We decided to head from San Carlos directly back to San Juanico on the Baja side of the Sea, and left at first light. Conditions for the 100 mile crossing could not have been better – flat calm seas and light, variable winds. The crossing was uneventful and the wind gradually picked up to about 15 knots in the afternoon, coming from the SE. Given that wind direction we decided to anchor in the South end of the San Juanico Bay. When we arrived, however, the swell rolling into the bay was pretty substantial, and while we were getting some protection from the wind, we would have 2-3 ft of swell on the beam, not at all comfortable. We turned around and headed back into the NW corner of the anchorage where we’d been before. There were 3 sailboats but plenty of room. In this corner, the swell was still coming from the SE, but so was the wind, so we were bow into it. Much more comfortable. Later in the evening as the wind died down so did the swell. The next morning we headed down to the Puerto Escondido area hoping to anchor right across from the marina at a place called Honeymoon Cove. There was another boat in the main anchorage, tour boats in the north lobe, and I couldn’t find a spot that I was happy with, so we went on into the marina a day earlier than expected.
The main goal for coming back to Puerto Escondido was to make a trip over to the Pacific side to go whale watching in Magdalena Bay, one of the protected bays that is a “whale nursery” during the winter months, from a (different) town also called San Carlos. We rented a car and left the Marina at dawn for the long trek across the Baja Peninsula on MX Highway 1, the main road serving Baja. It is a two lane highway and well maintained for the most part, but it is fairly narrow and there are no shoulders… hence the many roadside shines to people who have died in traffic accidents. The cows that frequent the sides of the roads at all times of day likely also contribute to accidents. Just S of Puerto Escondido, the road climbs steep canyons to get over the Sierra Gigante Mountains and then straightens out over a long, flat plain towards the West coast.
Speed limits on Mexican highways are pretty conservative, Mexican drivers are not. In many places the speed limit was 60 kilometers per hour, and at most 80. I think 80 is the limit for any two lane highway in Mexico. We were passed by all manner of vehicles as I made a rare attempt of complying with the posted speed limits. We turned off highway 1 around Ciudad Constitución for the highway to San Carlos. Around 9am we finally arrived at the little hotel and office in dusty San Carlos and were taken directly to our waiting panga and Captain Juan. As we pulled out of San Carlos, everything was starting to look familiar. We stopped at Magdalena Bay with the CUBAR rally in 2019 and did a big dinghy excursion to tour one of the estuaries in the area. Captain Juan took us back to the main part of Magdalena Bay off the same town that we anchored in front of in 2019.
It was a beautiful day, sunny and pretty mild, with flat calm seas. First we went by a spit with lots of birds, which made Gwen happy. Soon we started to see spouts and headed towards them. They were Grey Whales, traveling singly or in pairs. All were adults. We’d approach the whales slowly as they swam along the surface and eventually, they would sound, showing their tail as they dived down. When that happened, we knew that it could be a half hour before they surfaced possibly nearby… or not. Over the next couple of hours, the whales were pretty actively working their way back and forth along the bay, and we would slowly follow along. The captains were respectful, never approaching from ahead, and maintaining a reasonable distance from the whales. At lunchtime we went ashore for lunch at the same beachside restaurant we visited with CUBAR.
The enterprising village kids dragged over a wooden platform to the bow of the panga to make it easy for us to get off. Gwen gave them a propina of a couple of pesos which the boy, at least, viewed with some disdain (she later found more coins and offered more on our return to the panga). The kids offered to sell us shells but we were more interested in the Pacificos and fresh fish offered for lunch.
We did another hour or so of whale watching after lunch, finishing with a pretty close encounter in which a large whale surfaced very close to the panga, swam alongside for a few minutes, and then sounded. After that we headed back to San Carlos, just as the afternoon winds were picking up. The panga pulled into a beach landing, but instead of climbing out, Juan had us stay in as they pulled it up onto a trailer, and we traveled overland by panga back to the car.
On the long drive back from San Carlos I paid less attention to the speed limit signs and maintained what was still a stately pace by Mexican standards. Eventually a large fuel truck approached close behind as we were getting to the twisty part of the highway. I thought that I would be able to stay comfortably in front of the truck given the tight turns and steep descents. I was wrong. Even maintaining a speed of 100 kph, the fuel truck was bearing down on me. I was having visions of Mad Max and all going down into a canyon in a ball of flames. Sure enough, the truck passed me, and I was happy to let it go to menace some other unsuspecting gringo driver.
While we enjoyed the day on the water and the opportunity to view these magnificent creatures up close, we decided that we’ve had enough of whale watching trips. I have to admit that I got interested in doing the trip after hearing from friends and reading a blog post about close encounters with grey whales including mothers and calves that actually approached the boats and allowed the passengers to touch them. We had no such experiences and honestly it seemed that the whales in Mag Bay barely tolerated the pangas, never approaching, and sounding after a few minutes. So rather than “oh the whales will come right up to us”, it was really, “we will follow the whales until they tire of us and sound”. Honestly, we’ve had many fantastic experiences viewing whales from our own boat – Orcas in the Salish Sea, humpbacks bubble feeding in Alaska, and Grey whales popping up all around us as we approached San Francisco, and we’ve seen humpbacks several times here in the Sea.
One thought on “Return to Baja and Whale Watching”
I enjoyed reading about your whale watching boat trip and the harrowing drive over the mountains with trucks bearing down on you. Good to see so many gray whales up close. Bruce and I had an amazing experience watching whales when we joined Carrie Newell, who captains zodiac boat tours out of Depoe Bay, for a week long expedition to Baja where the females give birth to their calves. Some of the whales are “friendly” and swim right up next to the small fishing boats to be petted. We actually touched the mothers and calves – their skin is sleek and slippery. To be that close to such a massive mammal is truly a life-time encounter.