Fly and Explore - The Grey Whales of Baja California
In the natural order of things, the compass of migration points south for North American wildlife each winter, including Las Ballenas Grises – the famous Grey Whales of the Pacific. Southwest Aviators might also want to heed the call and fly south to Baja California's San Ignacio Lagoon for an amazing close encounter with these gentle giants.
Laguna San Ignacio, as it is referred to in Spanish, is remote even by Mexican standards. The isolated location puts this destination outside the easy reach of most travelers, but ideal for adventurous pilots. At San Ignacio you will not find a head boat full of tourists waiting to retreat to four-star hotels – this is a backcountry, eco-friendly adventure on a personal level perfect for the entire family – a trip with a soul.
We found our camp through Baja Adventure Company (www.bajaecotours.com), which offers a "fly-in" option Landing the 310 in Kino Bay in addition to bus and charter flight options. Our trip was one part careful planning, one part experience, and one part throwing caution to the wind. We decided to trust our luck and instincts during our migration. We departed Santa Teresa, NM on a DVFR flight plan and headed south over the wide desert as it stretched up to the Sierra Madres, crossing the mountains in the morning before any turbulence could spring up. We arrived in Guaymas, Mexico to clear customs and top off our fuel. The process was crowded, as we followed a group of doctors flying south to support a clinic (see Crossing the Border sidebar). After clearing customs, we fired up Miss Juliet (a Turbo 310) for a low-level flight across the Sea of Cortez, up and over the mountainous Baja spine to a small dirt strip on the San Ignacio salt flats.
The small field is San Ignacio Dirt Strip surprisingly well kept by the tourism association, complete with a gated parking compound and small UNICOM tower cleverly constructed out of welded truck frames. However, you should always drag an unfamiliar dirt strip with a low pass prior to landing to ensure there are no hazards on the strip. The various whale camps in the area listen in on the UNICOM frequency, so announcing landing intentions also dispatched from our camp to pick us up. We paid our “FBO” owner for use of the strip and celebrated our arrival by opening the cooler.
The van carried us off for a bumpy 30-minute ride down a rutted dirt track to the southern shore of the bay and our camp. How we managed to enjoy a beernewborn grey whale making contact on the ride to camp defies the laws of physics and is a tribute to a thirsty aviator’s will. It seemed like the van’s steering column was not actually connected to the wheels, instead the driver communicated telepathically with the van’s spirit to guide it from bump to bump, merely touching the top of each small ridge. He had the harmonics of the road down to the nearest 1/4 mile per hour, somehow making the road seem smoother than possible.
Along the way, we picked up the bravest soul we ever met – a young lady, 7 months pregnant, on a solo trip prior to arrival of her second child. She entertained us on the rest of the van ride with stories of how she had convinced her husband that she needed to have an adventure and time alone before getting back into the diaper game. Her logic seemed quite reasonable at the time, and the irony of visiting the “calving lagoon” was apropos.
Upon our arrival at "Campo Cortez," we were greeted by Caroline, a marine mammal specialist. Caroline also served as our trip leader and introduced us to the area and operations of our camp. She explained that we were in the Vizcaino Desert Reserve, part of the United Nation’s Biosphere Reserve Program. Being inside the Reserve (and with no towns or facilities anywhere in the vicinity), she also gave instructions on how to be eco-friendly in the camp. All electricity is generated by wind or solar power and guests must understand zero-impact concepts. Our accommodations were metal-framed white canvas tents with two small cots and sleeping bags. Coming from the high desert the humidity was immediately noticeable and the salt air was invigorating. Later, a visit to the camp palapa for lunch showed that zero-impact in the Baja tastes great! Burritos of beans, rice, vegetables and fresh local fish on homemade tortillas accented the experience. Inside the palm frond cabaña, the sea breeze and sounds of the waves made it feel like we were living in harmony with the sea environment surrounding us.
