Baja California: Searching for Baja’s biggest beast

By Carol Patterson

The biggest animal to ever live is the blue whale. Almost as long as a Boeing 737, bigger than any dinosaur, the blue whale lives in all temperate oceans, but few people will ever see one. They are rare, unpredictable, and need the kind of deep water that makes most boaters seasick.

But there’s one place blue whales visit that’s sheltered enough for the wobbliest of stomachs – the waters off peninsula near Loreto. When I discovered WestJet had direct flights from Calgary to Loreto I bought a ticket and headed south.

Like many things in this small fishing town to find them you need to know a guy who knows a guy. To increase my chances of seeing a blue whale I needed to find Fernando Arecas, director of a tiny whale museum, steps from the marina.

Arecas has studied whales in the Sea of Cortez for more than three decades. He helped me into a panga – a seven-meter-long fishing boat – with Flavio, a driver/guide who spoke little English, and three other whale lovers.

With gusty winds forecast later in the day, we left shortly after dawn, gray clouds choking out the sunshine, the demarcation between water and sky blurred.

“Sea lion,” yelled Flavio, his weathered hand pointing towards a dark fin in the distance. “No sea lion. Ballena, por favor,” declared another passenger focused on getting to the whales as soon as possible. Blue whales had been seen on the other side of Carmen Island – one of the islands in the Bahia de Loreto National park and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was an hour away by boat if we hurried.

Flavio opened up the throttle and I zipped up my jacket. It was cold but that’s the way krill like it. These tiny crustaceans are the food that draws blue whales; one whale can eat between four and eight tons of krill in a day!

I zoned out as the boat skimmed over the waves, diesel fumes mixed with salt air, the drone of the engine making conversation impossible. We rounded the tip of Carmen Island to see several pangas idling. They looked like they were fishing but there were no poles in the water.

I’d been searching for blue whales for years in almost every ocean. I’d even made a special trip to Monterey, Calif.when blue whales were likely to be there, pleading with one captain for extra time on the water, but nothing. Today, I felt my luck might change.

Flavio stopped the boat and we waited in hushed anticipation, knowing blue whales could stay under for 20 minutes or more.

And then the mottled, blue-gray back of a whale pierced the ocean surface. “Is it a humpback?” someone asked. More and more whale emerged, a puff of vapor popped from the blowhole, and then a distinctive hook-shaped dorsal fin came into sight. I had found my blue whale.

The whale surfaced and then dove in an elegant rhythm, each emergence punctuated by a sharp exhale, a large footprint left on the surface when it dove.

In the distance a huge tower of vapor hung suspended, a sure sign another blue whale was in the area. Flavio followed the whale for a few minutes, adjusting our speed to keep up to the quick eight kilometer per hour pace you’d expect of the largest swimmer.

We stopped to slip a hydrophone into the water but heard no whales. The blue whale is the loudest creature on earth although many calls are at a frequency too low for human ears. Blue whales can hear each other across an ocean, handy when you spend much of your life alone and need a mate.

We watched one blue whale emerge near a second, smaller whale. The larger whale seemed to wait for the smaller one as it surfaced more often to breathe. “Was that a mother and her young?” I wondered.

Flavio didn’t know and there’s much we don’t know about blue whales including where they go after spending a few weeks in Loreto each February and March.

Our time with the whales passed too quickly and soon we headed back to the harbour. I marveled at my good fortune to have arrived in Loreto when the whales did and on a calm day. It would turn out to be my only day on the water.

As cool northern winds buffeted the rocky coastline for days and kept boats in harbour, I hiked slot canyons, and sampled margaritas, my gaze returning to Carmen Island and my thoughts to the whales I suspected were still on the other side.

The winds and the waves had parted long enough to show me the biggest of beasts; my quest was over but I suspected one day I’d be back for more.