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In Pursuit of Grey Whales at a Magdalena Bay Whale Watching Camp

It takes seeing just one picture of a Magdalena Bay whale watching excursion for it to hit your wildlife bucket list. But this isn’t Sea World and the whales don’t perform on cue.

Whale Watching Magdalena Bay, Baja Mexico. Grey whale with boat
Our first, and best sighting of the grey whales in the bay.

What are the Grey Whales Doing in Magdalena Bay?

After a fish taco lunch with a side dish of anti-nausea ginger pills, we headed out into Magdalena Bay for our first whale watching session. We were a group of seven whale enthusiasts and our collective excitement level was way beyond eleven. As we headed out into the bay, I was able to see for myself why the the whales have chosen this spot for their reproduction and birthing.

Over the course of the 20th century, the grey whale population rebounded back from a genetically dicey population of 2,000 to over 20,000 today. Magdalena Bay is one of only three breeding sites for the grey whales. They reproduce in the bay and the pregnant females return a year later to give birth.

The whales prefer Magdalena Bay because the sand dune barrier islands protect the bay from rough water and predators. There’s not a lot to eat in this warm bay but the mama whales appreciate the calm water to rest after birth while they prepare their calves for the 8,000 mile migration back to Alaska.

Whale Watching in Magdalena Bay and Why it’s So Cool

One of the reasons why whale watching in Magdalena Bay is so amazing is because the whales aren’t afraid of the tourist and fishing boats, rather they are curious about them. They will often swim up to and under the boats, sometimes stopping for some 1:1 time. It was seeing pictures and videos of this behavior that made me want to go, so when Tam of Travels with Tam organized the trip, I booked it.

I had already constructed an Instagram story in my mind that involved a whale swimming up to the side of our boat, baby in tow. She would lay on her side and look up at us with knowing eyes. I then would reach down to touch her, my salty tears dripping down onto her as she and I shared a moment of pan-species connection.

It didn’t happen that way.

Magdalena Bay whale watching in Mexico. Boat with grey whale
This mama whale swam right under out boat.

Our timing for the trip was toward the end of the December-March prime time whale watching season. During our stay, the bay was unusually windy, making the whales more elusive and harder to spot. We did see the whales, and they did make me cry. But our experience wasn’t quite the cinematic emo experience that I had envisioned.

Again…this isn’t Sea World and the whales don’t perform on cue. When you whale watch in Magdalena bay, you are entering their living room and they will decide when and how to engage.

All the more reason to plan a multi-day trip for the whale watch.

Grey whale in Magdalena Bay, Baja Mexico. Whale with boat
This female grey whale was actually a pretty good size, considering that she hadn’t eaten much for three months.

The Best Way to See the Whales in Magdalena Bay

As with any wildlife viewing experience, the more time you give yourself, the higher your rate of animal encounters. When I was in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, we frantically searched the terrain for leopards, finally spotting the back end of one hiding up a tree. We wouldn’t have even seen that, had we not spent an extra day on site.

The whales in Magdalena Bay are far easier to find, but it’s still an unpredictable endeavour. The more time you spend out on the bay, the greater your chances for multiple spottings and that potential cinematic experience. We chose to raise our odds by staying at the Red Travel Mexico camp right on the bay.

Red Travel is an eco-tour provider on the Baja peninsula with a low-key vibe and a strong social impact ethic. They provide day trips and multi-day package tours that include encounters with the grey whales, whale sharks and sea lions. However, they also have run a social impact organization. They’ve worked with the rural communities to develop a sustainable tourism framework that includes education programs, micro enterprises, habitat restoration and local policy.

After the first afternoon of whale watching on the bay, our boat captain, Luis motored us over to a remote sand dune on the inner bay which was to be our home for the next two nights. Red’s glamping base camp treads a very careful line between delivering a comfortable tourism experience and respecting the fragile ecosystem of the dunes.

What they pack in, they pack out. The food, the supplies, the toilets…everything. So, we got a rather extensive introductory tour of the site which provided instructions for how to use the composting toilets, the boundaries for the camp, how to operate the water pumps and how to prevent coyotes from stealing our shoes. It was rustic in the same way that African safaris are rustic– delicious food, comfortable beds and a happy hour all cheerfully coordinated by our guide, Sebastian.

Magdalena bay Mexico sand dunes
The spare beauty of the sand dune barrier islands.

We were a fairly diverse group of travelers, all in Magdalena Bay for the same purpose. Tam and I are baby boomer travel writers who like our wildlife with a strong dose of social impact and my husband Ken is up for unexpected adventures. Missy brought her teenage son Jack on the trip, in order to foster his ongoing interest in marine life. Local La Paz residents Paola and her partner Beatriz simply wanted to see more of their own back yard.

Despite our differences, we all choose the more immersive experience over a day trip, knowing that we would learn more about the whales and the natural environment that they reside in. While my experience with the whales was more at arms length that I had hoped, in the end, I got what I came for.

Magdalena Bay, Baja Mexico sand dunes. Woman in purple coat walking
One happy camper on the dunes.

Arranging a Trip to Magdalena Bay

The whale watch season is from January to mid-March. You can book several different tour configurations through Red Travel Mexico. While you are on the Baja Peninsula, check out these additional things to do in the area:

Grey Whale Magdalena Bay Mexico. Black and white, tail fluke
Photo courtesy of Red Travel.

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