CALIFORNIA GRAY WHALE COALITION – REVIEW OF GUERRERO NEGRO AND BAJA JONES CAMP
When we set out on this trip, Sue Arnold, our CEO, and I knew that we were heading to unknown territory. Having spent the last 14 years travelling to Baja to see the gray whales during this portion of their migration, we had never been to the northern most lagoon, Ojo de Liebre near the town of Guerrero Negro. This lagoon has been commonly called Scammon’s Lagoon, named after a whaler who slaughtered gray whale cows and calves in this lagoon in the second half of the 19th century. We were nervous to encounter this new part of the Baja peninsula and to visit these famous killing grounds.
We had an early start out of San Diego in a van provided by Baja Jones driven by a rather unhelpful driver. We were taken to a military airport in Ensenada. When we arrived, we learned the airline had been re-routed and we would have to wait 4 hours. We were told “it’s Mexico”. Fortunately, we had brought snacks from the States, because we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere with no arrangements for lunch or food. Although there’s a snack bar at the airport, the offerings are sparse. When the plane did finally arrive at Ensenada some 4 and a half hours later, we had an easy ,smooth 1.5 hour flight to the town of Guerrero Negro. At the military airport, we were greeted by soldiers who searched our luggage.
Keith Jones was a welcome sight at the airport with tacos for our journey to the camp, a one and half hour trip.
Guerrero Negro (at least the part that we saw) is a very industrial town. According to Wikipedia, this is the largest salt mining operation in the world, producing 7 million tons of salt per year.
On the way to the Baja Jones camp, we entered through the security gate and drove through the salt works. According to our driver, the salt water is pumped inland to drying areas where the salt is harvested and trucked back to the coast where it is put on a barge to Cedros Island which has a port for shipping. We saw huge stockpiles of salt, as well as huge trucks carrying salt from east to west. It was astonishing.
Once past the mining operations, the landscape became low lying sand dunes, sparsely covered with native plants. As with many parts of Baja, osprey nests appeared on power poles and other man-provided platforms.
The Baja Jones camp was situated on the water’s edge. It consisted of kitchen tents, sleeping tents, two toilets (that flushed with water… most of the time… ), and two instantly hot water showers (a divine surprise!). The sleeping tents were comfortable, with platform beds and mattresses, warm bedding, nice towels and pillows, as well as a plush robe and flip flops! We were given head-torches but an LED lamp in the tents would be useful.
The camp had pathways with solar lights that helped to easily navigate. The food was delicious, including fresh fruit and vegetables every day. The staff was kind, helpful, and thoughtful. So many variables can occur with people in the middle of nowhere. We had the impression that the Baja Jones folks were ready, willing and able to rise to any occasion.
At first daylight, the whale watching began… from in front of our tent! The whales were a ways out in the lagoon, but we observed many behaviors, including breaching! We enjoyed 2 whale watching trips on the boat each day. The trips were at least 1.5 to 2 hours each (although time stands still in this part of the world… it’s Mexico). In this remote part of Ojo de Liebre, there were only 4 boats in the observation area. The fishermen were great captains. We had friendly encounters on almost all of our boat trips. It is truly one of the greatest mysteries on earth… why the gray whales come to the boats, most often with their babies, to interact with the humans. It is beyond words and we felt so lucky to have the opportunity here in the site of one of the largest massacre of whales in recorded history. What are they trying to tell us? They don’t remember? It’s a new day, let’s play? They forgive us?
Ojo de Liebre does not have any rescue gear and as it’s part of the Vizcaino World Heritage Area, we felt the Biosphere office run by Mexican authorities should provide gear and training. Whales do get entangled.
Pangas are bigger at Guerrero and hold 12 people. This can work but if some folks bring their GoPro cameras with long handles, it can be quite hazardous attempting to touch a whale.
After 3 nights and 2 days of wilderness, we headed back to San Diego. The long trip back to San Diego was very, very long. We left before 7 am (6 am PST) and arrived at the hotel in San Diego at about 4:30 pm. Our day started with long drive from the camp to the military airport at Guerrero where we stood, with our luggage, in the pouring rain and wind on the runway, while our documents were checked by soldiers and we were definitely confirmed a seat on the plane. This can be a trying moment as “ its Mexico” and passengers can get bumped. There’s no shelter and only the most primitive of toilets. Adding to the trip time, we had another 1.5 hour flight delay flight on Cedros Island (this flight wasn’t a direct flight like our way down). It’s Mexico. We stopped for delicious fish tacos in Ensenada. Though the border crossing can be hideous, crossing at Tecate was quite effortless.
Would we recommend this trip? If you want to visit the beautiful towns and scenes of Baja, take another tour. This trip is not for the faint of heart or for the impatient traveler. There are lots of variables getting to the Camp, road-works, tolls, delayed flights, bumpy roads, dust up your nose. If you are accustomed to camping (esp. backpacking), then this trip will seem like luxury. If you are more of a 4 star hotel traveler, the camp is remote and although efforts are made to make guests comfortable, it’s a far flung wilderness and a long way from anywhere. With that in mind, remember that it is only at the ends of the earth where you can even chance to have such peaceful beauty and a close encounter with such magnificence as a mother gray whale and her calf.
March 12, 2015