Discover whale watching at Laguna San Ignacio and EcoMundo at Bahía Concepción

Whether you’re cruising a long-range motoryacht south into Baja California or trailering a smaller boat down Highway 1, you can start the 2002 boating season conscientiously -- by eco-adventuring.

Baja California has some of the best ecological tourism opportunities outside the Yucatan jungles. Participating in these mini-explorations is no more difficult than anything else you do with your boat and dinghy. You’ll come away with not only stacks of amazing photos and lifelong memories, but also with a deeper awareness of the natural world.

Close Encounters

As you cruise south, sea turtles bob around like floating rocks offshore, then dive as you approach. Baja California’s indigenous Pericue people called the turtles “ancient navigators” and revered them.

All five species of sea turtles found in Baja California waters (Hawksbill, Green, Leather-back, Loggerhead and Olive Ridley) are either threatened or endangered, but a few illegal poachers continue to catch the turtles at sea and rob their beach nests of eggs.

If you see a sea turtle through your binoculars, make note in your logbook of which kind it was and where you saw it. If you see caguama steak, barbecue or soup on any restaurant’s menu, don’t order it: It’s one of the endangered species of turtle, and it was killed illegally. When you get to Cabo San Lucas or La Paz, give any information you might have about endangered turtles to the SEMARNAP office.

This month, volunteers with the Sea Turtle Conservation Network of the Californias will meet in Loreto to help put an end to the killing of sea turtles, placing the emphasis on their value in eco-tourism. Last year, Isidro Arce, an angler from Punta Abreojos, helped arrest Mexico’s most notorious sea turtle poacher, who was caught with a pickup truck filled with the endangered creatures.

Don’t be surprised by another close encounter with a larger marine animal, because Laguna San Ignacio is one of the primary mating and calving grounds of migrating California gray whales. At this time of year in coastal waters, you’re likely to encounter -- or overtake -- individual grays or small pods long before you arrive in the vicinity.

Be ready to stop the boat immediately, so you don’t hit a slow-moving whale. Contrary to myth, they may not get out of your way.

Points where Gray whales are known to come within 5 miles of shore include Point La Jolla, Los Coronados islands, Punta Baja, Isla San Martin, San Quintín, Isla San Geronimo, the San Benito Islands and Isla Cedros. Single or small pods of grays are frequently seen entering Magdalena Bay.

Some years, half the whale migration bypasses the Pacific lagoons in favor of remote spots throughout the Sea of Cortez. Those whales are encountered in the narrow Cerralvo Channel of East Cape.

Laguna San Ignacio

The extra buoyancy created by the super saline waters of Mexico’s warm shallow lagoons allows baby Gray whales to reach the surface and breathe immediately after birth. The massive adult whales that come here to mate can cavort like featherweight gymnasts.

Commercial salt evaporation barges near Guerrero Negro frighten the shy gray whales away from their birthplace lagoons of Puerto Santo Domingo, Estero San Jose and Laguna Ojo de Liebre (Scammons Lagoon). The leviathans have effectively moved to the larger and more remote Laguna San Ignacio. Mitsubishi was recently prevented from building a super port here.

Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve’s 6.2 million acres encompass all of Laguna San Ignacio. The lagoon is off limits to visiting pleasureboats and dinghies from December 15 through April 15.

Anchor at Abreojos, the recently revitalized tourist village 95 miles southeast of Bahia de Tortugas. As you approach Abreojos (which means “open your eyes”), avoid the four hazards nearby: La Rechinadora, Roca Bellena, Bajo Wright and Bajo Knepper.

Anchor on the east side of the headland, either in front of Abreojos village in about 21 feet of water, or farther around to the northeast at Campo en Medio in 15 to 25 feet of water. Even here, grays can be heard spouting through the night as they enter and leave the lagoon 14 miles east.

Find a Guide

Pangueros will approach and link you up with one of the park’s official guides. If not, go ashore and visit one of the whale-watching offices.

New guides are being trained as quickly as possible, but not just any panguero is an official park guide. Make sure you hire a guide who is certified, trained and licensed.

You’ll be driven from Abreojos to the south shores of Laguna San Ignacio, where you’ll board the guide’s specially equipped panga for the half-day whale-watching expedition. (If you are driving down Highway 1, stop at the town of San Ignacio. From there, the road leads to the park entrance at the north end of the lagoon.)

A limited number of visitors are allowed into the lagoon each day, and the flow is controlled by radio.

