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Baja and the Whales of Magdalena Bay
February 15 -23, 2001
Miles of pristine beaches, luminous sunrises, sparkling blue waters, hidden coves, and desert wilderness make Mexico’s Baja Peninsula an adventure paradise—all along the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean side you’ll discover the natural beauty that draws visitors year after year to Baja California Sur.
Regarded as one of the most sought-after vacation destinations in the world, the state of Baja California Sur beckons to kayakers, sun worshippers, divers, and hikers alike—counting ourselves among each of these categories, we eagerly planned our getaway to the paradise between two seas.
Of course, the activities listed above would be enough for any fun-filled getaway, but what really drew us to Baja was the chance to experience one of the most incredible wildlife encounters on the planet—up-close whale watching in Magdalena Bay, the prime breeding ground for California gray whales.
For years we had dreamt of interacting with these graceful and gentle creatures, and what animal lover hasn’t?—known as “friendlies”, these intelligent, loving animals demonstrate remarkable curiosity and tenderness, often times coming close enough for physical contact.
Every year, these gentle giants—weighing in at 20 to 40-tons and reaching lengths of up to 52 feet—complete one of the most epic migrations on the planet, traveling nearly 5,000 miles from the cool coastal waters of Alaska to Baja’s warm subtropical Pacific bays. From January through March, the gray whales spend the winter courting, giving birth, and rearing their young in the secluded bays and lagoons of Baja Sur—we timed our visit for February, the height of the season, eager to observe the antics of the friendly marine mammals.
We based our adventure around the town of Cabo San Lucas—once a sleepy fishing village, now the primary tourist destination of southern Baja—allowing us the freedom to explore a broad expanse of Mexico’s Gold Coast.
Prior to arriving at the International Airport of Los Cabos, we booked our stay at the Hotel Hacienda (now Hacienda Beach Club and Residences)—our well appointed room included a fantastic view of Los Arcos (the arch) at Land’s End.
Playa del Amor is the quintessential Baja beach, complete with beautiful golden sand and towering rock formations, but to access this beautiful beach you need to do some hiking and bouldering.
Your hike will start behind the Hotel Solmar in Cabo San Lucas, Baja, Mexico, just walk down to Playa Solmar (Solmar Beach) and then head for the mountains/boulders. As you stand on Solmar Beach gazing out at the blue water, note that you are looking at the Pacific Ocean, but once you reach Playa del Amor you will be on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. Another fact to take note of, is the treacherous nature of the Pacific Ocean along this stretch of sand, it is so treacherous that many tourists have drowned in the intense wave break, so swim at your own risk, and never turn your back on the ocean.
Once you are on Solmar Beach, continue to make your way towards the boulders, then start climbing, and as you climb keep looking out at the ocean for signs of whales, in particular, a spray from their blowhole or a glimpse of a tail fluke. The scramble up the rocks is considered a class 3, so be sure of your bouldering skills before setting out, keeping in mind that the hike is probably about 1 mile roundtrip, although there are no markers, and you can take any route you want, so distance basically depends on your chosen path. We chose a pretty direct route where we climbed through a small window in the rocks, which was really fun, especially since the rock formations here are spectacular, especially with the shimmering blue sea as their backdrop—excellent!
Once over the first set of boulders you can rest at a sandy beach (at low tide), and then you can tackle your next set of boulders. This next set of boulders is a little steeper, but the views just keep getting better. The other side of this mountain reveals a wide sandy beach that stretches on forever, at this point head toward the rock formations that make up Land’s End, here you will find a sandy corridor connecting this beach with your destination of Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach). The brilliant turquoise water you see sparkling along the coast is the Sea of Cortez, and if your climbing skills are good, continue to climb up the rocks on the southern end of Lover’s Beach, where you will have a great view of Pelican Rock, Land's End, and Cabo San Lucas
Post hike, we stopped in the Aereo Calafia office to book our whale watching trip to Magdalena Bay—the tour included roundtrip transfer from the hotel to the airport, roundtrip scenic flight aboard a small Cessna plane to Lopez Mateos, ground transportation, boat service, three hour whale watching tour with bilingual guide, snack and beverages, and lunch at a local restaurant. Our guide Fernando and boat driver Arturo were both top-notch, as was the tour itself—we highly recommend Aereo Calafia for your adventure tour needs in Baja.
The adventure begins with an early morning scenic flight to Lopez Mateos—the hour long trip provides spectacular aerial views of the rugged coastline complete with whales cruising offshore, the beautiful arid desert, and the barren towering mountains of the Baja peninsula.
Upon arrival in Lopez Mateos, you board a taxi van for transfer to the boat dock—once at the dock your guide outfits everyone with a life jacket and instructs you to board one of the waiting pangas. The panga, or Mexican fishing boat, is a 23-foot long motorized skiff that sits close to the water allowing for unparalleled views of the friendly gray whales—approximately 5 to 6 passengers board each boat.
Magdalena Bay, or Bahia Magdalena, is sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by a barrier of desert islands—the perfect place to give birth and nurture a new whale calf. We set out on the water with great anticipation, ready to go eye-to-eye with a behemoth of the sea—we weren’t on the water 5 minutes before we had our first encounter. We observed several whales, at a distance, spy-hopping, breaching, deep-diving, and spouting—a rewarding sight to say the least, but would they live up to their friendly reputations and venture closer to their admirers? We hoped so!
Sharing in our enthusiasm were our fellow whale watchers Debbie and her two sons Cortez and Trevor and their friends Lisa and Lowell—Debbie, a former guide, graciously shared her knowledge of the ballena gris (gray whale), doubling our expertise quotient when paired with our official guide Fernando.
