


So each time you enter the whale observation area, you start looking for whales and when you find one (usually a mother/calf pair), you then start following them to see what happens. And as we’ve said, it’s up to the whale to decide how close they’re going to come and if they want any direct human interaction or not. With fewer whales this year, those interactions were harder to come by. (The whales that allow human contact are known as “friendlies.”) And a lot of it is luck of the draw and whether you picked the right panga to be on and whether that panga was then lucky enough to follow the right whale.


Four of our people – Henry, Lisette, Mike, and Beth – were able to touch whales. (Henry did so multiple times.) The rest of us had whales come close – sometimes ALMOST within touching distance – but we didn’t get that magical experience.


But I’ve also developed a theory about contact with the whales, especially the types of extended contacts you see in the Baja Expedition brochures and promotional videos. Those feature whales that are almost putting themselves into the panga with you and begging to be stroked.


I noticed one thing, especially with the videos: They all seem to happen fairly calm days with relatively flat water. We didn’t have those conditions this year (nor last year). While we were out on the water, and at times the swells were a good 3 feet high, I kept mentioning that it seemed to me that it was harder for the whales to interact in chop than it would have been in calm seas. My observations are by no means scientific, but in the pix and videos I saw, relatively calm water seemed to be the order of the day.


But whether you touch a whale or not, as I said at the beginning, the whales will touch your heart. The calves will eye you as they pass by the boat, and the spyhops – especially if they’re close – are very impressive because you really get a sense just by seeing the head of how massive these gentle creatures are. So all in all, we had a blast.


I think this is the type of trip that, once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. I mean, the first time you see some of this you go “WOW!!!” but how many whale spouts and spyhops can you see without thinking, “What else have you got?” And –similar to the Guadalupe trips for Great Whites or our Isla Mujeres trips for Whale Sharks – four days of whale observing seems to be a good amount of time to experience all that this trip has to offer. So . . .


Will we go again in 2025? There’s a good chance as long as there’s interest. And my goal will be to hopefully pick the magic week or less wind and more whales. And while there are no guarantees, as I frequently say, you won’t know if you don’t go look. Perhaps you’d like to come look with us. After all, there may be a whale down there who’s longing to meet you.

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