So, you’re thinking of heading to Baja to see the gray whales this year. You may be looking forward to escaping sub-zero temperatures and digging your feat into sugary sand. You may be looking forward to fresh seafood, snorkeling with tropical fish or sipping on a cocktail. But the most astounding, transformative experience you will find on your Baja vacation this winter is visiting the gray whales.
Baja’s gray whale season is a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Here’s why, and what you need to know.
IT’S THE GREATEST MAMMAL MIGRATION IN THE WORLD
Every year, gray whales travel the longest migration known to exist among mammals, swimming 10,000-14,000 miles per year as they make their way from the cold Arctic seas to Mexico’s warm water lagoons and back.
The gray whale’s yearly trek begins every October as the Arctic ice begins to freeze southward and their food supply begins to migrate. The whales may only average 5 mph, but by pushing onward day and night they travel about 75 miles per day.
By traveling south to Baja California, gray whales can look forward to nutrient-rich water waiting for them. Here, cool ocean currents push oxygen and nutrients up toward the surface, where they blend with the warm sunlight and bloom in a wealth of food for marine animals. Small plankton, in particular, is abundant during the peak winter months.
Gray whales can also look forward to the protected waters of Baja’s calving lagoons, where they stopover for the winter months. Gray whales give birth and nurse in only three locations, all of which can be found off the Baja peninsula: San Ignacio Lagoon, Magdalena Bay and Laguna Ojo de Liebre (or Scammon’s Lagoon). In these sheltered waters, gray whales are able to give birth, nurse and mate without fear of predators.
WHEN GRAY WHALES ARRIVE IN BAJA
Though whale watching is a year-round activity, Baja whale season peaks in the winter months of January through March. However, you can expect to see gray whales off the coast of the Baja peninsula from late December through April.
The first of the gray whales arrive in Baja’s calving lagoons by late December to early January, beginning the Baja gray whale season. Among the first gray whale arrivals in Baja are the pregnant mothers who seek the protection of warm, calm waters in which to bear their calves. Single, fertile female whales seeking mates are also leading the charge. The majority of the gray whales reach Baja’s lagoons by mid-February to mid-March. Once there, they can be seen socializing, mating and giving birth in the calving lagoons.
WHEN GRAY WHALES DEPART BAJA
Once they have finished mating, gray whales without new calves begin to depart Baja—generally throughout February and March. The last to depart, as well as the first to arrive, are the pregnant female gray whales and those with newborn calves. New calves are generally only ready for the migration up to the Arctic by late March into April. Occasionally, gray whale mothers and their calves are known to stay in Baja well into May.
THE WEATHER OUTSIDE IS ANYTHING BUT FRIGHTENING
The weather in Baja during gray whale season is no chilly experience; in fact, it’s pretty ideal and balmy. The air temperatures settle in the 70s with the water temperatures also averaging about 70 degrees. While tropical storms, or chubascos, bring in rougher seas and higher winds, these winter storms are too short lived to disrupt your daily adventures.
DOES THAT WHALE COME IN ANY OTHER COLOR?
Though the gray whale migration may be the highlight of many Baja vacations, there’s plenty of other draws for the marine life lover. Humpback whales and whale sharks are also migrating in peak numbers to the Sea of Cortez during Baja’s “gray whale” season, and blue whales also breed in the Sea of Cortez during this time. Throughout the year, over 20 species of whales can be found in Baja.
THERE’S PLENTY OF MARINE LIFE IN BAJA
Jacques Cousteau’s aquarium doesn’t hibernate during the winter months of Baja’s gray whale season. Flying manta rays that skirt the water and flap their wings for a brief flight are a crowd favorite, as are the playful sea lions who enjoy sharing a good swim with snorkelers. There’s also plenty of bottle nosed dolphins to see cresting the waves in glistening pods. Other Baja marine animals include the Smooth Hammerhead shark, Mako sharks and Olive Ridley sea turtles.
IT’S OK TO TOUCH THE WHALES
When interacting with whales, it is always of the utmost importance to respect the whales in their nursing and breeding grounds. In many other locations around the world, whale-watching boats can “chase” whales, hem them in or cause visible stress. However, in Baja’s friendly (and strictly regulated) coastal community, the whales control the interactions with boats—and they love it!
Baja’s gray whale season is truly a unique environment, one where gray whales initiate interactions with the awaiting pangas in hopes of playing. The gray whales often scratch up against the sides of the pangas, hoping for a nose scratch. They spy hop, slap their flippers and show off their tail flukes. Perhaps the most soul-touching moments, however, come from the gray whale mothers who “introduce” their calves to humans as they nudge them up toward the boat. Scientists hypothesize that these are learned behaviors from mothers who were also introduced to humans as calves in Baja.
THE “FRIENDLIES” ONLY HAPPEN IN BAJA
Baja’s gray whale season is best known for one thing: the whale’s startling friendly behavior. Such sociable interactions have earned Baja’s gray whales the nickname of the “friendlies.” But what happens in Baja stays in Baja.
Gray whales may spend up to five months in Baja’s lagoons, but then they leave and begin their migration up the Pacific coast to the Arctic. During their yearly trek, gray whales come into contact with other marine traffic, boats and people—and they don’t exhibit their friendly behavior with any other passersby. It appears that gray whales have developed a very unique culture that is truly “Baja bound,” making any interactions travelers have with the gray whales even more unique.
YOU HAVE TO GO WHALE WATCHING WITH A LICENSED OPERATOR
Baja’s gray whale lagoons are under strict federal regulation, so you can only go whale watching in the three calving lagoons with a licensed tour operator. The whale watching guidelines regulate behaviors such as behavior during sightings, the number of boats within the regulated area and the distance at which boats must keep their distance from the whales. With a licensed operator, you can experience a transformative connection with the gray whales as you similarly promote conservation and responsible tourism practices.