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san ignacio lagoon

Thar She Blows! - Feb. 17

Seeing grey whales in Baja's lagoons is something we've wanted to do since our last trip down this coast in 1988. That year we were too early to see the whales in the lagoons, where they come to mate, and a year later to breed, during their annual migration. The grey whales were nearly fished to extinction in the late 1800's, but have bounced back today to a heathly population of 10,000.

Our plan to see the whales this trip at Laguna San Ignacio seemed thwarted by the weather reports. We left Turtle Bay in great following winds and seas, and sailed briskly, wing-on-wing, SSE to Bahia Ballenas (Whale Bay), but the forecast was for winds clocking around, and some southerlies. Our target anchorage at Abreojos would be protected from the usual northerly winds, but wide open to anything from the south.

We agreed to sail on to Abreojos despite the weather report, and decide when we arrived whether to chance it.

Punta Abreojos ("eyes open!") is surrounded by 8 shoals, and our Mexican charts have already shown some location discrepancies, but we arrived in good daylight and threaded our way in, anchoring off the town. Dave called Fuyima Whale Tours on channel 68, based on information from a departing yacht. They finally replied, and said they would send a panga for us. The price to visit the lagoon in a panga was $200. That seems a lot of money for Mexico, but not much for a once in a lifetime experience. People are not allowed to enter in private boats.

The Fuyima panga didn't arrive until early afternoon. The guide explained in Spanish that it would be too late and too windy to make it to the lagoon that day, and told us to move our boat to the mouth of the lagoon in the morning, where he would pick us up.

We settled in for the night. Dave ordered up another weather report. It sounded like forecasted SE winds would be light, and we were experiencing NE winds at dusk. There's a very long fetch across Bahia Ballenas, but we put out 200' of chain, and were hanging off a 75 pound CQR anchor. This anchoring system generally allows us to sleep well.

At midnight Dave woke me. The winds had picked up to 21 knots, with whitecaps in the anchorage, and the chain had fallen off the snubber. We thought about bailing out, retracing our track in to avoid the shoals, but then elected to reset the snubber, and tie a few extra lines to hold the chain down at the windlass. The wind soon dropped off, and we woke to calm. Dave started the motor and we pulled up the anchor, then motored a couple hours across the wide bay to the lagoon entrance where we re-anchored. We raised Fuyima by radio and told them we'd arrived and were ready.

In a half-hour a panga pulled up, with the same man who'd come to Abreojos for us the day before.

Dave petting a grey whale

We scrambled aboard and he took off across smooth water. By now whales were spy-hopping and surfacing all around us. Our guide slowed down in a small pod and brought the boat close enough for Dave to pet a whale. What a thrill! We often have seen whales at sea, but getting this close, we could discover just how big they are. The 30' panga was much smaller than the 60'-80' whales around us.

Our guide worked us close to other pods, but no whales allowed us to come so close. He then took off across the lagoon where more whales were spouting. He selected one and approached it. Again, the whale seemed to decide we were ok, and came up behind the panga, then under it, and up alongside, close enough to pet.

Whale coming under the panga

Whale showering Jan

For the next hour, the whale entertained us. It hugged the side of the boat, or went under, where it exhaled a blast that burbled against the hull. Several times it bumped up against the hull, lifting us, but the guide didn't seem alarmed, so neither were we. When it rose alongside it blew water in a fine spray that covered us. Dave waited for my yell as his signal to protect the camera from the spray.

Petting the whale

Whale blowing, rim of lagoon in background

Mouth of the whale

Jan gets to touch a whale

The blowhole and nostrils

The whale's skin was soft and pliant. Patches of barnacles covered its back and there was even a hitch-hiking crustacean near the blowhole. Each exhale was a blast of spray, followed by a noisy inhale that almost closed the nostrils. We could clearly see the tail and flukes, but the whale mostly presented its head for touching.

The whale repeatedly raised its head out of the water, or rolled on its side to look at us with a red eye. Dave asked the guide if the whale was his amigo, but the guide said it was his amiga - a female, and a big one.

Una ballena amiga

Whale under the panga

Raising her head to check us out

Whale next to boat, burbling (blowing underwater)

It was an amazing experience. The whale was clearly staying with us and allowing us to touch it. The guide finally decided that was enough, and backed away from the whale, which turned and swam away.

The guide returned us to our boat. Dave paid and tipped him, but he asked for more because of his rough ride to us the day before, 5 1/2 hours in his open boat bashing into seas, so we gave him extra.

Altogether we saw several hundred whales. Underway again, headed for Magdalena Bay, Jan had to turn sharply to avoid a huge whale surfacing just in front of our bow.

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