The Largest Animal on the Planet

Balaenoptera musculus, the largest animal known to have ever existed

Loreto is one of the places where the Eastern Pacific blue whales migrate to in winter. We originally planned a blue whale boat tour during our stop in Loreto on our way south and were really looking forward to the opportunity to see the largest animal on the planet.

But when we arrived we found out that “the whales were late” and the rangers who monitor the area had only spotted one blue whale. I nixed the tour knowing that finding one whale would be extremely difficult. Our second attempt on our way North also had to be nixed due to our detour to Cabo San Lucas to service the RV.

After that 640 mile detour and losing a couple of days to technical difficulties, we were pooped. So with the RV in (hopefully) back in good working condition, we took a day off to rest in La Paz before heading north again.

My not so hidden agenda was to time our return to Loreto for a calm warm day and reserve another blue whale tour. Way larger than the gray whales we spent so much time with this trip, these are pelagic creatures that inhabit all of the oceans and are also much tougher to find.

We reserved a campsite in the La Paz city center at Aquamarina RV park. Check out our review of the RV park here. Then we began our drive North once again headed to Loreto on the day before my target calm weather day.

Happily, when we arrived in Loreto we found out that the rangers had identified nine blue whales in the area. Blue whales are an endangered species, we humans hunted them to near extinction. So the area where they mate and feed is part of the Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto, where they are protected.The morning we set out to board the panga for our tour was clear and crisp, a bit chilly for me but I knew it would warm up.  And it seemed that Mercury in retrograde affected the tour company as well.

The captain of the boat we were due to go out in found that the engine wasn’t running properly. The company finally located another panga and had him switch us over. Finally we were off!

There were only two others on the boat with us, a guy from Tunisia who was living in Mexico City and a gal from Italy. So we had lots of room to move around on the boat.

The sea was calm and the views of Loreto and the neighboring islands were lovely. The pelicans were still doing their “pelican Air Force” thing.

The location where the blue whales congregate this time of year is in the Sea of Cortez South of Loreto past the end of Isla Carmen and North of Isla Montserrat. It took us the better part of an hour to get to this area of open water between the two islands.

Captain Tequila (I am not making this up), educated us about the differences between whale spouts of the whales found in this area. Humpbacks have shorter, wider spouts, fiin whales more fountain like spouts. Blue whales have the tallest of all spouts. We saw what looked like humpback spouts in the distance but decided to continue on our search for blue whales.We searched for the blue whales in a very large open water area. No spouts, no whales. Two hours passed. We saw a couple of other boats in the distance, but none was stopped so it seemed they hadn’t spotted any blue whales either.

Hector and I know how difficult it can be to find wildlife. During our last attempt to see blue whales in Quebec we spotted lots of different kinds of whales but only one blue whale and it was pretty far away.

One of our companions was getting impatient and complaining a bit. Clearly not a fellow with any experience observing wildlife. Hector put his hand on his shoulder and whispered to be patient.  And I said to both of them, you need to be Zen.

Minutes later we saw our first blue whale!  It was a bit far out so we headed in that direction.

When a whale swims along the surface, the up and down motion of their flukes creates turbulence that leaves circular swirls of calm looking water in its wake. These flat patches of water are a good way to tell the exact location of a whale’s last surface movement.

But before we even had time to look around, a blue whale surfaced directly in front of our boat! The whale’s massive back rolled over the surface of the water and then the whale fluked. Fluking happens when whales dive to deeper waters after having surfaced, pushing their tails completely out of the water as they do so.

 

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The tail pushes water up and releases it as the whale continues its diving motion. The water flowing off this whale’s tail was like a beautiful curtain of glass beads. Magnificient!


We were all in awe of this creature. They are not only the largest animal on the planet, but the largest animal to have ever lived. These whales can reach a length of 82 to 105 feet and weigh up to 200 tons.

Their tongues can weigh as much as an elephant and their hearts can weigh as much as an automobile. They are also the loudest animal of all. It is believed that their low-frequency sounds can travel hundreds of miles in deep water and are thought to image underwater features as they navigate long distances.

We saw the whale again, this time getting a closer up look at its two blowholes and its enormous back. And it fluked again! This time the tail had more of a waterfall effect. The whales’ massive size makes their movements seem like slow-motion.

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We saw the blow from another whale and the captain got us closer. This was a different angle that allowed us to appreciate the length of the whale.

