This is a story about whale sightings that didn’t happen, and then the whale sightings that did. The Universe taketh away with one hand and giveth with the other. It’s also a cautionary tale for cruisers planning to sail down the west coast of the United States. If you are sailing off our southern coast during the winter, you are smack in the Grey Whale migration route. The further south and the closer to shore you get, and the closer you are to their calving grounds, the more likely you are to both see and encounter these incredible animals. We were dead excited to see us some whales and live to tell about it.
You know those videos on Youtube that show people in pangas viewing baby Grey Whales in their San Ignacio lagoon nursery down here on the Baja peninsula? Those videos have sucked me in. In the Pacific Northwest we are constantly reminded to stay far away from whales (although sometimes I fear the whales have not read the brochure). There are good reasons for this we do follow those rules. However, in Mexico during calving season you can experience close encounters of the whale kind, initiated by the baby whales and their mamas, under the guidance of licensed guides. WHAT? YOU GET TO ACTUALLY PET BABY WHALES AND SCRATCH THEIR HUGE CHINS?? (If you’re lucky. No guarantee, right?) I do love me some whales, in spite some recent encounters I’ll tell you about later. I want to do this baby whale trip so bad.
The Mexican government has done a pretty good job of protecting their whale breeding grounds and at the same time encouraging ecotourism, which helps the local economy. I like to encourage and support those efforts and I also want to see baby whales. I’m sure there are environmentally concerned individuals who take umbrage with that, but in spite of my environmentalist leanings, I think overall these kinds of activities are good for people and make them more likely to appreciate the animals in our care on the planet. While I wouldn’t go around touching other populations of whales and understand the pressures that whale watching tours put on whale populations, this specific area and population of whales seems to react differently to human interaction than others. This has become a bucket list item for me.
So we planned a stop at the town of Abreojos, across Bahia Ballenas from Laguna San Ignacio, the protected baby whale nursery. Here’s where guide books will really let you down. We looked in our cruising reference books and according to what we read there, it should have been the work of a moment or two to find a licensed guide to take us into the refuge at Laguna San Ignacio. Word to the wise: Going by the guide book will raise false expectations, even if the book is very recently revised and updated (like 2017). We encounter this fact over and over. Sometimes, many times actually, you just can’t go places by boat, even if they are on the water. The infrastructure isn’t there.
One of our guide books specifically mentioned that the anchorage at Campo Medio, which is across Bahia Ballenas from the lagoon, is the “park and ride” for pangas to take you across to view the whales. That sounds easy, no? Another guide book mentions that a side trip to the lagoon is a ‘must do’. Nowhere do the guidebooks mention that you actually need to go, by land, to the town of San Ignacio, which is about 70 miles from the anchorage in Abreojos, far across the big Bahia Ballenas (Bay of Whales). There are no guides located in Abreojos during the viewing season. They are all at the whale camp in the lagoon. I was able to contact the author of that last guidebook and she explained all that to me.
We spent three days trying to find out how to get out to see those whales. As is usually the case, the locals want to be helpful. We asked the panga fishermen in town and they had no advice except one guy told us to get on Channel 21 and hail the Lagoon Boat. That would be great, if anyone were actually listening on Channel 21. One guy we asked told us we could take our own boat into the lagoon. We know that is not legal. It’s also really risky. Too risky even with our dinghy. Finally we talked to some gringo home owners who live at Campo Medio and were told that the only way to get to the lagoon was to leave our boat there (unattended? Um, no.) and take a bus into the town of San Ignacio. We’d probably have to stay overnight. They had never seen anyone “embark from (their) anchored boat onto (the) park guide’s panga”, and that make sense considering it’s about 18 miles across the bay to the lagoon entrance. These people are locals. They know how to get to see the whales.
After I contacted the author of the second book, we finally gave up. Perhaps when the books were published these things were true, but considering one of them was revised in 2017, I kind of expected it to be fairly current. Maybe we did it wrong and I’m certainly willing to entertain that idea, but we tried pretty hard. I’m putting this out there for any other cruisers who are coming down the coast expecting to be able to charter a panga to go into the San Ignacio Whale Park. I still want to go to the whale park. But I’ll have to go by land like everyone else. If you contact some of the ecotourism places well enough in advance, maybe you can arrange for a panga to come out and get you for a fee. Had we not thought, based on the information we had, that we could secure a panga locally, we would have made advance reservations that way.
Anyhoo, we gave up and decided to do our own whale watching. We’d seen many, many whales on the down the coast to Bahia Ballenas and we knew they entered the lagoon from the bay. So off we went to do find us some whales to watch. We sailed 12 miles across the bay to a point close to the mouth of the lagoon and anchored for the night with 10 feet of water under the keel. It was dead calm or this would have been untenable as it’s completely exposed in all directions. I had hoped we could splash the dinghy and perhaps land on one of the sandy spits and walk around, but the surf was simply too rough to even consider it. Dead calm. High surf. Got it.
