Whale Watching

The Gentle Giants of the Sea of Cortez

If you’re fortunate to be visiting Los Cabos in the months of January through March, it’s likely that at some point during your stay you’ll be treated to the sight of whales spouting off shore. Many whales that feed in northern waters migrate south each year. From mid to late fall, gray whales make the longest migration of any mammal, a 6,000 mile journey from their summer homes in the Bering and Chukchi Seas between Alaska and Siberia, to winter in the warm waters of Baja California and the Sea of Cortez. Averaging a speed of four to five knots, they arrive in late December seeking both shelter from the frigid northern waters and refuge to birth their young. Gray whales (also known as the Pacific gray, California gray or grayback) calve in the protected, shallow lagoons of San Ignacio, Scammon’s, Ojo de Liebre and Magdalena Bay. Bottom-feeding grays are placid shore lovers who spend most of their lives traveling. Once found in Europe and Asia, the gray population is now confined to the North Pacific, from Siberia and Alaska south to Mexico.

Like all mammals, the gray whale is warm blooded, breathes air and nurses its young. Moderately large in size, they range in length from 40 to 50 feet and can weigh up to 73,000 pounds, with males smaller than females. Gray in color, hence the name, they are classified as Cetacea, marine mammals that include whales, porpoises and dolphins and belong to Mysticeti, one of the three families of great baleen whales. Grays have no close relatives; they are the single species of the family Eschrichtidae.

Grays, right whales and the family of fin, blue, sei, Bryde’s, minke and humpback whales (balaenopterids) have baleen fringes, made of whalebone, instead of teeth. The baleen lines the upper jaw and works like a large comb, filtering plankton from salt water and, in the grays’ case, sediment. When the whale’s mouth is full it closes and forces the water out, catching the plankton in the baleen. When all of the residue is filtered, the whale swallows. Unlike other baleen whales, grays are the only whale to bottom feed, staying down for 3 to 5 minutes to eat; leaving a trail of grooves in the ocean floor behind them. They can remain under water for fifteen minutes before running out of air. Grays are characterized by a long snout and double blowhole on top of their head. In place of a dorsal fin, the gray has a hump with dorsal ridges running to it’s flukes (tail).

The lagoons frequented by the grays are mid-way to three-quarters of the way down the Baja peninsula and offer optimal conditions for female grays to give birth. After a gestation period of thirteen months, newborns enter the world about 15 feet long and weigh around 1,500 pounds. Whale milk is more than 50% fat and 10 times richer than cow’s milk, allowing the calf to build up blubber for the long return trip north in the spring. Mother grays are extremely affectionate, playing constantly and bracing the calf on her back when it needs to rest. In the sheltered lagoons, the calves learn survival skills and build their muscles by swimming against the ocean currents flowing into the calmer waters. The calves weigh around 3,000 pounds and are about 19 feet long when they are ready to leave the lagoon. The grays natural predators are sharks and orcas (killer whales) and mother grays are always on guard for the enemy.
Although each of the lagoons is hundreds of miles or more up the peninsula, whale watching around Los Cabos can be very fruitful. While the gray whale is not the only species you will see (blue, humpback, sperm, Bryde’s, sei, fin, and the occasional orca ply these waters) it is the most commonly sighted whale around Los Cabos. Many male grays travel into the Sea of Cortez, as well as females, once their calves are mature enough to leave the sanctuary of the lagoon.

Simply watching these incredible creatures frolicking amongst themselves is an awe-inspiring treat. Spouting, the visible exhaling of air by the whale, is usually your first indication of whale activity, however, you may see breaching, too. Breaching, when the whale leaps almost completely out of the water and falls back with a large splash, is a spectacular sight. Remember that the whales are moving and will stay under for two to five minutes, so try to anticipate what direction they are taking so you are able to focus on the location of their next breach or spout. You’ll also see the whales showing their flukes, which is known as sounding. If you’re in a small boat, Zodiac or kayak, you will be able to move in much closer and may get an eye-to-eye close-up with a new friend. Called spyhopping, this is where the whale pushes itself up out of the water until he can see his surroundings (and you), and for first time whale watchers this is especially thrilling.

If you want to see mothers and their calves first hand, whale-watching trips to Magdalena Bay (the closest calving area to Los Cabos) are best made with daytrip fly-in tours. Aereo Calafia offers tours during the whale watching season. This is a completely different experience than whale watching off the coast of Los Cabos as you are in a protected area of extremely calm, shallow water. Here you will be able to interact with the whales and get much closer to them than in the open ocean. The opportunity to pet whales is not uncommon. If you have more time to spend a few days in Magdalena Bay, there are several tour companies that operate from Loreto as a base camp.

You will find that there are several local, top notch-whale watching tours that will bring you as close as possible to the grays and other whales off the coast of Los Cabos and they generally conduct daily excursions from January to March.