Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino

Once endangered species, you can now take in these gray, aquatic giants each year—provided you know where to go on the Baja Peninsula.
El Vizcaino at a Glance
Name: Baja California, Mexico
Date of Inscription: 1993
Why Go: The Mexican lagoons host the gray whales' annual winter reunion from December to April—and you're invited.

As temperatures start to drop and a chill sets in, pods of mammals beeline it to Mexico to loll about in the warm water and surf, to socialize with grunts and clicks, and to mate. Yep, it's that time of the year again, when the grey whales migrate to El Vizcaino—Mother Nature's version of the college winter break.

The Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino is comprised of two lagoons in the center of the Baja peninsula, about 435 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio lagoons are recognized as the main mating and breeding grounds of the eastern stock of grey whales, two bodies of water sandwiched between the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean that makes for an easy exit ramp off their migration route.

Grey whales are a hearty bunch who annually endure one of world's longest migrations—approximately 14,000 miles round trip from their Pacific Northwest feeding waters in the Bering and Chukchi seas to the Mexican lagoons. Like typical snow birds, they summer in the colder regions, where they fill their bellies with plankton and other marine life, then swim south for the winter, spending two to three months en route. Thousands of grey whales—which average 36 to 49 feet in length and weigh 20 to 40 tons—cram into the lagoons from December to April. The 30-by-six-mile Ojo de Liebre hosts the largest number of whales, hovering around 1,000 (for a visual, imagine a metropolitan public pool in the swelter of summer). San Ignacio is the smaller of the two, but still fits a couple hundred whales inside its 22-by-four-mile borders.

The lagoons, though, aren't just a playground for frolicsome whales; the mammals also breed, calve, and blubber up their young in the sanctuary. To that end, the survival of the species relies heavily on the protection and sanctity of the marine reserve. From the 1700s to the mid-1900s, the eastern Pacific greys were hunted, forced to live on the brink of extinction, but in 1993 they were removed from the endangered list (the western brood in Asia is still threatened). Yet despite the whales' rebounding population, El Vizcaino is still a fragile environment—hence the UNESCO designation as well as the Mexican government's March 2000 decision to quash a contentious proposal to build a salt production plant at San Ignacio. Eschrichtius robustus 1, Homo Industrias 0.

Though they dominate in size and numbers, the whales don't monopolize the lagoons. A who's who of SeaWorld inhabits the waters, including harbor seals, northern elephant seals, California sea lions, blue whales, bottlenose dolphins, and various marine turtle species, many of which nest on the shores. For birders, ospreys, peregrine falcons, and other feathered friends flit about. Some of the critters are full-time residents, while others are just passing through on their annual migratory journeys. El Vizcaino is also part of a protected biosphere reserve that is a colorful quilt of ecosystems, with one square a desert, another a mangrove forest, and so on.

But at El Vizcaino, the greys are the star attraction. Each winter, researchers and eco-tourists board pangas and float like toy boats amid the titanic creatures (word is you can get close enough to a grey to pat its head or get a cool spritz from its blowhole; the flip side is your boat rocks and rolls from major water displacement as if a truckload of refrigerators had been tossed into the lagoon). The Mexican government regulates the influx of visitors to protect these seasonal inhabitants; but if you miss the boat one year, fear not: The greys are guaranteed to return the following winter. When nature calls the whales to El Vizcaino, they can't help but answer.

A globetrotter and travel writer, Andrea Sachs contributes frequently to the Washington Post.

Published: 30 Jun 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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