Mexico’s peninsula state, aptly named Baja (lower) California, is always a delightful destination, but February might be the best time to visit. Amazing birds are seen at any time of the year, as are wondrous boojum trees, but the gray whale nurseries are active only from mid-January to mid-February. Baja stretches 800 miles from the California border to Cabo San Lucas, ranging from 30 to 150 miles wide with an incredibly diverse habitat that includes Sonoran Desert, 10,000-foot mountains and 3,000 miles of ocean coastline. Baja’s birdlife is equally diverse, with resident desert species, mountain birds, shorebirds and pelagics, and a large percentage of the world’s population of Least and Black Storm Petrels, Heerman’s and Yellow-footed Gulls, Elegant Tern and Blue-footed Boobies breed in the Sea of Cortez. A fair share of Mexican endemics can be found here as well, including Belding’s Yellowthroat, San Lucas Robin, Baird’s Junco and the Xantus’ Hummingbird.
From mid-January to mid-February, however, the peninsula’s greatest draw is the gray whale nurseries along the Pacific Ocean. In December, gray whales leave their summer feeding grounds in the Chukchi and Bering seas and swim 5,000 miles south to the sheltered warm water lagoons of Baja. Whales mate in and near the three nursery lagoons, and females impregnated the prior winter birth their calves in the shallow lagoons, nursing their young until they are strong enough to begin the 5,000 mile swim to the arctic. This is the longest migration of any mammal on earth, and these newborn calves will grow from their one-ton infancy into 50-foot, 70,000-pound behemoths. These three primary nurseries can all be reached by car from the U.S. The smallest is Magdalena Bay, about 125 miles west of Loreto, and the next largest lies farther north at San Ignacio Lagoon.
The largest nursery is Laguna Ojo de Liebre, close to Guerrero Negro, a small village 450 miles south of California. When we last visited Laguna Ojo de Liebre (eye of the jackrabbit), 2,000 whales had been counted in the shallow lagoon, including 900 newborns. Open pangas take up to a dozen people out for closer looks. It’s illegal to approach the whales nearer than 100 meters, but nothing prevents the whales from coming to the boats, and they often do. Mother whales seemingly encourage and guide their young alongside the low draft boats, coming so close that tourists can reach out and pet the 2,000-pound calves, whose silky looking skin actually bristles with whiskers.
Although you can book a tour to check off this bucket list item, there are many reasons to drive yourself. For one thing, tours are expensive, and driving to Guerrero Negro can be done in the same time it takes to get from Tucson to Denver. Besides, if you drive you’ll get to see those incredible Boojums. These strange endemic ‘trees’ begin showing up about 220 miles south of Tijuana, and forests of them stretch 230 miles south to the border of Baja California Sur. They may be the most exotic of hundreds of exotic plants found in Baja. Related to our ocotillo, Boojums (Fouquieria columnaris) were named by Godfrey Sykes, a Tucson botanical explorer. For some unknown reason, Sykes picked the name from a fictional character in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. For some other unknown reason, the name seems perfect. A Boojum looks like a tall inverted carrot, with a broad base, narrowing to a peaked top, in late summer capped with a yellow candle-like flower giving it the Mexican name, Cirio. Starting as a single stem, they can grow to 50 feet, and often split into multiple stems which can twist into wonderful photogenic shapes. You can see a couple of Boojums at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, but it’s not the same. Do yourself a favor. Take a break, drive to Baja, take photos of weird Boojums and pet a baby whale. Oh, and check out the birds, too.
The above article was originally published in the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, February, 2016.