It’s flanked on the west by the mighty Pacific and on the east by the nutrient-rich waters of the Sea of Cortez, so it’s no surprise that the Mexican state of Baja California Sur (BCS) is one of the best destinations in the world for whale watching. The Sea of Cortez was coined “the world’s aquarium” by Jacques Cousteau, and like an aquarium it is. The sea is home to everything from populations of sport fish to pods of orcas, and the region is right to show its inhabitants off.
The whales you’re most likely to spot in the waters off of BCS are the same ones you’ll find whale watching tours advertised for. But to-be whale watchers should understand that there’s no one-size-fits-all location for spotting them all. Tourists in search of gray whales, humpbacks, blue whales, and whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea, will all be satisfied within the confines of the state’s borders, but should expect to take off from different locations in search of each different species. Other species like orcas, sperm whales, finback whales, pilot whales and minke whales are also around in the region, but less likely to spot—there are no dedicated tours around watching them.
Any whale watching experience in the region pairs well with a trip to the Museo de la Ballena (the Whale Museum) in the city of La Paz, where 31 whale and dolphin skeletons hang from the ceilings and passionate guides provide insight into each species’ history in the region.
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Gray whales are one of the most commonly spotted whales on whale watching trips in BCS. Trips to see gray whales occur between the months of December and April, during which time the whales arrive from as far north as the Bering Sea to give birth, raise their young and hide from orcas in the sheltered and shallow waters of the Bay of Magdalena. In this narrow bay, mothers and calves and be easily spotted just minutes off shore, and are even known to welcome interaction from human visitors. Gray whales use baleen to feed on plankton and krill living at the floor of the bay, and can range from 12 to 16 meters in length.
Two-hour whale watching trips in the Bay of Magdalena take off from towns of Puerto San Carlos and Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos, which are around five hours by car from Cabo San Lucas and three hours by car from the state’s capital, La Paz. The trips take place on small boats—known as pangas—helmed by local fishermen, and can be arranged by tour providers in La Paz, or upon arrival at the dock. Tour packages from La Paz typically transportation to and from Lopez Mateos, breakfast and lunch, and two hours of whale watching—Choya Tours offers the day trip for 2200 MXN (around USD $115) per adult, or 1100 MXN for children ages 1-9.
Populations of adult gray whales can also be spotted off of of Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Peninsula, but are less common in that area than humpback whales. Multi-day trips to the Bay of Magdalena are available from the Los Cabos region.
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Humpback whales also pass through the waters of BCS between December and April, and can be spotted breaching on the horizon in both the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. But for humpback watching tours, it’s best to take to the sea from the Los Cabos region at the tip of the Baja California peninsula, where the waters of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific meet.
Most humpback whale watching tours in Los Cabos run for 2-3 hours and range in price between USD $70-90 per adult. Visitors can choose from an array of boat options, from small boats like inflatable zodiacs to larger catamarans and pirate ship dinner cruises. Some cruises include round-trip transportation from hotels in Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, while others require passengers get to the marina in Cabo San Lucas independently. Humpback whale sightings are highly likely on trips during January and February.
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The largest animal on the planet is also one of the most elusive. But during the months of February and March, blue whales can be spotted in the waters off of Loreto, six hours north of Cabo San Lucas by car on the Sea of Cortez. The whales make their way to the islands off of Loreto from deep in the Pacific during this time each year in order to give birth, raise their young, mate, and feed on the tiny organisms that sustain them—plentiful in the rich Sea of Cortez.
Tours in the Bay of Loreto National Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, typically last around eight hours and take place on pangas (small boats) of 6-10 people. Prices can vary based on group size, but adults can expect to pay between USD $100 and $200 for the full day.
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They’re not whales, they’re actually sharks. But there’s no reason to fear the biggest fish in the sea. Whale sharks are docile creatures—filter feeders sucking up tiny organisms like plankton and krill to amass a body weight of up to 30 tons. The nutrient-rich Sea of Cortez is a natural destination for the whale shark—populations of the fish congregate between October and April to feed in the shallow waters right off the city of La Paz, just off shore from a spit of barrier land called El Mogote.
Local tour operators can bring visitors to protected areas in the Bay of La Paz to jump in with the massive fish. Boats entering these areas are strictly regulated. Operators must request permission to enter, and then adhere to speed and time limits while within the borders. Most operators guide swimmers in the water in small groups, and provide specific instructions regarding how to approach the animals, how close you’re allowed to get, and how to know when to let them swim away.
Whale shark excursions from La Paz, like the one available from Cortez Club, run from around $75 to $100 per person. It’s common to combine a whale shark experience with a trip out to the tip of nearby Espiritu Santo island, where you can also snorkel with a colony of sea lions—combination packages run from $130 to $200 per adult, and often include lunch on a white sand beach. Full-day whale shark excursions from Los Cabos to La Paz run closer to $200 per adult.