Baja Whales, Desert & Spanish Missions 2020 Trip Report

By Wayne Lynch on Aug 06, 2020

After working some 40 years in nature travel I had seen whales in all of the oceans of the world, however most of my experiences with these charismatic marine mammals had been at a distance. I never felt emotionally connected to them, and certainly never imagined that I could touch one. Then in the winter of 2017, on a warm, sunny morning in February I hopped aboard a small fishing boat and motored across the calm waters of Laguna Ojo de Liebre in Mexico’s Baja California Sur and my affection and appreciation for whales changed dramatically. Who could imagine a friendly 30-ton behemoth playing with my boat, spinning it around with its snout as if it was a bathtub toy? Imagine the same animal gently rubbing the keel of my boat, playfully blowing explosive bubbles, then surfacing alongside, seemingly for no other reason than to be stroked by an incredulous photographer. This was the initial encounter that prompted me to return in February with 10 eager photographers who, like me, wanted a “whale of an experience.”
The whales in question are eastern Pacific gray whales that migrate annually from the Bering Sea to the warm coastal lagoons of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula where they mate and give birth to their calves during the winter months from December to April.
During our 12-day trip we made four ocean outings to witness and photograph these legendary “friendlies.” In Laguna San Ignacio we had whales spy-hopping around us dozens of times, in one instance so close we could fill the frame with a wide-angle lens. We saw breaching, once within a few boat-lengths of us, and multiple whales came within touching distance. In fact, all but one of our adventurous group touched a whale, and all of us got anointed repeatedly by spray when a curious cetacean spouted next to our boats. On the tour we never harassed the whales in any way and all our encounters were with animals that chose to swim to us as we floated on the ocean surface. At one point, we had three adult whales playing with each other and including us in their antics as they surrounded our two boats for over 20 minutes giving us multiple treasured photo opps.
Although “friendly” gray whales were the primary focus of this tour we also made a boat trip out to see the largest animal that has ever lived—the 100-ton, magnificent blue whale. Blue whales rarely breach or spy-hop so dramatic photos of these animals are never anticipated and all of us were content with multiple close views of this endangered species. Originally, blue whales numbered globally in the hundreds of thousands. Today, the eastern Pacific population numbers just 2,200, so even seeing one was a rare privilege.
As well as the whales there were other photographic rewards to fill our time. Beginning in the late 1600s, Catholic missionaries from Europe built a string of colonial missions along the entire spine of the peninsula, each with its own characteristic architecture and esthetic appeal. In our travels on the peninsula we visited four different missions, each restored to highlight its Gothic design and inspiration. For a few of our group the missions, their desert environs, and their historical legacy was one of the high points of the tour.
Prior to the 16th century arrival of Europeans to this western corner of Mexico, the peninsula had been inhabited by indigenous hunter-gatherers for over 10,000 years. Part of that occupation is preserved today in a multitude of rock art pictographs and petroglyphs, some of which were so significant as to have been designated in 1993 by the United Nations as World Heritage Sites. We visited one such significant rock art site in a cave on the upper slopes of a desert mesa overlooking a photogenic stretch of Sonoran Desert that featured towering cardon cacti and lofty boojum trees. Here you could feel the emotive power of the location and how it must have inspired its ancient artists. In the months prior to our visit, this portion of the Sonoran Desert had received uncommonly generous winter rains, so in many areas the ground was covered with great swathes of ephemeral wildflowers—a colorful collage of orange, purple, blue and yellow blossoms.
In the end, although unseasonable winds forced us to make a few changes to our original schedule, we saw a multitude of whales at close range, experienced the desert in a rare moment of floral splendor, explored the photogenic sand dunes of Miguelito, and acquired an appreciation of the peninsula’s ancient artistic past, all while relaxing in the warm hospitality of the Mexican people. A photographer could ask for no more. Join me in 2021 when we will savor this cetacean spectacle once again.