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BAJA CALIFORNIA: THE LAST KINGDOM OF THE WHALES

The Extraordinary Cetaceans and Birds of 'The Other California'

Birdquest's Baja California, Mexico birding and cetaceans tour is an extraordinary birdwatching and whale watching adventure. Our Baja California tour, starting in San Diego, is a magical journey through the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez, featuring close-up encounters with whales and dolphins, as well as many seabirds, that you will remember forever.

Monday 8th April — Friday 19th April 2013
(12 days)


Baja California Mainland Post-Tour Extension: Friday 19th April – Monday 22nd April (4 days)

Leaders: Dani López-Velasco and Peter Gaede

Group Size Limit: 24 (14 on extension)

Tour Category: Easy (main tour); Easy to Moderate (extension)

Of all the world's whales, the playfully acrobatic Humpback Whale is surely the most loved. Here one breaches spectacularly right beside Searcher at the Gorda Banks. (Mark Beaman)

Of all the world's whales, the playfully acrobatic Humpback Whale is surely the most loved. Here one breaches spectacularly right beside Searcher at the Gorda Banks. (Mark Beaman)

Whales are extraordinary creatures that have captured the imagination of humans since our species first reached the ocean shore and first saw a huge creature come to the surface, blow noisily and then slip away into the abyss.

Usually our encounters with whales are fleeting, and at a distance, but we consider ourselves lucky to have seen such gigantic yet threatened creatures at all, let alone close to. But imagine how it would be if huge whales sought us out, surfacing just a couple of metres from our small boat, and then came up and wanted to be stroked. How magical would that be?! Is this just a naturalist’s fantasy? No, not in Baja California!

Here, in the great coastal lagoons along the Pacific coast, the Grey Whales of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest come to calve during the northern winter, and by spring the calves are already 19-22ft (6-7m) in length and weigh several tons! They become both confident and curious before beginning their epic 5000 miles (8000km) or more odyssey to the north during April, and at this time in the season they and their much larger, 39-49ft (12-15m) long mothers regularly come over to whale watching pangas (small local boats) to inspect the strange creatures that are inside. They seem to welcome human attention and the calves in particular like to be stroked on their heads, repeatedly returning for more and even rising up out of the water to peer at us! Needless to say, it is an extraordinarily moving experience for we small animals to be so close to such colossi and to actually touch them.

And what about the immense Blue Whale, the largest creature that has ever lived on our planet, far greater than the largest dinosaur? Have you ever wondered whether you would ever in your lifetime see this amazing animal, now that so few are left thanks to man’s greed? Everywhere one goes one hears of rare sightings, but they are so hard to get to grips with. Well in Baja California, in April which is the very best month, you can be almost certain of sightings, and quite likely will enjoy multiple sightings. (On our exploratory visit in April 2009 we saw up to nine of these leviathans together on a series of occasions, gaining fantastic views as they surfaced and blew spray high into the air.)

And then there are the Humpback Whales. How can we begin to describe the wonder of being up close with the most playful and acrobatic of all the whales. Here you can watch them breaching, hurling themselves out of the water before hitting the surface with a gigantic splash, or lying on the surface lazily waving those long black and white pectoral fins to and fro, or emerging from the deep tail-first before repeatedly splashing their flukes onto the sea.

What about dolphins? Yes you will see hundreds and hundreds, and at the same time! The huge pods of Long-beaked Common Dolphins have to be seen to be believed as they ‘porpoise’ in unison, and if you are in luck they will come to the bows at night as we glide across the calm waters of the Gulf of California and leave green streaks of phosphorescence as they streak through the water like so many fireworks!

And all this from the comfort of an excellent chartered boat that will take us safely through this remote region on the adventure of a lifetime. And we haven’t even begun to mention all the wonders of Baja, the extraordinary desert scenery, the weird cacti, the unbelievable sunsets, the superb seabirds (including some sought-after species it is very difficult to see elsewhere), the endemic landbirds, the ugly yet captivating elephant seals, the playful sealions and the sheer fun of being on a boat for nearly two weeks with such a great crew.

Our journey begins in the evening in San Diego, in southernmost California, and from here we sail overnight to Ensenada, the first port in Mexico, in order to clear customs and immigration.

From now on we enter the wilderness, stopping first at Islas Todos Santos and then at the remote Islas San Benito, where the piles of blubbery Northern Elephant Seals on the beaches and the Guadalupe Fur Seals on the rocks are a sight to behold.

