Wild(life) Party in Baja

Arriving to the Los Cabos airport in March almost feels like waiting in line at a summer pop music festival. Hordes of college students with Greek letters fill the security lines; the anticipation of the upcoming parties is palpable. Fortunately our group left that scene behind the moment we hopped into our shuttles, the only wild time we were looking for was with the incredible ocean wildlife that lives in the Gulf of California and Magdalena Bay.

Our first wild encounter was the whale sharks that feed in the waters off La Paz. Ocean currents trap boatloads of plankton in the bay, creating a perfect spot for mostly juvenile (but still giant) whale sharks to feed. We met with Manuel Rodriguez from the Whale Shark Research Project who is studying these magnificent animals in the hopes of creating a protected area here to prevent these sharks from being struck by fast-moving boats leaving and entering the marina in La Paz.

It didn’t take long to spot the first dorsal fin breaking the calm waters. Our boat set up ahead of the path (out of the way though) of the whale shark and a couple of our participants hopped in to watch it swim by (and kick hard to keep up). Over the next couple of hours, our group, split between two boats, had several opportunities to snorkel with these amazing animals, which ranged from roughly 10 feet long to a bigger one possibly as long as 30 or more feet.

 Overhead view of Balandra Beach

Overhead view of Balandra Beach

Our next stop was Balandra Beach, voted one of the country’s most beautiful beaches. But first was a detour to visit a colony of sea lions on a small island, followed by a group of bottlenose dolphins that joined us for a spell, at times traveling with us at the front of our boats. We then headed into Balandra Bay, an incredible range of blues set against the stark brown land. Balandra is a popular hangout spot for La Paz residents, who resisted efforts to put a large resort on the bay and helped to protect this area for everyone who wants to visit.

Our plan to return to the Gulf and visit the island of Espiritu Santo the next day was foiled by high winds, so instead we visited the beautiful town of Todos Santos. After a stroll around the town visiting the many artisan shops, we visited the hatchery of Todos Tortugueros, a local sea turtle conservation organization that protects the nests of olive ridley, black turtles, and the occasional leatherback turtle that nests near the town.

After two nights in La Paz, we then packed up and headed across the peninsula to Magdalena and Almejas Bays. On the way to our tent camp, on a strip of dunes between the two bays, we headed out to look for the gray whales that calve here. It didn’t take long to find the whales, and while none of them decided to say hello (these whales are the only ones in the world to sometimes approach boats), we had a chance to observe mothers and calves spyhopping, breaching, and feeding.

As we approached our camp, we spotted a seemingly out of place wild animal, a bald eagle standing on a sand bar. While this bird is now a fairly common site in Portland, Oregon, where many of our group came from, it was strange to see one in such a completely different landscape, though we learned that this area is the southernmost part of their range.

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Upon arrival at our camp, we were introduced to the RED Travel Mexico staff who did a fantastic job at making us welcome. The tents were spacious with cots and blankets for the cool desert evenings. The food was prepared with love by the excellent chef Hubert, formerly a turtle poacher who now dedicates his time to supporting ecotourism and turtle research for Red. Our guide Alonso, a goofy and friendly marine biologist, helped to keep the group entertained with his great stories and deep knowledge.

The next morning, Jesus “Chuy” Lucero of the Grupo Tortuguero, led our group to a spot in the bay to set nets to catch black sea turtles (a sub-species of green turtles) to study and release. It didn’t take long to catch the first turtle, which Chuy pulled into his boat within a few minutes of our arrival. By the time that one was done, we had another turtle already caught and we headed to the beach to collect the data. Our group took turns with various tasks including helping to measure the turtles, weigh them, tag them, collecting the information on data sheets, and lastly releasing them into the ocean. In all, we studied and released five turtles, most of which were juveniles who prefer this bay due to its rich seagrasses. In addition, another nine turtles were caught for other guests at the camp to study, for a total of fourteen turtles studied in our three days at the camp.

 Chuy (left) and Hubert (right) studying a black turtle

Chuy (left) and Hubert (right) studying a black turtle

Once the turtle research was done, we had another opportunity to go whale watching. While the majority of whales had already headed back north up the Pacific coast on their way to Alaska to feed, many mothers and calves were still around and we had many opportunities to take photos and watch their fascinating behavior. Each day after our activities, we took a short walk across the dunes to the Magdalena Bay side to watch the beautiful sunsets and then back to camp for a delicious dinner and sit by a warm fire.

On our final morning, we took a short boat ride to a huge set of dunes, climbing up to the top for an incredible view of both bays and the surrounding islands and mainland. As if we hadn’t seen enough ocean wildlife over the week, a pair of dolphins were visible feeding from the top of the tallest dune. We then headed back to La Paz for a final celebratory dinner before our return to Los Cabos the next day for our flights home. During the week, we helped to support research into whale sharks and sea turtles and proceeds from the trip helped to fun Red’s community development work as well as protecting more than 1,300 hatchlings through our Billion Baby Turtles program.