San Ignacio Lagoon
The Pacific side of this ‘Mexican Galápagos’ is best known as the winter home of practically the entire world population of grey whales. Safely sheltered from the pounding surf of the open ocean, thousands of them gather to socialise, mate and calve in a string of magical, mangrove-lined lagoons beside the desert. Once on the verge of extinction, grey whales have bounced back thanks to intensive conservation efforts. Now as many as 21,000 of these inveterate travellers migrate backwards and forwards along the entire length of the western North American coastline, between their feeding grounds in the Arctic and their breeding grounds in Baja. The round-trip distance can be as much as 12,500 miles, making their journey one of the longest migrations of any mammal. They gather in four main breeding lagoons in Baja: Guerrero Negro, Ojo de Liebre (Scammon’s Lagoon), Magdalena Bay and San Ignacio. My favourite is San Ignacio, which is home to the world- famous ‘friendlies’.
Just a few days in San Ignacio can be thrilling, uplifting and all-round life-changing. The grey whales here literally nudge the sides of the small whale-watching boats (pangas) and lie alongside waiting to be scratched and tickled. It’s a breathless and, initially, rather nerve- wracking experience but it’s arguably one of the greatest wildlife encounters on earth. It’s hard to believe that these very same grey whales once had a reputation for being ferocious. They were hunted ruthlessly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, until there were almost none left. Yankee whalers entered the Baja lagoons in small wooden rowing boats (roughly the same size as today’s whale-watching pangas) and harpooned them. But the whales fought back – chasing the whaling boats, lifting them out of the water like big rubber ducks, ramming them with their heads and dashing them to pieces with their tails. They would ‘fight like devils’, so the Yankee whalers dubbed them ‘devilfish’.
Nowadays, the survivors positively welcome whale-watching tourists into their breeding lagoons. Somehow, they seem to understand that we come in peace and, far from smashing our small boats to smithereens, welcome us with open flippers. They are as trusting and playful as kittens – albeit kittens up to 50-foot long. They seem to have forgiven us for all those years of greed, recklessness and cruelty. They trust us, when we don’t really deserve to be trusted. It’s a humbling experience.
A trip to San Ignacio is often a blur of leaping, laughing, spouting, stroking, playing and patting. All encounters are from small eight- or ten-seater pangas, operated by local fishermen, which are amazingly stable and perfect for close encounters and photography. And, if you’re wondering if it’s a good policy to encourage people to touch wild animals, consider this: if you don’t scratch and tickle them, the whales simply go and find a boat-load of people who will. There are bottlenose dolphins in San Ignacio, too. I feel sorry for them: elsewhere in the world, they get heaps of attention but, in San Ignacio, they’re competing with the friendliest whales in the world.