Gray Whale Watching in Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico
Credit: Kerrick James / Corbis

Gray Whale Watching in Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico

Forget all your preconceived notions about whale watching. In Laguna San Ignacio,in Mexico's Baja California, it's the whales who do the observing of you. Every fall, scores of Pacific gray whales embark on one of the planet's longest mammal migrations, taking a break in the winter amid the warm and protected waters here to bear and raise their calves. While a century ago the species, then dubbed "devil fish," was hunted to near extinction in these very breeding grounds, a heartwarming detente has since been established and now gray whale mothers actually teach their calves to interact with the humans who have traveled here in hopes of an encounter with these majestic mammals. Cabañas San Ignacio, a partnership between Antonio's Eco-Tours and Baja Expeditions, offers packages that include accommodations in safari-tents or beachside cabanas along with two whale-spotting boat trips per day.

Laguna San Ignacio, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, is the most protected and undisturbed of three lagoons, and, as such, has been rewarded with a regular population of friendly and sociable gray whale visitors. The remarkable history of this relationship dates back to 1972, when a local fisherman dared to reach out and pet a curious gray rather than hound it away. Ever since, the lagoon has been the premier location for intimate gray whale interactions, with a well-managed tour industry run by locals that puts the health and safety of the whales first.

The process is novel: Tour operators don't believe in pursuing a whale to force an encounter, and so, instead, rely on the cetaceans' native curiosity to pick their own dance partner, as it were. Only two boats are permitted around a friendly whale; others keep their distance so as not to disturb the encounter. And by encounter, we mean seriously up-close and personal: The 15-foot, 2,000-pound calves often lift your boat with their flukes, blow bubbles, and generally want to play. (They are kids, after all.) If you're lucky, one will pull alongside your craft, rise out of the water for a scratch on the head, and offer a look in their giant eye.

Trips run from late December to mid-April, but peak season is February to the first week of March, when the calves are most curious. Each 90-minute trip in a fiberglass fishing panga will be a different experience, so if you hope to have a so-called "friendly" encounter, it's smart to plan on multiple panga trips. Even if you only have a day to visit the lagoon, expect to see plenty of whales. Full-fledged, hands-on friendly encounters aren't guaranteed, but you'll still undoubtedly have plenty of up-close experiences, from spyhopping – the cetacean form of treading water – to mating (you may even catch a humbling glimpse of what some jokingly refer to as a "pink floyd").

The crew at Cabañas San Ignacio will handle all of the details for you. Its captains and naturalists have years of experience and can answer all of your questions. Lunch is available for day-trippers, while overnighters can enjoy traditional home-cooked meals, as well as an evening happy hour and upgraded, waterfront accommodations. The town of San Ignacio and its lagoon are safe and unspoiled, and there are many easy options for getting there via charter plane, bus, or car via the San Diego border or Loreto in Baja. [From $45/person day trips to $160 for all-inclusive overnight; cabanassanignacio.com]