Los Cabos – Having a Whale of a Time
by Lisa Coleman
With over 6,000 miles of coastline, it’s easy to understand how Mexico and marine life are forever intertwined. The Baja Peninsula, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Sea of Cortez on the other, is one of the best locations anywhere to witness some of nature’s most magical wonders. The Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) is one of the world’s unique ocean environments, and is considered by some to be the most biologically rich body of water on earth. More than 850 species of marine life (including up to a third of the world’s cetacean species, i.e., whales, dolphin, porpoise) are found in these waters. The Sea of Cortez has been called an upside rainforest because of its vast and varied profusion of life beneath the surface. In late December through early March, it also happens to be one of the premiere whale watching destinations in the world.
The sparkling seaside resorts of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo (better known as Los Cabos or simply “Cabo”) are the ultimate location on the Baja Peninsula for whale watching. Each year an estimated 11,000 of the world’s 21,000 gray whales make a 6,000-mile journey to bear their calves in the warm waters of the Pacific lagoons to the north of Los Cabos. From there, many continue south, veering around the tip of the Baja into the crystal waters of the Sea of Cortez. Here they find peace and freedom and provide whale-watchers with incredible thrills. (The gray whale has been extinct in the Atlantic Ocean since the 1600s when it was hunted out of existence. It was once again heavily hunted in the mid-1800, but managed to survive. In 1946, the gray whale became officially protected and hunting ceased, however, in recent years hunting has again been on the rise and could be threatening this extraordinary species.)
At birth, the pacific gray whale is approximately 15 feet long. As adults, their average length can be from 40 to 46 feet (about the same as a Greyhound bus!), and they can weigh up to 35 tons. They spend their summers northwest of Alaska in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas before making their way toward Mexico for the winter. Gray whales are “baleen” whales which means they do not have teeth. Instead they have plates of baleen (a stiff, but flexible bone-type material that hangs from their upper jaw) that filters their food. Like all baleen whales, they are bottom feeders and have a diet of small crustaceans, plankton, squid and fish. True to their name, they are usually gray in color with blotchy white patches on their skin. Unlike the faster cetaceans like the dolphin, the gray whale is covered with hundreds of pounds of barnacles and whale lice, except on their right side that remains relatively clean from scraping along the bottom while feeding. During their migration, the gray whales eat very little, living off their 10-inch thick blubber.
The journey to Mexican waters is a lengthy trip for the gray whales, but things are usually very safe for them along the way. They swim near the coast and their only natural enemies are the killer whale (orca), the white shark and man. The whales travel in pods as small as three whales and as large as sixteen members. Though they only swim at about five miles per hour, they are extremely agile. Diving as deep as 500 feet, they can stay under water for up to 30 minutes. Since they are mammals and surface to breathe, they have two blowholes near the top of their heads. When they are resting they spout (or breathe) 2-3 times per minute, but between deep dives they take deep breaths for about 3-5 minutes. You can hear them spouting from nearly a half a mile away and the stream of water shooting from their blowhole can rise 10-13 feet above the surface.
In Cabo, at the height of the migration, these amazing creatures are so close they can easily be seen from shore. If you have a drink at “land’s end” at the famous Finisterra Hotel’s Whale Watcher Bar, you’re bound to experience an incredible show of these gentle giants. They are playful to watch as they spout, leap (called breaching), splash water with their tales (called lobbing), and occasionally poke their heads and one eye above the surface and appear to survey the surroundings (called spyhopping). During whale season, these sightings are almost constant along the inside shores of the Baja and whale watching tours abound. But if you really want to get up close and personal, you can arrange a half-day boat trip to Magdalena Bay or San Ignacio Lagoon. Here you’ll find the “friendly whales.”
In the lagoons of Mexico, it’s not uncommon for the “friendlies,” as they’re called, to approach the small boats (12-15 feet long) of whale watchers. Scientists have been observing this phenomenon since the 1970’s, and are still unsure why the whales are so fascinated by the boats and/or the people inside. Both individual whales and calves sometimes get so close to the boats that delighted passengers are actually able to reach out and touch these beautiful animals. It is an encounter with nature not easily duplicated.
In Los Cabos, there’s more than great golf and beautiful beaches, there’s a chance to be involved with some of the most unbelievable creatures on the planet. Cabo will always be one of Mexico’s most alluring beach resorts, but it’s also the gateway to the magical world of whales.