How to Go Gray Whale Watching in Baja California

How to Go Gray Whale Watching in Baja California

There are a handful of things in this lifetime I never pictured myself doing. Intimate encounters with gray whales is one of them. And in Baja California’s San Ignacio Lagoon, you can not only see whales, but possibly even touch them, too. If you’ve ever been curious about gray whale watching in Baja California, read on!

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I was hosted by Nautilus Dive Adventures to share the special experience of traveling to see gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

There are a handful of things in this lifetime I never pictured myself doing. 

Whale watching was never on that list (growing up in Hawaii, and also having visited Alaska over a long-weekend, I had the unique opportunity of admiring humpbacks from afar), but up-close, intimate encounters with these gentle giants? I never could’ve imagined doing something like that. 

But as I’ve learned, there are places on this earth that will completely flip everything you thought you knew about life upside-down. Baja California is one of those places. 

When it comes to gray whale watching in Baja California, you can not only see whales, but possibly even touch them, too. 

This once-in-a-lifetime experience is so special, and so surreal, that to this day I look at photos and get chills. 

If you’re curious about whale watching in Baja California, what it’s like, what you can expect, and more, read on. This article’s for you!

RELATED: A First-Timer’s Road Trip Guide for Driving to Baja, Mexico

When and Where to See Gray Whales in Baja California 

Most whale migration patterns span thousands and thousands of miles. In fact, the longest known migration pattern of all is that of the gray whale, who travels each year between the waters near Alaska and Russia (their summer feeding grounds) and the coasts of Baja California (their winter breeding / birthing grounds). 

That’s a 10,000 – 12,000-mile round-trip distance! 

Because gray whale migration patterns are fairly consistent, it’s a safe bet that the late winter and early spring each year will bring gray whales down south. 

That means that every year, between January and late March / early April, your odds of seeing a gray whale in Baja, Mexico are high. 

But rather than just hanging out along the coastline, gray whales do something even more peculiar when they check in for their annual Mexico holiday. They venture into three of Baja’s sheltered ocean lagoons, which have calmer, shallower waters that are perfect for mating, giving birth, and “training” their young for the long migrations ahead. 

These three lagoons – Ojo de Leibre, Magdalena Bay, and San Ignacio – aren’t actually lagoons. When they were discovered, fishermen thought they were lagoons because of their massive size. But, now we know they’re simply long, narrow openings that feed out into open ocean. 

While gray whale watching in Baja California is possible at all three lagoons, I specifically traveled to San Ignacio. Conveniently, San Ignacio is often said to have the best encounters, the friendliest whales, and the most environmentally responsible practices. 

So, the following information is all about what it’s like to see gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon. In my personal opinion, this is the best way to do it, after having gone through the experience myself! 

Nautilus Dive Adventures & Eco Tours in San Ignacio 

Traveling to Baja’s lagoons isn’t an easy trek. San Ignacio in particular is pretty much smack-dab in the middle of Baja’s long peninsula, hours from Cabo and Tijuana. In fact, once upon a time its isolated location and abundant salt flats made San Ignacio the target of Mitsubishi and the Mexican government. They laid plans for an industrial salt plant in the area, which would’ve had serious repercussions for whale migration. Thankfully, through a massive environmental win, the Mexican government had a change of heart. Today, they work with local fishermen and conservationists to keep whale migration a protected part of Baja’s identity. 

With that, only a handful of tour companies operate in San Ignacio, keeping the area largely untouched and preserved. 

One of those eco tour operations, Nautilus Dive Adventures, offers an epic, jam-packed four-day tour complete with transportation to and from Cabo, glamping accommodations in the lagoon, and meals. They partner with Baja Expeditions to keep the 27+ year history of continuous eco tour operations alive in the San Ignacio area. 

Needless to say, it was an incredibly special experience with a crew that not only took care of our every need, but ensured we were guided by passionate people who’ve dedicated their entire lives to the protection of gray whales in Baja. A team of locals, fishermen, and conservationists – Ranulfo and his family, Stan and his whaling experience, Lorentina and her loving hospitality – make for just as unforgettable an experience as the whales themselves.

