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FOLLOWING  THE  WHALE  TRAIL
BY ANN HAZARD

Imagine this. You're a 49 foot, 73,000 pound, very pregnant gray whale. You've spent nearly two months swimming from the frigid waters of the Bering Sea toward your calving grounds in San Ignacio Lagoon, halfway down the coast of Baja California on the Pacific side of the peninsula. It's the day before Christmas and you've just passed the city of Ensenada and rounded the tip of Punta Banda. As you come up to the ocean's surface to blow, you hear the splashing of oars. Raising your massive head up out of the water, you fix a softball-sized eyeball on a pair of humans paddling along in bright yellow boats. Rumor has it, these creatures call what you're doing spyhopping. Right before your head slams back down into the water, you see the humans pointing and shouting to each other. One takes his oar and taps at the side of his kayak, obviously trying to communicate with you. Now you're really curious. 

You spyhop again and slide across the ocean's surface for a moment before flipping your flukes at them and diving. Your baby moves in your belly and you can tell your time is near. You've been pregnant for over 12 months and still have about two weeks before you reach your winter home in Baja. You signal to the others in your pod to pick up the pace and swim off. 

Like the Snow Birds who trek from the cold northern climes of Canada and the U.S. to Baja every year to winter on its warm, abounding beaches, the California gray whales--all 24,000 of them--make an annual 10- to 12,000-mile round trip from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to the protected lagoons of Baja. Some of the most playful and prolific of all cetaceans, their population has rebounded from a scant 500 in 1947 when they were put on the Endangered Species List, to what's assumed to be their original number. So remarkable has been their recovery, that they were removed from protective status in 1994. 

What drove the gray whales to the brink of extinction? Humans, of course....Whalers discovered Laguna San Ignacio and Laguna Ojos de Liebre (known stateside as Scammon's Lagoon) in the mid-1800s. There was a huge market for whale products world-wide back then. Their blubber was boiled to use as fuel oil. Whalebone and baleen were used for corsets, brushes and the spokes of umbrellas. Even after whale oil was replaced by petroleum and electricity, whale meat was still used as cat food. For nearly 100 years, the gray whales of Baja were slaughtered. The whalers would block off the entrance to the tranquil lagoons where the grays mated, gave birth, nursed and frolicked with their young. Their sanctuaries became killing grounds and the waters of the Baja lagoons turned red with the blood of dying whales. Gray whale moms, like the one we met a while ago, had nasty reputations among the whalers, who called them "Devil Fish." These females were fiercely protective of their young. Oftentimes, after her baby had been murdered before her eyes, the mother would charge the whaling boats, injuring and killing their crews. 

Here are few more facts about the grays. The females are larger than males, growing to about 50 feet and weighing in at 30 to 35 tons. The males only get to be about 46 feet long and weigh 25 to 20 tons. Toothless, they have filters in their mouths called baleen that sieve food from the water. They blow about three to five times in a row, then they flip their flukes, or tail fins, and dive for three to five minutes. They can stay down up to 15 minutes. And they can dive to about 400 feet, although they prefer shallower water. 

The babies are about six feet long when they're born and weigh about a ton. They nurse for eight months off their mothers, whose milk contains--by the way--53 per cent fat. This rich milk helps them build up enough blubber to make the long journey back north to their feeding grounds, a trek they begin at about two months old. Grays become sexually mature somewhere between five and 11 years old. Their mating rituals, which they carry out in the protected waters of the Baja lagoons, are pretty interesting. Think about it.... These massive cetaceans have no appendages to use to hang onto each other. There's no way they could successfully mate without assistance. Because it takes at least three of them to copulate, an adolescent male comes alongside the female and holds her steady while the mature male mates with her. Good training for the future! 

For the first 25 or so years that the whales were protected, scientists studied them from afar. In Laguna San Ignacio, the Mexican fishermen didn't dare go near them for fear they'd be mistaken for whalers and their pangas (wooden fishing skiffs) would be smashed to smithereens. Francisco Mayoral, a local fisherman now in his mid-50s, claims that no one who'd ever gotten near a gray whale lived ... until he had his first whale encounter back in 1972, that is. Francisco was out in his panga with some other fishermen one day, rowing to catch the outgoing tide. A whale swam up to their boat. Francisco rowed like crazy for shore. Only this gray followed him! He and the other men in the boat fell to their knees, made the sign of the cross and started praying like the dead men they thought they were. When nothing happened, Francisco opened his eyes, only to see the whale's nine-foot head with its huge, unblinking eye staring right straight at him. Then it slipped back into the water and started rubbing itself up against the boat. It did this, apparently, for nearly an hour. Then it swam away. 

