I've just returned from a phenomenal five days at Punta Piedra along the shore of San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, Mexico. This is a trip I've dreamed of taking for about 15 years since I first heard about the gray whale breeding areas where these intelligent creatures interact with humans. It will take several blog posts to properly feature all the amazing wildlife I witnessed, and this first one will just document the journey it took to get there. I traveled with Baja Discovery, and I can't recommend this company highly enough after the experience I had!
Modes of transportation required to go from my front door on San Juan Island to my tent in San Ignacio: car, ferry, car, plane, shuttle bus, car, bus, plane, van, boat.
One reason it took until now for me to take this trip is because of my fear of flying. Just recently have I gotten up the nerve to get back on an airplane, and a small plane ride was part of the deal to get to San Ignacio. After meeting up with our group and leaving San Diego, we crossed the border into Tijuana where we got on a couple of charter planes. The flight was thankfully much smoother than I had anticipated, and we got stunning views of the Baja coastline as we headed south.
Here's a look at the second plane flying nearby:
We flew over Guerrero Negro, where a salt mine operates near another of the gray whales' breeding lagoons, Laguna Ojo de Liebre. This was almost the fate for the nearly pristine San Ignacio, but a huge effort led by NRDC and other environmental groups halted the project in 1999.
|Clouds over Laguna Ojo de Liebre|
Finally, we got our first sight of Laguna San Ignacio, and could see the point of land where our camp would be for the next four nights:
|Arrow indicating Punta Piedra, the location of our camp, in San Ignacio Lagoon|
Whale-watching is highly regulated in the breeding lagoons. In Laguna San Ignacio, whale-watching is permitted only in the outer third of the lagoon, and the inner two thirds are a preserve. Boats are only allowed out between 8 and 5, and the number of boats are also limited. All boats are driven by local fisherman who participate in ecotourism when they're not allowed to fish in lagoons, which are closed to most fishing during the months the whales are there.
From the plane, as we passed over the lagoon, I spotted my first three gray whales of the trip. We arrived at the Kuyima "airport", really just a strip of desert that has been rolled flat. We loaded our luggage into vans for the ride to the boats.
The welcoming committee included an osprey perched on its nest at the airstrip. There were lots of osprey posts with nests on them, most of them occupied.
A sign on a nearby building let us know we had arrived at the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve:
We were warned ahead of time that traveling in Mexico is always an adventure, and that turned out to be very true! On the way to the boats our van broke down. It was pretty hot, so we all got out and waited in the desert for another van to come and rescue us.
When we got to Kuyima, we had a bit of a wait, as we needed the tide to rise so the boats could come and get us. We all changed into our "boat clothes", clothes that we would wear every time we went out on the water. They were going to get wet, and with the salt water, they would never really fully dry out. While some people enjoyed their first cerveza of the trip, I started off my Mexican birding with three year birds: brant (112) [Note for those keeping score - added 5 more year birds before leaving California: mourning dove, northern mockingbird, California gull, wrentit, and spotted sandpiper], turkey vulture (113), and Caspian tern (114). We could also see some gray whales blowing in the distance. It was hard to believe I was finally here!
Finally, it was time to load the boats, or pangas, and head to camp. I was on the windy side, so got thoroughly baptized in lagoon water during our 20 minute ride to camp. We could see more whales along the way, and what was really exciting is that as we neared Punta Piedra, we also started seeing the highest concentration of whales! It was clear our camp was definitely overlooking a whale hot spot.
After being welcomed ashore, we received our tent assignments. Accommodations proved to be pretty comfortable with cots inside the tents, but the constant wind made for pretty loud tent flapping during the night - something that would take some getting used to!
It didn't take long for everyone to congregate at the point to watch the sunset. It was a magical moment that many of us would remark upon for the rest of the trip. After a long day of travel we had arrived. The golden lighting was beautiful, the scenery spectacular. And, most amazing of all, there were whales everywhere. We watched more than 20 whales breathe, spyhop, and breach as the sun went down. We had all been eagerly pointing out each whale to one another up to this point. I have to laugh when I recall someone commenting, "I think we can dispense with 'I see one' now." There were whales everywhere.
It was just a teaser of what was to come. The next morning, our whale and wildlife watching would start in earnest!