"Go" Time: Dolphins at Play
Waiting for whales at Laguna San Ignacio
We arrived in the dark, by a bumpy dirt road that nearly destroyed the car, to Antonio’s Ecotours—a rustic, family-run whale-watching outpost on Laguna San Ignacio. One of three main areas in Baja where gray whales migrate from Alaska every winter, the protected lagoon, located within the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, appealed to us for a possible close interaction with the friendly giants. Aside from the countless bright stars above us and a collection of whale bones in front of our cabaña, everything remained a mystery. The laguna could be heard but not seen. Waves crashed and wind whipped fiercely around us.
“Oh my goodness, Molly,” Maria said, as she peeled back the curtain of our cabaña window the next morning. “You’re in for a treat.”
She was right. Turquoise water, a stone’s throw away, stretched for miles beyond a shell-covered beach. Sliced by white caps, the laguna frantically jostled three pangas into the air.
“This is crazy,” I said, joining Maria on the back deck to admire the beauty of where we had landed. We would soon find out from a man named Fernando that it was too windy to go out on the laguna in search of the whales. Disappointed, we were also willing to be patient for what could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Besides, it felt good to consider being stationed in one place for longer than a day or two, without having to pack up and plan the logistics of our next destination. So we waited for the winds to subside, and enjoyed the solitude of a place that seemed worlds away from civilization.
On our third night at Antonio’s, we were joined for a home-cooked dinner by two guys from Texas who were traveling through Baja by motorcycle. They had come to see the whales, too, and we all got excited when Fernando predicted that the strong winds would die down enough to take the panga out the following day. It was early for spotting whales, but at peak season, the laguna is known to host more than 300 of them.
A quiet man whose eyes seemed to always be fixed on the water, Fernando lit up when we asked him about his most memorable experience with the whales. He described the time he saw a kind of splash that he had never seen before, while out in one of the pangas on a whale-watching tour.
“Something is happening over there,” he remembered saying. When he got closer, he noticed a mother whale on her side, giving birth. She flipped to her other side, and then pushed her baby whale to the surface of the water. Fernando ended the tour to give her space. Antonio’s was a place where the people respected the whales and their chosen environment above all else.
When we said goodnight, we felt like little kids going to bed on Christmas Eve. The evening held the promise of a long-awaited surprise in the morning.
The next day, we woke to a strange calmness. When we pulled back the window curtain, the water was smooth.
“We’re going to see the whales today!” I said, jumping out of bed. After breakfast, we met the Texans and our captain, Daniel Aguilar, son of owner Antonio, at one of the pangas. Daniel, who works as a fisherman after the whales depart in the spring, has been helping his dad with the business since he was 15 years old. He welcomed us aboard with “Buenos dias,” and then shouted, “Let’s go!”
Steering the boat from the back with the four of us sitting in front of him, Daniel told us that we’d probably spot wildlife playing around in the water, but that if we “see a big splash, tell me please!”
Our eyes carefully scanned the laguna, hoping for a spray of white that would lead us to a whale. Maria and I passed a pair of binoculars back and forth, looking for distant splashes in all directions. We headed about 13 miles out, and then Daniel slowed down. We all got very quiet. It felt like we were collectively holding our breath, waiting for the first whale to appear. No big splashes. We scanned the surface and waited. Nothing. We moved to other spots and did the same. Still nothing.
“Where they’d goooooo?!” Daniel said, referring to the whales he had seen a few days ago. We had been told that the whales were appearing in the lagoon later and later each winter, but our fingers were crossed. Any minute now, I thought, something will pierce the surface, someone will notice it and point, Daniel will swing the boat in that direction and our hearts will begin to race. Still, we waited.
To fill the time, Daniel headed toward a loudly barking group of sea lions, floating on the surface. Their flippers sticking up into the sky, they appeared to be waving at us. I waved back. They provided comic relief when it seemed as though our chance of seeing a whale was slowly slipping away. We waited some more. No big splashes.
When all hope was nearly lost, the bottlenose dolphins arrived. Daniel spotted their graceful movements and sped up the boat, encouraging them to join us. “Go to the bow!” he yelled to us. “They want to play with the boat!”
The dolphins swam quickly in front of us, twirled underneath us and jumped out of the water alongside us. Hanging over the bow, we squealed with excitement. They looked up at us out of the corner of their eyes, and appeared to be smiling. We could hear them making squeaking and whistling sounds, and we could practically touch them.
Our quiet, patient whale-watching adventure turned into an exciting, heart-pounding play date with dolphins. When the first pod moved on, Daniel headed for another, and they raced with us. They showed up at just the right time to lift our spirits.
Daniel kindly kept us out on the water longer than a typical tour—perhaps because he felt bad about the whales not showing up. Or because he loved being on the laguna and hoped to see his friends returning for the winter. Maybe it was because he could see how excited and happy we were to be with the dolphins. And maybe it was a combination of these things.
“No ballena,” one of our Texan friends reported to Fernando as we approached Antonio’s and he guided the panga to shore. But it was hard to be disappointed after our thrilling experience with the dolphins. The whales would arrive in their own time to rest, mate and give birth. It felt sacred just to be in the place that they would soon call home, with people who cared for them deeply.