Whale Camp | Adventure Unbound

I reported for my first day of work at ROW Sea Kayak Adventures on December 10th, 2014 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. It was the start of our Baja season, and I was tasked with learning all there is to learn about our Baja tours, especially our unique whale camps in Magdalena Bay and San Ignacio Lagoon. I had no idea what such a place looked like, let alone what a few days there involved.  I had been camping plenty.  I had been whale watching once.  Based on those experiences, I would say that in retrospect I envisioned cramped tents, hot dogs and marshmallows, and waiting around for a brief glimpse of a dorsal fin and a splash.  In retrospect, I was in serious need of an introduction.

In the days and weeks that followed that first day in the office, I would learn that our staff in Baja knows how to camp much more comfortably than I do.  I would learn that our equipment and tents are in a different (i.e. far superior) category than the gear I stuff in my backpack for weekend adventures at home.  I would learn that Whale Camp includes a fully stocked kitchen and staff that produces amazing food, including nightly dessert, every day.  I would learn that Whale Camp comes with a spacious dome tent for meals and educational sessions from our guides and naturalists, and stand-up canvas tents for sleeping quarters.  Really, you can stand up in them.  And walk around.  They have nightstands, solar-powered lamps, and welcome mats for your sand-encrusted shoes.  Now that I know about such “camping” comforts, I can barely look at the one-man tent and freeze-dried meals that occupy the backpacking tote in my garage. 

I also learned some things about the whales themselves in those first days and weeks in the office.  I learned that the whales on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula are Gray Whales, and that at peak season, they are everywhere in the waters of Magdalena Bay and San Ignacio Lagoon.  I learned that many of them swim in pairs: mother and calf.   The former essentially spend their weeks in Baja (after giving birth) fasting and using all of their energy to teach and nurse the latter.  Those without babies go south to Baja every winter as well- for the warm water, to mate, and very likely for other poorly understood reasons (one possible reason: to help everyone else get back home when it’s time to head north).  I also learned that those mother-calf pairs like to come close to the boats in the lagoon.  Very close.  Look into your eye and examine the depths of your soul up close.  Oh, and they don’t have dorsal fins.  I learned a lot, but it was all on paper, through video, pictures, and from colleagues who told me in short: “I can’t explain it- you have to be there to understand.”  Despite my growing knowledge of the place and its star attractions, I still needed that introduction.  On January 31st, 2015, I got it.  And what an introduction it was.

My visit to Magdalena Bay was the first part of my 10-day kayaking and whale watching combo training trip.  It was a great chance to meet our team in Mexico, experience first-hand the scenery, wildlife, and camping atmosphere that our guests enjoy, and get a better understanding of the Baja travel logistics.  Unfortunately, due to some travel delays out of my control and an unwelcome night spent in Phoenix instead of La Paz, my flight to Baja arrived a day late.  Along the way I was stressed out, disappointed that I wouldn’t meet my travel companions on time, and knew that at a minimum I would miss an afternoon of whale watching and hiking at our Magdalena Bay camp.  What I didn’t know during those long hours of travel was that my tardiness would result in a serendipitous and surreal moment in time that I’ll never forget.

My incredible colleagues in the office in Coeur d’Alene, along with Carlos, our La Paz operations manager, had worked furiously to figure out how to get me from San Jose del Cabo airport to Magdalena Bay by dinner time.  Although more delays at customs upon arrival and a long drive up the peninsula meant my dinner would be kept warm and waiting for me instead, Carlos and I pulled into Puerto Lopez Mateos just as the sun was setting and the annual Ballena Gris (Gray Whale) festival was getting underway.  Carlos had called ahead and arranged a panga across the lagoon just for the two of us, and once we found our panguero (panga driver) and loaded my bags in the boat, we were on our way. 

Because it was rapidly getting dark, we proceeded slowly but steadily across the calm waters.  I had come from 30-degree temperatures, a wintry mix of rain and snow, and a lot of mid-winter darkness in Idaho, so just as I had enjoyed the open windows, bright sun, and t-shirt weather during our drive north, I was now enjoying the cool but comfortable evening air and clear skies.  As we moved away from the lights of Lopez Mateos and the music of the festival, I noticed a shimmer on the water and looked up to see that the moon was nearly full.  Then I noticed something else.  Off the right-hand bow of the panga, maybe a quarter to half a mile away and directly under that moon, strange reflections began appearing on the surface of the water.  It was like seeing the top half of enormous fishing bobbers breaking the surface then being pulled down again by some gigantic force.  At a distance, they looked so bright and uniformly white under the moonlight, that it took two or three of these before the obvious dawned on me.  Whales.  Carlos confirmed what I was seeing and smiled in his own delight, and we kept watching them breathe as our panguero steered us toward camp. 

Not more than two minutes later, our experienced driver slowed the panga nearly to a halt, pointed straight ahead, and told Carlos something in Spanish.  I caught the “Mira!”, but Carlos had to translate the rest, and told me that the panguero thought he had seen a blow dead ahead.  I carefully stood up from my bench seat at the front to get a better view, and that’s when I got my real introduction.  So suddenly I didn’t really know what happened until it was over, our panga shifted slightly upward and to the right, I saw Carlos step to catch his balance just as I did the same, and then a clear and climactic “whooooosh” came from my left.  I turned my head and immediately saw the remnants of spray and, close to 10-feet in length, barnacles and sea lice that could only be attached to the back of a large female Gray Whale.  Our boat had inadvertently saddled up next to her and she had gently nudged us aside to get her next breath.  She was close enough to touch, moving forward within inches of the panga, and then she was gone.  Carlos and I high-fived each other and got caught up in the euphoria of the moment, thrilled by the incredible ending to a long but memorable day together.  We proceeded to our camp and a few minutes later I was seated in our dome tent, telling the story to new friends over delicious enchiladas, red wine, and fruit cobbler. 

Over the following 40 hours, I would get to know Magdalena Bay in a way that I couldn’t know it from the office.  Its sand dune barrier islands, its diverse community of birds, its beautiful mangroves, and of course the whales that swim in its waters and give so much to those of us watching from the pangas from January through March.  Carlos had told me on the drive to Lopez Mateos that the place was nothing less than “magic”, that the whales seemed to somehow know him and acknowledge him as a friend after several visits and up close encounters over the years.  Although I was skeptical of some exaggeration when he told me all of these things, I left Lopez Mateos after those 40 hours in whole-hearted agreement with him.  I had seen these amazing animals up close, I had been lucky enough to briefly interact with them in an intimate way (at one point a calf had literally come eye to eye with me from less than 2 feet away, and clearly assured me with a look of contentment that I was welcome there), and I had countless memories and photographs to hold onto until my next chance to visit.

I would have to say though, that out of all those incredible memories, and all of the magic that is impossibly difficult to put into words, the first moment is the one I will remember the most.  Bright moonlight and surreal reflections, a gentle nudge strong enough to move a 20-foot boat, a whoosh of sea spray, and the connection between myself, a new friend, and the biggest animal I had ever seen within arm’s reach of me.  Maybe it was just a happy coincidence and nothing more.  Maybe it was one of Carlos’ old friends saying hello and welcome back.  But selfishly, I like to think she knew I was in the boat too, that she knew it was my first visit and that I really didn’t understand where I was just yet, and that she knew I was at the end of long two days of travel to get there.  I like to imagine that amazing animal with a brain far bigger than mine knowing all of that, and then deciding to introduce herself and her annual winter home to me in her own subtle yet very dramatic way: with a bump, a breath, and a silent but very clear statement: “This is Magdalena Bay.  Welcome and enjoy.”

This is Whale Camp.