Gray whale watching season begins in early December along the Pacific coast of Baja California and ends in early April in the same location. In the weeks in the whales will venture as far south as Cabo Pulmo and Cabo San Lucas to winter, before turning around and heading north again to summer in arctic waters.
Some of the Pacific Bays and lagoons of Baja California Sur are calving grounds for the gray whales and extraordinary up close experiences can be had with what have grown to be known as the Friendly Whales. This year whale counters are reporting more than a 60% increase in the number of mothers and calves showing up in the nursery areas. So it might be a very good year to get up close and personal with a gray whale.
When visiting to go whale watching be sure your tour has the appropriate state and federal licenses. It is not legal for just anyone to take you whale watching. Official tour guides must pass a course in protection and observation of the species. Vessels must also pass a passenger safety inspection. This limits the number of boats crowding close to the animals and should help to reduce harassment of the wonders of the sea and vessel inspections are to the benefit of the tourist.
There are a number of places to go whale watching, but by sheer tourist volume, more people see whales in Cabo San Lucas than anywhere else. But some of the best places to have up close encounters with what are usually gray whales are in San Ignacio Lagoon, Scammon's Lagoon and Adolfo Lopez Mateos. To a great extend these communities LIVE for the whale watching season. Small motel/hotels and quaint seafood restaurants are part of the thrill of the adventure. In my 16 years in Baja, some of these areas have seen significant growth because of the whale watching industry.
For thousands of years, the gray whales have migrated to Baja in the winter to bear their young in the warm and placid waters surrounding the Baja Peninsula. The gray whale migration takes them south past the west coast of the United States and the Pacific coast of Baja. Scammon’s Lagoon and Bahia San Ignacio are some of the most famous places to see gray whales. San Ignacio boasts the 'friendly whales', a pod that seems to have over some time, developed an affinity with the tourists that come to whale watch in Baja.
Gray whales are 52 feet long and weigh 36 tons, yet are gentle enough to touch… and Baja California’s Pacific coast is the perfect place to experience the thrill! Every year in November, more than 10 thousand gray whales trade the freezing waters of Alaska’s Bering Sea for the warmth of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula. Traveling along the Pacific coastline at top speeds of five mph and with pregnant females in the lead, the whales take about four months to make the 10 thousand miles roundtrip.
Hunted for their oils, blubber, and other valuable products, gray whales were once victims of massive slaughter in the 1800s and early 20th century. The hunting continued until the numbers were reduced to only a few hundred, and the whales were subsequently placed on the endangered species list. Thanks to an international protection agreement made among several countries in the 1940s, the whales’ numbers have grown at an incredible rate. Today, more than 30,000 gray whales exist and although still protected, they were removed from the endangered species list in 1975. Gray whales are among the oldest species of mammals, inhabiting the Earth for about 30 million years.
Once the whales reach the Mexican coast, they mate, bask in soothing lagoons and give birth, making January through early April the peak time to whale watch. During these months, boat excursions are available all along Baja California, giving tourists the chance to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural environment, see the newborn calves and enjoy the blowhole water shows. Gray whales are so friendly that on many occasions they swim right up to the boats and even allow human contact. In early spring, the calves and their mothers are the last to head back up north, and without the presence of the males, mothers are less protective, often allowing their young to approach tour boats more freely.
Where to Watch: Although a small percentage of whales, particularly those that are not giving birth, make it as far south as Cabo San Lucas and the East Cape on the southern tip of the Baja, most whale-watching takes place in three major lagoons all the coastline of the Baja Peninsula.
Laguna Ojo de Liebre: Also known as Scammon’s Lagoon, this body of water is located half-way down the peninsula on the Pacific side in Guerrero Negro, about 440 miles south of the border. It was the principal hunting lagoon used by commercial whale hunters in the 19th century. Today tourists arrive at the lagoon by car, but a national airport is also available for tourists flying in from other destinations in Mexico. Laguna San Ignacio: Located 100 miles south of Laguna Ojo de Liebre, access to this site is mostly through charter air service from international airports such as San Diego and Tijuana. Getting there is done by charter flight, charter bus or car, or by tour operators from nearby towns.
Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos: Located to the west of C.D. Insurgentes and about 50 minutes northeast of Constitucion, this quiet little town comes alive during whale watching season. Here it is very common to have a close-up encounter with a mother and calf. The Gray Whale Festival runs during the peak of the watching season, this year January 29-31, 2016 and is just about as big an event as this side of the peninsula gets to host. Charter flights are available and a variety of tours from Loreto and La Paz provide transportation.
Bahia Magdalena: (Magdalena Bay): This bay in becoming increasingly popular for whale-watching due to its proximity to the La Paz and Loreto International airports. Charters from La Paz provide transportation.
Cabo San Lucas: Although the above-mentioned locations may be more famous, it is possible that more people actually get to SEE whales in Los Cabos than any other location in Baja. From late December to late March the harbor sails and sunset trips aboard the many charters available each day have an excellent chance of a close encounter with a gray whale.
Pacific Border areas: It is possible to whale watch from the rest areas along the Pacific coastal Hwy between Tijuana and Ensenada. There are tours that will take you out into the Pacific from the Ensenada area and downtown port. But the whales you see in this region are headed somewhere else, either south in December or north in April. Seeing whales breach can be just as exciting, but your chances of interaction are slim.
Gray whales aren’t the only species to see while in Baja. Tourists can watch finback and blue whales, along with dolphins, sea lions, and exotic fish. Apart from paddling among islands, additional activities include snorkeling and hiking up scenic canyons offering breathtaking panoramas.