Pursuit of the Gray Whale

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Just dropped by to say hello and welcome to my lagoon

On a summer evening late last August, Patty and I were kicked back at her house solving the world’s problems and probably a few of the personal variety. Somehow the conversation turned to travel; if you know Patty you won’t find that surprising.

We could both use a little road trip.  We talked about a fall run to Maine or Wyoming and some other places, however the one we both found most intriguing was a winter trip to the Baja California peninsula of Mexico to get up close and personal with the Gray Whales.  With the help of her iPad, Patty found an eight day trip with dates available that worked for both of us.  We made the reservation.  All we needed to do was meet our group in San Diego at noon on Monday the 8th of February.

We had a Sunday morning flight from OKC to San Diego.  Included in my retirement plans was an extended break from commercial air travel.  I think an exact quote is “I don’t care if I ever see the inside of another airport”.  A lot of things have changed with airline travel but I followed Patty’s lead and I made it through security without issue and I didn’t embarrass her.  Thank god, I wore clean socks with no holes.

We arrived in San Diego around noon allowing us time to see a few of the many interesting things the city has to offer.  I think I could enjoy more time in San Diego, maybe I’ll go back some day.

Monday was the day we were to start the pursuit of the Gray Whale.  I was a little nervous, this would be my first experience with the group travel thing.  We met our 22 traveling companions at noon, had lunch and a quick “meet and greet”.  They all seemed like people I would be comfortable with for the next few days. Patty was already comfortable, she handles diverse crowds better than I do.  Geographically we pretty well covered the four corners, a couple from New York, a half dozen or so from California and from Minnesota to Texas on the I 35 corridor, I believe ten states were represented.

After lunch we got acquainted with our wheels for the next few days, we boarded the bus for a short drive to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.  We didn’t see any Gray Whales but we did meet a guy that has forgotten more about them than I will ever know and the aquarium was well worth the short bus ride.

The bus wasn’t 5 star but it was certainly OK and I think all the tires were round except one (little bit of shake going down the road) but overall not a bad set of wheels. The bus could accommodate 50 passengers so there was plenty room for the 24 of us to move around, kick back and get comfortable.

We booked the trip through Road Scholar, a nonprofit travel provider, they contracted with Andiamo Travel, located in Ensenada, Baja Mexico to provide the services.  Both organizations get very high marks.

If you haven’t done group travel there is only three things you need to know; Example: Breakfast at 7:00, bags out at 7:30, bus leaves at 8:00.  The times may vary but the sequence doesn’t.

Tuesday morning we were south bound toward the busiest border crossing in the world.  Approximately 250,000 people a day cross the border at San Diego / Tijuana.  The crossing went smooth and we were in Mexico in search of the whales.

Our first stop south of the border was the Museum of the Californias. We didn’t see any Gray Whales but we left with a better understanding of the history and development of the Baja peninsula.

Our primary route for the entire trip was Hwy 1, the only paved road that covers the entire 1,000 miles to the south end of the peninsula.  We only saw the northern 2/3 of that route.

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One of our pit stops, some of them were nicer, others not so much.

From Tijuana to Ensenada, our next stop, the highway is a modern 4 lane divided road; it follows the Pacific coast and is a very scenic drive.  We had lunch at a private residence in Ensenada and continued southbound on Hwy1, no longer the good 4 lane we had enjoyed, now a heavily traveled 2 lane.

We just rode the bus that afternoon, the whales hang out way down south and the long bus ride is the only way to get there.  We no longer had the ocean view, the route had shifted inland through the desert, and although not as scenic as the Pacific coast the view for the most part was interesting and kind of pretty. We made one stop in addition to the routine pit stops.  It was out in the middle of nowhere; we wandered around the desert enjoying the large variety of trees, desert flowers and cactus and also enjoyed the opportunity to stretch the legs.

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Kind of a strange lookin guy, don’t you think?

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Typical look across the desert

Our destination for day 2 was a beachfront hotel in San Quintin, the brochure talked about the gorgeous sunsets, however, because of the previously mentioned heavy traffic we arrived about an hour after the sun had set.    The next morning after “bags out” and before “bus leaves” we had time to enjoy a nice walk on the beach.

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Lots of these on the beach

Day 3 (Wednesday) was pretty much another bus ride day.  To break the monotony of the bus ride we took another desert walk, the vegetation was a little different. This one also included kind of a tough climb to a small cave with paintings dating back a few hundred years; the actual dates are unknown.  We had lunch in Catavina, I thought it was one of the best meals of the entire trip, just a Mexican combo plate but they did it right. Our destination was the Half Way Inn in Guerrero Negro, we had arrived in whale country.

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Day 4, the agenda said “depart for whale watching excursion”.  Alright, this is why we are here.  The brochures showed smiling faces in a small boat close enough to a whale to touch the thing.  I was skeptical, I visualized 47 boats jockeying for position to get close to one of the three whales.

