Beautiful Ballenas of Baja

By: Jon Becker, Baja Tour Participant and TWP Board Member

“They’re coming.  They’re coming!”  We watched from the prow of our small boat as our driver, scanned the horizon of San Ignacio Lagoon for signs of the approaching residents.  It was a beautiful early morning in Baja, the sun still low in the sky as we made our way across these magnificent protected waters of the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, A UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The largest wildlife sanctuary in Latin America, this is home to many species of mammals, including the very rare Baja California Pronghorn, California Sea Lions, multiple types of sea turtles – leatherbacks, green, olive ridley, great birds such as ospreys, herons, and cormorants.  We were there for the largest of them all – the Pacific Grey Whale!

We had come in the company of Victoria, Daniela, and Sebastian, leading TWP Tours first ever adventure to Baja California Sur.  The “Travel With a Purpose” program usually visits existing projects and partnerships developed by Trees, Water & People – such as clean cookstove production in Guatemala or the Tierra Verde Climate Change Education Center under construction in Nicaragua. But Baja has been earning a highest level reputation for innovative true grass roots conservation initiatives (see National Geographic September 2017 “Baja California’s Recipe for Saving Fishing Communities“).  Our tour was designed to explore and prospect for possible future partnerships – and of course get a first hand look at what all this excitement was about.

Tour participants and local guides reach the Santa Marta cave paintings after an epic hike!

Our group of 12 had come from Arizona, Oregon, California, and Colorado and flew into the small friendly city of Loreto, about halfway down the length of the Baja Peninsula.  We loaded ourselves into a van and drove a few miles up the coast to the sleepy little village of Mulegé on the Gulf of California side.  This set us up for a stunning day’s tour of the Bahía Concepción area.  We were lured there by the possibility of seeing (swimming with??!!) juvenile whale sharks and sea lions.  Possibility, not reality, that remained, but the beauty of being out on the water, enjoying lunch on a small uninhabited island, slowing ourselves down into Baja time made for a wonderful day.  We spent the next few days wandering up the coast, seeing spectacular desert landscapes, interesting towns, landing in the colonial oasis village of San Ignacio, with its historic Jesuit Mission whose construction dates back to the early 1700’s.  From there we ventured out for a full day’s hike/burro ride up into the surrounding mountains to witness remarkable ancient cliff paintings left by the indigenous artists of over a thousand years ago.

The beginning of the hike towards the cave paintings, some on foot, others on a burro

All of this, you could say, set us up for the main event.  And lest you think that we were pacing ourselves through a pre-planned, choreographed itinerary – for several days we had been modifying our schedule because of the expectation of heavy rains.  Now we are out in the Baja California desert, one of the driest places in the hemisphere, where heavy rains are only slightly less common than a snowstorm.   And finally it comes, just as we’re completing the expedition up to the cliff art, and the skies open up.  We’re deep in on beyond basic dirt roads, where if you got stuck, I’m sure someone would be along in a month or two to help you out.  But we manage our escape, return to San Ignacio where it continues to pour all night, turning our hotel parking lot into a lake.

The next morning, we head out through the deluge for legendary Pachico’s Eco-Camp at San Ignacio Lagoon.  The route began as paved, but soon changed to dirt, and goes downhill from there as it nears the massive lagoon and encounters “drainage challenges”.  Our crew oohed and aahed as Sebastian at the wheel made one after another hairy wash out crossings, with the cheers later morphing into multi-lingual and denominational prayers.  Four hours hence we had completed the 90 minute trip, and there we were standing on the drop dead gorgeous shores of San Ignacio.

Boat captain giving a thumbs up as we head out to the San Ignacio Lagoon for a 90 minute whale watching tour!

We were able to make two trips out onto the water, for one of the most remarkable and unbelievable experiences that I believe is available to us humans on planet Earth.  San Ignacio Lagoon is one of three bodies of water on the Pacific Baja coast that serves as mating, calving, and nursery sites for Eschrichtius robustus, the majestic Pacific Grey Whale.  After summering in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia, these exquisite creatures who can grow to 50 feet long and weigh 40 tons, migrate down to Baja in the winter.  In the 1840’s, these sanctuaries were tragically discovered by whaling ships from the United States and Europe, and a century of massacre and butchery ensued.  Grey Whale populations, which were estimated to be around 100,000 pre-whaling, were slaughtered to near extinction.  So here we went, self-appointed representatives of the human race, out to pay a social call on our former victims.  “I am not worthy!” repeatedly cycled through my soul.

Tour participants interacting with a playful grey whale calf as it approached our boat!

“They’re coming” calls our boat captain, and we see the pair of massive shapes move along the surface of the sea.  It’s a mother and her calf, and they’re coming, by their own  choice, to see us.  Curiosity?   Vengeance?  Forgiveness?  Pure love?  We can’t know, but all of us realize instantly that this is a beyond comprehensible moment, a meeting of the massive and the tiny, of highly intelligent creatures (at least the whales), of former adversaries seeking, choosing a new mode of coexistence.  To call this a highlight, a miracle, would be the greatest understatement.  I’d say the most often heard cry from our team was “Oh my god!”, underlining the religiosity of the experience.  Ultimately I have no words, and with profound gratitude my cup runneth over.

This is a glimpse of one of our incredible 90 minute whale watching tours!

The greater powers, just to be certain that we remained humbly in our place, left for us on our final morning the task of leaving San Ignacio Lagoon, which had been cut off from the rest of the world for the last couple of days by flooded out roadways while we were attending Mass with the Greys.  Jesus, and a couple others of the Pachico’s staff, drove out with us for moral (and divine?) support.  In a few miles we reached the moment of truth – a section of a hundred yards or two thoroughly submerged in the rushing waters of the still flooding results of the rains of two days ago.  Now our van didn’t have 4 wheel drive, or particularly good clearance, and it was packed to the gills with the 12 of us and all our gear.  But we had the whales, Sebastian, and Jesus on our side – and a couple of minutes and a lot of prayers and a similar amount of swearing later – we were across!  Now all we had to do was make the 6 hour drive down the peninsula back to the Loreto Airport, where a week ago it had all began.  And with a whopping 15 minutes to spare, that‘s exactly what we did.

Jon and Wendy (tour participants) enjoying a home made fresh scallop ceviche on a remote island in the Bahía de Concepción!

We had left the United States as naive innocents, and returned to the strange new world of coronavirus.   We went from traveling as a family in Baja, to sheltering in place back at home.  But we all are carrying the wonder, the joy, the jaw dropping amazingness of the great Pacific Greys.

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