The locals were dumfounded. They discussed this phenomenal event among themselves, but the lagoon was so isolated that word didn't leak out to the scientific community for a few more years. It was a crew member from a whale watching boat out of San Diego, the Salado, who was the first person to actually touch a gray whale, in 1976. 

Over the next five or so years, scientists descended on the area with greater and greater frequency. The playful whales--the ones who loved to be stroked and who put on shows for the humans--began to be called "Friendlies." The word spread and tourists began to show up. Soon the Mexican government began licensing guides to take boatloads of curious visitors out onto the lagoons to see the whales up close and personal. 

Are the whales really safe? Are they really "friendly?" If the answers to both of those questions are yes--then how and why did they come to forgive the humans for a century of ruthless slaughter? No one really knows the answer to that question, but tour leader Lynn Mitchell of Baja Discovery Tours, a company with a "safari camp" right on San Ignacio Lagoon, things have come around so much that the mothers actually teach their babies to come to the pangas. "The babies love to be petted," she says. "And so many of the older ones love to have their baleen stroked. They all love to play. I've even had my boat picked up and carried on a mama whale's back before. And spun like a toy." 

The grays show up in Southern Baja about December or January. The last stragglers take off by late April. Because the Mexican government is very strict about who's allowed near the whales, it's necessary to go on a tour with an authorized guide. There's always a group of government observers who watch all the tourists from shore with their high-powered telescopes to make sure no one hurts the whales or ventures into the off-limits areas of the lagoons. 

If you're itching to get close to a gray whale, don't try to do it stateside. It's against the law. You've got to go to Baja. Here there are lots of options. You can go whale watching in Todos Santos Bay aboard a large sportfishing boat, or go for the close encounter in Scammon's Lagoon, Laguna San Ignacio Lagoon or Magdalena Bay in a 6-10 passenger panga. If you want to create your own adventure, you can drive down Baja, or take advantage of package tours that include meals, accommodations and van or bus transportation. One thing for sure is that reservations fill up fast, and the time to book is NOW!

ABOUT ANN HAZARD

Ann Hazard is a third generation Baja aficionada who resides in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA and a weekend getaway at La Bufadora, a few miles south of Ensenada. She has followed her grandfather's and father's footsteps up and down the peninsula since she was a small child. Her family's adventures are woven into the 175 recipes contained in COOKING WITH BAJA MAGIC: Mouth-Watering Meals from the Enchanted Kitchens & Campfires of Baja. The 240-page book features an enticing array of easy-to-prepare recipes including salsas, appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, desserts and beverages.

Ann's second book, CARTWHEELS IN THE SAND, is an insightful novel about four women, a motorhome and their odyssey of self-discovery while traveling the Baja peninsula. Drawing upon personal experiences, Ann has created fictional characters who are totally believable and a road trip that is amazing in its authenticity.

Her newest book, AGAVE SUNSETS, is a memorable collection of 50 tales spanning four generations of Baja, its people, places and adventures along the way. Rich in knowledge of Mexican culture and lore, the 212-page AGAVE SUNSETS is a delightful and satisfying journey through Baja.

Full of colorful characters and absorbing adventures, Ann Hazard's books are enjoyable, captivating and informative for all readers, whether longtime Baja aficionados, newcomers to the peninsula, or armchair travelers. Click to order COOKING WITH BAJA MAGIC, CARTWHEELS IN THE SAND or AGAVE SUNSETS.



WHALE WATCHING TOUR DIRECTORY
COMPILED BY CONNIE ELLIG
The California gray whales are here! Since mid-December, these gentle giants have been sighted off the coasts of Baja as they migrate from cold Arctic waters to the warm breeding grounds of central Baja. Below is a handy guide for whale watching excursions. Note that whale watching tour availability may vary from city to city and are based on approximate dates of yearly whale arrivals and departures. For additional information about the whales of Baja, check out Baja Links or search for whales on the San Diego Natural History Museum web site.