Next we watched as a boat approached us. A portion of the fees to the tour companies is for access to the national park. The rangers come around to check that everyone is wearing the bracelet that proves they paid the entry fee. This particular boat had the director on board and we took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

He told us there were six males and three females in the area at this time. He also showed us a map of th protected area and said that they have a staff of seven plus a few volunteers monitoring the entire area – small but mighty.

And he suggested to the captain that he should turn off his motor so we could better appreciate the sound of the blows. Often you hear the deep and powerful whoosh of their blow before you see them and you really get a sense of the giant volume of their breath.

We continued our search and found several whales, we think in all we saw about four different whales, a couple of them more than once.

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We traveled quite a distance around the Sea of Cortez because once the whales submerge it can be a long time before you see them again. They also may travel a long way from the original area where they are spotted.

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We got closer looks at the face s and mouths of a couple of whales. At one point we were motoring along with a whale swimming along the surface on either side of us! They can really create massive bow wakes as they stick their heads out of the water.

It was so special to have these different viewpoints of different whales. The tops of their faces, their blowholes, their immense thick backs, their tiny dorsal fins and their magnificent tails. The last one we saw was a little lighter and was referred to as the light blue one by the boat captains. We never imagined we would have so many sightings.

Then it was time to head back. I had mentioned to the captain that I was interested in seeing blue-footed boobies and on the way back he cruised to a small island where they sometimes congregate.

There were a lot of boobies on the island and most of them were brown footed boobies, but we found some blue footed ones. Yay!

A great ending to a memorable day. It took three attempts but we finally saw the spectacular blue whales.

Oh and we were greeted by one of the harbor mascots as we returned to the dock …

 

 

 

 

 

The Mischievous Whale

When we first visited Puerto Chale, we asked if it might be okay to park our RV and car in their dirt parking lot the night before our whale tour. They said yes, but the first time we went back we only drove our conspicuous car with the kayaks and bikes on top. This time we showed up on a quiet Sunday in our entire rig. That was the day before we “met” the mischievous whale.

We arrived in the late afternoon and Hector went to talk to the guys at the dock. Fortunately, he found Omar, whom we’d met previously and confirmed where we could park and not be in the way as the shoreline is busy with fishing boats. They also confirmed a tour for Monday morning.


Puerto Chale is a modest little fishing village. Although the road into town is in perfect shape, the town itself has all dirt roads. This is the first year that it is an “official” whale watching destination. In prior years this was a secret spot that folks in the know could get a ride out to see the whales with one of the fishermen.

There isn’t any real infrastructure. They’ve installed a pontoon dock for the people going on the whale tours. There are a couple of little open-air sheds and the patio of someone’s home nearby that serve food from limited menus. And a pit toilet that is just slightly larger than a Porta Potty with a permanent plastic enclosure.

We were told that this coming summer the government was going to build additional infrastructure to support the whale watching season next year.  I suspect Puerto Chale is in for some big changes.

Immediately upon our arrival a young boy named Brandon came up to ask Hector about the kayaks on our car. He seemed fascinated by our setup and Hector chatted with him for a little while. He had remembered us from when we were there a few weeks before.

We had not had lunch yet so we walked over to a little shed that’s by the water to get a bite. We bought a couple of cups of scallop cocktail, the local scallops that are really little, they were nice and fresh. The ladies there were super friendly, we’d forgotten our money in the RV, and they told us to just pay them later.

It was really windy and they only had a bench and a few outdoor chairs so we brought our cocktails inside to eat them. We had parked Island Time sideways to the shore with a nice view of the inlet.

We took a walk along the shoreline and I went back to the rig while Hector continued walking around and taking photos. Now Brandon was with two other boys.  I saw them following him around and making conversation. It was super cute. He told me he had asked the kids about school, and the older one, about high school age said he wasn’t in school because he had begun fishing.

A little while later I looked up and saw Brandon smiling at me from the front of the coach. I waved and he waved back. I went back to my writing, looked up and he was still looking at me and smiling. I told Hector “I think they want to see the inside of the coach”.

But I wanted to be cautious because some parents might not like their kids walking into a stranger’s RV. So I opened the door and told them they could peek inside but left the door open. Brandon, the most precocious of the kids, told us he thought the motorhome was really “clean”. This is a slang term that was new to us, lol. We found out that the other kids were Armando and Jose, the oldest one. They stayed on our steps a while and we chatted some more. Three very nice boys.