Anticipation mounted as we spotted a few whales coming closer to the boat, but just as they were about to be within reaching distance, they would disappear below the surface of the water—no friendlies just yet.
We continued to cruise the lagoon in search of a friendly whale—Arturo, our boat driver, expertly maneuvered the panga towards a grouping of boats (a max of three boats are permitted to approach any given whale). The boats, gathered near what appeared to be a mother whale and her calf, were congregated at a respectful distance from the grays—perhaps our dream of a close-encounter was about to be fulfilled.
As Arturo got closer to the animals, he respectfully cut the motor and raised the propeller out of the water—we floated closer to the mother and calf. Excitement replaced anticipation when it became evident that the whales were indeed curious about us—we knew that on numerous occasions, mother whales have been known to gently nudge their calves towards the boats in what appears to a gesture of introduction. Would she deem us worthy of such contact?
Conditions were perfect for a one of a kind encounter—the day was cloudy, eliminating any glare from the sun on the water, and the wind was calm, creating a glassy surface broken only by subtle ripples in the lagoon.
Our boat hovered silently near the gathering, making sure that the whales did not feel pursued—if an encounter was to happen, it would be on the whales’ terms not ours. Thankfully, the mother whale continued to encourage her calf to approach the boat—it is believed that the gray whales are innately curious about humans, hence the nickname “the friendlies.”
Silence filled the lagoon as the passengers in the three boats, including ours, held their collective breaths in expectation—then, as if to break the tension, a telltale whoosh broke the stillness.
I was kneeling along the port side when it happened—a calf swam towards me, making a beeline for the boat before diving to swim directly under the panga—I reached out to touch his soft rubbery skin and he made eye contact with me as he passed under my caress! The encounter of a lifetime—it was awesome!
Before I could even process the amazing event that just occurred, another whoosh broke the silence, followed by oohs and ahhs and the clicking of shutters on cameras—friendly encounter after friendly encounter transpired after the initial introduction and establishment of contact. The calf, whole-heartedly enjoying the attention, nudged the boat and popped its head out of the water, allowing outstretched hands to touch and caress—all under the close supervision of mom, who nonchalantly suns herself near the boat.
Not to be outdone by her offspring, big mama even decided to come in closer for some attention—nothing compares to such an encounter, after looking into the eyes of a 50 foot whale that is just hovering beside a 20 foot boat staring back at you, it is hard to deny the connection that is inherent to all living creatures. These massive animals could at anytime tip the boat over like it was a toy, and who would blame them after the way humans have hunted and killed these gentle giants, but they don’t—not once did they even so much as bump the boat. Their gentle, and truly friendly disposition, is a lesson in graciousness—truly a priceless experience.
After enjoying every minute of our three hour adventure with the whales, we made our way back to the shores of Lopez Mateos and the tables of a locally owned restaurant called Cabanas Brisas—fresh lobster, chips and salsa, quesadillas and a warm and friendly atmosphere made for a perfect dining experience.
Back at the airstrip, our pilot Toby was waiting to take us back to Cabo San Lucas—at the request of Debbie, he made the scenic flight even more exciting when he flew us close to a beach where hundreds of sea lions were basking on the sand. In flight, we were also able to view literally hundreds of whales swimming and basking in the offshore waters of the Pacific Ocean—quite a view!
Needless to say, our adventure with Aero Calafia was a huge highlight—it was so enjoyable in fact, that we immediately booked another excursion for later in our vacation—twice in the same trip!
Our second whale watching tour was just as amazing as the first but unique in its own way—sunshine and wind made photography more challenging and kept us from any close encounters with the whales. However, the highlight of our second excursion came with a whale that launched into a deep dive just a few feet from our boat—allowing me to get a full-frame image of its tail fluke before it disappeared into the deep.
Post whale watching, we were keen to discover more of the Baja peninsula, so we rented a convertible VW Beetle and set off for sights unknown—our driving tour included stops at Santa Maria Beach, Todos Santos, and a remote surfer’s beach called Playa San Pedro.
Santa Maria Beach, or Bahia Santa Maria, is a horseshoe-shaped cove tucked between two bluffs—the protected marine sanctuary harbors a pink sand beach, azure waters, and excellent snorkeling.
Todos Santos, a small coastal town just south of the Tropic of Cancer in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains, is on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula about an hour’s drive north of Cabo San Lucas—it is a great destination for its interesting shops, art galleries, and the Hotel California, which may or may not be the inspiration for The Eagles song of the same name.
The remote surfer’s beach, Playa San Pedro, at the end of lonely cactus lined dirt road is an adventure in itself—fringed by a palm oasis with miles of sandy beach, San Pedro is the perfect getaway if solitude is what you crave. Don’t mind the curious burros often encountered near the beach—they tend to be more at home in the desert wilderness than hanging ten on a surfboard.
Other highlights of our vacation included kayaking, snorkeling, and jet skiing in the Sea of Cortez—all forms of water sports can be accessed at the marina in Cabo. For a particularly fun outing, rent a kayak or jet ski and set out for El Arco—where the sea of Cortex meets the Pacific Ocean.
Last, but not least, we ventured out for a night of entertainment at the Cabo Wabo Cantina—since opening in 1990 the Cantina, owned by Sammy Hagar, has been one of the top places to eat and party in Mexico and the world. While there, we enjoyed a concert with surprise guest, Sammy himself—Mas Tequila!
Baja, Mexico earns its reputation as a top adventure destination—with warmth, the finest in national cuisine, top-rated hotels, extraordinary wildlife, and miles of unspoiled wilderness and beaches, it’s no wonder Baja draws travelers from around the world. We certainly were not disappointed in our adventure, and we guess that you won’t either—pack your bags and make a run for the border!
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