Once a 30-ton gray whale has held you in its gaze while allowing you to rest your hand on its head, your perspective of life will never be the same.
There is no place on earth where you are more likely to have this experience than on the San Ignacio Lagoon, located on the central Pacific coast of Baja. Every winter, thousands of gray whales migrate to Baja to mate, calve and nurse. The whales relax and grow playful in the safety of the warm, salty lagoon. About 10% of the winter population has a penchant for approaching boats and interacting with the tourists.
Begin your day with a stroll down the beach, which is covered with whale bones and scallops shells. Make your way to a late breakfast in a huge canvas tent by the side of the lagoon with a handful of other tourists who have found their way to Pachico’s Eco Tours Whale Watching Camp.
Once you have eaten, board the 22-foot long fiberglass motorboat with up to six other tourists to meet the whales. Your driver is the legendary Pachico Mayoral.
Locals used to be afraid of the whales, keeping a piece of wood handy to bang on the boat when a whale approached to scare it away. In 1972, Pachico Mayoral became the first person to have a friendly encounter with a whale in the San Ignacio Lagoon. He was fishing with a hand line when a whale came up to his boat and wouldn’t leave. He felt compelled to touch it. The whale seemed to enjoy his touch and a new kind of relationship with the whales was born. Pachico and his family now run a whale watching camp during the winter then return to fishing once the whales have left for their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chuchki Seas.
San Ignacio lagoon is packed with marine life. As you head into the lagoon, dozens of bottlenose dolphins will ride teasingly within inches of your outstretched fingertips. Thousands of cormorants bob calmly to your right. In the distance, whale heads frequently emerge out of the water like a giant game of wac-a-mole. Pachico smiles happily but continues on. They’ve got to do something more interesting than spyhop to slow him down.
It is mid-February after all and this time of year, whales are thicker than pigeons in Times Square. A tangle of whales roiling the water nearby merits a pause. It is impossible to know for sure how many whales are involved in the knot and who is doing what to whom. But as a 4-foot long bright pink penis (or Pink Floyd in whale-speak) protrudes and gives you a lazy wave, it becomes clear what they are up to.
You continue on, rubbernecking to catch sight of fins and tails, backs and blows and the occasional giant head silently rising to gaze your way as you speed by. You round a corner. There is no evidence of whales where you are. You just sit there.
Pachico taps softly against the inside of the boat with his fingers. You dangle your hand into the water, wondering if a whale is looking at it from below. As if on cue, the green water turns gray and you are surrounded by a 40-foot long whale. It gently picks up your boat and rocks you back and forth. To your left its undulating tail extends 20 feet into the distance before fading into the watery depths. To your right, your entire field of vision is full of whale head. A tennis ball sized brown eye opens and takes you in.
Eyeball to eyeball, she beholds your soul. This creature, who has traveled depths and distances beyond comprehension, is now adding you to its visual catalog. What an honor. You are compelled to place your hand on her head. Her skin feels like a hardboiled egg. She doesn’t seem to mind your touch at all. You lean in for a kiss. She opens up her blowhole and, “Whooosh!” You’ve been baptized with whale breath. Consider yourself initiated into the church of the whale.
You’ll get plenty more kisses and pats in before she gently sets you down and wanders off to attend to her mysterious whale business leaving you spent and exhilarated. The ride back is a blur. Every time you shut your eyes, there’s that brown eye looking at you.
Upon returning to camp, the kitchen staff fries up some freshly caught scallops the size of hockey pucks, which are heaven when chased down with cold Coronas. The sunset earns itself a standing ovation. You fall asleep to the sound of mom and baby whales breathing in synchrony under a desert sky dripping with stars.
Accommodation Details: Pachico’s Eco Tours offers wooden cabins, which accommodate 2-4 people. The cabins have beds with comfortable orthopedic foam mattresses and fresh clean bedding, including extra warm covers. They also have a gathering area which serves as a dining room, library, bar and information center. The camp has four composting toilets and a set of showers with hot/cold water.
Food Details: Pachico’s Eco Tours serves three meals a day and has a happy hour. The food served is mostly freshly caught seafood. They also serve delicious traditional Mexican food and offer a small variety of vegetarian dishes.
Getting There: Loreto is the closest international airport to San Ignacio Lagoon.
Car Rental:It is recommended to rent a 4WD vehicle or pickup truck to get to the lagoon, as the 35 mile dirt road between the town of San Ignacio and San Ignacio Lagoon can be quite rugged.
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If there were such a certification, Katherina Audley would be a certified whale nut. She has traveled the length of North, Central and South America in order to get close to whales. When Katherina is not dangling over the edge of a boat, cooing to the sea beasts, she is in her studio in North Portland plotting the next big adventure.