After lunch it was time for our first excursion. Gray Whale making contact with humans We walked to the tidal pools and embarked small pangas, sturdy 16’ open hull boats. Local fishermen double as whale guides during the tourist season, which lasts from January through March each year. Our guide for the trip was the patriarch of the family operated camp, Renaldo, who also serves as President of the San Ignacio association of fishermen. He is careful to set a great example to his sons and the other fishermen in observing the zones that are set up to be devoid of boats. The whales have learned where the humans will be and where they will be left alone. The fishermen chose a ridged feature that is easy to see from the land and identifiable to the whales underwater as a boundary demarcation. The association has discovered the profitability of ecotourism, which provides a better living than fishing alone. This harmony increases fishing stock levels, environmental awareness, and cultural interaction; everyone is benefiting from the new economic balance.
The bay was teeming with life. As we headed out to the whale sanctuary area, we saw dolphins, seals, flying fish, and various sea birds. Caroline explained that nearly 200 species of migratory bird and aquatic animals live the salty waters of the protected lagoon. The occasional rains wash the salts into the bay, creating above-average salinity. Grey whales migrate from their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic Ocean to the bays of Baja California each year to mate and give birth. The high salinity fights infection and helps the calves float easily to surface for their first breath. These “little” newborns can weigh 1,500 pounds at birth! Since mother and calf need to begin their journey back to the Arctic, the mother whale has only a few short months to teach her calf to dive, feed, and follow her instructions. Calves gain nearly 200 pounds of fat a day that will allow them to make the 7,000-mile swim and survive in the cold waters of the north.
We were delighted to see the whales "spy hopping," blowing, and broaching in the distance. Caroline continued to explain that whale calves, just like any other baby mammal, crave attention and satisfaction of their natural curiosity. Since the mother whales may have experienced positive human contact when they were born in the same bay, between swimming lessons and feedings they allow their young to approach the small boats and make contact with humans.
We waited for some time for the whales to decide to approach, but eventually a "friendly pair", mother and calf, drew near. Mother gently raised her calf to the surface of the water with her enormous fluke, and remained in constant physical contact with her young swimmer. Mother was big as a boxcar at nearly 40 tons. We could clearly see her eye watching us, and we knew she would be willing and able to protect her calf should the need arise. Luckily for us, the whales seem to understand that there is no danger to them in this protected lagoon. Before the first tentative hand was extended, Caroline reminded us of the safety rules for contact with the whales – no touching of the flippers, eyes, mouth, or blow hole (to prevent an overeager human from losing fingers).
There is fear to reach down and touch the unknown. What is this going to feel like? How will the whale react? Rather than a rubbery feeling we expected, the baby whale was incredibly soft. The little calf knew that it was the star of the show, and just like a puppy seemed to want to please its new human friends. The calf us rub, scratch, and pat his snout. It only took the young whale a few moments to realize the reaction it would get by blowing salt spray at its new friends! The exhilaration is immense, bonding with something that large! But then it was Mom’s turn. By gently pulling on her, she was able to stop swimming to stay in contact with a moving boat and her entire body released all tension. She floated to surface and rolled about as she enjoyed some rubs and quick barnacle removal. This level of connection repeated over and over during the next two days. We were even treated to an unbelievable whirling “dance” between our panga boat and a single female whale.
Between excursions and waiting for "friendlies," we enjoyed more lessons from Caroline. She explained how whales sleep by shutting down 1/2 of their brain at a time, how they feed, mate and the process of identification. She gathers digital photos from guests of flukes and dorsal knuckles, as unique as fingerprints, used to recognize and count the whale population in the bay. She has noticed that the whales continue to become friendlier year by year. She also gave kayak tours of the tidal pools that involved understanding all the little critters that share the waters around camp.
