by Carla White
It’s called the ‘gray migration’, but it’s not the surge of Baby Boomers seeking warm and affordable places to live south of the border; the phrase refers to the annual pilgrimage of gray whales leaving their cold northern waters to travel to the friendly lagoons of Baja California.
For eight months out of twelve, things are pretty quiet in Guerrero Negro, half-way down the Baja peninsula. It’s desolate, wind-swept and remote — not the kind of place you would expect miracles. And yet, every year like clockwork, this small town and its infamous Scammon’s Lagoon (Ojo de Liebre) become the staging place for lots of them, when the once-nearly-extinct California gray whales arrive at the vast but sheltered lagoon to spawn and give birth to hundreds of baby grays, called calves.
The true miracle is that the gray whales exist at all. In the mid-1800s, the whale population was estimated to be at 20-30 thousand. Almost overnight and at the hand of one enterprising seaman, this number was decimated. Captain Charles Melville Scammon and his crew waited for the whales to populate the lagoon and then managed to close off the entrance. Scammon and his men developed an ingenious way to hunt and kill the spawning whales (a time when they are at their most vulnerable) using an efficient technique that was soon adopted by other whalers. Suffice it to say, the carnage was great. In just a few short years, the gray whale population had almost vanished.
Today, the gray whales thrive thanks to the efforts of the country of Mexico, the first nation to implement an active whale preservation program. The government set an international precedent by establishing the Whale Sanctuary in Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Baja, California Sur, mandated by Presidential decree. In 1988, the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve was created to encompass two areas used by the gray whales, Laguna Ojo de Liebre and Laguna San Ignacio. In addition to the establishment of protected areas for the whales, the government has also enacted legislation prohibiting the harassment, capture of physical harm or killing of gray whales.
The Migration of the Gray Whale
Every fall, the Pacific or California Gray Whale begins a two- to three-month migration south, along the western coast of Canada all the way down to Mexico. The whales, which travel in small groups, cover an astounding 5,000-7,000 miles in this period. Many seek safe harbor in the Guerrero Negro region, part of the Vizcaino Desert Biosphere Reserve, while others continue to locations along Baja and even into the southern part of the Gulf of California.
The whales typically breed every two years, and the mother (cow) will give birth to a single calf. It is important for the creatures to find protected, shallow warm waters where they can breed and give birth to the young whales without fear of predators. In these friendly waters, high salt content is important because it gives buoyancy to the babies in their early weeks. In addition, it is believed that the lagoons are chosen by the whales because their shallowness is less inviting to sharks, which will otherwise prey on the baby whales.
About Guerrero Negro
February and March are the key months for whale-watching in Guerrero Negro, which is about 440 miles from the San Diego/San Ysidro border crossing and a half-way stop between Tijuana and Cabo San Lucas on the Transpeninsular Highway. Although private planes can be chartered to get there, most people arrive in Guerrero Negro by tour bus (check out Baja California Tours) or car. The drive should only be attempted in daylight – nighttime driving is fraught with hazards that can include switchback roads, fast semi-trailer trucks and wandering animals. Good stops along the way include San Quintin or Catavina, both of which feature pleasant Desert Inn (formerly La Pinta) hotels. It’s a good idea to gas up when you have the opportunity in San Quintin or El Rosario. The Pemex station in Catavina has not been open for a long time, but there are usually several men lining the road there, offering gas cans for sale.
Just to the north of Guerrero Negro, you cross into Baja California Sur, changing time zones. (On Central Standard Time from April through October, Guerrero Negro is an hour ahead of California and northern Baja). Outside of town is a federal checkpoint, where you will most likely be asked to show your passport and travel visa –if you do not have a Mexico travel visa, you will be required to purchase one there. Shortly after the checkpoint, you will veer off the highway to the right and into town.
Where to Stay in Guerrero Negro
Guerrero Negro is small, hence accommodations are somewhat limited and reservations should be made in advance.
The best choice for whale watchers is the basic but fun Hotel Malarrimo, run by Luis Enrique Achoy Cota. (The Malarrimo trailer park is also available, with 22 RV sites). For one thing, the eco-tours leave from the hotel’s parking area. For another, the hotel is very clean, inexpensive ($45 per room per night) and has the best restaurant in town (an important consideration, given that Guerrero Negro is not known for its abundant dining spots). The famous giant Guerrero Negro sea scallops and locally cultivated oysters on the half-shell come highly recommended!
The Halfway Inn (formerly the Desert Inn) is also a good choice but is a bit outside of town. Depending on season, the rooms run approximately $75-80 per night. Don Miguelitos is an inexpensive and acceptable choice.
Whales Up Close – The Tour
The whale-watching eco-tours take place twice a day, and begin at the Malarrimo Hotel, with buses leaving from the parking lot. It is about a 30 minute trip to the lagoon, where a fleet of small boats (pangas) awaits. Each panga carries up to 10 people. Once out in the lagoon, the boat operators act as spotters and relay whale sitings to each other.
Sometimes it takes awhile, sometimes not. But it is not unusual to see a mature whale breach the water straight up, like a missile (males average 16 tons, females 30-35 tons). . At times, whales appear to roil the waters all around, including cows and their babies that snuggle tightly up against mom’s side. Every once in awhile, like a huge shadow, a whale will glide beneath the panga boat, coming up to roll over right next to breathless boat passengers. As the sleek beast turns, barnacles and lichen are visible on the whale’s skin. There is often a moment when a big whale eyeball gazes at the humans with benign curiosity as its head lolls slowly back into the ocean. Sometimes, the whales are close enough to touch but, as the boat operator cautions, it’s vital not to touch the whale anyplace near its blowhole!
The three-hour-tour (yes, Gilligan) passes by in a flash, usually ending with a quick visit to some rather lardacious sealions who bark their goodbyes to the ecotourists.
Eco-tours, operated by Malarrimo Eco-tours, are $45 per person, with a $4 additional National Park fee charged.
For more ideas on what to do in and around Guerrero Negro, check this column in the next few days. In the meantime, start planning your trip…you’ll have a whale of a time!
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