After they left, I watched Brandon riding his bicycle while the others walked alongside him. There is no cell signal here, and it doesn’t seem like they do much social media. The scene reminded me of simpler times.

That evening Hector was getting ready to make steaks on the barbecue. But I’d seen several stray and loose dogs walking around and I told him barbecuing might bring a whole group of them. So he opted to cook inside and we watched a beautiful sunset from the RV.

In the morning, we set out with Omar. It was Monday morning and we were the only ones in the only boat. Right as we pulled out we cruised by a huge group of marbled godwits on shore. It was a beautiful sight with the soft early morning light.

As we continued, we saw many blows all around. There were lots of whales! But Omar suggested we cruise to another area to see some birds first. The tide was due to change in a short while and he said that the whales would be more active at that time.

We learned some other facts from Omar. The lagoon we were in was actually Bahia Almejas (Clam Lagoon) which is on the Southern end of and adjacent to Bahia Magdalena. The fishermen we’d seen were going clamming.

They also dive for scallops. He took us closer to Isla Catarina across from Puerto Chale to a spot where lots of pelicans, cormorants and other birds gather. It turns out he has been out on this water for 20+ years, fishing and leading whale watching tours. A very, very knowledgeable captain.

As we continued cruising around the lagoon, we spotted lots of whales. This time around they were not approaching the boat. But they were very active skyhopping all around us.

We spotted some babies, and one baby was skyhopping alongside its mother. Super cute.

Even though they weren’t coming near our boat, we were quite entertained watching all the whale activity. It wasn’t the prettiest day, but it was so peaceful to be surrounded by whales and have the place all to ourselves.

One whale breached right next to our boat, the closest we’ve seen a whale breach in all of our whale watching tours.

Finally, one whale started to approach us. Swimming near us for a while but not coming up to us.  Finally, she swam towards the boat. I was hoping that she would raise her head by the boat but she didn’t.

Instead, she turned around and quickly swished her tail back and forth then slapped her tail in the water right next to the boat, drenching us both as well as Hector’s cameras.

Fortunately, our GoPro was in the water and captured the moment. At this point we only have a still of when the tail went back in the water with the wave it caused just above but may be able to upload a video later.


Omar then told us that this particular whale is “traviesa” (mischievous) and has done things like pushing the boat sideways before. Wow! The mischievous whale is apparently well known. It was super interesting to find that the whales have different personalities.

Every wildlife encounter is different and that’s part of what we love.

 

 

The Biggest Fish in the World

This was one of the many boat tours we were looking forward to. We love the water and marine life! And whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world, so we could not possibly pass up a chance to snorkel with them.

Juvenile whale sharks come to the La Paz bay to feed between the months of October and April. They are filter feeders and feed on plankton and very small fish.

La Paz Bay has designated an area that is protected by Conanp, Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (National Commission for Protected Natural Areas).

When we booked the reservation the tour company informed us that the tour might start at nine, eleven or later depending upon the allocation of boats. Only a certain number of boats are allowed entrance to the protected area at one time and for only an allotted period of time.

The tour companies are notified of which time slot they have been allocated in the morning. The boats have GPS devices that track their speed as well as their course. If they go beyond the speed limit, enter an area they are not supposed to enter, or stay beyond their allotted time they are fined.

We met at the tour companies’ office and found out that we had the 9a.m. slot. Excellent! Angel, our tour guide, gave us an orientation. The whale sharks in this area average about six meters (about 20 feet) in length. Adults, who are out in the open ocean can grow to 18 meters (59 feet)! Yikes.

There is a whale shark painting on the ground where he demonstrated how far we should stay from the fish – one meter (3+feet) from the front and three meters (about 10 feet) from the tail.

Of course, the fish don’t know this.

Angel mentioned during the briefing that some of the whale sharks are swimming slowly while feeding and others are swimming quite fast. We thought nothing of it at the time.

We walked the block or so to the dock and boarded our boat. After just a little while we spotted a whale shark, but when the captain and guide checked our location, we were not quite in the area where snorkeling was allowed so we continued cruising.

Once we entered the designated area, we all watched for a whale shark. Many times their fins are visible over the water like any other shark. Once the guide spotted one and determined its direction, the captain picked a course to intercept the fish from a distance.

