Travelers watch a gray whale spy-hop in Baja’s San Ignacio Lagoon. © Mike Bruscia

Early February census numbers indicate a record number of Pacific gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon this winter – the highest number since census keeping in the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve began in 1978.

This month’s count identified 197 adults and 155 calves for a total of 312 whales. Typical numbers in early February for the past three years have ranged from 125 to 184. The whale population in the lagoon usually peaks in mid-March around 300, but researchers and whale-watching guides are guessing it could top 400 this year.

One guide noted in a recent trip report, “As we looked out on the horizon there were whales in every direction. They appear to be putting on a show for each other, and we are the privileged bystanders.”

The whales arrive at San Ignacio each winter to breed and birth their young in these warm, protected waters. Their annual journey from the Arctic waters off northwest Alaska is the longest mammal migration on earth, some 12,000 miles round trip.

Photo ©

Photo ©

Guides are currently reporting lots of mating and playing activity in the lagoon, including vigorous spy-hopping and whales ‘standing’ on their heads with their tail flukes waving in the air. Famously friendly, many gray whales have been approaching the pangas (the open boats used for excursions into the lagoon) and interacting with delighted visitors. One curious female approached several different boats, letting the guests splash her and gently splashing them back with her flipper, earning her the name “Splashy” from the guides and guests. And several friendly mothers have pushed their babies right up to the edge of the pangas to show them off.

The strong whale numbers are exciting news not only for our guests headed to Baja to see the whales later this month and in early March, but also for conservationists.

The coastal lagoons of San Ignacio and nearby Ojo de Liebre, located on the west coast of the central Baja Peninsula, are the world’s most important reproduction sites for the eastern subpopulation of the North Pacific gray whale. The protection of these winter breeding grounds has been central to the whale’s comeback from near-extinction due to commercial whaling, which was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 (though Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to harvest whales).

The lagoons are at the heart of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Mexico’s largest protected area, established as a marine sanctuary for the whales. But this rich mosaic of ecosystems – wetlands, marshes, mangroves, dunes and desert – is home to a multitude of other wildlife, too. Marine species include California sea lion, harbor seal, northern elephant seal, bottlenose dolphin and blue whale, as well as four of the seven endangered marine turtles. Many bird species also find refuge here, including osprey and peregrine falcon.

Nat Hab guests on a whale watching excursion in San Ignacio Lagoon. © Mike Bruscia

Nat Hab guests on a whale watching excursion in San Ignacio Lagoon. © Mike Bruscia

Guests on Nat Hab’s 6-day Great Gray Whales of Baja trip enjoy six separate boat excursions into the lagoon to view and interact with the whales. Accommodations in our private shoreside camp are in solar-powered cabanas located near the lagoon’s edge. The dining palapa features fresh Mexican coastal cuisine including just-caught seafood and handmade tortillas made fresh daily.

I was fortunate to travel to Baja earlier with Nat Hab, where our small group was thrilled to meet friendly gray whales up close and personal! If you’d like to learn more about what this magical nature adventure is like in detail, check out my post on Close Encounters with Whales.

Happy Whale Watching!