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Whaling and Sailing in Baja, February 2010

We took a little trip to Baja. The trip had two appendages: first, we spent a couple of days watching the migrating whales on the Pacfic side of the peninsula. We then went to the other side (the Sea of Cortez) and cruised around in a sailboat for a couple more days. Although there were not as many whales on the second side, we had a lot of sea lions and manta rays (and a couple of humpbacks).

In addition to the photos here, I uploaded a couple of movies to YouTube: whale watching, swimming with the sea lions (cool!), and feeding some birds from underwater.

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Route overview. We flew to La Paz, then rented a car and went to the Pacific side for the whales in Magdalena Bay. Three nights later, we drove back to the Cortez side for the sailing. We flew on Volaris, which gives out free Krispy Kreme donuts on board.
We drove out to near Magdalena Bay, then followed a sketchy map on some dirt roads til we found a boat dock. From there, we went to our camp.
Here's Fin and Heidi on the boat.
And Piper.
We went to camp, set up, ate some tasty shrimp, and then went whaling.
And check out those spouts -- three whales! Not rare -- they're all over the place.
Here's a whale tail.
And some more whales breathing.
Another boat. These here are grey whales, which are the ones that migrate from Alaska every year. They don't eat much in Mexico. Allegedly they have cute baby whales here, though we didn't see more than one of those (they're off in a shallower side of the bay?).

This bay here was discovered in the late 1850's and used heavily for whale hunting, led by a cousin of Herman Melville's. The population was almost completely zeroed out -- down to just a couple hundred whales as of the early 1900's. Since around 1950 the hunting has been illegal, and the population has gone crazy, to something over 25,000 now. It is a totally successful program. These whales used to go up and down the East coast as well, so it's entertaining to think of ways to re-introduce the whale population there too. What's the best way to transport 100 whales across the continent?

Heidi and Fin.
Here's two of our guides: Valero ('Vale') and Juan Jose. They were awesome. Vale is driving. Juan leads a lot of trips all over Baja (scuba, etc.) but has a degree in marine biology from a university in La Paz and definitely knows his whales.
We headed back for the night. No whaling allowed after 5:30 PM, by Mexican law.
Piper found a sand dollar (galleta del mar, or ocean cookie, in the local vernacular). If they were really worth a buck, you could make millions on this beach.
We spent three nights on the beach, and took the boats into the bay four times. Here's some sea lions we passed. This was right in the middle of the bay, at least a mile or two from shore. Better swimmers than me!
Dolphins.
You can't usually see much of the whale, except its back. The top couple of inches of a whale looks just like the top couple inches of an elephant! (*) It's like, there's thousands and thousands of full-sized African elephants swimming around the bay here, spouting water and diving. They're very cute.

(*) There's some apocryphal story here about a blind man and an elephant that my thesis advisor Larry used to tell me when he thought I needed it, though the details escape me.

Although it's called 'whale watching,' it's more accurately called 'whale-part watching.' Most of the time, you don't see whole whales, except on the rare occasions when they jump out of the water (breaching -- we saw this a few times, but from a mile away). Later on, we did see some whole whales as they came close to the boat, which was really cool.

Here's another whale back, with some scars (from some kind of parasite, but not barnacles.)

Here's a tail.

Surprisingly, their tails are really not that big. I mean, bigger than a peacock (*), but not massively huge or anything. They were about 6 feet across, compared to 3 feet on a typical peacock. Rest of the body is a lot bigger, admittedly, but smaller than a brontosaurus for sure.

(*) In Spanish, a peacock is called a pavo real, or 'royal duck.' One of my favorite words.

Here's a whale mouth.
Another whale back, this one with barnacles.
And another tail. If you see the tail, it means the whale's diving, and it's not coming back for a couple of minutes.
Some pectoral fins (i.e., arms).
Another fin part.
Oh look! Here's another whale part!

NB: I'm doing a little experiment here. I uploaded the same video twice to YouTube, once as 'Whale Watching in Baja' and once as 'Giant Whale Penis!!' I expect the latter to do be far more popular than the former, but we'll see. (Update: four days after posting the movies, the gigantic penis is out-polling the whale watching by 4:1.)

This is what I looked like for most of the trip.
It looks like we are waiting for whales here, but that is not the case. There were so so many of them around, we had to take a break from time to time.
One of our other guides, Juan Paolo.
Jorge drove the boat today.
Heidi finds another whale! Go Heidi!