What was surprising was that the guide then told everyone to sit on the edge of the boat and be prepared to jump in when he said “go”. Once we were in the water he yelled “face in the water” right when the fish was near. Ideally, we would then turn in the correct direction to swim alongside the fish. Not exactly the idyllic vision of lazily snorkeling with them!

I completely missed the first fish. He was a really fast one. I watched as the other two people in our boat, Karen and Dave swam away and wasn’t quite sure where Hector was. It was all a bit disorienting. Karen, a competitive swimmer, agreed that the whale shark was really fast, she even had a hard time keeping up.

We did this several times. It was all so fast that Hector and I disagree on the number of times we jumped out. I may have sat one out.

One of the times when Hector jumped in he looked up and the fish was coming right at him. We’d also been told that they don’t see well right in front because their eyes are on their sides. Hector had a slight panic moment when he wasn’t sure which way to go. Somehow, he figured it out. But because he had the GoPro he got some great shots!

Including one of the way too close tail wizzing right by him. Luckily he didn’t get swatted in spite of being on the wrong side of the 3 meter suggestion!

While all of this was going on, the captain quickly moved the boat out of the way of the whale shark (and us) and waited for us at an appropriate location. Once the fish swam away we swam back to the boat. Then we all climbed in and took our position on the side awaiting our next chance.

I started to worry that I would not be able to keep up with any of the whale sharks. The captain recommended to the guide that he have us enter one couple at a time. We took turns.

One couple went in first, came back and the guide yelled at us “go!” once again. More jumping in and paddling like crazy to keep up. I finally saw one.

The last whale shark was moving just a bit slower and all four of us were able to swim with him for a little while. I was holding up the rear pretty close to the tail but it was great fun. They are beautiful fish!

The guide later told us that he thought the last whale shark was about 7-8 meters long (about 24 feet)! Wow!

We were all ecstatic! What a rush!

 

 

 

Isla Espíritu Santo

The tour from La Paz to Isla Espíritu Santo is one of the boat tours that we’d read about and signed up for. It’s about six hours long and takes you across to the beautiful island that is rich with marine life.

It took a long time to cruise over to the island and the anticipation was high. After a long boat ride, we finally reached the largest sea lion colony in the Sea of Cortez, Los Islotes, an island inlet at the north end of the island.

When we reached the colony, one of the the park rangers was leading a rescue of a sea lion that had been caught in a net. They didn’t allow us to stick around so we continued.

There was an area on the island closed to snorkeling they called the “kindergarden” where there were lots of sea lion cubs laying around on rocks including juveniles, adults and huge males.

Super cute.

I had snorkeled with sea lions before, and they can be quite curious and cute, in some cases swimming right up to people, so I was excited.

We bought new wetsuits and snorkel gear last year just for the Sea of Cortez but I was still worried about jumping into the cold (68 degree) water. But my new 3mm wetsuit did its job and I was comfortable.

We snorkeled for about half an hour and during that time only a few sea lions decided they wanted to be in the water with the humans. It wasn’t quite the sea lion experience that I had hoped but a few swam near us in the water and one swam between Hector’s legs.

There were lots of tropical fish in the water, a beautiful reminder of our scuba diving days. We look forward to returning to some diving sometime soon.

Next we cruised to the center of the island to a campground that’s run by our tour’s organization. On the way we saw lots of impressive rock formations. As we passed through an opening in one, the guide pointed out a part of the rock that was shaped just like the Baja Peninsula. Very cool!

Then we watched a pod of dolphins as they frolicked in the water.

The campground was on a pretty beach with some tents and a compost toilet. This time of year is too cold at night for me to tent camp, but it looked like a sweet place to spend a few days.

We spent a couple of hours on the beach. The guides served a nice lunch of ceviche, bean burritos, guacamole and tostadas and we took it easy for a bit.

They had kayaks and SUPs available so we took two kayaks out. Unfortunately, they were old kayaks with seats whose back was really loose. They were uncomfortable so we didn’t take them out as far as we had hoped to which was a disappointment. But we did get to a couple of rock outcrops nearby where there were lots of birds, including Hector’s favorites, the pelicans.

Back on the beach, we walked around for a bit along with some others. The water was crystal clear and some ladies spotted a huge sea star that we ran over to look at. So beautiful!

