Whale watching on the Baja is one of the most personal and memorable whale watching experiences a wildlife lover can have. The world’s first commercial whale-watching tours began with grays migrating along the coast of Southern California. The grays are found close to shore and often curious around boats, which makes them perfect whale-watching subjects. Today, the species is well-loved by eco-tourists, with commercial trips running along the migration routes up and down the west coasts of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
These tours only catch glimpses of whales as they cruise at 5-7 mph during their annual migration. If you really want to see and know these whales, you must visit them in their winter calving grounds. Here, they frolic, feed, and play in sheltered coves. Instead of hurrying along the coast, they spyglass, fluke, splash, and often come right up to your boat to interact with you. The gray whale season in Baja is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these majestic creatures in ways you could only imagine!
In this guide, we will give you the low-down on this amazing adventure as well as the information you need to pick the best Bay and tour for you. Read on to learn how to have the whale-watching experience of your dreams!
The World’s Longest Migration
Eastern Gray Whales make the world’s longest migration, a round trip of up to 12,000 miles that spans up to 55 degrees of latitude. They spend all summer and autumn feeding on tiny crustaceans in the nutrient-rich waters of the Arctic. Then, in late fall, they begin swimming south.
The whales start to arrive in the birthing lagoons in early December. It’s a long and hungry winter where they can lose 16-30% of their body mass during this time before returning to the summer feeding grounds, but it’s the safest place to have calves.
Where Are Mexico’s Gray Whale Birthing Lagoons
Mexico has three birthing lagoons: Magdalena Bay, San Ignacio Lagoon, and Ojo de Liebre Lagoon. They’re all located off the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur. Each one has a little different vibe and something to offer, so we’ll start our journey in the south and head northward up the coast.
When is Gray Whale Season in Mexico
The first whales arrive in December to early January. Pregnant mothers come seeking the protected, calm waters to birth their calves. The males arrive in February but are the first to leave in March. As the calves grow in strength and confidence, their mothers let them interact more with the boats. By late April, they’re ready to begin the long voyage north to the Arctics, and mother/calf pairs start their migration.
Magdalena Bay is the southernmost birthing lagoon. It’s only three hours from La Paz, which is logistically close enough for a day trip. You can also stay overnight in the quaint seaside towns of San Carlos or Adolfo López Mateos. These are sleepy villages with a few places to stay and incredible fresh seafood.
Magdalena is close enough that I visited as a day excursion during a Baja Uncruise. The cruise had terrific activities, like snorkeling with baby sea lions and burro tours through remote canyons. Still, the whales were my highlight, even though I had already seen them in San Ignacio and Ojo de Liebre.
On the downside, Magdalena is the most exposed of the three lagoons, with the smallest whale population. There are still plenty of whales, and you’ll see them up close and personal. There’s also sport fishing and eco-tours like trips to the Isla De Patos – Bird Island Sanctuary.
La Paz is the gateway city to Magdalena. It’s situated in the back of a large bay on the Sea of Cortez. The water here is unbelievably blue, warm, and hospitable, which leads to a series of eco-tours to explore the surrounding islands, like Isla Espiritu Santo and the sea lion preserve at Los Lobos.
La Paz is a city of 250,000 people with an international airport and a newly constructed cruise port, although many people fly into Cabo to take advantage of budget airlines. Observing how cruising affects La Paz will be interesting, especially if there’s an uptick in shore excursions to Magdalena Bay. Fingers crossed, it’s done responsibly with appropriate daily limits in place.
San Ignacio Lagoon
San Ignacio Lagoon is the most remote, sheltered, and regulated gray whale birthing lagoon. A small collection of primitive whale-watching camps is the only industry around the bay, with a 1.5-hour drive across unpaved salt flats from San Ignacio, the nearest town. The isolation makes San Ignacio Lagoon the premier viewing location for dedicated whale watchers. There’s a dense whale population here, so seeing over 100 whales in a day is common during some parts of the season. Plus, the San Ignacio population is known as the friendliest and most curious whales.
You can take a whale-watching day trip from San Ignacio or book a room or campsite at the whale-watching camps along the bay. The cabins at the bay book up early, especially over weekends, so it’s suggested that you make your reservations well in advance.
San Ignacio Town
The town of San Ignacio is a delightful dip back into old Mexico. The town center is a tree-lined park with the 1728 Mission San Ignacio Kadakaaman on one end and a row of shops and restaurants surrounding the square. You’ll find small hotels in town and a few eco-resorts along springs that offer kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding on one of the few freshwater springs in the Baja.
Loreto is the closest international airport to San Ignacio. Even so, it’s 3.5 hours to the town and another 1.5 hours to the lagoon, which makes for a long day trip for whale watching. There are several direct flights to the US from Loreto, but only on selected days.
Loreto used to be the capital of Baja California, with a classic town square and mission. Like La Paz, it sits on the beautiful blue Sea of Cortez with a series of eco-tours to explore the seas and islands, especially Isla Coronado. Despite only being a city of 20,000, there’s a well-developed tourist industry with hotels, restaurants, and shopping.
Ojo de Liebre Lagoon / Scammon’s Lagoon
Ojo de Liebre has the largest whale population and the most surface area, so you will not see as many whales here as San Ignacio. Access comes through Guerro Negro, whose primary industry is salt processing. The town feels industrial, lacking the charm of a fishing village or historic mission square.
Guerro Negro is conveniently located on Highway 1 if you’re making a trans-Baja road trip. However, our recommendation would be to travel on to San Ignacio if logistics allow.
Whale Watching on the Sea of Cortez
Gray whales aren’t the only winter visitors to Mexico. You’ll find humpback and blue whales frolicking in the Sea of Cortez all winter. These are two of the largest animals on the planet and are always a pleasure to see, even if they’re rarely sighted in groups. Plus, the weather and water are warmer on the Gulf side, making it a pleasant all-around experience.
Other Baja Eco Adventures
Whale Watching isn’t the only winter eco-adventure in the Baja. You can snorkel with baby sea lions and search for giant schools of Mulbea rays performing acrobatic jumps out of the water. It’s a nature lovers’ paradise, with 900 species of birds and one-third of the Earth’s marine mammals.
Best Whale Watching Tour Companies In Baja Mexico
These companies are all highly rated on Google and Trip Advisor, and we have personally vetted some of them:
- Magdalena Bay Whales
- Mag Bay Expeditions
- Friendly Whale Tours
- UnCruise Adventures (shore excursion on Baja Cruise)
- San Ignacio Lagoon
- Ecoturismo Kuyima
- Baja Ecotours
- Baja Discovery
- Antonios Eco-Tours
Ojo de Liebre Lagoon
- Baja AirVentures Whale Watching Eco-tours
- Eco Tours GAMA
- Whale Magic Tours
- Mario’s Tours
Concluding Whale Watching on the Baja
Hopefully, the awareness from eco-tours helps protect not only this gray whale population but also other animals around the globe. Because of increased attention and protection, the Gray whales have recovered well in the eastern part of their range. However, the western gray whale subpopulation that feeds near Russia’s Sakhalin Island and Kamchatka Peninsula is in critical danger. It’s one of the smallest whale populations in the world and is at risk from oil drilling and continued whaling. There’s a saying that you love what you know and protect what you love, and nowhere is that more evident than with the gray whales in Mexico.
Hi! We are Jenn and Ed Coleman aka Coleman Concierge. In a nutshell, we are a Huntsville-based Gen X couple sharing our stories of amazing adventures through activity-driven transformational and experiential travel.