We abandoned our big comfy bus and boarded a 24 passenger shuttle for the 15 mile ride to the boats.  The route took us through the heart of a salt processing facility owned by the Mexican Government (51%) and Mitsubishi (49%), they provide 5% of the world’s supply of sea salt.

When we arrived at the lagoon, there were no crowds, no souvenir shops etc., simply a small building for storage of supplies, about a half dozen porta potties and 4 or 5 boats, much like the one in the brochure, on the rocky shoreline. Definitely a no frills operation and my skepticism was rapidly disappearing.  They only allow 6 active boats at a time in the whale area of the lagoon, shot down my 47 to 3 ratio.

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Our ride, 115hp Yamaha hanging on the back

We boarded, 12 per boat, and were on the final leg of our journey to find the Gray Whale.  About a fifteen minute, reasonably brisk, boat ride put us in the heart of whale country.  A beautiful calm blue water Pacific lagoon.  I have experienced much rougher seas on Lake Eufaula.

What we experienced the next 90 minutes far exceeded my expectations and verified everything presented in the brochure.  I couldn’t begin to count or even estimate the number of whales we saw.  The huge mammals weren’t the least bit shy, in fact some of them seemed to enjoy interacting with their visitors.  They sometimes are close enough to the boat to actually touch, I think everyone in our boat did so. About half of them were moms with baby at their side. These gals make the 6000 mile trek from the Arctic Ocean in the fall, give birth in the lagoons of Baja, and return to the cold Arctic in the spring.

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Just looking around

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Bet they have a picture of us

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Mom taking it easy, baby having a little fun

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Catching her breath!

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Mm and baby coming our way

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Outta here!

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Over your left shoulder!

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Hello, welcome to my lagoon

We did the shuttle bus ride back to town and found our big comfortable (compared to the shuttle) bus again, did a little salt marsh bird watching; I didn’t take notes or pictures so no further comment on the bird watch.  Lupe put the bus back out on highway one and we proceeded south to San Ignacio.

We were greeted at our hotel by a group of local middle school students, they entertained us for about an hour with a variety of song and dance routines.  The kids were very talented and seemed to genuinely enjoy performing and we enjoyed the change of pace and appreciated their effort.  We then had some dinner, kicked back and got ready to visit the whales again tomorrow.

We didn’t have to do bags out the first day in San Ignacio, we stayed two nights.  Three vans picked us up at the hotel and we proceeded on a tough 40 mile ride on rough unmarked desert roads to the San Ignacio Lagoon.  Although much more remote the area was more developed than the one in Guerrero Negro; they had a small gift shop, restaurant and some camping spots.

We did a similar thing as the day before, the boats were 8 passenger so no one had a center seat.  Whale watching was a little better the first day but it was still a very good day, and the interaction was a repeat of what I described previously.  We had a late lunch at the restaurant, the biggest Scallops I have ever seen.  No exaggeration they were about 3 inches in diameter.  After lunch we boarded the vans for the long and dusty ride back to town.

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The showers were refreshing, to say the least

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Told you we touched some

That evening we spent time in San Ignacio, it is kind of a neat little town, a little bit touristy but not too much.  They have a very neat old mission just off the well maintained town square.  We enjoyed observing and interacting with the local citizens.  Not just in San Ignacio but throughout Baja, the standard of living is far below what we are accustomed to but the people were very friendly and seemed genuinely happy.  I think maybe their priorities are in order.

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The next morning we pointed the bus north on good old Hwy 1 and started the long journey back toward San Diego.  We stopped in Guerrero Negro for one last visit with the Gray Whale, very similar to the first but probably not as exciting because we were now experienced whale watchers and knew what to expect.

We did another of those leg stretcher nature walks on the way to Catavina.  I don’t want to downplay those walks because the vegetation is pretty and much of it unique to the region.  I wouldn’t go all the way to Baja just for the nature walks but since we were there I’m proud we had the opportunity.  We had dinner and spent the night in Catavina.

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For you gearheads. A pit stop in El Rosario

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The walls and ceiling was filled with pics

The next day we pushed north, we had lunch at a nice place in San Quintin, but just looked at a lot of highway. We were supposed to have a couple hours to shop in Ensenada but traffic problems cut that to about 30 minutes; probably saved me a couple hundred bucks or so.

Our hotel in Ensenada was very nice and right on the Pacific; we were there before sunset but this time fog and mist blocked that beautiful Pacific sunset, oh well, can’t win ‘em all.  We had a great dinner and slept with the door open.  I love the sound of the ocean.

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View from the hotel room in Ensenada

The next morning we made our way to Tijuana and the U S border.  Crossing northbound takes a little longer but it really wasn’t bad.  We arrived back in San Diego around noon and said good-bye to our traveling companions.  Patty and I took advantage of the opportunity to see a bit more of San Diego and flew home the next day.

We had a great time and I would recommend the trip to anyone interested in the Gray Whale.  This one was difficult for me to write; I kind of wanted to make it novel length instead of blog length.

Thanks for listening and God Bless.

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See you later!!

Dave

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