I was fortunate enough to see these whales during my time as a diver in the Chukchi Sea (Arctic Ocean). As another wandering North American mammal, visiting the calving lagoon in Mexico completed a personal passage for me. Flying full time for work, and diving before that, can mute the thrill from an otherwise awe-inspiring experience since the job at hand is the focal point. You are not being paid to gaze in wide wonder. Over time, working flying or diving can be like desaturating a color movie into black and white. The FAA identifies several hazardous attitudes in aviation, with MACHO at the top of the list. Sometimes I fall prey to macho due in part of the muting process described above. This can bleed over into life in general and close in the viewing angle, life’s colors seem less bright overall. While I am still trying to digest the change the flight to San Ignacio made on my perspective, it definitely brightened the colors in both flying and life. The whales’ journey each year is inspiring – they share an aviator’s wanderlust. Their size and gentleness with humans, even after being hunted to the edge of extinction, puts our days into perspective. Flying to see the grey whales is a cure for the hazardous attitude of macho, so don’t be a reluctant traveler wondering if this endeavor is manly enough. There is enough Indiana Jones adventure in this trip to let your guard down long enough to make a few new 40-ton friends.
Sidebar - Crossing the Border
The Baja Bush Pilots are the definitive source for the best regional information, tips, tricks, and ways to enjoy flights south of the border. Membership is well worth the money and the fun at http://www.bajabushpilots.com/. Prior to departure, make sure that you have Mexican insurance from a company that is licensed to do business in Mexico. If you are not the owner of the aircraft, a letter granting permission to use the aircraft should be carried onboard. Aircraft are required to have 12-inch letters when crossing the ADIZ. Filing either an IFR or DVFR flight plan Pilots is mandatory. Flight Service will provide Mexico with the required advance notice. Mexican flight rules are slightly different, and if it is your first time, a trip kit from Jeppesen is worth the cost. AOPA can guide you through the process and make sure you have all the right forms. Prior to departure check with the State Department on the latest travel warnings and read the guide to traveling in Mexico at http://travel.state.gov. They recommend registering your trip online if you are traveling to a place where communications are poor – which they are in the Baja. Propeller and aircraft locks are a good idea, as well as your own tie-downs and emergency repair kit.
The two best places to clear into Mexico for this trip are Hermosillo or Guaymas, both located in the State of Sonora. Pilots are treated with great respect in Mexico; make sure that you dress the part for your arrival for best service. Some Spanish and respectful passengers aid the process greatly. Upon arrival a Customs Inspector will check the aircraft if they so desire. Passengers will move through a check point where searches are conducted at random based upon pressing a button on a small traffic light – green for “no search,” red for “you win the search prize.” Immigration will require that everyone purchase a tourist card. The cards can be purchased for up to 180 days and allow for re-entry on the same card. Ensure you understand which card you are purchasing if you plan on returning. The pilot will need to file a flight plan for the flight that was just completed. This allows the airport authority to compute the proper landing fees. The pilot will also complete a plan to take them form the port, to San Ignacio, and back to the exit port. Fueling in Mexico is easiest with cash (pesos), but they also accept American Express, which provides a great exchange rate. Where do “morditas” (Spanish for “the bite” or bribes) end and tips begin? Use your best judgment. Mexico is fighting corruption, and tips must be given with discretion. But just like in America, people graciously accept a tip for a job well done.
Speak clearly and slowly when working with Mexican ATC. Make sure you’re your questions start with in interrogative phrase, rather than just using your tone of voice to convey your question – Get It? RADAR coverage may be spotty and weather services might not be what you are used to, although services are continuing to improve.
Returning to the United States by air can be a greater challenge than flying to Mexico. Mexican air traffic control will relay your IFR flight plan, but whether IFR or DVFR check in with Flight Service. We always plan our flight to parallel the border to the south so that we are able to talk to flight service well in advance of arrival. We make sure that they have our plan from Mexico, and if not, we file in flight with ADCUS (Advise Customs) in the remarks. Prior to departure, we call our Port of Entry directly and give them an ETA directly, always ask for the badge number and name of the officer that takes your call. Have a copy of United States Customs declarations and a Private Aircraft Arrival Report (CBP Form 178) in the aircraft filled out prior to landing. You can also purchase the $25 Customs Decal online which allows you to clear through part-time ports of entry. Visit www.cbp.gov and navigate through the “Travel” tab to find the advisory to Private Pilots, and download the “Guide for Private Flyers”, great reading and a must for international fliers.
Byline: Dave is a Master Flight Instructor with helicopter, single engine, and multiengine ratings. He works with Momentum Interactive, creators of FLITELite