ENSENADA (TODOS SANTOS BAY)

Migrating whales near Todos Santos Island can often be viewed within 50-250 feet of boats. Sportfishing boats, rather than small outboard pangas, are used for the excursions. With 20-40 passenger capacities, these larger boats offer more creature comforts especially appreciated by landlubbers and families with small children. From approximately Dec. 26-March 31, guided 4-hour tours are available for approximately $20dlls./adult and $15dlls./child (under age 12). A percentage of the ticket price helps support and maintain the Ensenada Science Museum ("Caracol" Museo de Ciencias). Trips depart from the sportfishing docks on the malecon at 11am on weekdays, 10am and 1:30pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Be sure to bring a jacket, camera and your own refreshments.

Ensenada Science Museum ("Caracol" Museo de Ciencias)  Tel. (646)178-7192
Advance reservations required; payment should be made at the museum on Av. Obregon between Calles 14 & 15. 

Sergio's Sportfishing Center & Marina Tel/fax (646)178-2185; e-mail
Reservations suggested but walk-ins OK. Discounts and/or private charters available for groups of 30 or more. In U.S. call Baja California Tours toll free at 1-800-336-5454.

PACKAGE TOURS
Baja-Web Tours  U.S. toll free: 1-800-346-3942, ext. 36; e-mail
Tour packages with accommodations at a variety of local hotels.


GUERRERO NEGRO (SCAMMON'S LAGOON)
Also known as Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Scammon's is the annual calving ground of the greatest number of gray whales -- more than 1,500 each season. From December 15-April 15, guided tours are conducted aboard 10-passenger outboard pangas (skiffs). Bow spray and some wind are inevitable, so be sure to wear warm clothing and headgear, and bring plastic or waterproof bags to protect camera equipment. Because the number of tours and visitors to the lagoon is limited by the government, reservations are recommended. Kayaks and private boats are prohibited from entering the lagoon; only government-authorized tour boats are allowed.

Tours of the innermost lagoon can be arranged by driving out to the Parque Natural de la Ballena Gris, 5 miles south of town on Highway 1, then 17 miles on a graded dirt road. But if you don't have time for the drive (and possibly a return trip in case a tour is not immediately available), it is more convenient to book an excursion in advance with Malarrimo Eco-Tours, Laguna Tours or Mario's Tours, all of which offer daily 4-hour guided tours at 8am and 11am for $45dlls./adult and $35dlls/child (under age 11). The price includes a 3-hour panga excursion, box lunch, guide, taxes and round trip van transportation from town through private salt works property to the special boat departure area at the mouth of the lagoon.

Malarrimo Eco-Tours  Tel/fax (615)157-0100; e-mail
Next to world-famous Malarrimo Restaurant/Motel/RV Park on Blvd. Emiliano Zapata at entrance into town. Tours popular among caravans and European visitors -- be sure to book early.

Laguna Tours  Tel/fax (615)157-0050; e-mail
On Blvd. Emiliano Zapata next to Motel San Ignacio, one block before the water tower. Laguna Tours also operates Casa Laguna Bed & Breakfast and offers tent and camping equipment rentals.

Mario's Tours
Inquire at Mario's Palapa Restaurant on Highway 1 just south of 28th parallel checkpoint.

PACKAGE TOURS
Tillie's "Whale of a Time" Adventure Trips  Ensenada tel. (646)176-1901, ext. 169; fax (646)176-4930; e-mail 5-day, 4-night tour packages for groups with round trip ground transportation from Ensenada, snacks & sodas in transit, lunch at Mama Espinoza's in El Rosario, 2-night accommodations in Guerrero Negro, guided whale watching trip in Scammon's Lagoon with lunch, and first and last night accommodations at Ensenada's San Nicolas Resort. 

Baja AirVentures  U.S. toll free: 800-221-WAVE(9283); e-mail 
6-day all-inclusive whale watching tour packages with private round trip air transportation from San Diego. See whales in Scammon's Lagoon AND the Sea of Cortes.

Baja Jones Adventure Travel  E-mail 
4 to 6-day whale watching tour packages with ground transportation from San Diego.


