We sat patiently in the 22-foot Mexican fishing skiff that seemed to get smaller the farther we got from shore. We were in the middle of the emerald-green San Ignacio Lagoon, near its mouth where it opens up into the Pacific. As we waited, the little outboard engine idling quietly, we could hear and see whales breaching and spouting all around us.
We had come to see the Eastern Pacific Gray Whales up close. They migrate every year by the thousands to Baja California’s remote Pacific coast to mate and give birth to their young. There are three primary locations where gray whales congregate: Laguna Ojo De Liebre (Scammon’s Lagoon), near Guerrero Negro; Bahía Magdalena farther south; and here, in Laguna San Ignacio, just 35 miles from the historic mission oasis town of San Ignacio.
Suddenly, out of the depths, a huge gray, barnacle-encrusted form surfaced next to us. It’s a rather startling feeling to have eye-to-eye contact, a mere two feet away, with one of the largest mammals on earth. It was a mother. She gave us a cursory inspection and came up to the edge of the boat for a pat on the head, blowing a shower of saltwater into the air with little concern for anyone’s camera gear. Assuring herself that we were harmless, she submerged briefly and brought her new baby up for a visit, nudging it up to the boat for a pet. They hung around for several minutes. Unfrightened by our squeals and laughter, they seemed to enjoy the human contact.
The pattern repeated itself for an hour and a half, the maximum time our skiff was allowed to stay in the area. We had come to San Ignacio Lagoon after fellow Baja travelers had told us that it was the most “whale-friendly” location. In fact, our guide, Pachico Mayoral, had been the first to touch whales and guide others for the experience more than 36 years ago. His son, Jesus Mayoral, now runs Pachico’s Eco Tours. Pachico Mayoral has lived at the lagoon for 47 years and his wife, Carmen, for 75 years.
The gray whale can reach more than 45 feet in length and weigh up to 35 tons. It was sometimes hard to remember that these were mammals. The young are born live at a length of approximately 15 feet and can weigh 1,100 to 1,500 pounds. Nursing on milk that is more than 50-percent fat, (human milk is 2-percent fat), they can gain 50 pounds a day. And in case you forgot, all this goes on under water.
Just as we were about to leave, a male breached nearby. He rolled around, giving us the once over, apparently showing off. Finally, he came up for a pet, and as he left, he gave the boat a little bump, just to remind us who was watching whom.
There are a number of tours offering gray-whale encounters at San Ignacio. Since we had our own self-contained Tortuga Expedition Camper, we had the luxury of driving the graded gravel road to Pachico’s Eco Tours camp on the lagoon. The road varies from very good to washboard, and is regularly used by normal passenger cars. The first section was paved. There are no hookups at Pachico’s Eco Tours, but there is a great solar shower, very clean eco-style toilets and the camp is well-lit. We had arrived late in the afternoon, and were joined later by a German couple with their two children traveling in a 30-foot Winnebago motorhome.
Guests with their own RVs can camp for $5 on the water’s edge, or choose to stay in small cabins. You can prepare your own meals, or enjoy the camp chef’s wonderful Mexican dishes. Water is trucked in for camp use, and purified water is used for cooking and drinking.
Stretching 16 miles into the desert, San Ignacio Lagoon was originally discovered by whaling captain Jared Poole, brother-in-law to captain Charles Melville Scammon. Treacherous sand-bar shoals and a narrow shallow-water passage into the lagoon provided a protective haven for the whales, but enough whaling ships found an entrance, and these marvelous animals had been hunted to near extinction by the late 1800s. Given full protection in 1946 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the gray has made a remarkable recovery and now numbers around 20,000, probably close to their original population size.
Further protection and regulations were set in place in 1988 when Mexico established the enormous El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve to include San Ignacio Lagoon, Latin America’s largest wildlife sanctuary. San Ignacio Lagoon is the only undeveloped nursery and breeding ground for Pacific Gray Whales and provides a feeding habitat for four endangered species of sea turtle. It is also an important habitat for the Berrendo, a pronghorn that has seen its population in Mexico decline over the years. In 1993, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, including San Ignacio Lagoon, a World Heritage Site.
The Mexico Highway 1, from the border to San Ignacio, is in very good condition. It is mostly two-lane, though it can feel narrow if your RV is 8 feet wide. That said, we saw many large motorhomes, trailers and campers on the road. Fuel is widely available, and often less expensive than in the U.S.
From the Tijuana border south of San Diego, California, it’s 532 miles to San Ignacio. There are comfortable RV parks along the way, in towns like Ensenada, Valle de San Quintin, Cataviña, El Rosario and Guerrero Negro. The old oasis Rancho Santa Ines, 299 miles from the border, just south of Cataviña, is a good midway stopping point where many RVers overnight.
In case you forgot something, every village has stores that sell food and bottled water. Some cities, such as Ensenada and Rosarito Beach, even have a Wal-Mart or a Home Depot.
No vehicle papers are needed in Baja. You will, however, need mandatory liability insurance. Traveling south of Ensenada, you will also need a Tourist Card, stamped at the border. Discover Baja Travel Club in San Diego can take care of insurance and the Tourist Card before you cross the border if you are a member, but you will still need to stop at Immigration Services to get it stamped.
You will need a passport to re-enter the United States after June 2009. Until then, a government-issued ID (for example, a drivers license) along with a certified birth certificate – not a copy – are required.
Arriving in the small town of San Ignacio, we parked on the shady plaza in front of the historic church, one of the best-restored missions on the peninsula. There are half a dozen RV parks, but many would never pass the Good Sam Club test. We stayed a night at the friendly but rustic Camping Los Petates on the freshwater lagoon. It’s close to town and the nightly serenade of bullfrogs was amusing. In search of a dump station and wireless Internet, we moved on to Rice & Beans. Their new modern RV park with full hookups is destined to become one of the best in Baja, and the Rice & Beans restaurant is a great place for dinner and a margarita. Wireless Internet is a plus.
There is also free wild camping just off the beautiful plaza behind the museum, and there are several hoses around the plaza and next to the church where you can fill up your water. Tap water in this part of Baja is usually safe, but a good purification system is a prudent precaution.
If you’re not inclined to drive the 35 miles out to the San Ignacio Lagoon, there are taxis in town. If you have more time, this is also the jumping off place to visit the fabulous cave paintings in the canyons of Sierra San Francisco (also a World Heritage Site). The museum next to the church has information.
Whale-watching tours generally run from January 15 to April 15. By mid-March, the males begin to leave, and the females move closer to the outer lagoon to feed and nurse their young, preparing for their 5,000-mile trip back to the Bering and Chukchi Seas of Alaska. We were there in late March, and at least five or six mothers came up to our “panga” for a visit. A close encounter with a gray whale is something you will never forget!
Discover Baja Travel Club, (800)
Everpure, (800) 323-7873, www.everpure.com.
Pachico’s Eco Tours,www.pachicosecotours.com.
Rice and Beans RV Park, 01-52-615-154-0263.