How to Go Whale Watching in Baja California Sur, Mexico

Mexico, Baja California State, sea of Cortez, listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, Magdalen bay, gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) and tourists, whale watching

CORDIER Sylvain / Getty Images

It’s flanked on the west by the mighty Pacific Ocean 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 aptly coined “the world’s aquarium” by Jacques Cousteau. 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 popular resort town of Cabo San Lucas is the main hub for tourists, but there's no one-size-fits-all location for seeing all types of whales. Tourists are able to see gray whales, humpbacks, blue whales, and whale sharks, 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 be spotted. There are no dedicated tours for these creatures, but if you're lucky you'll spot one of them as well.

01 of 04

Gray Whales

Mexico, Baja California State, sea of Cortez, listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, Magdalen bay, gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) and tourists, whale watching

CORDIER Sylvain / Getty Images

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 can be easily spotted just minutes offshore, and are even known to welcome interaction from human visitors.

Two-hour whale watching trips in the Bay of Magdalena take off from the 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 include transportation to and from Lopez Mateos, breakfast and lunch, and two hours of whale watching.

Choya Tours offers day trips departing from La Paz. They sail in January, February, and March.

Populations of adult gray whales can also be spotted off of Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Peninsula, but are less common in that area than humpback whales. If you are based in Cabo San Lucas but want to see grey whales, Whale Watch Cabo offers a two-day excursion from Cabo to the Bay of Magdalena. They also value sustainable tourism and ocean clean up, so you can feel confident riding with them.

02 of 04

Humpback Whales

Adults on snorkel trip aboard Pez Gato, near Cabo San Lucas, Baja CA, Mexico.

Stuart Westmorland / Getty Images

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. Humpback whale sightings are highly likely on trips during January and February

Most humpback whale watching tours in Los Cabos run for 2-3 hours. Visitors can choose from an array of boat options, from small boats like inflatable zodiacs to larger catamarans and pirate ship dinner cruises. The smaller boats offer a more intimate experience with the whales, but are also more likely to rock around in choppy waters. Visitors who are prone to motion sickness may prefer to ride out on a larger vessel.

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. Take a stroll up and down the piers during whale season and you'll come across plenty of groups advertising whale tours. Keep an eye out for companies that offer a whale sighting guarantee, like Whale Watching Cabo, and will take you back out if no whales are seen on your trip.

03 of 04

Blue Whales

Mexico, Baja California Sur state, Sea of Cortez, listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), and tourists
CORDIER Sylvain / Getty Images

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 4-10 people. Loreto Blue Whales offers small boats that are personally reserved for your group of up to four people.

It's a long trip if you're based in Cabo San Lucas, but to see these majestic creatures—along with a high probability of dolphins, sea lions, and local birds—is well worth the drive. You can also fly direct from Cabo San Lucas or Los Angeles into Loreto International Airport.

04 of 04

Whale Sharks

Whale shark

Andrea Izzotti / Getty Images 

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 bodyweight of up to 30 tons. The nutrient-rich Sea of Cortez is a natural destination for the whale shark, and populations of the fish congregate between October and April to feed in the shallow waters right off the city of La Paz, just offshore 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.

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. The Cortez Club is one popular company that offers whale shark or combination excursions from La Paz. Cabo Adventures offers a full-day excursion from Cabo San Lucas to swim with the whale sharks, including roundtrip transportation to La Paz.