Whale watching in such an intimate, up-close way may be enough for some of you reading this to jump in head-first. But if you’re wondering whether schlepping out to the middle of nowhere is a worthwhile enough experience for the effort involved, keep on reading! 

Gray Whale Watching in Baja California: The Backstory 

There’s a long history of documented whale migration in San Ignacio. In fact, Ranulfo has even found indigenous cave drawings in the area from centuries ago (likely) depicting these massive creatures. But up until recently, fishermen used to view whales as a threat, calling them “devil fish.” The fear was obviously tragic – fishermen would hunt and kill calves and their moms for something as simple as getting too close to their boats. 

“These whales paid a high price to be friendly,” one camp host tells me as he recounts the history of the lagoon. 

As the legend of the lagoon goes, one fateful day, several decades ago, Ranulfo’s father was out fishing when a whale approached nearby. He thought to himself, “if I’m about to die, I would like to touch this whale first.” 

And to his disbelief, he didn’t die. To his even bigger disbelief, the whale seemed, well, as curious about him as he was of it! 

And so, whale watching in San Ignacio was born. 

Since then, eco tour operators, conservationists, naturalists, and more have flocked to San Ignacio in awe of these whales, and their peculiar curiosity towards humans. 

Thanks to strict regulation of the lagoon, only 16 small boats (called pangas) are allowed in the lagoon at a time, carrying intrepid, curious adventurers on a quest to see gray whales in all their glory, up close. 

And that’s where I come into the story!

Gray Whale Watching in Baja California: What the Experience is Actually Like 

To be honest, it all happened so quickly, like I was outside of my own body, looking in on an experience I never thought I’d see. Within moments of arriving at camp, we geared up into life jackets, split up into pangas with our designated naturalists, and headed off into the heart of the lagoon. 

No more than 30 minutes into our speedy, windy ride, you begin to see it – beautiful, massive explosions of air and water. Whale spouts as far as the eye can see, the sight of dozens (if not hundreds) of gray whales breathing in unison all around our tiny, insignificant motor boat.

This is usually where my whale watching experience ends. You see the whale from afar, you “ooh” and you “aah,” and then the encounter ends. 

But not here. 

We gently, lazily ventured from place to place throughout the lagoon, looking to see what the whales were up to. There was never any chasing, never any nagging (chasing is actually strictly not allowed). Instead, we’d float near the whales we spotted, engines off, watching to see if they were in a curious mood. 

The next thing I knew, a long, dark figure moved closer – a baby. She travels in pairs with her mom, and for whatever reason, the baby almost always comes first. As if the mom is “training” her to trust the pangas in this lagoon from an early age. 

She came close, and already I was dying inside at the beauty of it all. 

Our naturalist, Peto, then did something I found hilariously charming. He got down on his knees and he splashed, playfully, seeing if the baby was up for a rub. 

Before my eyes, I watched in shock as the baby not only came closer, but positioned herself right alongside the boat. I instinctively dropped to my knees and reached out to touch the baby’s soft, unblemished skin. Like a giant, smooth balloon. 

Mom came next, poking her head and fin up on the other side of our boat. Barnacles covered her skin due to decades at sea, but she was just as striking.  

As if the situation wasn’t mind-blowing enough, mom popped her head out high enough to show us her beautiful bayleen (the toothbrush-like bristles whales use to filter water and feed on krill and other small species). 

My head was spinning at this point. It was all too much, all too insane to believe. The other panga in our group came over to watch in awe at our discovery, and within moments, the whales lost interest in us and went over to say hi to them. Fleeing as quickly as they came. 

And that was only the morning of day one. We had six more expeditions in our four-day trip to go. 

Having now experienced gray whales in Mexico up close, looked them in their eyes, and witnessed how they tenderly float next to our small boats, I’ve got to say – it’s an indescribable sensation that I will never be able to match in my entire life. The trust these whales have for these tiny pangas is almost like a peace offering between humans and whales after centuries of misunderstanding. 

Where Do You Stay? Glamping in Baja’s Remote, Central Coastline 

San Ignacio is in the middle of nowhere, and outside of a tiny local fishing community, there is no “town” or central hub. You won’t find restaurants or shops, or vendors selling things on the beach. 

But that doesn’t mean you’ll have to rough it, just for the chance of seeing a gray whale! 

