Grey whale watching in Baja California

Grey whale watching in Baja California is popular not just because these extraordinary creatures are so prolific, but because of how close they are prepared to come to people. It is probably the only place in the world where whales are virtually guaranteed to approach tourist boats and where, on occasion, they swim so close that tourists can reach their hands out to touch them.

At Responsible Travel, we usually discourage any kind of physical interaction with wildlife. However the situation with encountering grey whales in Baja California is highly unique. Magdalena Bay and San Ignacio Lagoon are zoned, with boats only able to enter a small section of them, so if the whales prefer to keep their distance, they can. The large number of whales means that the boats can sail into the lagoon, turn their engines off and simply wait for a grey whale to emerge.

The most responsible way to see a whale is for the whale to initiate the encounter – and Baja California is one of the few places where that regularly happens. Additionally, boats must display a flag when entering the lagoon. There are a limited number of flags available, and when they run out, the next boat must wait for another one to be returned before it can enter. This keeps the number of boats on the lagoon manageable, making it less disruptive for the whales, and even more special for those watching them.

Dylan Walker, CEO, World Cetacean Alliance:

“The best form of whale watching possible, in our view, is one in which the boats and the people and the whales are coexisting in the same space, and it’s not to the detriment of either party in any way. The interaction, if and when it takes place, is completely on the terms of the animals. Where we have these kinds of locations where the boats go and then wait for the animals to come to them, that is where we’re getting this mutual and respectful coexistence, and interestingly it’s actually leading to the best experiences you can possibly have with the animals.”

Is it okay to touch the grey whales in Baja California?

Anyone who has encountered wild animals will be aware that mothers with their babies are the most nervous, unpredictable and sometimes aggressive animals that you can encounter. But what happens with the grey whales in Baja is extraordinary. The whales migrate here to give birth, so the calves are often just days old. The mothers actively nudge them towards the boats, encouraging them to explore, and it has been suggested that the mothers who “introduce” their babies to the boats had the same thing done to them when they, too, were calves.

This does mean, of course, that a certain amount of habituation will have taken place in order for the whales to feel comfortable around the boats – although this is the case in many whale watching destinations. The whales can be observed approaching the boats, rubbing underneath them and encouraging their calves to do the same – it could be argued that with all this interaction between boat and whale, it becomes a bit of a moot point whether or not a passenger then sticks their hand out to touch a whale's head.
We spoke to Dylan Walker, marine biologist and CEO of the World Cetacean Alliance to discuss if it’s ethical to touch grey whales in Baja California:

“It’s absolutely right to question it and I suspect that San Ignacio probably will come in for more criticism as time goes by. We’re aware this is unusual, we’re very aware that we need to make decisions about the responsible viewing of these animals based on the best available scientific evidence.”
“At the moment we can’t see any evidence that really shows this is a bad thing… the grey whales spend five months in the lagoons and then they leave, they migrate all the way up into the Arctic. Obviously they come across a lot of shipping traffic and a lot of boats, and clearly they’re not behaving in the same way during that time. We would see that, we would see lots of film and footage and photographs of that if they were coming up to boats in Monterrey Bay for example. I think if they were, that would be a real cause for concern because there would be risks of collisions.”

“If the scientific evidence changes and shows that there is a significant impact on these animals from touching, then at that point we definitely need to review that really quickly. But given all the other positives that are coming out of the interaction between people and whales in San Ignacio, we’re happy with the status quo.”
The wider benefits of grey whale watching

The wider benefits of grey whale watching in Baja

In the 1990s, plans emerged to build a saltworks in San Ignacio Lagoon, which would have devastated not just the lagoon and the grey whales’ breeding grounds, but also the pristine desert landscapes that surround it. Environmental campaigners fought hard, but the project seemed unstoppable.

Finally, in 2000, the then president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, visited San Ignacio with his family. The friendly whales lived up to their reputation and approached his boat, bobbing out of the water, and allowing themselves to be stroked by the president’s wife and children. Just days later, the saltworks was called off – by the president himself. The presence of the grey whales, their incredible friendliness towards humans, and the opportunities for whale watching holidays, have literally saved this region from development, pollution and heavy industry.
And the local community should get plenty of credit for this too, as Dylan Walker explains: “A lot of thought has gone into the level of responsible whale watching in San Ignacio. A huge amount of credit has to be given to the indigenous local Mexican community there. They could have sold out to multinational companies, there could easily be a Hilton Hotel at San Ignacio Lagoon. There isn’t anything like that, it’s one of the few places in the world that is a desert environment surrounded by this incredible lagoon stuffed full of grey whales and it looks the same way as it did thirty years ago. That’s a huge credit to them, and their aspirations. They could have taken the money and run but they’ve remained relatively poor communities. They take people out on these little panga boats, and it is well managed.”