Seabirding is great throughout the journey and amongst the most exciting species we should see are Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, Black-vented and Pink-footed Shearwaters, Least and Black Storm-Petrels, Masked Booby, Heermann’s, Yellow-footed and Sabine’s Gulls, Cassin’s Auklet, and the sought-after Xantus’s and Craveri’s Murrelets. The supporting cast includes Sooty Shearwater, Red-billed Tropicbird, Blue-footed and Brown Boobies, Magnificent Frigatebird, Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers (or Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas), Royal Tern and the beautiful Elegant Tern.

We spend the better part of two days at untouched Laguna San Ignacio with the Grey Whales and then sail south, through waters that hold Blue and Humpback Whales, until we enter the Gulf of California (or Sea of Cortez).

The last part of our journey will be spent amongst the dramatic scenery of the coastal islands and mainland of southern Baja, where the sounds attract the great whales (Blue, Fin, Bryde’s and Sperm in particular, all of which we should see) as well as enormous pods of dolphins.

We will make a series of landings on the very scenic islands, home to endemic plants (including some strange cacti) and reptiles, and a great selection of desert birds including the endemic Xantus’s Hummingbird and the endemic Grey Thrasher. There will even be an opportunity to snorkel with playful California Sealions that like to gently nibble one’s fins, or blow bubbles in one’s face!

We will be travelling on Searcher, a large (95ft, or about 30m, in length), very well-equipped and comfortable, ocean-going sport-fishing boat that, on our special charter, will take up to 24 passengers in 13 twin-berth cabins, some on the main deck but most on the lower deck (we have limited the group size to 24 rather than the 26 the boat can hold in order to have some flexibility over cabin arrangements.) Cabins have two or more bunks (but we limit all cabins to twin or single occupancy), a washbasin, a mirror, 110v electric outlets and reading lights. The cabins are fairly small, but you are unlikely to spend any time in them other than when sleeping. There is plenty of open deck space on two levels for wildlife observation and the bridge is open to all. There is also a spacious salon area (for dining and relaxing) and a library on the main deck. There are four bathrooms on the main deck, including two with showers. The crew are a great bunch and really make the voyage a fun experience for every passenger. Landings (and snorkeling trips) are usually made with Searcher’s four skiffs, although at Laguna San Ignacio we have to use local boats because of national park regulations. Sea conditions are, on average, mostly calm, but moderate seas can be experienced along the Pacific coast of Baja. Rough seas are possible but very unlikely.

Travelling to Baja on Searcher and spending time with the whales and seabirds is really an extraordinary experience, so don’t miss it!

Note: This tour is ideal for couples where only one partner is a keen birder. The wildlife, scenic and travel experience is a rich and varied adventure that anyone can greatly enjoy. Walking ashore is mostly very easy, with only short distances to be covered, so the trip is perfect for people of all levels of physical ability.

During the optional post-tour extension we will explore the marshlands near San José del Cabo and the isolated Sierra de la Laguna mountains of the Baja mainland in search of several more endemics, including the diminutive Cape Pygmy-Owl, Belding’s Yellowthroat, Baird’s Junco and San Lucas Robin.

Birdquest has operated birds and cetaceans cruises to Baja California since 2011.

(Note: The above is a summary of the tour. For more information please download the detailed, day-by-day itinerary. The button is at the top right of the page.)

Accommodation & Road Transport: For details of the accommodation on Searcher, please see the tour introduction. During the extension the hotel is of normal Birdquest standard. Road transport is by minibus/passenger van or car and roads are rather variable.

Walking: The walking effort is easy throughout during the main tour. Walking is mostly easy during the post-tour extension, but there will be one optional long uphill walk on a broad track in the Sierra de la Laguna.

Climate: Mostly warm or hot, dry and sunny, but it is sometimes overcast. Rain is possible but unlikely. Sea conditions in the Gulf of California are typically calm. Along the Pacific coast conditions are typically calm to moderate at this season.

Cetacean, Seal & Bird Photography: Opportunities are excellent, even extraordinary at times. Scenic photography is also very good.

Tour Price: £2940, €3650, $4590 San Diego/Los Cabos. Baja California Mainland Post-Tour Extension: £630, €780, $980. Price includes all transportation, all accommodations, all meals, bottled water, some drinks, all excursions, all entrance fees, all tips for local drivers/guides ashore and for accommodations/restaurants ashore, leader services. Kindly note that gratuities for the expedition staff and crew are also not included in the tour price. Gratuities are entirely at your discretion. The staff/crew work very long hours to make such cruises a success, including a great deal of night sailing, and we have been told that gratuities of around US$350-400 are the norm for a cruise of this length. For those not used to North American practices surrounding gratuities/tips, we would like to point out that employees working in service industries in North America are paid at low wage levels on the basis that a relatively high level of gratuity is considered standard practice.

