Stretching along the west coast of Baja California Sur lies Magdalena Bay or Bahía de Magdalena. This magnificent wetland ecosystem is protected from the powerful waves of the Pacific Ocean by the barrier islands of Isla Santa Margarita and Isla Magdalena. Its warm waters are a paradise for wildlife spotting, with pods of gray whales migrating from the north to mate, give birth and nurse their young during the winter months while numerous seabirds find refuge in the fringing mangroves.
Magdalena Bay is one of only three bays on the Baja peninsula where gray whales nurse and raise their young. After traveling south in what is the world’s longest mammalian migration, the gray whales coming from Arctic waters arrive at the furthest north bay, Ojo de Liebre (also known as Scammon’s Lagoon), while some travel further south to San Ignacio Lagoon, and finally, furthest south to Magdalena Bay. Each of these breeding lagoons, or bays, is different and each deserves a visit. Our camp located on an island at Magdalena Bay, offers the best possible viewing of the whales while you are actually in camp.
While visitors to Magdalena Bay are almost guaranteed sightings of gray whales during the winter months, the history of the bay has been far from easy for these gentle giants of the sea.
A Short History of Magdalena Bay
Whaling ships first started arriving in Magdalena Bay in the early 19th century. Sperm whales were initially hunted off the Pacific Coast of Baja California Sur by American whalers who used Magdalena Bay’s protected waters to cooper their oil. But by the mid-19th century, French, Dutch, and Russian whale ships had joined in.
They began moving into Magdalena Bay to hunt gray whales during their winter calving season, initially catching females with their young. But as the cows became scarce, bull whales were also hunted, with an estimated 1,250 gray whales caught in the decade between 1855 and 1865.
In addition to whaling, Magdalena Bay’s storied history reflects its strategic importance as an entrance to the Pacific. In 1908, it was used for gunnery practice by the Great White Fleet, a United States Navy battle fleet that journeyed around the globe under the orders of President Theodore Roosevelt with the purpose of displaying America’s military might to the world.
Rumors have also circulated that there were attempts to purchase the bay by both the German Kaiser and the Japanese Emperor during the early 20th century. Its protected waters were seen as a strategic location for their military naval interests and some historical reports state that Japanese Navy submarines occupied the bay during World War II, remaining submerged during daylight to stay unseen.
The Gray Whales of Magdalena Bay
Today the waters of Magdalena Bay are celebrated for their wildlife and the undisputed highlight is spotting gray whales, which can be seen breaching the surface for air and playfully splashing on re-entry. They often spout sprays of water into the air as they exhale and inhale through their double blowholes or do what’s known as “spy-hopping”, peering their heads above the water vertically to see what’s going on.
Gray whales can grow up to 35 tons and over 50 feet in length, with barnacles pockmarking their leathery skin. They are baleen feeders, feasting on the plankton-rich waters off Alaska to create a thick layer of blubber in the lead up to their annual migration. During the fall, they travel around 7,000 kilometers (4300 miles) south from Alaska to Mexico where they give birth and mate in the calm waters of Magdalena Bay (and other bays along Mexico’s Baja California Sur coastline) before starting their northward migration sometime in March.
The last to join the migration north are the females and their young, giving the calves a little more time to grow. Calves weigh around half a ton at birth and measure up to four meters (13-feet) in length, feeding on their mother’s fat-rich milk to become strong enough for the long journey north. Orcas are their main predator and are known to pursue gray whale mothers and their calves in pods, with the tongue being a prized delicacy for the orca.
A Conservation Success Story
Despite their history of being hunted by man to endangered status, gray whales are a conservation success story, with around 20,000 individuals now surviving off the Pacific coast of North America. There are a few theories regarding why the eastern Pacific (North American Coast) population has recovered so well. One fact is that they are a protected species and no hunting is allowed along the coastal migration route. Another thought is that because they migrate together in a relatively narrow band, they can find each other easily. Compare this to some whale species, like the blue whale, that has to search the entire planet’s oceans to find a mate. Lastly, the lagoons in Baja where they give birth and nurse their young, are highly protected and calm waters, free of any predators.
The current eastern Pacific population of gray whales fluctuates from year to year. Some years there are large numbers of whales that die, and for the most part, scientists have not figured out why this is. Thus, the population can vary from 20,000 to 30,000 animals. Overall, the recovery of the gray whale population from the days when whaling was at its peak is a remarkable conservation success story!
At our whale camps, you can learn much more about the natural history of whales and gray whales in particular while also having the incredible experience of seeing these magnificent whales up close.
Early morning coffee fill up at our Magdalena Bay Whale Camp
Sea Kayak Adventures Guide Diego conducts an interpretive presentation on Gray Whales inside the community dome at our Magdalena Bay camp
Sea Kayak Adventures Guests stroll across the Sand Dunes towards the Pacific Ocean, a common activity between whale watching sessions
A curious whale approaches two onlooking guests in our whale watching panga