Friday, February 26, 2010

Whale Watching Road Trip

The boat is still in San Diego and we're still in the house. In January, Ted and Alicia, from the sailing vessel Tumbleweed (a 1982 Cal 39 MRK III) who we met on the 2008 Baja-ha-ha and were neighbors with for a time in Marina de La Paz, stopped by to visit on their way back to La Paz. They had put their boat on the hard at the Singular yard in Fidapaz while they were gone for the summer. During their visit, we had mentioned that we might go down to Guerrero Negro to do some whale watching at Ojo de Liebre. Once they saw our pictures from the trip we made there from five years ago, they decided to drive up from La Paz in February to meet us there and experience this type of whale watching for themselves. A date was picked and plans were made to hook up in Guerrero Negro.

We left on February 17 with plans to meet the crew from the S/V Tumbleweed on the 18th in Guerrero Negro. It took the better part of two hours to obtain our tourist permits at the border in Tijuana. We got there by 9 a.m. but ended up behind a tour bus which required processing about 30 passports, causing the delay for us.

Then once away from Migracion, we headed south along the toll road to Ensenada. We encountered our first detour at Playas de Tijuana. Traffic was detoured into town and since we've never been to this barrio before, we decided to drive around and take a look. It turns out this area is a very nice neighborhood and one we'll likely come back to explore. We did find out that there is only one way into and out of las playas after we had driven to the extreme south end of town. Then it was back on the road on onto Ensenada.

The drive continued to be uneventful but more congested once reaching Ensenada. We made a quick stop at the Calimax supermercado south of town to pick up some limes, rum and bakery goods. Off again on the road south.

Once south of Maneadero, traffic thinned out significantly and the hillsides of Baja were more reminiscent on Ireland than Mexico. Due to the El Nino rain storms, all the hillsides and valleys were covered in spectacular shades of green.Continuing south, with the sun out and hardly any traffic, the miles evaporated. We did notice the damage to the bridge just north of San Vincente and were required to detour beside the bridge that crosses the arroyo just north of Vincente Guerrero. We reached San Quintin a little after 2 p.m., filled the truck with gas at the Pemex next to the Los Pinos tomato processing plant and decided to stay the night. We continued down the road to the Desert Inn Hotel (the former La Pinta in San Quintin) and took a second story room overlooking the beach.

Early the next morning we were back on the road south. It was a clear, sunshine filled day with very little traffic on the road. The drive between El Rosario and Catavina is one of our favorites. The landscape quickly fills with Boojum trees, Cardon cactus, Elephant trees and bolder fields. The blue sky is crystal clear and the visibility is unlimited. We drove for miles without seeing another car pass in the opposite direction. It captures some of the desolate beauty that epitomized the pre-highway Baja peninsula.

We pulled off of the road just before noon and drove to a quiet spot to enjoy a picnic lunch in the desert. Save for the periodic sound of birds, all was quiet and peaceful. The sun was high in the sky and the temperature was in the mid-seventies. After having a light snack, we took the opportunity to wander around and take in the natural grottoes and hidden gardens tucked among the boulders that surrounded our picnic site. Then it was back to the road, continuing to head south to our designated rendezvous in Guerrero Negro with our friends driving north from La Paz.

Late in that afternoon, we arrived in the little salt mining town of Guerrero Negro. It is located on the Pacific coast of Baja California in the state of Baja California Sur. The town owes its' existence to the worlds largest commercial, evaporative salt works. The evaporation ponds are fed from the waters of the large bay of Ojo de Liebre, or eye of the rabbit. It's more infamously known as Scammon's Lagoon, where, in the mid-1800's the whaling captain, Charles Scammon, harvested the eastern Pacific herd of Gray whales. During nearly a decade and a half of whaling, the herd was reduced from 20-30 thousand individuals down to around four thousand. Thanks to the cessation of commercial whaling along the eastern Pacific and conservation management of their habitat, their numbers have rebounded and they are no longer on the brink of extinction.

Once in town, we found our friends, Ted and Alicia, along with their two friends, Kim and Kim. The motel where they were staying was full, so we found another motel just around the corner that had a room available. The accommodations were sparse, but comfortable and clean. After settling in, we walked back to our friends motel and enjoyed a few cold cervezas and shared stories, while basking in the late afternoon sunshine. From there, we walked out to the main street and headed east for three blocks until we arrived at Mano de Leon restaurant. Besides several more rounds of cervezas and a few margaritas we indulged in a sea food feast of several dozen, locally harvested oysters on the half-shell along with what seemed to be an unending supply of giant sea scallops (also locally harvested) prepared in several different ways. Fully sated and feeling little pain, we wandered back to our respective motel rooms in the dark of night.

The following morning, we formed our two car caravan and drove south of town, through the salt works property to a whale watching campground at the edge of the backwaters of the Lagoon. The six of us were fortunate enough to hire a guide and a panga to take us out in search of Eschrichtius robustus or the gray whale. As in our previous visit four years prior, it wasn't long before we seemed to be surrounded by gray's wherever we looked. Some sleeping at the surface, others spy-hopping and occasionally we'd be surprised by some doing a succession of breaches. Radio contact to our guide from another pangero, told of the location of a group of 'friendly's' and we made our way to them. Drifting in neutral, towards the second panga, we could see, what appeared to be, several yearlings surrounding the boat. As we drifted closer, a couple of these whales came over to investigate the new boat on scene.

The whales natural curiosity is obvious as the deliberately either spy-hop right next to the boat to get a look inside or as they glide along the gunnel, with their turned slightly to the side to allow their eye to peer up at the faces hanging over the side of the boat, looking down. I'm not sure about the whales, but I can say for the people, there isn't a face in the crowd, young or old, on either boat that doesn't have a huge smile permanently affixed to their faces. The beauty, grace and wonder of these enormous creatures engender a joyful delirium that is shared by all who participate in this inter-species communion.

The three hour trip was over all too soon. To disengage from the whales the guide has to carefully engage the boat in reverse and slowly pull away from the mini-pod. Once clear, we're speeding through the enormous lagoon and back to the dock. For the entire return trip the smiles remain as we continue to observe a countless number of whales being themselves in their summer calving grounds.

We spent one more night in Guerrero Negro enjoying another sumptuous seafood feast and then meeting for coffee early the next morning before we headed back north towards San Diego. Ted, Alicia, Kim and Kim spent one more day at the lagoon before they, too, headed south to La Paz and their boat Tumbleweed.

1 comment:

Mid-Life Cruising! said...

What an amazing experience! Such big and graceful creatures so close ... I'm sure words can't describe it.