Actually, in the mouth of the bay itself, we would literally be seeing a dozen whales at a time, all either above the water or breathing or diving. Too many to keep track of. These dozen would be within 1/2 mile of our boat, with the closest ones within 50'. Figuring that whales spend a small fraction of their time visible near the surface, and the bay is 20 miles across, you can do the math and come up with like billion of whales cavorting around us here in the bay. Though I think it's closer to a few thousand. The total population is 25,000+, and there are a half dozen bays in Baja that they migrate to.

Fin appears to be enjoying whaling, though he didn't have much say in the matter.
Piper thinking about comida back at camp.
We `camped' on cots in these little tents on the beach. As far as camping goes, it was pretty lux.
Milky Way over the distant power plant.
On our last morning, it was foggy, so we had to stay in all morning. Piper took a bath...
... and then played in the sand dunes for many many hours.
The group we were with was called Baja Expeditions. It's a medium-scale operation, with about 5 employees at their camp. There were a few other people like us there, but they were at far less than capacity.

Meanwhile, the clouds have just cleared, so we're about to go back out to the bay.

Vale grabs Piper for the boat.
Holy moly! This afternoon was amazing! We had three whale visits up close to our boat. (Heidi said it was different whales; I thought it was the same socially maladjusted whale who kept coming back.) But who cares: it's right there!
I stuck Heidi's watercam in the ocean and here's what its face looks like. That's the eye and mouth.
And here's the barnacles on its back, living and breathing underwater on our friend the whale.
Heidi holds Piper's legs so she can touch it.
Underwater pectoral fins.
Check out that tail!
And there's one more whale.
OK, change of scenery. We drove back across the Baja peninsula to La Paz, turned in the rental car, and went to the marina where we got on a sailboat for a few days. Here's our route map; we spent three nights sleeping on the boat.
This is Captain Jimmy, on the Tesoro del Mar. He grew up in Minnesota, wanted to go sailing, came down to Mexico, and met his wife Estrella in an ice cream parlor. They've lived on their boat for most of the last 25 years, only buying a house in the last couple of years.
We're leaving the La Paz marina. Check out the size of that thing compared with the ones in front of it! Carlos Slim is Mexico's the world's richest man (*), and this is one of his boats. $30M, and it has a crew of 12 full-time just sitting onboard when it's docked, keeping it running.

(*) Mexican cell phone empire, and he ran CompUSA until they filed for chapter 11. Don't confuse him with Mexico's richest woman, who is heir to the Corona brewery, and is married to the former US ambassador.

Our boat speaks French! It is a Beneteau 505 (i.e., 50' long). You could sleep 10 in it if you really packed them in (including two crew). It's a nicely built fiberglass boat, more built for volume than speed. One person can handle it, though it's easier with two. It costs around $30,000 to deliver a boat from France, I learned ($5/mile is the going rate for trans-oceanic deliveries, including a crew of three).

The motor is a 90 hp Perkins diesel engine, which is apparently a very standard tractor motor. This is not big: a Honda Civic has twice the power. When it's running, the whole thing sounds and smells like a tractor. Fuel usage is around 5 mpg.

We spent three days cruising around the La Paz bay. There are a bunch of islands, and it's pretty protected. In fact, it's so protected that we didn't have much wind, so we had the motor on more than we were actually sailing.
We took a little break on a beach with some sealife.
There's the boat.
Heidi, Fin, and Piper make beautiful faces for me.
Then I found a beautiful starfish. One of my favorite photos.
Piper back on the boat.
Heidi moves more than Fin does!
I'm looking at the map down below. I've never been on much of a sailboat before, save for a 15-minute primer on a Hobie Cat last xmas. This one was surprisingly spacious: big table downstairs, full kitchen, couple of showers, etc. It wasn't like crawling around through bulkheads or anything. In case you want to buy one, list price new is around $350K, though you could find a 15-year old one like this in good shape for $150K or so. As for operating it, the big expense is parking: at the La Paz marina, you pay $700/month. But if you don't mind having to swim to shore, plenty of people anchor in the bay itself for free.
Anchored at night.
In the morning, Heidi feeds bread to the birds.
Piper reels in a fish. It was about 10 pounds, but apparently not good for eating, so he lived another day.
I just bought an Ikelite waterproof housing for my SLR camera. Technical issues came up so I couldn't use it with the whales, but here I've attached some poles and duct tape to it and am using it to film the birds from below. (And for anyone who wants to buy one, I highly recommend it. It weighs a ton above water, but it's designed well and handles great below, and in fact the size makes it much more stable than a small camera. You can shoot wide-angle and shoot fast, just like the SLR above water.)