Male and female gray whales come into the deeper southern end of the lagoon, where they can frolic in courtship rituals and carry on their mating dances in safety. Don’t get too close to mating whales, because their actions are extremely unpredictable.

Pregnant female grays proceed farther into the north end of the lagoon, called the nursery or vivario, where the waters are warmer and saltier. This is where the 20-foot-long, 3-ton calves are born.

“Friendly whales” is a local expression, because as the giant mammals return each year, they have grown accustomed to cautiously approaching the guides’ dead-in-the-water pangas and to being tenderly petted.

Subsistence fishing had historically been the sole industry at Abreojos. However, 10 years ago, local anglers were told they had to quit fishing, because the tourism industry was afraid they would scare away the whales.

Today, most of Abreojos’ young men and women will enter various positions in the new tourism services. Only the best of its young mariners will be trained as naturalist guides and park rangers to prevent poaching.

Sanctuary

Farther down Baja California’s Pacific coast, you might sail past the new Leatherback Sea Turtle Sanctuary at Todos Santos, north of Cabo San Lucas. Nests are protected, hatchlings are released into the ocean, and injured sea turtles of all kinds are nurtured back to health and released.

The Mexican agency ASUPMATOMA, Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute and other groups helped establish the sanctuary. University of La Paz biology students assist each weekend with patrols, and students from high schools and colleges around the United States send volunteers to work with the sanctuary’s scientists. 

Cabo San Lucas boaters can drive north to visit the turtle sanctuary, observe the nests, volunteer their time or make donations.

EcoMundo

On the other side of the Baja California peninsula, near Mulegé, Bahía Concepción is called “the sea within the sea.” At a dozen picturesque coves lining the northwest shore of Bahia Concepción, you’ll find crystalline turquoise waters over dazzling white sandy bottoms. Kayaking and outdoor survival schools rival only the dive shops and RV parks.

Amid this natural splendor, EcoMundo (which means EcoWorld) presents a wide array of environmental education programs for Baja California residents, RVers and boating visitors who are just passing through and looking for a day’s entertainment. Like an ongoing ecology fair, EcoMundo demonstrates such technologies as solar voltaic power production, geothermal mud baths, wind turbines and organic farming.

For example, straw-bale construction techniques were used to build EcoMundo’s adobe-looking main office and two-story teaching facility. Leading authorities from Europe and the United States bring seminars to outdoor classrooms on these tranquil shores each year.

Ideal for Baja California’s low humidity and high-heat climate, the insulating straw-bale walls are coated with concrete, providing local farmers and residents with extremely inexpensive and comfortable housing they can build themselves -- once they learn how at EcoMundo.

With hundreds of long-term campers and permanently parked RVs straining the bay’s limited fresh water supply, EcoMundo founder Roy Mahoff devised the region’s only “public heads” -- which are ingenious composting toilets that flush with salt water and yield a gray-water stream that irrigates a grove of oranges.

EcoMundo began as Baja Tropicales more than a decade ago, when Mahoff and his friend Becky Aparechio offered their half-day naturalist tours around Bahía Concepción in sporty novice kayaks based at Playa Santispac. “The more we learned, the more we became part of the community,” Mahoff said.

Get Involved

Last year, EcoMundo expanded into its new home on the south shore of Posada Concepción, which has hot springs and plenty of room for dinghies. Boaters visiting EcoMundo first come ashore for the great sandwiches, smoothies and shady palapas, or for the trendy little art gallery that highlights the works of more than a dozen Baja California artists.

Then, the casual visitors thumb through the bookshelves. Before long, they’re getting their consciousness level raised a notch or two -- or helping Mahoff and his staff spread the message to small groups of schoolchildren and adults up and down the Baja California coast.

“A good example is the best teacher,” Mahoff said. He added that boaters visiting from the United States set a significant example for Baja California residents young and old.

EcoMundo is working closely with international educators to operate the three-month intensive training courses that are needed to transform Baja California’s young mariners into conscientious naturalist guides. Next year, you’ll probably find EcoMundo graduates at Laguna San Ignacio -- and Todos Santos, Cabo San Lucas, Loreto and beyond.

Do you have questions about cruising to Mexico? Captains John E. Rains and Patricia Miller Rains can answer your questions about Mexico and long-range cruising at the online forums, at goboatingamerica.com.

This article first appeared in the January 2002 issue of Sea Magazine. All or parts of the information contained in this article might be outdated.