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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Day 1 in Baja

After a windy first night in Punta Piedra we woke up ready to get out on the water and experience our first whale-watch of the trip. During our three full days at San Ignacio, we got to go whale-watching twice a day in 22-foot pangas. Depending on the tides, sometimes you had to wade a little bit to get into the boats. Our group of just over 20 was divided into three boats each time, with a boat driver and naturalist with each group.

The first marine mammal we got a good look at was actually a bottlenose dolphin rather than a gray whale - they're the only other cetacean species that frequents the lagoon. No one knows much about this group of dolphins, and this one just cruised right by us and on his way.

Most of the whale watch is spent slowly cruising around the lagoon viewing different gray whales. There's a lot going on, with different whales engaged in different behaviors all over the play. This time of year, early in the season (we were actually the first trip of the year for Baja Discovery), the calves are still pretty young. They're pretty much always right by mama, and tend to stay deeper in the lagoon unless the currents aren't too strong. There's also a lot of mating behavior going on, with groups of males pursuing females who are ready to breed. Females will have a calf every 2-3 years, so those that weaned a calf last year might be ready to mate again, while those who just gave birth steer well clear of the rowdy male groups.

A typical view of a gray whale surfacing
When seeing gray whales along their migration route from Alaska to Baja, you tend to just see surfacings followed by long dives. Here, you see all the other typical whale behaviors much more frequently, like spyhops, breaches, and tail waves.

Eastern Pacific gray whales were nearly hunted to extinction not once but twice - their counterparts in the Atlantic were completely wiped out by the 1700s. The notorious whaler Scammon hunted gray whales in these very lagoons, which makes it all the more amazing that they are now so tolerant of us in their presence during in this place that is very important to their survival.

Even if they're not interested in interacting with us, they don't seem to mind us being around at all, swimming in and among the pangas going about their business. They're also impressively aware of their surroundings and their own strength, maneuvering around the boats with care. Their huge tails are incredibly powerful; they could flip one of our boats over if they wanted to, but they don't. Once or twice they did splash us on the boat with their tails however, and I have a feeling it was on purpose!

On our first whale watch we didn't travel too far from camp - in fact, you can see our camp in the background of these next two shots:

Our closest encounter of the morning came when two adults swam between a couple of our boats. That's another one of our camp's pangas partially concealed behind the spray of this whale:

Gray whales, unlike most whales, don't actually have a dorsal fin. Instead, they have dorsal ridges with somewhere between 6 and 12 "knuckles" along their back:

They can be individually identified by a combination of unique markings, including these dorsal ridges, white barnacle scars, and rake marks and other injuries on their tails. Some of the locals recognize specific whales that they've been seeing in the lagoon every year for the last 10-15 years or more. Gray whales can live to be up to about 70 years old, at least.

If you can tear your eyes away from the whales, there's good birds to see out on the water, too. In fact, while waiting to board our first whale watch, I saw a pair of American oystercatchers (115), also my first life bird of the trip! Here are a few of the birds from my first whale watch:

A royal tern (year bird #116)

Brown pelican
A couple more whale shots from the morning:

Back at camp, we had a bit of time before lunch, so I went for a walk down the beach toward the mangroves. The first bird I saw took me a bit of time to identify - it was a merlin (117), but a prairie morph, much lighter than the ones I'm used to seeing in the Pacific Northwest!

The beach and much of the desert is covered in shells, as this area is an ancient seafloor bed. There's not much walking in bare feet in the sand on these beaches - too many ways to cut up your feet!

I was also reminded that where there is life (in the newborn gray whale calves in particular), so there is death. There were two gray whale calf carcasses along the beach. The second one was being visited by some turkey vultures and coyotes:

Turkey vulture (left) and coyote (right) with a gray whale carcass on the beach in between them
There were a few more coyotes along the beach, and a little bit later after they disappeared over a sand dune they could be heard yipping and howling with many others spread out across the desert.

It was here I got my second life bird of the day - a reddish egret (118)! It's amazing to me that lots of bird species - herons in particular - that are typically found in the southeast US are also found here on the west coast of Mexico, the only place on the west coast they can be seen.

I reached the edge of the mangroves, where the change of terrain is a shock after walking along the edge of the desert. There was some more shorebird activity here, including western sandpipers (119), semipalmated plovers (120), marbled godwits, willets, and greater yellowlegs.

