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What to Expect: Observing Gray Whales on the Baja California Peninsula

Each winter, gray whales congregate in the protected lagoons along the Baja California Peninsula to court, mate, and give birth. It is a one-of-a-kind marine spectacle and our small-ship voyages in the region provide a front-row seat.

Naturalist and marine biologist Sofia Merino has called Baja California home for more than a decade and she has been leading guests of Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic into these lagoons for the last three years. "It is really amazing to witness someone else's first time encountering these whales up close," she explains. "I love sharing my passion for these animals and I think when we as naturalists get excited about something, it makes it even more special for our guests."

Here, Merino answers top questions about the whales that we see and the extraordinary experience of witnessing these majestic creatures up close.

What to Expect: Observing Gray Whales on the Baja California Peninsula

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Where is the best place to observe gray whales on the Baja California Peninsula? 

There are three different birthing lagoons on the Baja California Peninsula: Scammon’s Lagoon, also known as Ojo de Liebre, in the north, San Ignacio Lagoon in the center, and then there is the south Magdalena-Almejas Bay complex. Magdalena Bay is the most known of the three due to the quality of whale watching and the diversity of behaviors you can witness there.

Within Magdalena Bay, there are different locations you can access but the best whale watching experience is in Boca de la Soledad, the northern mouth of the lagoon. Almejas Bay in the south end of the bay is another great place to observe these whales.

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Guests aboard a local panga experience a close encounter with a gray whale. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Where is Magdalena Bay?

The Baja California Peninsula, which stretches about 760 miles down Mexico’s western coastline, is divided into two states: Baja California (the northern state) and Baja California Sur (the southern state). Magdalena Bay sits along the western coast of the peninsula’s southern state where it’s bordered by the Pacific Ocean but sheltered by Isla Magdalena and Isla Santa Margarita, two pristine barrier islands which we often hike and explore on our voyages. 

What attracts the gray whales to Magdalena Bay? 

The waters in Magdalena Bay as well as the other birthing lagoons are warm, shallow, and protected, offering the perfect conditions for pregnant gray whales to give birth and bond with their calves, and for those females that had their calves en route, it provides a sheltered place from predators. For adult single whales, the bay offers a tranquil space to gather in great numbers to court and mate.

What is the best time of the year to see gray whales in the Baja California Peninsula?

In general, the gray whale watching season begins in January and ends in March. But the region’s three lagoons have different peak seasons. In particular, prime time for whale watching in Magdalena Bay is January and February, which is when a lot of single whales are courting. For gray whales, mating occurs at the surface, so with some luck, you’ll also have a good possibility of witnessing this unique behavior during this time period.

As the season progresses to the end of February and early March, the total number of gray whales starts to drop, but opportunities to see females with calves actually increases. That’s because moms take advantage of the solitude of the channels in Magdalena Bay to bond and nurse with their newborns, as well as prepare the young whales for their first migration.

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A spouting gray whale shows off for guests aboard a Zodiac in Boca de la Soledad. Photo: David Vargas

How do you travel to the best whale watching spots in Magdalena Bay? 

Our expedition ship brings us closer to these amazing whale watching spots, but in order to venture inside the lagoons where all the action is we use local fiberglass skiffs known as “pangas.” In Mexico, whale watching is a regulated activity and in Magdalena Bay, there are small fishing towns that dedicate their winter income to whale watching so the locals here hold the government permits needed to engage in this activity. The local captains are also deeply knowledgeable about the region and know how to best navigate the dynamic bay so we rely on their expertise. 

How many opportunities will you have for whale watching in Magdalena Bay on our 6-day itinerary aboard National Geographic Sea Bird?

In general, we have about six opportunities to head out into the lagoons to encounter the whales. Of course, this can vary depending on the weather conditions.  

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A mother and calf swim together in San Ignacio Lagoon. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

What are some unique whale behaviors you can see in the lagoons?

