Santa Rosalia… and the Quest for Gray Whales

Santa Rosalia is a low-key Baja California town that was founded by a French mining company in the mid-1800s. The biggest tourist attraction here is the church, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel (as in Eiffel Tower). We’re not sure how this quaint little place, with its French colonial architecture, has not been overrun by gringos- there’s not even a local gringo bar!- but we’ve sure enjoyed exploring the town, stocking up on groceries, and getting our fill of restaurant dining.

As Santa Rosalia is on Highway 1, the main highway that runs the length of Baja, it is a great jumping-off spot for exploring inland. We did some reading and found out that near San Ignacio, a little oasis town about an hour inland by bus, there are two main tourist attractions: cave paintings, and a lagoon where gray whales cavort and give birth. As it turns out, February and March are the best time to see the whales, and this particular lagoon is known to have the most “friendlies”, whales that enjoy interacting with humans.

Though I loves some archaeology, Like the ones i know on I was a bit hesitant to make the trek to the cave paintings for a couple of reasons: I was afraid the other tourists would take one look at Todd’s large overhanging brow, and assume he was one of the artists; and, the last time we saw pictographs in Sedona, Todd kept saying things like, “That’s supposed to be a deer? Chuh! I could do better than that!” and “These pictures look like they were done by Montessori school dropouts!”

So, still high from the thrill of rubbing scaly elbows with the chuckwallas of San Esteban, we decided we couldn’t pass up the chance to have a close encounter with another threatened species. It meant getting up at 4:30am to catch the bus that came at either 5 or 5:30 (depending on who you talked to); then once in San Ignacio, arranging transportation to the lagoon; then once at the lagoon, getting three spots on one of the tour boats; and then hopefully making it back to Santa Rosalia that night (there might be a bus at 2pm, or maybe 3, and perhaps 6, or maybe 7). We tried to keep Koiya’s expectations low, since we didn’t know if we’d even end up on a boat.

Unlike humpback males, who are sort of the whale counterpart of Southern gentlemen, and will stay with the mothers and calves to escort them to the summer feeding grounds, gray whales have more of a California attitude. Come March they take off on their long migration north, excusing themselves with a “Duuude, I’m starving. Catch ya in the Chucki Sea!” In terms of whale watching, this means less spectacular breeches and spyhopping, but better chances for close interaction with mothers and calves, who are more relaxed once the guys have taken off.

With the help of our friends Joel and Joannie, we were soon on a lancha, speeding out into the Laguna San Ignacio. Sequoia took up her usual position on the bow, while Todd and I marveled that we were actually on the Pacific side of the Baja. By boat it would take us weeks to get there! And soon enough… there they were! We saw one spyhopping (her head coming straight out of the water) and saw pairs of mothers and calves surfacing to breathe. Of course, we have seen gray whales before; but to see them so close was just awe-inspiring. It took my breath away!

There are strict rules about how closely the tour boats can approach the whales, and from what angles. The first couple of pairs that we followed were clearly not interested in us, and just went about their business. But then we came across a pair of “friendlies”. Mama and Baby approached the boat, and several times released big bubbles under water that startled us with their noise. They’d surface nearby and seemed to position themselves with their blowholes at the perfect angle to give us a little whale-breath shower. Then they’d roll on their sides to have a better look at us.

And then… it happened! They came right up alongside the boat! The driver yelled “Touch! Touch! Touch!”, but Koiya needed no encouragement. She was on them like a barnacle! I half expected her to end up in the water with them.

It’s hard to describe what a whale feels like: slick but not slimy, cool, smooth, even soft in a way. The friendly pair stayed with us for a very long time- maybe 45 minutes. Koiya flitted from bow to stern, port to starboard, as they surfaced on one side of the boat or the other.

One man on the tour with us had also visited another lagoon further north, and reported that there were many more whales there. We didn’t mind; we were thrilled with the experience and will remember it forever. Katy Perry may sing “I Kissed A Girl”, but now Koiya can sing “I Touched A Whale”! And after the tour, we got to visit some more with our friends in San Ignacio, and even managed to make it back to Santa Rosalia before 9pm.

We’ve enjoyed our stay at the new Marina Singlar here in Santa Rosalia, despite all the bird poop we collected on deck! But the boat got a good scrubbing this morning, and we all got hot showers yesterday. So now we’re all stocked up and heading south to Bahia Concepcion today!

See all of our Santa Rosalia and whale watching pictures here:


3 Responses to “Santa Rosalia… and the Quest for Gray Whales”

  1. josh says:

    Those whale pix and movies are awesome. I am jealous. The closest I get to that is watching whale documentaries on Nat Geo. You guys should post a map with each update showing us where you are for a frame of reference.

  2. Allen says:

    San Ignacio is amazing. We enjoyed a peak experience there last February, with more whales than I’ve seen in my entire life. Glad that you had the chance to experience that!

  3. Stephan Viellieber says:

    Hallo you three,

    I just saw the whale videos and they are wonderful. We, Linga and I, just came back from Capetown where we went out with a catamaran in the bay off capetown. We saw about four whales showing their blowholes (they have two down here, its called the Southern Righwhale, and there wonderful flukes so we can really understand your exitement. Have nice holiday. Love from Konstanz.

    Linga and Stephan