Whales are the stuff of fairy tales: mighty beasts with the power to destroy, but who choose instead to sing and splash and coexist with humans in peace. Their gentle nature is so enchanting that around the world we clamber onto boats and pay top dollar merely to glimpse them through binoculars. The moment I heard there was a place where I could actually reach out and touch one, it leapt to the top of my bucket list.
Every year, gray whales migrate over 10,000 miles along the Pacific coast, stopping from December to April in the warm waters off Baja, Mexico to mate and calve. Whalers dubbed them the “devil fish” because they would attack whaling boats after being harpooned, and that unfair reputation stuck even after whaling was banned. But one day in the 1970s a whale approached a small fishing boat captained by a man named Don Pachico Mayoral. Rather than fleeing, he reached out, shaking, and touched the whale’s head. He kept petting it for several minutes and the whale stayed there and let him. It was such a profound moment that he eventually gave up fishing and started offering tours to people who wanted to engage with the whales in the same way.
The site of this historic peace treaty was San Ignacio Lagoon. Whale watching has since replaced fishing as the town’s main industry, and to this day Don Pachico’s family runs tours out to meet the whales. The lagoon is located about 12 hours south of Tijuana and 10 hours north of Cabo. In other words: the middle of nowhere. The nearest airport is complicated and expensive to get to (and is still a five-hour drive away from the lagoon), so my wife and I opted for a three-day road trip (each way) from Los Angeles.
Day one saw us driving to San Diego, parking our car, hopping a trolley to the border, walking across to Tijuana, hailing a cab to a rental car office, and then driving a rental car to Ensenada. Day two was eight hours of audio books and podcasts while driving through an unexpectedly lush and changing landscape to the town of Guerrero Negro. Day three was a three-hour drive, plus another half hour on a dirt road, to get to Pachico’s Eco Tours a few hours before dinner.
Pachico’s offers half-day and full-day tours of the lagoon, and has a handful of basic wooden cabanas for overnight guests. We invested a little extra money for a cabana with a private bathroom in order to avoid using the shared outhouse. But private or not, the toilets are composting toilets, which basically meant we were doing our business in a bucket full of sawdust for the duration of our stay. It’s not exactly luxurious, but it’s honestly not the worst bathroom experience I’ve had while traveling. Breakfast and dinner were authentic and delicious Mexican meals, and a packed lunch was served each day in between our morning and afternoon whale tours. The bedding kept us warm, even though the temperature dropped significantly at night, and the gravity showers were surprisingly hot and provided ample water pressure. Any other minor discomforts were abated by the gorgeous view of the lagoon provided by our enormous picture windows.
As plentiful as the gray whales are in San Ignacio Lagoon, there are never any guarantees when interacting with wild animals, so we scheduled three full days of whale watching. Even if we ended up petting whales on every outing, is it really possible to get bored of it…?
On our first morning we boarded a small panga boat with our guide and took a 30-minute ride into the lagoon. We had gotten lucky: No one else had booked a tour that day, so we had the boat to ourselves.
There are only half a dozen tour companies licensed to operate in the lagoon, and since they all depend on keeping the tourists and the whales happy they all keep each other honest. They share information and monitor each other’s behavior on the water, and if a whale is cozying up to one boat for too long they’ll move away to make sure other boats get a chance to interact. There are also strict government-imposed time limits: Once a boat enters the protected area, it is only allowed to remain for 90 minutes. Half-day tours return to base after their time is up, while full-day tours find a nearby island and go ashore for a lunch break, followed by another regulated 90-minute session.
Having been on whale watching trips in other parts of the world, we were used to spending large amounts of time squinting at the horizon and considering ourselves lucky if we caught a distant glimpse of a tail or a blowhole or a breach. San Ignacio Lagoon was an entirely different ballgame.
As soon as we entered the protected area, we saw spouts from blowholes in practically every direction. Too many of them to count. We watched whales surface mere feet from other pangas. And we jealously looked on as a whale approached one of the other boats and the tourists aboard petted it.
We waited at a reasonable distance and soon enough the whale left the other boat and approached us. It was actually two whales: a mother and calf. Our guide explained that the calves are particularly curious about the boats, so the mothers often indulge them.
The whales surfaced and exhaled, spraying a cloud of water all over us. My wife reached out and petted the mother. The whales dove and resurfaced and I reached out and petted them as well.
Their skin was softer and smoother than I’d anticipated. It was like stroking a wet, overripe eggplant. They didn’t recoil from our touch the way other shy animals might. They just floated there, occasionally going under and then misting us again with their breath. We scurried from side to side of the boat as they circled us, and at one point my wife even got a hand on either side of the calf’s face. Technically we counted that as a hug.
It was exactly the experience that we had been planning to engage in for so long, but in the moment it almost didn’t seem real. It’s such a simple concept, petting a whale. But in a way it’s as simple a concept as taking a stroll on the moon. After a lifetime of wondering if such a thing is even possible, and regarding the enigma from afar, and undertaking such an arduous journey to get there, it’s hard to believe it when it’s actually happening.
Just as my mind started to get comfortable with the sensation, our guide suggested we give some of the other boats a chance to have the same experience, and we motored away.
We didn’t get to touch any other whales during our stay. There were significantly fewer whales in the lagoon that year—some theorized it was likely due to a recent hurricane. Our guide also told us that the females were always more skittish when the males were around because the males will unintentionally injure the babies while breeding. We took note to schedule our next Baja trip in the month of March, when the males leave the lagoon and the mothers and calves are more likely to relax and approach.
On our way back to the states, we impulsively signed up for one more whale watching trip a few hours north in Guerrero Negro, which runs less expensive tours based out of more traditional hotels. The open water near Guerrero Negro is rougher than the protected lagoon of San Ignacio (my wife and one of the other passengers even had to wrestle with a touch of seasickness) but the whales still surrounded our boat in every direction, and swam right under us. We didn’t get in any extra petting, but it proved our theory that the magic of a close encounter with a whale never wears off. And my wife also picked up her new favorite souvenir T-shirt:
Even though we only got to pet the whales on our first day, the rest of the trip was still a whale watcher’s dream. We saw tails and fins and breaches and spy hops. We saw so many spouts that our arms grew tired from pointing them out. At one point our boat kept pace with several whales and we briefly became part of their pod.
On the way back to the states, we encountered construction traffic that backed up the road for miles and extended the already exhausting drive. We blew a tire on our rental car just as we pulled into Ensenada, and blew a second tire just as we were leaving. And all of that was after three nights of pooping into a bucket full of sawdust and sleeping in an unheated cabin while the wind howled outside.
Didn’t matter. We got to pet whales.
Keep the sawdust buckets warm: we’ll be back.
Special thanks to Rudolpho for simultaneously steering the boat and capturing some pictures of us watching the whales, and thanks to Victoria and everyone else at Pachico’s Eco Tours for their hospitality!