Single Cabin/Room Supplement: Guaranteed single occupancy of a cabin can be obtained in return for an 80% supplement. Please note that if you are willing to share but no cabin-mate is available you will not have to pay the single occupancy supplement. Baja California Mainland Post-Tour Extension: £108, €134, $168.

Deposit: 20% of the tour price (including any single supplement), rounded down to the nearest £, € or $

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency can arrange your air travel in connection with the tour from a departure point anywhere in the world, or you may arrange your own air travel if you prefer. We can tailor-make your itinerary to your personal requirements, so if you would like to travel in advance of the tour (and spend a night in an hotel so you will feel fresh when the tour starts), or return later than the end of the tour, or make a side trip to some other destination, or travel business class rather than economy, we will be happy to assist. Please contact us about your air travel requirements.

During our voyage on Searcher we will visit some of the most remotest parts of Baja California. Here on San Benito del Oeste, far out into the Pacific, a tiny human community of fisherfolk eke out a living alongside elephant and fur seals, and many thousands of nesting seabirds. (Mark Beaman)

During our voyage on Searcher we will visit some of the most remotest parts of Baja California. Here on San Benito del Oeste, far out into the Pacific, a tiny human community of fisherfolk eke out a living alongside elephant and fur seals, and many thousands of nesting seabirds. (Mark Beaman)

Northern Elephant Seals, which can dive to over 3000ft (nearly 1000m), enjoy each other's company when they are hauled out and moulting. (Mark Beaman)

Northern Elephant Seals, which can dive to over 3000ft (nearly 1000m), enjoy each other's company when they are hauled out and moulting. (Mark Beaman)

In the spring, aptly-named Elegant Terns gather on the beaches of Baja in between feeding sorties from their colonies. (Mark Beaman)

In the spring, aptly-named Elegant Terns gather on the beaches of Baja in between feeding sorties from their colonies. (Mark Beaman)

Elegant Terns live up to their name. (Mark Beaman)

Elegant Terns live up to their name. (Mark Beaman)

You will never forget the whales of Baja! This Humpback is slapping the water so loudly and spectacularly that it could be seen from many miles away, never mind heard underwater by far more distant whales. (Mark Beaman)

You will never forget the whales of Baja! This Humpback is slapping the water so loudly and spectacularly that it could be seen from many miles away, never mind heard underwater by far more distant whales. (Mark Beaman)

And as for breaching, well when they crash back into the water, often on their backs, it is something else again! (Mark Beaman)

And as for breaching, well when they crash back into the water, often on their backs, it is something else again! (Mark Beaman)

The extraordinary rock colours of Punta Colorado on Isla San José in the Gulf of California. (Mark Beaman)

The extraordinary rock colours of Punta Colorado on Isla San José in the Gulf of California. (Mark Beaman)

Download Detailed Itinerary 533kbpdf logo View Tour Report 1
A Humpback Whale breaching and then tail-slapping ranks amongst the top wildlife spectacles anywhere on Earth. (Mark Beaman)

A Humpback Whale breaching and then tail-slapping ranks amongst the top wildlife spectacles anywhere on Earth. (Mark Beaman)

Sometimes Humpbacks just laze on the surface, gently waving a long pectoral fin. (Mark Beaman)

Sometimes Humpbacks just laze on the surface, gently waving a long pectoral fin. (Mark Beaman)

Every winter the Grey Whales gather in the lagoons of Baja California to have their calves. By April the calves, like this one in the foreground, can be up to 22ft (7m) long, about half as long as their mother! (Mark Beaman)

Every winter the Grey Whales gather in the lagoons of Baja California to have their calves. By April the calves, like this one in the foreground, can be up to 22ft (7m) long, about half as long as their mother! (Mark Beaman)

The most amazing whale encounter on earth is getting to stroke the Grey Whales of Baja. Once you have done this, whale 'watching' will never seem the same again. (Mark Beaman)

The most amazing whale encounter on earth is getting to stroke the Grey Whales of Baja. Once you have done this, whale 'watching' will never seem the same again. (Mark Beaman)

The huge calves often come right up to the pangas and seem to actively seek out human attention. Perhaps they enjoy the stroking as much as we do! (Mark Beaman)

The huge calves often come right up to the pangas and seem to actively seek out human attention. Perhaps they enjoy the stroking as much as we do! (Mark Beaman)

Grey Whales are not so famous for breaching as Humpbacks, but are just as spectacular when they do. (Mark Beaman)

