Gentle Giants: Whale Watching in Baja California Sur’s Magdalena Bay


My whale reappears, rolls over on its side and eyes me calmly. I’m not calm. I’m apprehensive, especially since the bay has become a bubbling cauldron of activity. Waterspouts erupt all around us. Whales are everywhere, circling other boats, vying for attention. This behavior is a dramatic change from the 19th and early 20th centuries when they were called “Devilfish” by commercial whalers who hunted them almost to extinction. Using their powerful tail flukes the whales capsized and smashed whaling boats to protect their young from harpooners. As commercial whale hunting diminished, the whales’ behavior toward humans changed and now they are “friendly.”

The whale edges back to my side of the boat and rolls over. Jorgé is so excited, I think he’s going to tumble into the water with the whale and meet the same fate as Jonah. He is shouting, “Touch it, touch it,” and I plunge my hand in the water.

My fingers brush against a spongy, squashy skin pitted like that of an acne sufferer. Yellow-brown barnacles on the whale’s skin gleam like jewels encrusted in a crown. Two blowholes in its head give it an eerie appearance, for they are deep, dark voids. I stroke the head and then the body. I am caught in a special moment encased in a delicate, imaginary bubble with the whale. The whale rolls over once more and I lightly rub the other side of the mottled skin.

Its ample coastline and crystal blue waters make Baja California Sur the ideal location for whale watching.
Its ample coastline and crystal blue waters make Baja California Sur the ideal location for whale watching.

Smoothly moving away from my hand, the whale dives under the boat and rocks it gently. Surfacing once more, it leaps up, flips the tail in a good-bye gesture and swims away. Jorgé points to another spot in the bay. Off we go toward waterspouts cascading like dancing water fountains.

Gliding close to our boat, a whale introduces us to her calf. Like any proud parent, the whale nudges the calf toward us. Then, in synchronization that would rival any Las Vegas show, they start the entertainment. The mother and calf leap out of the water, raise their tail flukes and nosedive below. In unison, they lunge back out of the water, flutter their tails at us and turn over on their sides. I applaud appreciatively.

These two whales are ham actors who have rehearsed the show often. With flawless coordination, they dive below our boat. In a few minutes, they resurface and replay their act. I don’t want them to stop so I clap, pound the sides of the boat and whistle for them to continue. They are maestros playing to a rapt audience. I want to give them a standing ovation, but fear of falling overboard in a sea swarming with whales makes me come to my senses. After repeating the show three more times, the mother whale gently prods her calf and, in perfect harmony, the two whales disappear into the water.

Back on shore, I smile. I continue to smile every time I think of the whales. That’s what touching a whale does to you. You find yourself with a smile on your face just remembering.

If You Go

Mexico Tourism Board

Here are some tour companies specializing in gray whale-watching tours in the lagoonsof the Sea of Cortez and Magdalena Bay. January to April is the best time to see whales.

Mexican Association of Adventure Travel and Ecotourism

This national organization groups together professional Mexican outfitters focused on promoting and operating local ecotourism and adventure travel. Various links are available for travelers in search of Mexican adventure companies.

Baja Whales

Website for travelers interested in visiting Baja California Sur. Provides links to professional outfitters and guide companies focusing on whale watching adventures and information on hiring local guides.

Baja Adventure Company
Oceanside, CA 92054

Safari-style eco-adventures to San Ignacio Lagoon. Variety of five- and seven-day whale-watching expeditions. Operates tours from mid-January through April.

American Cetacean Society
San Pedro, CA 90733

Specializes in whale and dolphin conservation and education. Conducts five-day land-based trips and 12 day cruises in February and March with whale-watching in San Ignacio Lagoon, Magdalena Bay and other Sea of Cortez lagoons. Trips start from San Diego, CA.

Baja Expeditions
San Diego, CA 92109

Offers five-day whale-watching, snorkeling, hiking, and kayaking trips from San Diego, CA to Baja in February and March; seven-day trips from La Paz (camping on beach) during February; and eight-day cruises around the tip of Baja from La Paz to Magdalena Bay (or reverse) on the Don Jose (limited to 14 passengers) in February with whale-watching in Magdalena Bay.

Cruise West
Seattle, WA 98121

Casual, personal cruises that focus on the destination. Offers eight-day, seven-night cruises from La Paz to the coastal islands of the Sea of Cortez, Puerto Escondido and Loreto. Whale-watching in Magdalena Bay, kayaking, nature hikes, snorkeling and beach activities.