We are just back from perhaps the best four-day vacation we have ever taken. It began with a flight from SLC to LA, and then to stunningly rugged and beautiful Loreto, Baja California, Mexico, on the Gulf of California. Our plans did not call for a stay, but we may go back -- the views flying in told of secret, isolated beaches, surrounded by mighty cliffs, with fantastic sunrises and some of the bluest seas you will ever see. We had other plans this time, however, and so at the airportThere, we rented a shiny red jeep:
(with full, and I mean FULL, insurance coverage) and drove across Baja to the Pacific, and a sleepy little town called Puerto San Carlos on Magdalena Bay. Our real destination was an Eco Camp on Isla Magdalena, one of three islands along the Pacific that creates the magnificent Mag Bay, winter home to California Gray Whales, known for their fearless friendliness. We had signed up with Magdalena Bay Whales, (link here: http://www.magdalenabaywhales.com/_index.php ) and Captain Marco, its young, friendly jefe, who speaks English with ease, and is a delight to talk with.
There is only one paved street in San Carlos, and the Hotel Villas Isabella, where we were to meet Marco, is not on it. Many dirt streets, strayish dogs (63, to be exact -- the kids counted) and a few chickens later, we found it, near the shores of Magdalena Bay, where the shrimp boats put in every evening, for a full night's work.
There Marco introduced us to Martin, who would be our most able captain for the next two days, and we learned that he and his boat, the Keiko I:
would be at our service for the entire time. What a happy circumstance that turned out to be. After locking our car inside the hotel's protected parking, we jumped in the Kieko I, and headed off to our destination: Isla Magdalena, across the magnificent and huge Magdalena Bay.
As you will soon see, birds were everywhere, including the Brown Pelicans catching Alden's attention here, and were reflective of the abundant marine life in the Bay.
Martin's true self shows through here. Happy, easy going, comfortable with his boat and on the water, excellent whale-whisperer, and just a great host all the way around.
By the way, this is the hot babe in the distance of the opening photo. Have I mentioned that I love my wife? She put this trip together, and is all around awesome.
We arrived at the Eco Camp with its 6 to 8 tents on level, wooden platforms, each of which had cots, blankets, sheets and pillows inside. The great palapa below, where we were to eat for the next two days, is a fantastic gathering place, to talk all things whale with other guests and captains.
It had electricity at night, and two restrooms with flush toilets (that mostly worked), along with running water, and all the soft drinks and bottled water you could want (and Cerveza too). Most important of all, it had Christina and her crew (Christina is in the center below)
who would prepare fresh seafood, brought from the bay right next to us, at almost any time we asked. The Camarones Diabola (Devil Shrimp) was absolutely killer, as were her breakfast Chilaquiles. I still think about both of those dishes all the time, and the kids think about her cinnamon hot chocolate even more than that. After one of those great meals and a decent night's rest, we woke the next morning to this:
After a hearty breakfast in the palapa, we headed out into a sunny day for our first whale watching excursion. Fortunately, we had been advised to bring jackets, and long pants, and we needed them! It was cool on the water.
After a fairly short ride across a very smooth Magdalena Bay toward Isla Santa Margarita, and as we approached the opening to the Pacific which divides her from Isla Magdalena, we began to see this:
It was then that Martin did his magic, carefully approaching, stopping where he thought the whales would come up next, and letting them decide if they wanted to come close or not. Never once, in the two days we spent with him did we feel like he was chasing or harrassing whales in any way. He was always very careful to let them make the choice about how close to come. Soon enough, that magic turned to this:
There we were, amidst all these whales, engine off, silence interrupted only by lapping waves and gull-cries, and then the transformative sound of giants exhaling from massive lungs. It was just phenomenal. And of course, their were the tales:
There was even a friendly sea lion that came out to watch us watching them:
If we had stopped there, it would have been worth it. But of course, Martin was determined to give us a show, so south we went, along the eastern coast of Isla Santa Margarita. Along the way, we witnessed an old partnership -- dolphins and brown pelicans, working a mass of sardines -- one from below, the other from above.
I really love watching brown pelicans fly, they are so graceful and efficient in flight, but to watch them dive is to see the fighter planes they really are inside.
As we approached the great sand peninsula that juts out from mainland Baja about half way down Isla Santa Margarita, we were greeted by more pelicans, and by the whitest sand you can imagine, in dunes running along the Bay.
