UPDATED JANUARY 2020
One of the most incredible natural wonders on the Baja peninsula is visiting with the gray whales that come to the warm lagoons of Baja California Sur to breed and give birth every winter. Every October, the gray whales of the Pacific begin a two-to-three-month migration from the cold Alaskan seas to the warm waters of Baja California. At nearly 14,000 miles round-trip, it is the longest annual migration of any mammal. The gray whales travel to the warm lagoons of Baja California to mate and give birth to their calves.
From January to April, tourists travel from all over the world to visit Baja and see the gray whales. There are three locations in Baja that the gray whales migrate to each year – Ojo de Liebre (formerly Scammon’s Lagoon) in Guerrero Negro, Laguna San Ignacio, and Bahía Magdalena. The shallow and protected waters of these bays provide an ideal spot for birthing and nursing calves.
Weighing up to 40 tons and measuring nearly 50 feet long, the gray whales are gentle giants of the ocean. Seeing them in Baja is not your typical whale watching experience. In addition to putting on a show for humans by spy hopping, breaching and spouting, the gray whales of Baja actually seek out human contact and will come right up to the whale watching boats.
Whale watching in this region is highly regulated and controlled. Whale watchers are taken out in small groups of 6-8 people on pangas (small fishing boats) and are able to get up-close and personal with the whales. The whales are so friendly that they will come right up and surface alongside the small boats in the lagoon so that people can pet and touch them. Often mother whales will push their young calves right up to the boats so that people can pet, hug and kiss the baby whales. It’s a uniquely thrilling and unforgettable experience.
Here, we bring you a comprehensive guide to whale watching in Baja:
Laguna San Ignacio
Of the three locations in Baja California where the gray whales make an appearance each year, Laguna San Ignacio is often regarded as being the best location where the whales are friendlier and encounters are more likely. It’s never guaranteed that travelers will get to pet a gray whale, but the odds are pretty good at Laguna San Ignacio.
There’s not much of anything out at the lagoon other than a number of pangueros and some basic eco whale camps. Some of the tour companies will arrange to take you out to the lagoon and some will have you drive directly to the lagoon yourself. Reservations for whale watching in San Ignacio must be made in advance.
The lagoon is 53 kilometers out of town. Nearly the entire road is now paved (the last 10 kilometers or so are still unpaved), but ask about conditions in town before taking the road. There are signs that are easy to follow to the lagoon from the center of town.
The Kuyima office (on the plaza across from the mission, tel. 615/154-0070) in San Ignacio can arrange for you to see the whales for a multi-day trip. Accommodations at the lagoon consist of primitive eco camps. You should make arrangements in advance.
Whale Camps at the Lagoon
Located out on the lagoon, Antonio’s Ecotours (tel. 615/103-3323) offers a variety of affordable and flexible options for whale watching from day trips to camping or staying in eco cabins at the lagoon. The staff is comprised of San Ignacio natives with decades of experience with the gray whales.
Pachico’s Eco Tours can also tailor packages for your needs. They recommend staying at the lagoon for at least 3-4 days in order to have the best chance for encounters with the whales. They have cabañas for rent and can also provide a camping area for you to bring your own tent or camper if you make arrangements in advance.
With sixteen solar-powered cabins, another eco lodge option is Baja Eco Tours (tel. US toll free 877/506-0557). They also offer all-inclusive tours (starting at $1,550) with flight or bus transportation from San Diego included. They can accommodate travelers arriving at the lagoon on their own during non-peak dates.
All-Inclusive Trips from the U.S.
Both Baja Expeditions and Baja Discovery offer all-inclusive tours to Laguna San Ignacio that originate in San Diego and include transportation, eco-lodging at the lagoon, meals and drinks, activities, and whale watching. Baja Custom Tours will have an all-inclusive round trip from San Diego from Feb. 15-22, 2020.
Laguna Ojo de Liebre (Guerrero Negro)
Charles Melville Scammon first encountered Laguna Ojo de Liebre (formerly known as Scammon’s Lagoon) in 1857 and hunted the gray whales for oil. Over the next 18 years, whalers nearly extinguished the gray whale population in the region, but luckily the whales were able to rebound and today visiting with these friendly creatures is one of the most unique attractions on the peninsula. The gray whales come to breed and give birth every winter and have been known to engage in extremely friendly behavior with humans – coming up to boats where people can pet and kiss the whales. Because waters are calmer in the mornings, whale watching is generally a morning activity.
There are two ways to go whale watching at Ojo de Liebre. The first option is to go through a tour operator. Malarrimo Eco-Tours (Blvd. Emiliano Zapata, tel. 615/157-0100, US$38 per adult, US$30 for children) offers four-hour tours (three hours on the water with the whales) with a bilingual guide. Reservations must be made at least one day in advance. A boxed lunch is included. The whale watching tours through Mario’s Tours (Km 217.3 Mexico 1, tel. 615/157-1940, firstname.lastname@example.org) begin in their giant palapa where they explain about the whales and their behaviors. Boats go into a northern lagoon where most other boats do not have access. They spend three hours on the water and provide a boxed lunch. Reservations must be made in advance by calling or emailing.
All-Inclusive Trips from the U.S.
For all-inclusive gray whales trips starting in San Diego, Mike Essary offers clients a unique and curated whale watching experience through his company, Baja Custom Tours. Trips highlight other interesting Baja attractions and towns on the road trip down and up the peninsula. See the 2020 trip!
The second option for whale watching in Laguna Ojo de Liebre is to go directly to the lagoon and go out with a local panguero. The southern part of the lagoon is controlled by the Ejido Benito Juarez (tel. 615/157-0025, email@example.com, US$45) and they run pangas out to see the whales. Boats leave about every half hour from 9a.m.-3p.m. and spend an hour and a half on the water whale watching. From Guerrero Negro, head south on Mexico 1 to kilometer 207.5 and turn west onto the dirt road, following signs for Ojo de Liebre out to the lagoon. You’ll pass a guard who will take your information, and then you will eventually get to a large dirt parking lot and a beige adobe building. Around the back of the building, you will find the kiosk and dock for whale watching. There’s a new long jetty so that whale watchers don’t have to wade out in the water to the pangas during low tide anymore. The ejido has also improved nearby camping palapas and rents them for US$10 a night.
The third and southern-most point for friendly gray whale encounters on the peninsula is Bahía Magdalena. There are a string of barrier islands here that protect a series of shallow bays and provide a safe area for whale breeding. There are two port cities here on the bay that whale watching tours depart from, Puerto San Carlos and Puerto López Mateos.
For over 18 years, family business Mag Bay Tours (tel. US 202/642-6386) has been leading whale watching experiences. You can select from a day tour ($450 US for a boat for five hours of whale watching) or multi-day excursions that start at $495 per person for three-day, two-night experience with whale watching, camp accommodations and meals included.
Magdalena Bay Whales (tel. US toll-free 855/594-2537) is a whale camp where visitors can stay on the property and go out for whale excursions and enjoy other activities during the day. The property has a campsite with tents on platforms, a restaurant and main palapa. Prices start at $495 per person for a two-day, one-night whale experience. Meals, accommodations, whale watching and other activities are included.
If you want to go whale watching for the day without an organized tour group, head to the port at López Mateos. Here you’ll find a number of businesses that are authorized to take tourists out whale watching. Expect to pay about $65 per person for a few hours of whale watching. If you’re looking for fewer crowds, avoid weekends and plan to go whale watching during the week.