OK, awesome. We are now swimming with sea lions off of Espiritu Santo, which is one of the bay islands. There goes Piper (and you can see a lion behind her).
And this one was a BITER! It has grabbed Heidi's fin, and is trying to take it. Heidi has her (slow) camera, and still managed to get it ready, focus, and take a couple of shots, before he let go!
Some kind of cute fish. Looks like a mudpuppy, but I don't know really what it is. It's not in mud and not a puppy, for sure.
Me with the megacam.
My favorite sea lion shot.
Piper's tired, so she's riding on her mom's back like a baby aquatic anteater.
Heidi is in the water with the lions. (Lobos marenos, or sea wolves, in Spanish.)
Another favorite shot.
They were barking and swimming with their mouths open a lot.
We're away from the islands, in a channel, and finally doing some sailing! Totally loved it. The boat goes fast (well -- 8 knots. But it feels fast to me. 8 knots is a limit of the hull design: even if you put on a massive engine or bigger sails, it's still not going to cruise much faster than that.). It's very quiet, except for a lot of water tinkling noise. This boat actually has an autopilot, which seemed silly, but it's pretty common and makes sense: point the boat East, hit the button, and the autopilot controls the rudder to keep you going that direction.

This boat has two sails ('main' and 'head'), attached to the same mast, so it's single-masted. That's pretty normal: those big classic schooners have more masts, but not most recreational sailboats. Right above you can see the boom, which is the part of the mainsail hardware which swing back and forth and knocks you out if you're not careful. Fundamentally, driving this is the same as a Hobie Cat, except that there's more ropes (since there's two sails instead of one, and you can put each one up and down, plus you need more ropes just to spread out the tremendous wind force on each sail).

Interestingly, if you want to use a sailboat for basic transportion, I learned it's not very practical. San Diego is a quick two-hour flight from La Paz. But on our fancy boat? Give yourself a month round-trip! Even if you drive 24/7, you're still moving at 8 knots, and good jogger could outrun you. Even to cross the Sea of Cortez over to the Mexico 'mainland' -- maybe 100 miles -- is usually a few-day trip.
Here's Jimmy's wife Estrella. Their daughter lived on the boat almost continually from when she was 4 days old, to when she was 15.
Cruising along, very peaceful....
... whoa! Whoa! Whoa! We actually crashed straight into a humpback whale! I was standing on the prow and took this photo looking straight ahead about a half-second before impact. In 25+ years of sailing in Baja, Jimmy had never ever once hit a whale. The big risk to the boat is the keel snapping off, at which point you've got 4 minutes to evacuate. Obviously you don't want to hurt the whale either. Luckily our collision turned out to be more of a very solid bump rather than a destructive crash.
A few minutes later, a different whale comes up.

Note that in the Sea of Cortez, where we are now, there are blue whales and humpbacks, who live semi-permanently there. These are not the ones that migrate down from Alaska with the cute baby whales. Those are the grey whales, and those are what we saw over on the other side.

Heidi continues to strike out (go fish go!).
A sea lion visits us in the morning!
We took another field trip to a little island with cactuses. This is what much of Baja looks like.
I found four dead puffer fishes on the beach here! Well, this is not one of them -- it's a seed pod. But it looks a lot like those puffer fish that I forgot to take a photo of.
These were awesome! There's a tiny tiny sand crab, about 1/2" wide, right at the center.
Found!
Piper drives...
Just some photos from snorkeling around.
One of Heidi's very good skills is as a sea slug finder!
I practice 360s in the water.
A cool little buoy with a bunch of growth on it.
Piper is doing her homework with Estrella.
Piper, Fin, and I take a field trip while Heidi continues 'fishing.'
These are a couple of seagulls. Looks like they will crash.
Check out those wingflaps!
Anchored at our last night. Heidi was still fishing, and noticed that the water was glowing near her lure. Turns out that indeed it was bioluminescent: you could pick up a bucket of water, stir it with your hands, and hundreds of little stars would light up in it. Totally beautiful, and also so faint as to be essentially unphotographable. It's good there's things that way...


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Henry Throop

Last modified Wed Mar 10 21:44:57 2010