Grey Whales are not so famous for breaching as Humpbacks, but are just as spectacular when they do. (Mark Beaman)

They even seem to like surfing! True Californians, obviously. (Mark Beaman)

They even seem to like surfing! True Californians, obviously. (Mark Beaman)

Baja California is the best place on earth to encounter the endangered Blue Whale, the largest animal on our planet, and April is the best month of all in Baja. This is just one of six Blue Whales we found feeding together in April 2009 and spent nearly two hours with. In total we enjoyed no fewer than five Blue Whale encounters in under two weeks, with up to nine individuals seen each time! (Mark Beaman)

Baja California is the best place on earth to encounter the endangered Blue Whale, the largest animal on our planet, and April is the best month of all in Baja. This is just one of six Blue Whales we found feeding together in April 2009 and spent nearly two hours with. In total we enjoyed no fewer than five Blue Whale encounters in under two weeks, with up to nine individuals seen each time! (Mark Beaman)

Searcher is one of those happy, family run boats that one hates to leave when the time comes. Captain Art and his crew are special, and no one knows Baja and its whales better than they do. (Mark Beaman)

Searcher is one of those happy, family run boats that one hates to leave when the time comes. Captain Art and his crew are special, and no one knows Baja and its whales better than they do. (Mark Beaman)

Craveri's Murrelet is virtually a Baja Californian endemic, dispersing uncommonly to California and beyond. (Mark Beaman)

Craveri's Murrelet is virtually a Baja Californian endemic, dispersing uncommonly to California and beyond. (Mark Beaman)

Xantus's Murrelet is not quite as hard to get on your life list, but still a highly sought-after auk. This species breeds on the islands off the Pacific coast of Baja. (Mark Beaman)

Xantus's Murrelet is not quite as hard to get on your life list, but still a highly sought-after auk. This species breeds on the islands off the Pacific coast of Baja. (Mark Beaman)

Black-vented Shearwater is another speciality that breeds only in Baja, dispersing further north in winter. (Mark Beaman)

Black-vented Shearwater is another speciality that breeds only in Baja, dispersing further north in winter. (Mark Beaman)

Heerman's Gull, virtually all of which nest in Baja, is undoubtedly one of the world's most handsome gulls. (Mark Beaman)

Heerman's Gull, virtually all of which nest in Baja, is undoubtedly one of the world's most handsome gulls. (Mark Beaman)

Laysan Albatrosses are increasing and now locally common off Baja, unlike the case further north. (Mark Beaman)

Laysan Albatrosses are increasing and now locally common off Baja, unlike the case further north. (Mark Beaman)

Blue-footed Booby is a restricted-range species of the tropical eastern Pacific. (Mark Beaman)

Blue-footed Booby is a restricted-range species of the tropical eastern Pacific. (Mark Beaman)

Sabine's Gulls will be migrating northwards in April. (Mark Beaman)

Sabine's Gulls will be migrating northwards in April. (Mark Beaman)

The endemic Grey Thrasher occurs on both the Baja mainland and some of the islands in the Gulf of California. (Mark Beaman)

The endemic Grey Thrasher occurs on both the Baja mainland and some of the islands in the Gulf of California. (Mark Beaman)

Xantus's Hummingbird (this is a male) is another Baja endemic. (Mark Beaman)

Xantus's Hummingbird (this is a male) is another Baja endemic. (Mark Beaman)

As is Belding's Yellowthroat. (Mark Beaman)

As is Belding's Yellowthroat. (Mark Beaman)

Part of the delight of a relaxing adventure in Baja is the fantastic, ever-changing scenery. (Mark Beaman)

Part of the delight of a relaxing adventure in Baja is the fantastic, ever-changing scenery. (Mark Beaman)

And the sunsets are legendary. (Mark Beaman)

And the sunsets are legendary. (Mark Beaman)

Many of the flights and flight-inclusive holidays on this website are financially protected by the ATOL scheme. But ATOL protection does not apply to all holiday and travel services listed on this website. Please ask us to confirm what protection may apply to your booking. If you do not receive an ATOL Certificate then the booking will not be ATOL protected. If you do receive an ATOL Certificate but all the parts of your trip are not listed on it, those parts will not be ATOL protected. Please see our booking conditions for information, or for more for more information about financial protection and the ATOL Certificate go to: www.atol.org.uk/ATOL Certificate

Birdquest Ltd is Registered in England, Company No. 01568270. The address of our registered office is Two Jays, Kemple End, Stonyhurst, Clitheroe, Lancashire BB7 9QY

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