San Ignacio Lagoon

There are plenty of places to go whale watching in the Baja Sur section of the peninsula off the west coast of Mexico. This is, after all, the Mexican state with the most coastline and there are multiple bays and migration channels loved by whales of all kinds. If you travel to San Ignacio Lagoon, however, you can get up close and personal with mothers and their cubs.

I didn’t quite believe this was going to happen until I was actually out on the water and a baby whale poked its snout up right at the side of the boat. It used to be prohibited to touch them, but then the naturalists figured out that the little tykes actually like it. They like to be petted in the same way your cat does and apparently the mothers like sending the kids off to play.

skyhopping gray whale

So we’d see mama cruising around the boat after poking her head up to check out the scene. “Spyhopping” this is called and it’s a dramatic thing to witness. It’s not uncommon to see five or six mother/child combinations in the course of an hour and a half the boats are allowed to visit. The mothers swim very close to the boats, or occasionally under them, coming up and spraying from their blowhole. The babies come right up to the boat and look at the passengers with their big eye. The director at the camp said they like to be rubbed around their lips.

It’s not guaranteed this will happen of course. They might decide you don’t look like an ideal playmate. But there’s a pretty good chance of it happening and if nothing else you’ll see some whales in much closer proximity than usual.

friendly whale encounter

San Ignacio Lagoon is essentially a big nursery. There’s mating going on, which you can see early in the season sometimes (be advised it’s kind of rough). Then there’s birth—just one cub per mother—and the males take off after the deed is done. In this protected bay the children can grow up and get strong. The area where the boats are allowed is the play area, but there’s a much larger area where boats are prohibited: the whales can go there anytime they want to have some peace and quiet.

This well-managed protected area supports about 90 local families, many of them fisherman who have seen the light and become sustainable tourism types instead. Fishing stocks have been declining for decades and this way they’ve got more of a chance of recovering, plus it’s a steadier income for participants.

It’s a long haul to get to San Ignacio Lagoon as you travel several hours north from Loreto, to the oasis town of that name, then ride across some barren salt flats to get to the lagoon. This is a pristine, protected area right at sea level so you won’t find big resorts fouling up the ground and sea. Instead you stay in small huts or eco-friendly camps run by local communities, like the one I stayed with: Kuyima. There are mattresses on cots and a good restaurant with a bar.

The best way to work out this trip is to make it part of a multi-day adventure with a company like Aventuras Mexico Profundo. They’ll mix in nature walks, visits to historic missions, and a stop by a famous cave painting spot over multiple days.

tented camp San Ignacio Lagoon

The busiest times, when you’re sure to see plenty of whales, is January through March. The insider advice though is to come in April. There are still plenty of whales who haven’t gone north yet, but the crowds have dwindled down considerably.

For more information, see the links above and also the Visit Baja Sur website.