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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Return to Laguna San Ignacio

In February 2014 I got to go on the trip of a lifetime to visit the friendly gray whales at San Ignacio Lagoon on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. It's something I had dreamed of doing for over 15 years, and while I knew I would go back, I never imagined it would be so soon. Thanks to being invited along on a group trip with a very good friend of mine, I was fortunate enough to head back south to Laguna San Ignacio last week.

We traveling with the same tour group - Baja Discovery - as I did last year. Their camp is in the best location, right on a prime whale-watching point, so you can watch the whales literally all the time. As I call it, the camp at Punta Piedra is "the Lime Kiln of Baja". We all met in San Diego, then crossed into Mexico and flew down to the lagoon. While on the bus in Tijuana, I spotted my first Mexican year bird: cliff swallow (122).

The flight itself is scenic. At times you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. Here's a shot looking down on an island from the plane as we flew down the Pacific coast:

It wasn't far from here that I saw my first gray whales of the trip - from about 10,000 feet!

Gray whale, as seen from the plane
To get from San Juan Island to the camp at Punta Piedra I travel by ferry, car, plane, bus, plane again, van, and, finally, panga:

While the first evening was taken up most with settling into camp (and not with photography), I did have to step out with the camera to take in the stars on that clear night. Here's the constellation Orion, along with a ton of other stars:

On our first morning at camp, it was the bottlenose dolphins that stole the show. As they would every morning, about 30-40 of them were foraging right off the point. I would later get the first cetacean recording with our new hydrophone of bottlenose dolphin clicks and whistles! On the first day, however, I was thrilled to catch this photo of a jumping dolphin:

The mornings were also great for birding, with lots of shorebirds roosting on the point and others foraging just offshore:

 When it was time for our first whale watch, though, the focus turned to gray whales!

The San Juan whale contingent: me, Cindy (who works for Baja Discovery in Mexico and The Whale Museum on San Juan Island), and my friend and research partner Michael
The whale-watching was very different for me this year compared to last year. Last year, we went down with the first trip of the season in early February, when there were still lots of males in the lagoon. Whale-watching is only allowed in the outer portion of the lagoon, and in that area there was lots of mating activity, while the moms with the very young calves were all deeper in the lagoon. This year, in mid-March, all the males have already departed. Pretty much just mothers and calves were left in the lagoon, most of them in the outer lagoon where the boats can go. The whale activity was much less frenzied - unless you count all those calves learning how to breach!

The whales were also a lot "friendlier", in that the calves were the right age to start approaching the boats more than earlier in the season. When they do, it's hard to know what to do - it ends up being some combination of taking pictures/video and just enjoying it! For this first trip, this is about the only good photo I got of the whales approaching before it was time to touch my first baby gray whale :)

Incoming whales! Heading straight for our panga
You might think hanging out at a desert camp on the edge of a lagoon would leave you with lots of time to do nothing, but life at camp is busy! If you're not whale-watching or eating, there's lots of other activities to participate in, such as going on a tidal walk to the mudflats not far from camp. After doing "the stringray shuffle" to cross a tidal creek, I got a flurry of year birds: little blue heron (123), white ibis (124), short-billed dowitcher (125), turkey vulture (126), and American oystercatcher (127):

American oystercatcher with other shorebirds in the background

While I loved all the birds, the highlight of the tidepools were the two-spot octopi. If a female had eggs, it got left alone in its scallop shell home:

Female octopus with eggs in a scallop shell
But when we found one without eggs, we got to briefly take it out to look at it:

Two-spot octopus!
After tide-pooling, it was time for our second whale-watch of the day - life is rough, I know. This time I got a few more photos of a baby checking us out:

All this, and it was only our first full day! I have several more blog posts in the queue to share, but if you're ready for more now, check out this video I put together of our trip. Towards the end is some underwater gray whale footage I shot.

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