It was on this long jaunt south that I realized just how happy Keegan was -- in his element, loving the wind, the water and wildlife, never uttering the word "bored" even once. Then there was this:
Keegan: Hey guys, why don't seagulls like to fly over bays?
Us: (After a few lame guesses) I don't know, why?
Keegan: Because then they would be Bay gulls (get it, Bagels?).
I laughed so hard. His creative juices were rolling. It did my heart so much good to see him so HAPPY.
But I digress. We were greeted not just by Pelicans and dunes, but also by these guys:
This was the only mother and calf pair we saw. That is a seriously newborn whale there, she was tiny by comparison!
Bulls jostling around a female whale.
And paying no attention to our boat whatsoever.
Until this guy showed up, spy-hoping all around us. Those barnacles look like they hurt!
The close encounters continued throughout the early afternoon.
That was not enough, however, to keep us from getting close enough to see bubbles on their backs as they surfaced.
Now if I could just get Kate this interested in driving her car . . .
Or Alden for that matter. He actually hit the throttle as soon as he got behind the wheel.
It was a long boat ride back, but everyone was happy, and it was not without interest. Martin took us past a yellowfin tuna fish farm, where his uncle works.
And introduced us to the ubiquitous (at least around here) Frigate Bird.
They really are remarkable fliers. Don't know if that forked tail has anything to do with it, but it certainly makes them unique, looking like swallows on mega-steroids.
Once we arrived back in camp, the time was spent sea-kayaking, paddleboarding, beach walking, and just reading good books, until dinner time. It was fantastic.
Alden was in full trireme charging/ramming mode almost immediately. That boy was born for battleships.
Keegan really started to get the hang of it, and I think he had fun.
Kate always loves paddleboards. (But she was no match for the sea kayaking of Alden.) The beach walk she took with me, however, was amazing. So many shells, skeletons, and signs of sea life, all along it, including this turtle shell, washed up on shore.
The skeletons collected included a sea horse, which I can't seem to see here, but I know is there somewhere. Plant life around the camp also showed some signs of spring and beauty.
The shells we collected were so varied and colorful. Really amazing.
I love the symmetry of shells, and marvel at how it happens.
This isn't really the half of it, and does not do it justice. But it shows some of the color, which is so fun to see. Speaking of color, sunsets were amazing.
And so ended our first full day on Magdelena Bay.
and soon we started seeing this:
Which became this:
And then, THIS happened:
He spy hopped within a foot of the boat. If you look close, you can see that a whale has whiskers. Yep, that close.
He played around the boat, as close as he (or she, maybe female whales have whiskers too!) for a full five minutes, showing no fear, only curiosity. And then THIS:
YEP. My kids have touched a wild whale, who seemed to really want and invite it. AMAZING. In Keegan's words: "BEST.VACATION. EVER!" I told him that he will probably go through his whole life, and never find another person who has touched a whale in the wild. Truly one of the most unique, wonderful and remarkable moments I have ever witnessed or experienced.
For those who may wonder at the ethics of the moment, though, I want to make clear, at no time did I ever feel we were chasing or harassing a whale. First, there were no other boats around -- we were alone. Second, Martin was very careful -- he would head in the direction of the whales, place himself ahead of them where he thought they would come up, and then sit idle in that spot. In all cases, every time, they came to us. And in this one's case, he really came to us, and I swear, wanted to communicate. It was a magical, peaceful, quiet moment. And when he was done, we let him go -- no chasing, no following, no desperate attempt to maintain the experience. The entire encounter was on his terms. I really have to commend Magdalena Bay Whales and Martin in particular. I saw enough to know that this is the way they operate, an ethic of respect that they maintain. Just wonderful.
Later in the day, the same thing happened when another boat was in the area (this was rare for us, most of the time we were alone). I post a couple of those pics just to show how big these guys are compared to the boats.
I am quite sure we were all more nervous than the whales were. We spent the balance of the morning seeing things like this:
And the amazing coast and rookeries there as well:
Before heading back to the Eco Camp for lunch and a family photo.
I'm starting to think you actually could get swallowed by a whale, at least based on the size of this skull bone. In any event, our day couldn't get better, but it did continue to be fantastic. In the afternoon, Martin took us out to the dunes, which were also just awesome, one of the more beautiful places we have been. Here are a few pics:
From there, we headed to the Hotel Isabella in Puerto San Carlos, for hot showers, a nice night in a bed, and then a long drive and flight back home. But we will never forget Magdalena Bay. It is magical.