Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino
The Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino is a sanctuary for grey whales and other important species.
The Gray Whale is a whale that travels between feeding and breeding grounds yearly. A large population is travelling Pacific Ocean between the waters off Alaska and the Baja California.
In the fall, the California Gray Whale starts a 2-3 month, 8,000-11,000 km trip south along the west coast of the United States and Mexico. The animals travel in small groups. The destinations of the whales are the coastal waters of Baja California and the southern Gulf of California, where they breed and the young are born.
After several weeks, the return trip starts. This round trip of 16,000-22,000 km, at an average speed of 10 km/h, is believed to be the longest yearly migration of any mammal.
Map of Whale Sanctuary of El VizcainoLoad map
I visited the Grey whales at San Ignacio Lagoon, one of the two locations that make up the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino. The B&B where I was staying (Ignacio Springs) booked the whale tour for me – beforehand I thought that you had to book as early as possible, but the lady just phoned in the night before. As always with sea-based tours: the weather & wind can cause cancellations, so it’s best to allow for a couple of days in the area (also to tick off the nearby Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco WHS, with which it even shared the initial nomination until they were wisely split up by World Heritage Bureau).
From the town of San Ignacio, which lies on Highway 1, it’s another 1-1.5 hour drive to get to the actual lagoon. The first 45km is on an easy, paved road, the last 15 on a relatively bumpy unpaved one. There’s nothing here but a few basic camps and some mudflats. The operator I used was Antonio’s Ecotours, which asks 60 USD per person for the tour. The boats can hold up to 12 people, but on mine were only 5. I was welcomed at Antonio’s, got a safety jacket fitted on and on we went in the small motorboat. The boats are only allowed to go whale watching at the mouth of the lagoon, not inside the lagoon itself as that is too shallow and would endanger the whales.
The tour lasted 2 hours, of which only 10 minutes each were spent getting to and from the main viewing area. We basically just entered “the zone” and waited. It did not take long to see whale activity left and right. It was estimated that at the time of my visit (February 1), 100 Grey whales were present at the lagoon. This number will continue to rise till the end of February when there could be as many as 200. Sometimes other species come as well, such as Orcas (who hunt the Grey whale babies). We also saw Bottlenose dolphins and turtles.
With so many whales around us, we could enjoy their behaviour. We observed a few in the distance jumping out of the water with almost their whole body. We spent quite some time with a mother and calf, the little one keeping mum’s side all the time and producing little puffs of water. Also, we found one sleeping – just a big thing floating on the water, until it got annoyed by our presence, lifted its head, and moved on.
There is a number of reasons that make this such a unique site:
- the sheer amount of whales you see, often you are surrounded by several of them at the same time,
- the chance to see mothers and calves together,
- the fact that the whales aren’t just passing by but actually are living (mating, breeding) in the area,
- how close you get to them, sometimes they even can be petted,
- the low-key approach of the whale watching tourism (small boats, and they leave each other alone and do not crowd around sightings as is often done at jeep safaris).
So far we have gathered 29 WHS in our “Whales” connection. However, this is the only site dedicated primarily to whales, and together with Peninsula Valdes only one of two that derive their OUV from whales. I’ve done 3 other whale watching tours over the years (Iceland, Azores, Peninsula Valdes), but this one was by far the most productive ánd the most pleasant experience.
Read more from Els Slots here.
This is a site that I have visited 3 times, and, for animal lovers, it does not disappoint. I'm based in Southern California, so it's a long but do-able drive down the west side of Baja. In 2017, we drove and enjoyed the incredible "super bloom" in the desert. In March 2020, we flew from Los Angeles to Loreto, and were in the area precisely as the Covid Lockdown was occurring. The lockdown altered the last few days of our trip only.
Unfortunately, the Baja area can be challenging to find accommodations. There are no chain hotels in the central area, such as San Ignacio, which is the most centrally located for whale watching. There are some bigger places in Guerrero Negro that might be perfect for people driving down. We booked a small house through hotels.com in San Ignacio. Internet was very sketchy there and the accommodations are very basic. Also it can be difficult to plan the boating trips in advance. This can limit the pre-trip enthusiasm, because it's a long drive in from either the West or East Baja coast, and people prefer to know with certainty that they'll be getting on a boat once they get there. Somehow, it's always worked out for us.
It's a fairly long (30-45 minutes) drive to the dock from San Igancio, and about the same if you're going to the Guerrero Negro sites. The roads are dirt. There's little or no traffic. It's marked but not often.
The boats, small "panga" fishing boats, hold about 8-12 passengers. The boats leave from the dock twice a day. Mornings are usually calmer. Your captain may or may not speak English. Many are Spanish speaking only. There is no educational narrative. You'll take the boat out of the docking area and into the deeper part of the bay. If you go in the heart of calving season, and before they head north, there will be whales everywhere. A fin here, tails there, spouts or breeching there. Some will be very near the boat, some (most) off in the distance. Your captain will try to get you close to as many whales as he can. Ideally, you'll find some whales that are curious about the boat, and hang around or swim slowly nearby. The very curious ones might come up and hang around the boat for a while... a few minutes to half an hour or more... and come up to have a close look at you. It's incredible to look eye to eye with a whale that's come up to your boat to have a peek at you. People will reach out and touch them if they get that close.
For anyone interested in whales, it's a trip worth doing.
In February 2011, I took the bus from Loreto to San Ignacio, where I spent two nights at Ignacio Springs (www.ignaciosprings.com) and visited the two nearby UNESCO World Heritage Sites. On my first full day, I traveled to San Ignacio Lagoon, the only undeveloped nursery and breeding ground of the Pacific gray whale and part of the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino UNESCO World Heritage Site (http://www.kuyima.com). We spent nearly two hours on the lagoon, and saw dozens of gray whales, often several at one time, some within a few feet of the panga (boat). On my second day, I visited the El Palmarito Caves, part of the Rock Paintings of Sierra de San Francisco UNESCO World Heritage Site. The trip started with a two-hour drive, mostly through an unimproved wash bed, to Rancho Santa Marta, followed by a one-hour hike and 30-minute climb up a rocky incline to the stunning cave -- due to its remoteness and difficult access the cave is not as frequently visited as some of the more accessible caves in the region, and I was the only visitor at the cave. I ended my trip in Loreto, where I stayed at La Damiana Inn, built in the 1930s (www.ladamianainn.com).
This place is truly an off the beaten path treat! Although it is a bit difficult to reach, it can be easily seen along with The Rock art of San Francisco. This reserve is the winter home of more than 12,000 grey whales. They migrate here from the arctic ocean to give birth and enjoy the winter weather.
Vizcaino biosphere is best visited from Guerrero Negro, a small town about 450 miles south of San Diego in California. You can drive the entire distance on a good 2-lane highway.
The whales enter the salt lagoons in January and remain until Mid-March. The lagoons have a very high salt content (in fact, parts are a Japanese owned salt works that UNESCO worked hard to prevent expansion.) Females have their babies here because of a boost in floatation due to the saltiness. Entrance to the lagoons is strictly controlled but you can take a boat out into the lagoons for about 49 US dollars per person for 3 hours. Lots or tours are offered but you can just show up and join a small boat trip.
The boats quickly find the whales who are seemingly everywhere you look. They come right up to the boats and sometimes nudge them. The moms and babies swim together and you will assuredly see them jumping (breeching), diving, and generally playing.
There are about 7 or 8 modest hotels (don't expect much) and some great Mexican seafood restaurants in Guerrero Negro.
Only a part might be of Universal Value -rest should be Biosphere reserve. Possible adding a cultural dimension to criteria??
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