Whale Watching and Photography in Baja California, Mexico

Discussion in 'Nature' started by ShunCheung, Mar 9, 2020.

  1. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    Every year from January through March, a lot of gray whales migrate south to several huge lagoons in Baja California along the Pacific coast to give birth. The baby whales weight about 500 pounds at birth and grow rapidly. Whale watching is from small boats in designated areas inside those lagoons, and frequently the whales would approach the boats so that passengers can even tough them.

    My wife and I were on a whale-watching trip in the second half of February, 2020. We visited two lagoons: San Ignacio and Guerrero Negro. There is a third area, Magdalena Bay, that is further south along the Baja peninsula.

    The first image below was captured by Canadian nature photographer Wayne Lynch, who gave me permission to use it. I am on the far right of the image. That is how close one can get to the whales.



    I had a DSLR with a 80-400 zoom and a Nikon Z6 mirrorless body with their 24-70mm/f4 S kit lens. Since we were quite close, the long lens wasn't as useful. I quickly realized that video is by far the better medium to capture the whale's action. Therefore, for the trip I concentrated on video, rather than still images, for whales. Nikon is introducing a 24-200mm super zoom, which would have been ideal for this kind of trip. Here are some video footage I posted to FaceBook, all with the Z6 and 24-70/4 S:
    You may noticed in the second video that it was quite windy in that particular day and the water was rough. Unfortunately, one of our boats capsized on its return trip to the dock and everybody went into the water. At least they/we all had live vest on, but it was an agonizing 15 to 20 minutes or so before rescue boats arrived. One photographer had three Canon DSLRs that all got wet (and presumably not repairable), and they also lost their passports.


    For US citizens who lose their passports in Baja California, the best approach was to visit the US consulate in Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego. They would require a police report and, in this case, a harbor master report on this accident. Fortunately they also had copies of the passports. I found out that they managed to get replacement passports within a few hours, crossed the border to San Diego and took their flight home.

    When one is in these small boats, it is also important to carry the minimum amount of gear and put your camera bag inside a dry bag or use a waterproof Pelican case when the boat is traveling at high speed. For whatever it is worth, our local tour guide said that he has been doing these trips for 25 years and this was the first boat accident he countered.
  2. Interesting. I was down there in January (still haven't done much with pictures, behind on stuff). We were on a ship, so either left our passports on the ship or they kept them (I don't remember which on this trip, but it's usually the latter). Even though the boats are pretty dry I'd never have thought to take more than one camera and a dry bag, because even if the boat doesn't tip over, things can get pretty wet. The people we went out with seemed very competent and careful. A couple of whales got close enough for those in other boats to touch, but mostly they were a discreet distance away, so I was more in the position of the Canadian photographer in your first picture than of you there. At one point, though, a whale came right under our boat. It whacked the boat with a fluke on the way out. Too deep for petting, but still pretty impressive.

    whale under boat.jpg
  3. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    At the two lagoons, the whales are definitely close enough to touch. See my image below as well as this one by Meryl Cohen, who went to the San Ignacio Lagoon about two weeks after me, i.e. in early March 2020, right before COVID-19 shut down everything.

    Meryl Cohen's image: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10104907315671915&set=pcb.10104907317862525&type=1&theater


    On those boats I used two cameras, a DSLR with a 80-400 zoom for stills and a Nikon Z6 mirrorless for video. I have used that combo whale watching in Antarctica a year ago (February/March 2019) and again in Baja California in February 2020. Last year I captured more still images with some video. This year I have evolved to mostly video capture.

    For passports, if you have a hotel room, it is best to lock it inside a safe or inside a travel bag. If I have to carry it with me, I use one of those pouches that hangs around my neck so that it is on me all the time. In the future I would put them inside a small plastic bag in case they get wet.
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2020
  4. Whenever I do have to carry a passport it's always in a zippered pccket.

    The whales did get pretty close at times but as luck would have it they either came to neighboring boats or to the wrong side of ours. It was also a bit earlier in the season, and not, I'm told, the very best whale watching time. Not that I didn't love Baja California anyway. It's a great place to go when New England winters are pressing down.
  5. Beautiful pictures. I went whale watching with my girlfriend off the coast of Chocó, Colombia. Only saw one breech briefly. Hope to go back during another migration.
  6. A good place to watch whales in Aug-Sept is Punta Ballina (translates as Whale Point, go figure) here in Uruguay. They even came up the Rio Plata as far as Punta Colorada. I took this from our house with a 70-300mm out full. One breached just before I took this shot. They were about 750m from me. I needed a different lens but I chose watching with binoculars over running to the office to get the other lens and swapping it out :).
    DavidTriplett likes this.

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