Whale Watching Around The World
Their shiny skin glistens black, gray, white, beige, spotted, two-tone. Chubby and massive. Slow and speedy. With teeth and without. Their heads, dorsal fins, flippers, and tails carry the marks of lives spent negotiating the world's oceans. They chatter, sing, click, clang, whistle, huff, snore, and snuffle. They are whales and dolphins, the group known as cetaceans, sovereigns of the deep and playful pranksters of the waves.
With an increasing number of tour operators offering regular and reasonably priced access, it is easier than ever to follow the seasonal travels of whales along the North American coast. We can float close to grays in tranquil Baja California lagoons and watch them from land as they make their way north along the West Coast to summer feeding grounds in Alaska. We can kayak among orcas off the Northwest coast. We can even pray for a glimpse of the world's largest creature, the blue whale, off California.
West Coast Whale Watching Destinations
1. San Ignacia Lagoon, Baja California, Mexico
San Ignacio Lagoon is the most pristine and remote of three lagoons along the Pacific coast of Baja California, midway between the Mexican border city of Tijuana and the peninsula's southern tip at Cabo San Lucas. Long before any trace of humankind appeared, gray whales began coming to breed and bear their young in these warm, calm Baja waters. Their migration, all the way from arctic feeding grounds, is the second longest of any mammal, a round-trip of more than 10,000 miles. And their interaction with people, especially here at San Ignacio Lagoon, offers a wilderness experience that many visitors describe as life-changing.
What scientists have come to call the friendly gray whale phenomenon began in the 1970s. For reasons that remain a mystery, mother whales started bringing their offspring over and introducing them, first to local fishermen, then to marine biologists, and now to boats filled with tourists. Often a mother and calf linger alongside for what seems like an eternity, allowing themselves to be rubbed and petted. No other whale species is known to exhibit this type of behavior in the wild.
Grays can be recognized by two characteristics: They lack dorsal fins, a series of knucklelike ridges covers their broad backs instead, and only this species has an upper jaw that overhangs the lower one, giving it a kind of parrot-beaked facial appearance. Flippers, back, and tail flukes are covered with dense clusters of white barnacles and pink sea-lice.
While whale-watching excursions also take place during the winter months at the calving lagoons of Guerrero Negro and Magdalena Bay, it's San Ignacio where one is likely to enjoy the closest encounters. Here, three safari-style campgrounds are interspersed along the shell-laden shoreline, each with its own fleet of skiffs (known as pangas in Mexico). No more than a dozen pangas are allowed in the whale observation area near the lagoon's mouth at any one time. Nor are the skippers permitted to approach the whales directly. It is the animal's choice whether to initiate contact.