By Mark Carwardine
Baja California, on the wild Pacific coast of Mexico, is the best place in the world to see whales in all their glory. That’s why the zoologist Mark Carwardine heads there at this time every year to get his fix.
I am a whale addict. I need to see a whale at regular intervals just to survive normal daily life. Since I saw my first exactly 30 years ago, I’ve been whale-watching in at least 50 different countries – many more times than I can remember – and yet every time I head out to sea I get the same buzz of anticipation I felt the first time around.
But there is one whale-watching hot spot that has had a greater impact on me than anywhere else on the planet. I’ve returned there once, twice or three times a year since the late Eighties – doing research, taking photographs and leading tours – and miss it enormously when I’m somewhere else.
It’s Baja California, on the wild Pacific coast of Mexico. Look at a map of North America and, down in the bottom left-hand corner, you will see a long stretch of land that looks rather like a giant chilli. This is Baja. It’s one of the longest peninsulas in the world, stretching 800 miles (1,300km) south from the Californian border, and you can see a greater variety of whales and dolphins here in a couple of weeks than anywhere else on the planet.
One moment you could be surrounded by thousands of boisterous common dolphins or enjoying a close encounter with an inquisitive fin whale, the next you could be alongside a group of deep-diving sperm whales or watching a family of rare and elusive Peruvian beaked whales.
But there are three thrilling, uplifting, life-changing – and virtually guaranteed – highlights of any trip to this “Mexican Galápagos”: tickling implausibly friendly grey whales under the chin, listening to humpback whales singing their haunting, unearthly songs, and enjoying unforgettably close encounters with gargantuan blue whales.
Best of all, as there are more than 1,860 miles (3,000km) of untamed shoreline and very few whale-watching boats in the region, most of the time you have the whales, dolphins and other wildlife all to yourself.
Baja is a world of peace and tranquillity. As John Steinbeck says in his classic The Log from the Sea of Cortez: “Whatever it is that makes one aware that men are about is not there. Thus, in spite of the noises of waves and fishes, one has a feeling of… quietness.”
I remember one particular evening on my most recent trip. I was sitting on the deck of the boat, under a glorious sky, listening to the sounds of the night: the water lapping against the bow, coyotes calling from nearby sand dunes, a cacophony of barks from distant sea lions, and the thunderous blows of whales all around. Absolute heaven.
Planning a whale-watching trip
Friendly grey whales
Grey whales are widely regarded as the friendliest of all whales: it’s often hard to tell who is supposed to be watching whom. Spending time with them is arguably one of the greatest wildlife experiences on Earth – a blur of leaping, laughing, spouting, splashing, stroking, playing and patting.
These inveterate travellers commute along the entire length of the western North American coastline, between their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic and their winter breeding grounds in Baja. For several months each year, practically the entire world population of grey whales gathers in four mangrove-lined breeding lagoons along the Pacific coast of Baja to socialise, mate and calve. My favourite lagoon is San Ignacio.
All encounters are from pangas, fibreglass boats seating eight to 10 people and operated by local fishermen – perfect for close encounters. The whales are as playful and trusting as kittens: they come alongside the boats and nudge them, or push them round in circles, or even lift them up, ever so gently, and then lower them back into the water. Best of all, they lie there waiting to be scratched and tickled. (Just in case you’re wondering if it’s a good policy to encourage people to touch wild animals, consider this: if you don’t scratch and tickle them, the whales simply go and find a boatload of people who will.)
The calves are usually most playful, but sometimes a huge cloud of bubbles will erupt from the water underneath the boat. There is a slight swishing sound and then a gigantic, bowed head appears right alongside. It is Mum – all 50ft of her – who is always nearby keeping a watchful eye on proceedings. Seeing her appear suddenly from the depths is like watching the Mother Ship appear in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But even she enjoys the occasional scratch and tickle.
Just a brief flirtation with a friendly grey whale is often all it takes to turn normal, quiet, unflappable people into delirious, jabbering extroverts. Everyone becomes the life and soul of the party. I have seen grown men and women break into song, burst into tears, slap one another on the back and do all the things that normal, quiet, unflappable people are not supposed to do. I have done it all myself and like nothing better than to watch other people falling under the spell, knowing that their lives will never be quite the same again.
Stephen Fry sums it up best. We spent a couple of weeks filming in Baja, for the BBC television series Last Chance to See, and he became a lifelong whale addict after our first day in San Ignacio. “Suck my pants and call me Noreen,” he said. “That was the best day of my life. What a phenomenal experience. Epic. Epic. Epic.”