The pace of things at camp was perfect - whale watches and other nature experiences interspersed with meals and a bit of down time. There was definitely never a dull moment. After I got back to camp, there was just enough time for a short siesta before lunch in our main tent. All the power, by the way, is solar:

After lunch, the tides were right to go for a tidal walk along the mudflats on the far side of our little island. We had to do the "stingray shuffle" as we crossed a channel to get out on the tidal flats. If you shuffle your feet they'll scram out of your way, but if you step down on top of one, you'll probably get stung. I was probably one of the only people to be disappointed not to see a stingray. 

We saw a couple pretty spectacular tidepool creatures, like this two-spot octopus that lives in abandoned shells of giant scallops:

We also found a few jawfish holes. This species of fish lives down in a burrow it builds and lines with shells. A few very patient observers held very still and got a glimpse of its giant head as it peeked out. I only looked at the burrow before heading on to see other things:

Jawfish hole - the large shell on the right was covering the hole, making it look just like a pile of shells. After watching for the jawfish, the shell lid was carefully replaced.
One of the other critters I saw was a small and very fast moving brittle star (with a star shape at its center, too):

There were lots of snails, crabs, and other tiny creatures inside or under every large shell:

All over moon snail egg cases could also be seen, basically coils of sand held together by snail goo which they attach their eggs to:

Moon snail egg case
In addition to the intertidal creatures, there were more coyotes out on the flats eating crabs. Whales and dolphins could be seen in the distance, and of course there were tons of birds. My highlight was a white ibis (121, and my third life bird of the day), but there were also great and snowy egrets, long-billed curlews (122), all the sandpiper species I had seen before, and a couple of black-bellied plovers.

White ibis on the tide flats
We got back to camp just in time to change into our water clothes and head out on another whale watch! This time, during a slacker tide, there were more moms and calves out in the lagoon. We got a great look at a curious baby that lifted its head up onto its mom's back to get a look at us, giving me the chance to snap one of my favorite photos of the whole trip:

We had some more great close whale encounters, and of course I had the camera in hand the whole time:

One person commented that they can see where ancient mariners came up with drawings of mystical sea monsters in days past - they could have drawn their inspiration from the almost reptilian look of the back of a gray whale:

We had one whale actually surface backwards: we saw its tail end first, and then it raised its head high out of the water to look at us before submerging again:

I like this shot because it shows you just how close the whales would come to us, even when not interacting:

A couple other shots from the afternoon trip on the first day:

Back at camp, in the heat of the afternoon, we again congregated on the point where we could watch whales from shore. We were very fortunate to have one of the tents closest to the point, the one in this picture, nicknamed "Garropa" or "grouper" (all the tents were named after local animals).

We took in another beautiful sunset before dinner:

The timing was again perfect as the dinner bell usually rung right after the colors of the sunset were fading. The food, by the way, was phenomenal. It's amazing what our two kitchen goddesses could whip up in their camp kitchen, fueled off propane and and solar power. Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, local seafood, and traditional Mexican fare made up most of our meals. I tend to be a picky eater, but I ate every bite at every meal. They even baked flan and pineapple upside down cake and other desserts! After dinner we got treated to evening presentations, our first one being about the life history of the gray whale.

Our second night was again a windy one, but much warmer than the first. We had been warned to bring lots of layers. The T-shirts and shorts definitely came in handy during the hot afternoons, but we were lucky not to need the long johns, hats, and gloves, we had been told we might need to keep warm enough for sleeping. It was so nice out I stayed outside for a bit before bed and played around with some nighttime photography. I imagine the stars would be super impressive from Punta Piedra, but we were there around the full moon, which had the benefit of lighting everything up so well you didn't need a flashlight to navigate at night. I used a solar powered flashlight to light up our tent in this long-exposure shot showing some of the stars we could see:

I also stood in front of the camera and used the flashlight to "write" in the air, and came up with some cool results!

My attempt at drawing a whale tail with the flashlight
Then, it was time for a better night's sleep. I didn't know it at the time, but the following morning I would get to experience what we all hoped to while in San Ignacio - the ballenas amistosos (friendly whales)!


The K said...

Very cool to read about your adventures. Photos are great. Did you consider Aplomado Falcon for the Merlin? Hard to tell size from photo, but some of the colors look like a possibility.

Looking forward to future updates. Thanks for sharing

Julie said...

so awesome! i've been wanting to do this trip for a long time now. taking next year off will give me the opportunity...i'll definitely seek your advice. gray whales are so impressive!

Vera said...

I cannot possibly make all the comments I would like to, but I also love the baby gray whale, the fluke photo near the beginning, the flashlight drawings and and and....

I really look forward to sharing slideshows with you in the near future! I'll be watching for your next blog post!

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

And that's just Day 1! No wonder it was on your bucket list - Fab-u-lass