Our Unforgettable Day With Baja's Gray Whales
Many memorable experiences have happened because of this year-long trip. I often wonder if it weren’t for this "pause" that we're on, would we have even seen or experienced this much in our entire lifetime? There are definitely times that have reinforced the precise reasons for why we are taking this year together as a family. One moment that stands out is our remarkable boat trip through Ojo De Liebre, a lagoon that embraces thousands of gray whales each winter. I've reserved this post for them. This was undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime, holy-crap-did-that-just-happen moment. Without further ado, here is our up close and personal day with the gray whales in Guerrero Negro, Baja California Sur!
In our previous post we were a week into our journey through Baja. Despite our feelings of uncertainty thanks to travel advisories and warnings that were given to us, we were eventually warming up to the idea that Baja is actually pretty cool. It seemed that everything we were seeing, doing, as well as the people we were meeting were nothing short of genuine. So we caravanned on. Our group crossed into Baja California Sur (the supposed more "dangerous" state of Baja) at Guerrero Negro and our intentions as a family were to whip a u-ey and hightail it north if we felt the least bit unsafe or creeped out. But only after we saw the whales, I pleaded. I was willing to risk my life to see these whales, you guys. Just wait...it gets better.
First Things First: Tours & Tacos
We landed at Malarrimo Eco Tours mid-day and promptly registered for the outgoing whale tour scheduled for the next morning. The bonus to this establishment is that there is a restaurant and camping onsite so no need to wander around looking for all three. The town of Guerrero Negro, we found out almost immediately, was nothing special to write home about. The main draw here were the whales and one thing was apparent, the people here had a HUGE appreciation for these beautiful giants. More on that later because first things first, we needed tacos. You don't come to Baja without eating hundreds of tacos.
A Truly unique experience
People from around the world plan a visit to Guerrero Negro in order to live out the experience of meeting gray whales in the waters of Ojo de Liebre Lagoon, where from December to April, they breed and give birth. They call this protected lagoon (and others nearby) home for four months each year while on their 10,000 mile long journey. It is the longest known migration of any mammal on earth and Baja is known as the largest concentration of gray whales in the world. This incredible sight - living it and being amazed by the beauty of these giants was a thrilling experience that renewed our sense of wonder. What's amazing is that these gentle sea mammals are apparently just as curious of us as we are of them.
So what is so great about this three-hour whale tour, you might ask? Here, and only here in the world, can you touch, pet, kiss, and witness the gray whales right from your very own boat!
Before I cut to the videos and photos of us loving on the gray whales I want to mention one thing because I too was curious. These whales are extremely protected here. I'll remind you that only local fishermen who have been educated on whale migration and breeding are allowed to take tourists into the lagoon, and tourism is closely controlled. This area is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a Mexican biosphere reserve, a whale sanctuary, and a migratory bird sanctuary. At the time of our visit, they estimated 1,200 gray whales were inhabiting the lagoon. Chip is convinced that in twenty years the collective conscience will decide this whole thing was a terrible idea, but it is all currently accepted as completely legitimate.
So Many Whales, So Little time
Our shuttle took 30 minutes from Malarrimo in town to the Ojo de Liebre Lagoon. Upon arriving there were a handful of small boats positioned and ready to invite us aboard. After donning our bulky orange life jackets, we hopped in our boats with 8-10 other excited folks and began our twenty minute trek to the center of the lagoon, where all the whales await. Our captain assured us a great experience with the number of whales at its peak, and I anxiously hoped he was right. Not long after, someone behind us exclaimed "Look! There!" Necks were craning and eventually I noticed several sprays of water in the distance. The chatter on the boat picked up and everyone grew eager.
I'm fairly certain Chip was skeptical about the whole "whale tour" up until now. Moments after killing the engine, our boat bobbing in the water, his disposition changed. There one was, gracefully swimming towards our boat. My heart was thumping with excitement. My eyes could hardly believe the sight in front of us. At that moment, everyone in the boat began squealing like giddy school children (including Chip) and the boat tipped as we made our way to take a closer look. Don't miss the whale in the photo below. The sheer size of some of these whales were hard to process until you see the boat, people aboard, and whale suspended below the surface. In other words, they are HUGE! As in 40 tons, huge. That's five male elephants COMBINED!
What happened next was fascinating to watch. Just as we were intrigued by the whale's behavior so was our whale of us. The tip of his tail would pop out of the water as their enormous bodies graciously moved around our boat to check us out. The poof of air shot from his blowholes (gray whales actually have two) and the boys 'oohed and ahhed.' I'm sure this tactic meant we were each warming up to one another. But eventually our pact of friendship was sealed as the whale moved in at one point and accepted a pat on his head. From that moment on, we were affectionately invited into their surroundings. They were simply awe-inspring!
We spent a majority of the time with a very friendly male gray whale (whom we pictured and taped below). He would move in so close, bumping right up to our boat, that we could see every detail and barnacle on his skin. We felt invited by him to touch his body, and it was fun to hear the boys' excitement in their voices each time he came near. The touch felt like the exchange of a wet and lovable handshake that gave us all the opportunity to feel his silky, and in some spots, rough texture. We also noticed how much he enjoyed scratching his back on our boat. He would pass back and forth slowly and smoothly, rubbing his body along the way. Our boat would rock and slightly lift up until his face would emerge on one side of the boat greeting us again with a curious eye. We hung out with this guy for awhile until another boat came over and wanted to meet him. At that point we fired up the motor to find another whale friend. It became so normal to see whales approach our boat that by the end of our three hours we were all accustomed to it.
Just The Two of Us
I'm holding back from posting a hundred videos that probably all look the same to you but I have to include the encounter we had with a mama and her calf - trust me, it was so cute even the guys on the boat sounded like they had just hit puberty. See video below. I also found it fascinating that baby gray whales, when born, weigh roughly 1,500 pounds and consume 50 gallons of milk per day! Dude, that is one dedicated mama.
Going Out With A Bang
After our adrenaline began to subside from our incredible morning with the gray whales, little did we know we would be in for one last finale. We were speeding back to the dock when out of nowhere a whale shot out of the water. Even the captain and his guide were surprised. They along with us were hooting and hollering with gusto. I'm not sure how many times it breached but we made wide circles around it and as if showing off, he continued his tricks. The absolute excitement was palpable. Just watch the dang video and I promise not to make you watch anymore!