What really caught my eye about Nautilus Dive Adventures beyond the whale watching was the glamping accommodations. They just introduced glamping to Camp Tio Timo (base camp in San Ignacio) for the 2021 season, and I was lucky enough to be one of the first to experience it. 

Camp Tio Timo’s new, standard safari-style glamping tents are equipped with their own beds (choice of one king or two twins), a full bathroom, and even a shower with warm water. Funnily enough, what really did it for me was the fact that each tent is equipped with a chandelier. A chandelier! In the middle of nowhere! 

If you want to really live it up, you can even stay in a Superior Suite Glamping tent complete with a living room and outdoor firepit. 

All of the tents are situated right near the lagoon, with views of the water, breathtaking sunsets, and endless dark, starry skies at night. 

My one recommendation, if you’ve never camped or glamped before, is to bring earplugs. The canvas of the tents can be a bit loud on especially windy nights. I always pack earplugs, and I slept like a log all three nights.  

RELATED: Where to Stay in Valle de Guadalupe – The UvaUva Eco Retreat

What Do You Eat? 

In addition to the sleeping accommodations, Camp Tio Timo is equipped with two gathering tents – one for dining and debriefing each day’s events, and one for fun (what I dubbed The Party Tent). Each is equipped with WiFi, lots of seating, and tons of outlets for charging your camera gear, phones, and other devices (outlets can be found in the tents as well).

Included in your tour cost, you’ll have all meals (three per day, plus snacks, fruits, and desserts) and non-alcoholic beverages covered. This isn’t your basic camping food, either. Each day, Laurentina and the kitchen staff would create mouth-watering, restaurant-quality meals that got everyone fired up. From Mexican-inspired meals of carne asada and freshly made salsa, to tender lagoon-caught shrimp bundled with turkey bacon and asparagus, to blueberry muffins and cheesy omelets, I honestly felt like I was being spoiled. You could’ve given me a PB&J sandwich and I would’ve been happy to be there. But no – the meals were always an event in themselves! 

At night, when the camp hosts aren’t leading naturalist chats about the lagoon, gray whales, and conservation, you have the option of heading to The Party Tent, where you’ll find a pretty full bar, leather lounge chairs, books and games, and even a pool table. On our last night here, we danced and sang and drank tequila and just basked in the overall experience. 

Speaking of the experience… 

What is the 4-Day Itinerary Like? 

As I mentioned earlier, the four-day tour Nautilus Dive Adventures offers provides transportation to and from Cabo San Lucas (which is a very easy city in Baja to fly to, with direct flights depending on where you are!). You check in at their office in Cabo the day before your departure, and have the option of going on an included humpback whale sunset boat tour, which my boyfriend did and loved. He even saw one breach! 

The next day, you’re picked up from your hotel in Cabo and taken to the airport, where a private charter plane is waiting to take you on the 2-3-hour flight to San Ignacio. Upon arrival, you’re greeted with mimosas and briefed for the four days ahead! 

The Four-Day Itinerary Includes: 

  • Up to seven whale watching expeditions (dependent on weather, and also dependent on you. You always have the option of staying back and hanging out at camp if seven is too much for you)
  • Breakfasts, lunches, and dinners
  • Naturalist talks 
  • Sunset watching at camp
  • And lots of time to get to know your fellow travelers on the tour with you! I LOVED our group (never traveled in a group before? Read this helpful guide)

Each day, you’ll have breakfast, go whale watching, and come back for lunchtime. In the afternoon, you’ll go out for another whale watching encounter, and be back in time for a sunset cerveza before dinner. 

On the last day, after one more whale encounter, you’ll board the charter flight back to Cabo, where you can either stay in Baja and possibly even try out one of Nautilus Dive Adventures’ other tours, explore more of Mexico, or head home! 

If you prefer to get yourself to San Ignacio by car or by flying into Loreto, you can also do that. Just reach out in advance for custom pricing. 

How Much Does This Trip Cost?

This four-day tour starts at $1197.50 per person (for a double-occupancy tent), and goes up depending on the level of accommodation you book. A small $35 park fee is also required to visit the area, which you can pay in cash when you arrive at camp. 

This does not include flights to Cabo, which can range from $100 – $500+ round-trip from the US depending on when and where you are flying from. 

