You’re in a small boat in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Baja California - halfway between Tijuana and Cabo San Lucas. You’re there on a whale watching excursion to see first-hand some of the largest mammals on earth. Blow! Announces the captain. You see the top of its head briefly surface, followed by a column of spray from its breathing hole.
Then this giant creature of the sea floats closer and goes under your boat. Suddenly, you feel the boat being lifted out of the water by something huge underneath it. The boat has no motor in the water now, and all its passengers are screaming while being taken for an unexpected ride, balanced precariously on the belly of a 45’ long California Gray Whale. Welcome to Pure Baja Travels, where whales do unexpected things, to both the delight - and terror – of the guests who visit.
|We caught up with Jose Sanchez, owner of Pure Baja Travel, initially to get some feedback about his experience with the Sonostar Glamping Domes. We got a lot more than we bargained for, as he freely shared with us his encyclopedic knowledge of the whales’ anatomies, habits, and social behaviors. “We get to know some of the individual whales pretty well,” he shares. “Valentina is the one who will come up to your boat, go behind it, dive down, and then come up under it - belly side up - and lift up the boat completely. Then she’ll take you for a ride and drop you off and then do another boat. There’s a video of her in the LA Times archives.”||
||The whales have not always been so friendly. At the turn of the last century, the whales were almost hunted to extinction, their population falling from over 100,000 (estimated) to only 2000. The last hunting in México, took place in 1938, and they have been protected ever since. There are stories told by the old fishermen of whales who attacked their boats and sank them, referring to them as ‘hardheaded devil fish’. That changed in the late 1960’s, when a fisherman was approached by a whale who came right up to his boat, and he was able to reach out and pet it. And it didn’t go away. He told the other fishermen about it, and soon people were coming from all over to observe the whales. Many of the local fishermen became whale-watching boat captains. Today, the area around San Ignacio Lagoon is part of the largest biosphere in Latin America and a UNESCO Human heritage site, measuring over 6.5 million acres.|
Jose got his start doing nature guiding in 1993. While studying Marine biology, he worked as a Research assistant in La Paz, also in Baja, focusing on whales and dolphins. One day, the owner of a commercial whale watching company asked him to come try to do tours. “I didn’t know anything,” he confesses. “But I loved it. I loved sharing with people who were coming to visit, and they all wanted to learn. At first the company was in Magdalena Bay, then they built a second camp in San Ignacio lagoon. In 1996-97, I had such good reviews from our guests that they decided to start another camping in San Ignacio Lagoon. It’s been a continuing education for me.”
|If you’re reading this and want to book a tour with his company, you can visit their website. Once you’re booked, the usual itinerary is to fly to San Diego, then walk across the border into Tijuana, where you’re picked up and taken to the airport. There, you board a chartered plane and fly down to a landing strip near San Ignacio Lagoon, where the whales come to spend their winters. Once there, you’re taken to the campsite, where all the activities are centered around the twice-a-day whale-watching excursions. After your orientation and some happy hour drinks, you’ll be taken to your private quarters, a 5-meter diameter Sonostar Glamping Dome, where you’ll be cozied up for the next 4 days and nights.|
The abundant sea life makes for some incredible banquet dinners, featuring fresh local fish and lobster added to locally grown vegetables. Dinner conversations can be fun and educational, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have a marine biologist or researcher in your group. Be sure to take your GoPro camera to get some pictures of the whales both above and below the waters. And if you’re lucky enough to encounter Valentina, you’ll have the fish story that no one else can beat, and hopefully the pictures to prove it!