The island was covered in beautiful desert vegetation. It looked like a great place to hike.

After our time on the beach, we headed back out towards the other end of the island where there is a frigate bird colony. We’d never seen frigate birds on the ground, apparently they can’t walk, they can only perch and fly.

They also can’t land of the water, so they have to pluck their fish out of the water. Some of the males were in full display and there were lots of juveniles with their white heads.  This area also had the ruins of a pearl farm that’s part of the history of La Paz. Very cool.

I told the guide that I was interested in seeing blue footed boobies and he said they were not normally on the tour. But he asked the captain to go by a smaller island where they sometimes perch, alas there were none there.

On the last leg of our trip the captain spotted some whale sharks. They were moving really slowly through the water while feeding so we got a really good look at their dorsal fin and their tails on top of the water. The captain got a bit closer and one of the whale sharks swam up to and right under our boat.

A beautiful sight! That made up for not seeing the blue footed boobies.

All in all a pretty good day on the water.

 

 

Back on the Sea of Cortez

Heading back to the Sea of Cortez, we are awestruck every time we get a glimpse of its beautiful turquoise waters during our drive.

The sea’s glittering waters hide behind mountains for a bit and then captivate us again and again.

We drove to the lovely Playa Santispac, one of the first coves you come to as you head south in Bahia Concepción. Check out our review of the campground here.

Our campsite was by one of the palapas right on the beach. Hammocks set up, kayaks sitting at the shore, a dream scene.

Our plan had been to stay a few nights and hopscotch to a couple of other beaches that also allow camping, but we scouted them and decided we liked this one best and wound up staying.

The empanada lady and her dutiful husband

Vendors came by selling homemade empanadas, tamales, shrimp cocktail, ceviche, fresh fish for cooking, fresh produce and more. They even bring water to fill tanks. What could be better!

Well, there were also two little beach shack restaurants, one with rural wifi that actually worked at times and the other with live music some nights.

But the best part is the beautiful bay. Although also susceptible to high winds in winter, we were fortunate once again to have calm winds and seas on multiple days.

A big difference between Bahia Concepción and Bahia de los Angeles is that there are multiple islands much closer to shore, only one or two miles away.

And there are others further out as well. Many more accessible places to explore and we did.

Playa Santispac also has an estuary behind the south side of the beach that can be accessed easily during high tide, or by portaging across a sandbar during low tide. One day we paddled over to the estuary.

There was tons of birdlife back there, including blue heron, yellow-crowned night heron, white ibis, reddish egrets as well as lots of duckies (we’re terrible at identifying ducks). The mangroves always make me think of the Everglades, a national park that I love.


On another day of paddling, we crossed over to a little island just across from our beach where there were lots and lots of osprey, pelicans and gulls.


While Hector was taking photographs, I turned the corner heading across to the opposite edge of our beach and heard water splashing next to me – a dolphin! Then another and another.

I tried to paddle to them but they were moving pretty fast. They were jumping out of the water, sometimes even showing their tails as they submerged. So I just stopped and watched for awhile. Dolphins make me happy. Not many photos as Hector was not close enough, but the memory will remain.

Every morning we were greeted with a different light show as the colors changed and the light returned.  The still water reflecting the light.

On other paddling days we visited some more nearby islands. The marine  and bird life were wonderful.

One day Hector spotted a huge sea lion, obviously a male, who raised his head out of the water briefly and swam away. But we were able to see his body arching down into the water and he was like a little whale.

Another nearby feature was a reef that when not submerged was teeming with pelicans, cormorants and other birds. We paddled softly pretty close to them but they didn’t seem bothered at all. Very cool.


Back on another island, we saw lots of little fish in the water and small sting rays.  I love seeing them with their undulating “wings”, they look like they’re flying instead of swimming. The waters around that island also had many pretty sea stars scattered about.

The day of our last paddle was glorious! It was Valentine’s Day and the sea was calm and soft. Hector drew a Valentine’s card in the sand.

So we paddled lazily further out and for a much longer time, taking in all of the beauty of the sea and the life within it. Usually the breeze kicks up mid day but not today.  The water was like glass until well after noon.

We wound up visiting all four islands that day, while Hector attempted to get to a fifth but it was further than it looked. Distances on the water can be really hard to judge. So he bailed out and met me by a pretty little beach on one of the islets.