There are an array of behaviors to be seen during our time with the whales. My personal favorite is “spy-hopping,” which is when they lift their rostrum out of the water in a vertical position, and sometimes their eye is just in the surface line. We’ll also spot whales breaching, when they propel their bodies out of the water and into the air. Most often, two-thirds of their body is revealed at the surface but occasionally we can see almost the entire whale come out of the water during a breach.

Tail slapping is just what it sounds like. It’s when the whale fluke (or tail) slaps the surface of the water. Another instance when we can see the fluke is when the whale is about to take a deeper dive. To achieve this, they arch their body so we can see the dorsal ‘hump’ (they don’t really have a dorsal fin), the knuckles, and at the end, the beautiful fluke as it descends into the water.

When it comes to courting, we see a lot of action including some breaching, some tail slapping, and especially a lot of rolling their bodies together. Most of the time, it’s groups of three whales engaged in these courting and mating behaviors, but the groups can call the attention of other males around and I’ve witnessed up to five whales together. 

As we observe the mother and calf pairs, we’ll see them “taking laps,” to and from the mouth of the lagoons. There are strong currents at the mouth making it an ideal place for the moms to exercise their young ones who need to build their muscles up in order to make the long migration to their northern feeding grounds. Wherever they go in the lagoon, they’ll travel together, side by side. 

My favorite behavior to watch is the pairs bonding. This is when a calf rolls on top of the mother from one side to the other while the mom seems very relaxed. Sometimes mom pushes the calf with her rostrum to the surface. Something important to know is that gray whales are very “touchy,” tactile whales, and we see this, especially with these pairs.

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A California Grey whale calf breaching in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Photo: Michael S. Nolan

Is it safe to be close to the whales?

Yes, it is absolutely safe. The local captains have a wealth of knowledge in maneuvering the pangas around the whales and are very familiar with their behaviors. Grays are also smart animals with a really good sense of space, so they know where we are in relation to them. One very important thing to keep in mind is that we are not out there to chase these whales, we are spending time in the presence of these whales and they are the ones that choose to come close to our boats or not. 

How close can you expect to get to the whales?

In general, the distance ranges between 30 and 60 feet, but if or when we encounter a ‘friendly’ or curious whale we can get much closer than that. However, this only happens when the whale allows it.

Will you be able to touch the whales?

You could be lucky enough to get that close to a whale, but don’t expect that to happen for every guest on every departure. Think about it this way, whales have different personalities, just as humans do. Some whales are friendly and might approach our boats close enough to be touched and some are not and will keep more of a distance.

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A California gray whale swims below a Zodiac in Magdalena Bay. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

What should you wear or bring when you go whale watching in the lagoons?

I recommend thinking like an onion because the best way to dress is in layers! There are a couple of things to have in mind. First is that you are not going to tropical Mexico, you are going to the Pacific side of the Baja California Peninsula during the winter which to the surprise of many travelers can be colder than expected. Temperatures vary from 60 to 77 degrees fahrenheit but can feel colder with the wind factor. During this time of the year, we have the ‘nortes’ which are the northern winds that come as a result of the winter storms on the U.S. west coast.

With all that in mind, my recommendation is to wear or bring layers: a long sleeve shirt because the sun can be really intense, a fleece vest, a puffy jacket, and last but not least a windbreaker or raincoat. Remember you will be in a small skiff that will get splashed and sometimes during the winter we can have light rain. If you’re bringing a camera or other gear on board, a dry bag is a good idea. Don’t forget sunscreen since you’ll be sitting out on the water which reflects the sun.

Lastly, I recommend bringing hiking shoes or any type of waterproof outdoor shoe. There are times when the winds stop and the sun comes out so having some type of sandals can be really helpful too. 

What other species of whales and marine mammals can you see in Magdalena Bay?

As we explore the bay, we can also spot bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions.  

Read more stories in our What to Expect series.