A whale-watching cruise along the coast of Baja California Sur stokes our contributor’s curiosity about the natural world—and her place in it. By Liz Vaccariello
This traveller takes us on a whale-watching cruise
It was dinner hour aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird, and Lindblad Expeditions founder Sven-Olof Lindblad had the rapt attention of the guests at his table. As the ship skirted the western coast of Baja California Sur, the conservationist and explorer riffed on the idea of exhilaration—specifically, the thrill that washes over people when they experience and understand wildlife in a new way. “For one person, the exhilaration might come from seeing a massive animal in the wild for the first time. For another, it might be learning the physics that allow a 40-ton whale to move through water like we walk through air,” he explained. “Once you have that feeling, you want to have it again and again.”
Lindblad was speaking from a deep well of professional and personal experience. He’s led the expedition cruise company for more than 40 years. His father, Lars-Eric Lindblad, is widely known as the man who helped bring conservation-minded travel to Antarctica and the Galápagos Islands in the 1960s. The elder Lindblad regularly invited his young son on scouting trips around the world, sparking a lifelong interest in ecotourism. I had joined Lindblad for a trial run of the company’s new whale-watching itinerary in Baja’s Magdalena Bay. The trip is part of a collection of five- to nine-day programmes designed for travellers who find longer voyages difficult to schedule. I was also scouting for a future trip with my own family. Since we had kids, my husband and I have missed the mind-expanding moments we experienced on safaris in Africa, and we have been looking for new adventures to share with our marine-life-loving teens.
Turns out, Baja was the perfect place to find them. Every winter, female grey whales give birth in these waters—specifically, the protected lagoons of Magdalena Bay and Almejas Bay. From January through April, these creatures nurse their offspring and teach them to swim with, and against, the currents. The animals need to build up strength for their spring migration, when they traverse more than 16,093 kilometres to the nutrient-rich Arctic.
Lindblad has been running whale-watching trips in the lagoons for decades, but the size and sound of its ships kept the creatures at a distance. Four years ago, the company was granted permission to operate Zodiacs (which pose little threat to the marine mammals) inside the bay. The much smaller and comparatively quiet vessels allow the company to focus an entire voyage on up-close encounters with the curious calves and their gentle mothers. On this trip, our small group was guided by Lindblad himself. He seemed as eager as the rest of us to see what the ecosystem looked like.
I’d flown from Los Angeles to the city of Loreto, taken a three-hour bus ride to the port of San Carlos, and then, after boarding the 31-cabin Sea Bird, slept soundly as the ship sailed south through the night. The next day, for our first excursion, we boarded Zodiacs to cruise Almejas Bay, the southernmost part of the 96-kilometre-long lagoon system. Eagle-eyed travellers soon began calling out sightings. “There’s one at two o’clock!” “I see one at four!” “Another at seven!” Grey whales can be hard to spot from afar, as they breach less frequently than other species and have no dorsal fins. But that day, the males were spy-hopping, or poking their heads just far enough out of the water to reveal their steely eyes. Though scientists can only guess at the reason for this behaviour, it made for a glorious game of “I Spy” for our group.
“Here’s one way to understand how little we know about grey whale behaviour,” naturalist and photography instructor Steve Morello said. “Imagine watching someone walk to the end of their driveway every day to get their mail and basing your judgements about them on that one
task.” He killed the motor. The waves lapped our boat, and we all listened for the knocks, moans, rumbles, and growls distinctive to this species.
“If you look to your right, there’s one coming up directly beside us,” Morello said. No more than six metres off our starboard side, I could see the blowhole and knobbly back of an adult male. Perpendicular to the Zodiac, a second barnacle speckled body rose to the surface.
In a flirtatious display, the creature’s giant fluke grazed the surface, swished to the left, then to the right, skimming just enough water to playfully splash us. Our exclamations turned to high-pitched shrieks. As the whale descended, I covered my mouth and shook my head in disbelief. Back aboard the ship that night, I told expedition leader Paula Tagle that I’d had more numerous, more intimate sightings that day— dozens of them, in fact—than on all my previous whale-watching excursions in Maui, Alaska, and Washington State combined.
While we slept, the Sea Bird sailed into an area of Magdalena Bay where only about 30 boats have permits to take tours. Most are chartered for guests staying at the resorts in Cabo San Lucas, Loreto, or La Paz, all a significant driving distance away. But because we’d spent the night on the water, we could watch the whales frolic as the sun came up each day. On day two, the passengers split up into groups to search for cows and calves. We were watching another round of spy-hopping on the horizon when I heard the phrase “tea party” crackle over Morello’s walkie-talkie. That was guide code for friendly whales, so off we zoomed.
We arrived to find a 40-ton mother scratching her back on the wooden hull of another boat. I could see a smaller shadow hovering just below her—the cautious mom seemed intent on keeping her own body between us and her calf.
When the shadows disappeared, we leaned over the Zodiacs and tickled the water with our fingers, trying to lure the whales back. Eventually, the mother returned, pushing her baby to the surface. The calf poked our Zodiac with its nose and kept its head above water, accepting our naturalist-approved pats and posing for pictures for a good 40 minutes. When the young whale began to sink away it did so slowly, its left eye glued to us until the last second. I immediately recognised that exhilarating feeling of discovery that Lindblad had mentioned at dinner.
During a lecture on the Sea Bird, naturalist Adam Marie had explained that, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, grey whales were hunted for blubber in these same lagoons. The animals were easy targets because they remained close to the coast. Today, 85 years after the Mexican government enacted formal protection, the grey whale population is finally thought to be at or above pre-whaling levels, rebounding to 27,000, according to one estimate. But because males live 40 to 60 years on average, and some to 70 or more, the creatures surrounding us were likely direct descendants of those preyed upon a century ago. The one that just splashed us may have very well been alive to see its relatives hunted.
Grey whales fiercely protect their young, and reports from whalers are full of descriptions of females destroying skiffs, sometimes injuring or killing crew members, which earned them the nickname “devilfish.” In less than a generation, could an entire species have forgotten what we’re capable of? The unfettered curiosity we’d seen from the whales had taken my breath away, and I was struck with both shame for human actions and a sense of responsibility to do better.
In the final days of our adventure, we explored mangroves by kayak and paddleboard, biked over dunes on fat-tire cruisers, and hiked beaches studded with sand dollars. None of the passengers missed the sunset barbecue on the beach on our last night. As I stared into the fire, the urge to bring my family to this place overwhelmed me. I sidled up to Lindblad and asked about returning with my kids—maybe even with their grandparents.
“I’m 68 years old,” he told me, “and until tonight I did not understand the inner workings of the sand dollar. If I were here with my kid, we would have learned that together. There are no generational divides on a trip like this. It’s completely open to them all, to us all, to discover.”
And, I thought, to get hooked on exhilaration.
Singapore Airlines flies from Delhi to San Francisco via Singapore. San Carlos is 30 minutes away.