It’s certainly a bit more expensive than some other four-day trips you could take, but when you consider how rare and special these whale encounters are (plus all the luxe amenities that are really above and beyond by any standard, considering the remoteness of the area), I’d say you get your money’s worth and then some.

See all accommodation and pricing options here.

What Are the Ethics of Grey Whale Watching in Baja California? 

Years of travel have taught me that interacting with animals is taboo. In fact, my very first question when learning about Nautilus was about the ethics of gray whale watching in Baja California. For reference, when traveling in Hawaii, you’re not even allowed to go near the humpbacks that migrate past the islands each year.

Unlike other wildlife encounters, the San Ignacio experience is definitely not the norm. Marine lovers and divers will tell you it’s off limits to ever intentionally touch wildlife underwater, as it would threaten their natural behavior. But the gray whale behavior here is unique, and not only do they exhibit curiosity about humans, but they seem to actively seek your attention. In fact, if you don’t give them a playful splash or admiring pet, they’re likely to get bored. 

Thanks to government and conservation eyes on Baja’s important role in gray whale migration, there are several measures in place to protect the ecosystems these gentle giants visit. Countless rules and regulations govern local tour operations here, like ensuring there are no more than 16 pangas in the lagoon at a time, never chasing whales, and cutting the engine when a whale is spotted nearby. As this lagoon was threatened just a couple of decades ago with destruction in favor of a salt plant, it’s the whale encounters, the eco tours, and the conservation efforts here that are keeping San Ignacio preserved. 

Conservationists have been watching these whales’ behaviors for decades to see whether there is a change in their attitude once they leave the lagoons and begin migrating north (as approaching larger boats out in the open ocean could be incredibly dangerous for them). But for whatever reason, the friendly, playful behavior found in these lagoons disappears once they’re out at sea. 

As if they know exactly when to be off duty 🙂 

(sorry, couldn’t resist) 

Is This Experience for Me?

If you love nature, animals, and adventure, or are simply seeking a unique, unmatchable trip that can’t be found anywhere else, this experience is for you.

For the adventure seekers and wildlife lovers, the opportunity to see these beautiful creatures up close really sells itself. 

For those looking to see whales up close without being uncomfortable, the chartered flight, glamping tents, and on-site, chef-made meals add an extra layer of luxury.

This tour personally blew me away. If you’re considering it too, I hope this review helped give you a good taste of what you can expect!

Do you have any questions about gray whale watching in Baja California? I’d be happy to answer them! Give me a shout below if you’re considering a trip like this!

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Hey there! I’m Rachel, a travel writer and a full-time advertising / marketing expert. In 2019, I traveled more than 25 times while working 9 to 5, and since then I’ve committed myself to living a more adventurous life, even if it means bringing my laptop along for the ride.

Are you hungry to travel more, but overwhelmed with how to juggle work and play? You’ve come to the right place!

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10 Responses

  1. I’ve been whale watching a couple of times & loved it but never imagined you could touch a whale! What an amazing experience! Thanks for sharing

    1. Neither did I until learning about the gray whale migrations in Baja. The peninsula has these unique “lagoon-like” waters that the whales can swim into and relax in the winter. They’re shallower, warmer, and less rough. They think it’s because of this that the whales are more relaxed and more curious. It BLEW my mind as I also had only admired whales from far away!

  2. This must be such an amazing experience to see them so up close. Every time I try to go whale watching I never see any – I have horrible luck! That glamping site looks amazing as well!

  3. Wow! What an incredible experience. I can’t believe that you got to be so close to gray whales. It sounds absolutely magical. I’m putting this on my bucket list for sure…

    1. I hope you do! It really was fantastical and it’s hard to put into words how amazing it was to witness them in this way.

  4. Great article guys, very informative and captures the spirit of the experience. Thanks for this 🙂

  5. This sounds like such a cool experience, I would love to do it one day. That’s awesome that you were actually able to touch a whale! The accommodations and food sound great too and I like that you don’t have to camp…the traditional way at least!

    1. Haha yes it does make it easier to consider a trip like this if you’re not a camper in the traditional sense, but open to adventure! I was blown away by the accommodations and the meals, it was truly the cherry on top.

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