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Responsible Travel’s stance

Responsible Travel’s stance

We’re not aware of any evidence to show that physical contact causes any harm to the whales in Baja. In fact, this is actually one of the most responsible examples of whale watching in the world – in the way that it is managed, with low visitor numbers, strict regulations on how the boats are driven, and with the encounters always being initiated by the whales, not the boat drivers. With this in mind, whether or not passengers can touch the whales seems irrelevant.
But what Baja proves is that it is essential for boats to follow strict rules, and to allow the whales the freedom to behave naturally. As Dylan Walker says, “when we do that – and this is the thing that a lot of whale watching companies just don’t understand at the moment – we don’t get worse encounters, we get better encounters. In fact, we get the best encounters, because the animals are relaxed. That’s when you get whales under the boat, dolphins all around you; it’s not when you race up to them, it’s the complete opposite. That’s the sort of change in mentality that we through the WCA and our whale watching partners are trying to implement. Only then are we going to find out that 13 million people that go whale watching every year are going to be coming away with even more mindblowing experiences than they are having now, and generating the next generation of marine conservationists and advocates and everything else. It’s all there for the taking, it’s just that we have to understand these animals better, and appreciate and be more respectful about the way in which we interact with them.”

Read our interview with Dylan Walker, as part of our Folks we Love series.

How does whale watching in Baja work?

Baja would just be another whale watching destination were it not for the 20,000 grey whales that cruise into its waters each year. Not only is this an extraordinary number, but it’s magnified by the relatively small size of the lagoons in which they breed and give birth. Boats can literally sit on the water, engines off, and the chances are a whale will appear nearby. In fact, you don’t even need to be on a boat; you can see them breaching right in front of your camp.

What is the best time to see grey whales in Baja California?

The main season for grey whales in Baja is from late December through to April, though the whales are greatest in number from January to March. There are plenty of other whale species in these waters too, such as humpbacks, blue, minke, Bryde’s, sperm and fin, and many of them can be seen year-round.
How to get to Baja

How to get to Baja

Most visitors to Baja transfer in Los Angeles onto a connecting flight down to La Paz or Loreto – although direct flights to Cabo San Lucas may also be available. You’ll likely spend a night in one of those towns, before being picked up the next morning and driven to one of the whale camps in either Magdalena Bay, at Puerto Lopez Mateo, or at San Ignacio Lagoon.
Where will I be staying?

Where will I be staying?

The whale camps are run by local communities and put you right out there in the wonderful natural surroundings of Baja. You might be camping in the sand dunes, in full-height canvas tents, or staying in little beachside cabanas. There are also options for using Loreto as a base and staying in a comfortable hotel with a swimming pool. This also gives you the option to explore the Sea of Cortez and other parts of Baja more easily.
You can also opt to stay onboard a small cruise ship, carrying under 100 passengers, in the Sea of Cortez. Many marine species can be observed here, including blue and humpback whales and whale sharks, and there are organised excursions which travel across the peninsula to the lagoons to see the grey whales.
How can I watch the whales?

How can I watch the whales?

If you’re staying in the whale camps, you may well be able to see grey whales from your tent – particularly on the shores of Magdalena Bay. But you’ll be heading out in a panga-style boat each day to go and see them up close. The boats are skippered by local fishermen who take tourists out during the grey whale season; they know the lagoons and the whales incredibly well.
There is a system where boat cooperatives will have a fixed number of flags. Each boat that goes out takes a flag – and when there are no flags left, no more boats can go out on the water. This limits the disturbance to the whales – as well as ensuring tour boats aren’t jostling for space on the lagoon.
If you’re staying in Loreto, or on a liveaboard in the Sea of Cortez you’ll be driven across the peninsula to the lagoons to see the whales.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: ryan harvey] [Whale and people: ryan harvey] [Whale head: ryan harvey] [Ok to touch - mother and baby: Wisley] [Petting whale: Michael R Perry] [Sunset: Beep] [RT stance: Beep] [What it entails intro: Farwestern ] [Where will I be staying: Sam Beebe] [How to get to Baja: Cristo Vlahos] [Cruise: Prayitno] [Whale camp: Michael R Perry] [Boat - flags: Michael R Perry]