SAN IGNACIO (SAN IGNACIO LAGOON)
Renowned for it numerous "friendly" whales, Laguna San Ignacio is a 40-mile, 1 1/2 hour drive west of town along a somewhat bumpy dirt road. If you have not booked tours in advance, be sure to stop in town first to inquire about guide and panga availability, prices and road conditions.

El Padrino Restaurant/RV Park  Tel. (615)154-0089; fax (615)154-0222
1-day whale watching tours arranged for groups of 10 or more from January-April.

Rice & Beans Oasis Restaurant/RV Park  Tel/fax (615)154-0283
1-day whale watching tours arranged for groups of 6 or more from January-April.

PACKAGE TOURS
Ecoturismo Kuyima  Tel/fax (615)154-0070; e-mail
Discover Grey Whales Adventure Packages from January-April including accommodations, meals, activities and panga excursions at basecamp on San Ignacio Lagoon. Also available by reservation: RV and tent camping with showers, whale watching tours, tents and camping equipment, menu-of-the-day meals.

Baja Discovery  U.S. toll free: 1-800-829-2252; e-mail
5 to 8-day tour packages including round trip air and ground transportation from San Diego plus accommodations, meals and panga excursions at safari-style camp on San Ignacio Lagoon.

Baja Expeditions  U.S. toll free: 1-800-843-6967; e-mail
Tour packages including round trip private charter flight from San Diego plus accommodations, meals and panga excursions at basecamp on San Ignacio Lagoon. Pacific/Sea of Cortez whale watching cruises also available.


MAGDALENA BAY
Guided whale watching panga tours are easily arranged through local hotels in Ciudad Constitucion and Puerto San Carlos from January thru March. Don't miss the 2003 Whale Festival from Jan. 31-Feb. 2 in the plaza of Puerto San Carlos. From 5pm-2am, enjoy live music and entertainment, plenty of seafood and Mexican dishes, the selection of the Festival Queen, horse racing, fireworks and more!

Hotel Brennan (in Puerto San Carlos)  Tel. (613)136-0288; fax (613)136-0019; e-mail
Government-authorized 3-hour guided tours in 6-passenger pangas.

Las Parras Tours (in Loreto)  Tel. (613)135-1010; fax (613)135-0900; e-mail
Scenic 8-hour tour (minimum 3 persons) to Magdalena Bay including round trip van transportation from Loreto, lunch, snacks and 2-hour guided whale watching excursion.

PACKAGE TOURS
La Concha Beach Resort (in La Paz)  U.S. toll-free 1-800-999-2252; e-mail
Whale Watching Package includes 3 nights at La Concha Beach Resort, airport/hotel transfers, welcome cocktail and one day tour to Magdalena Bay with breakfast, lunch, round trip van transportation from La Paz and 3-hour guided whale watching excursion. (For whale watching day tour only, contact resort directly at (612)121-6161.)

Baja Expeditions  U.S. toll free: 1-800-843-6967; e-mail
Tour packages including round trip air and ground transportation from San Diego, accommodations, meals and panga excursions at basecamp on Magdalena Bay. Pacific/Sea of Cortez whale watching cruises also available.

Baja Whales & Wildlife Cruise  U.S. tel. (866)456-0444; e-mail
An 8-day cruise from March 22-29, 2003 aboard the Spirit of Endeavor featuring Baja travel writer and author Ann Hazard as guest speaker. Cruise departs from La Paz and includes Sea of Cortes island explorations, a port call in Loreto, day trip via motorcoach to Magdalena Bay for guided whale watching excursion, and more.


CABO PULMO MARINE PARK (SEA OF CORTES)
Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is located about 40 miles north of San Jose del Cabo on the eastern cape of the Baja peninsula. It contains Pulmo Reef, a living coral reef system. Whales sighted in this region of the Sea of Cortes include blues, sperms, fin backs, humpbacks, pilots, grays and several other species.

Pepe's Outdoor Activity Center  Tel. (624)141-0001; fax (624)130-0168; e-mail
Government-authorized guided Mammals & Whales Eco Expeditions in pangas. Also available: camping and eco house rentals. 

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Copyright 2003 Connie Ellig & David Hopps. Neither text nor photos may be reproduced without the written approval of authors.
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