But it’s hard to believe that these very same grey whales once had a reputation for being ferocious and dangerous. They were hunted ruthlessly in the second half of the 19th century, and again in the early 20th century, until there were almost none left (numbers have bounced back since thanks to strenuous conservation efforts).
Yankee whalers entered the Baja lagoons in small wooden rowing boats (roughly the same size as today’s whale-watching pangas) and harpooned them. But the whales fought back – chasing the whaling boats, lifting them out of the water, ramming them with their heads and dashing them to pieces with their tails. They would “fight like devils”, so the Yankee whalers dubbed them “devilfish”.
Nowadays, somehow, they seem to understand that we come in peace. The survivors positively welcome whale-watching tourists into their breeding lagoons and, far from smashing our small boats to smithereens, welcome us with open flippers. They seem to have forgiven us for all those years of greed, recklessness and cruelty. They trust us, when we don’t really deserve to be trusted. It’s a humbling experience.
Singing humpback whales
Just off the southern tip of Baja California is another magical place: a breeding ground for humpback whales.
If you wanted to design the perfect whale for whale-watching, you couldn’t do much better than a humpback. It’s not too difficult to find, nice and easy to identify, shamelessly inquisitive (if humpback whales had curtains they would spend all their time peeping through the gap in the middle) and capable of performing some of the most spectacular acrobatic displays on Earth. Herman Melville, who mentioned them in Moby Dick, knew what he was talking about when he described them as “the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water generally than any of them”.
Their pièce de résistance is breaching – leaping out of the water – and they seem to do this a lot off the southern tip of Baja. Flying through the air, arching their backs and waving their enormous flippers about, they hit the water with a thundering splash, as if someone has dropped a submarine from a great height, before disappearing from sight beneath the surface.
One of the highlights of any visit to Baja is a chance to listen to male humpback whales singing their plaintive songs. Drop an underwater microphone, or hydrophone, into the water and it’s possible to eavesdrop on an entirely different world. The air is filled with a baffling medley of moans, groans, snores, squeaks and whistles. With elements of jazz, bebop, blues, heavy metal, classical and reggae all rolled into one, this mesmerising, unforgettable live concert sparks a roller-coaster of emotions: soothing and melancholic, shocking and unsettling, mesmerising and awe-inspiring. Human words just don’t do justice to the longest and most complex song in the animal kingdom. There is nothing else quite like it.
Gargantuan blue whales
Rounding the Baja peninsula, turning north, you enter an even more extraordinary world. This is the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California, which lies between Baja and “mainland” Mexico.
It is a well-kept secret that tends to be overshadowed by San Ignacio, its more famous neighbour. But visiting the grey- whale lagoons without venturing into the Sea of Cortez is like buying a book and then reading only the first chapter.
Dotted with islands harbouring huge numbers of magnificent frigatebirds, red-billed tropicbirds, blue-footed boobies and many other seabirds, the Sea of Cortez is also home to weird and wonderful elephant trees, the world’s tallest cactuses, endemic Xantus’s hummingbirds, mobula rays that leap out of the water like flying pancakes, ocean sunfish, giant whale sharks, several different species of sea turtles, and so much more. There is even a little islet, called Los Islotes, that is probably the best place in the world to snorkel with friendly, inquisitive and playful California sea lions.
But it’s the whales that draw people back time and again. And, in particular, it’s the blue whales. This is one of the best places in the world to see the largest and most impressive animals on the planet.
Hundreds of thousands of blue whales were killed by whalers and, although they were given official protection in the mid-Sixties, most populations have never recovered. But this one – thank goodness – seems to be thriving. Dividing its time between Baja California, central and southern California, and a place called the Costa Rican Dome (an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water off the coast of Central America), it accounts for as many as one in three of all the blue whales in the world. There are believed to be 2,000 to 3,000 in the region altogether.
Seeing a blue whale is every naturalist’s dream. But it’s impossible to prepare someone for their first encounter. An average-sized blue whale is stupendously, astonishingly enormous: almost as long as a Boeing 737 and weighing as much as the human population of the Isles of Scilly (2,000). Quite simply, it takes your breath away.
When one of these animals surfaces next to the boat, you are hooked for life. It’s worth travelling all the way to Baja for that single experience alone.
– The main whale-watching season in Baja is from early February to the end of April. By far the best way to explore is to join a marine safari.
– For details of trips led by Mark Carwardine himself (fully booked this year), see markcarwardine.com; for information on trips organised by other tour operators, contact the Latin American Travel Association (020 8715 2913 ; lata.org). It’s possible to drive or fly to San Ignacio Lagoon (from San Diego or Ensenada) and stay in one of several camps on shore. Local fishermen take you out in their pangas to watch the whales every day.