The lagoon entrance is completely surrounded by shoal water and surf. The chart really doesn’t do the dangers justice. There are big waves breaking on shore even on a very calm day. If felt to me like there were breakers everywhere. We stayed well clear. Studying the chart we could see two areas that looked likely to be a ‘whale highway’ into the lagoon. One was behind Point Malcom. It looked like we could anchor there off the point and we were betting that whales would come by there on their way to and from the lagoon. With the shallow water there, we would not be in danger of a whale jumping on our boat, even if they got close to us. (For the Literature majors among our readers, that’s known as ‘foreshadowing’. )
And so it proved. We motor sailed down to Point Malcom, watching whales breaching and spy hopping on the other side of the surf in the protected waters of the lagoon entrance. It was enchanting. We’ve certainly seen our share of whales in our lives up north, but nothing like this show. We anchored off Point Malcolm on a sandy bottom in 16 feet under the keel and sat back to watch. If you go there and decide to anchor, realize it’s a rolly anchorage even in calm weather. It’s the price you pay for the safe front row seat.
After a peaceful, if rolly, night, we pulled anchor at 1100 and began a slow and gentle downwind sail out of the bay. I got out a puzzle and started working on it in the cockpit. Mike got out his fishing gear. He caught two small tuna of different kinds and a magnificent Dorado, as beautiful as if it had been made of pure gold. He threw them all back this time. It was so pleasant, just ghosting along under main and foresail at about 3 knots and not worrying about making time.
And then, the end of a perfect day came in the form of two distracted Grey Whales. We were both in the cockpit and at about 1745, a Grey appeared about 10 feet off the starboard bow and swam under the boat. “Oh my god there’s a whale right there!” shouted Mike. By the time I turned my head it was slipping underneath the boat. It quickly surfaced just to port and breached all the way out of the water. I swear that whale took wing. We can’t agree on exactly how far this animal was from our port bow, but we both agree it was WAY too close for comfort.
There is no way to adequately express the terror/awe/shock/Come-to-Jesus moment that happens when a creature that large jumps way too close to your boat. So many thoughts happen simultaneously. Unfortunately I had little time to record those because just as we were wondering if we had, indeed, peed our pants, the whale’s friend surfaced on the starboard bow and began a log roll under the boat. We promplyt hit him. Yes, we hit a whale. We’re minding our own business gliding along at about 4 knots and suddenly if feels like we’ve hit the dock a little too hard. I know we wanted to see whales, but COME ON!
In a very lucky break, the breaching whale fell away rather than toward the boat. Otherwise, we would have blubber on our stanchions and whale blood on our bow and I might never actually get over that. I’m pretty sure we didn’t hurt the whale, and I hope he learned his lesson about getting mixed up with boats. Actually, we felt really bad about it, even though we could not have avoided it. These whales didn’t show themselves until they were right up our bilge. Both of us were shaken pretty badly, but of course, me more than Mike. He was like, ‘Cool! We hit a whale!’ and I was more ‘Oh shit! We hit a whale!’. He just doesn’t take these things as hard as I do. I wasn’t sure what to feel worse about: Possibly hurting the animal, or possibly hurting our boat. I can tell you we are both real grateful for our thick fiberglass hull. At the end of the day, no harm done, thanks be to cruising karma, a strong boat, and a blubbery whale body.
Since then seeing whales has been a little less exciting but we’ll get over it. When we were anchored off San Carlos del Cabo a Humpback whale breached pretty close. Not close enough to be a danger at all, but my first thought was ‘Just stay where you are, buddy. That’s enough of that kind of frivolous and unnecessary jumping’. When we were sailing from San Carlos del Cabo to Los Frailes I saw a Humpback feeding ahead. I changed course 30 degrees, wind be damned. I guess you might say we take even more evasive actions now when we see them, and I am ok with running the engine at night so they can hear us. No harm done except to my sense of excitement to be sharing the ocean with these amazing, but very, very large, creatures. I still hope to someday see both a Blue Whale and a Sperm Whale, but I’d like to keep my distance, thanks. Seeing through our binoculars is fine with me.
We are currently in La Paz, having finally made it that far, stocking up, getting fuel and water, and enjoying a few fish tacos. We’ll be here about a week. Then it’s off probably to this side of Isla Espiritu Santo. I’d like to swim with some sea lions. I hear you have to pay to do that, too. We’ll post again when we have good cell service.
Have you ever hit a whale? Has a whale jumped on you? We are ready to hear your stories now.
S/V Galapagos, Out.