The Experience of a Lifetime Continues…
Now that you know all about Grey Whales and Laguna Ojo de Liebre from reading Part I of my story in last month’s RPTimes, I can get on with my adventurous tale. Just as a reminder – whale watching season began mid-January (and runs through mid-April) and this story is about my trip LAST February. I have no idea what effects Covid will have on whale watching this year, but I’m going again this month so will let you know. I’ll be posting some photos on our Facebook and Instagram pages while I’m over there so look out for those.
Okay, now we start our trip at Peñasco’s International Airport. We were the only ones flying out that morning, so everything was a breeze. Our luggage was checked on both ends – via Belgian Malinois on this end and a hand search on the other end. When we walked out onto the tarmac, and I saw how small the planes were (6-seaters), I was preparing for a very exciting ride over to Guerrero Negro since that’s how most of my other puddle-jumping experiences have been. I can’t remember if my row-mate told me before, or after, we boarded the plane, that she is gets motion sick…super fantastic! Needless to say, I was quite pleased when we landed on the Baja, about an hour later, vomit free and nary a bump the whole flight. The scenery was beautiful, on both sides of the Baja, and it’s always fun to see Peñasco from the air.
We landed in Guerrero Negro around noon: Our plane held me, Mary, Bob, Annie, a co-pilot (or someone just hitchin’ a ride), and the pilot. The other plane held Candy, Dan, Patti (Mary’s sister) and Mark (aka The Flying Nun) as well as the pilot. After our luggage was inspected, we jumped into the waiting cabs that were taking us to our motel. I must’ve been the last one inspected – or they found mine extra interesting due to the travelling bar I had packed – because by the time I got to the parking lot, everyone was gone. Poof! Vanished! There I was, solo, left on the tarmac halfway down the Baja, somewhere in Mexico, hundreds and hundreds of miles from home, not a friend in sight and had I checked, probably no cell service either. But, as my luck would have it, there sat one cabbie and two handsome guys that also needed a ride to town…some days you just win life’s lottery! ?
The cab ride was fun and by the time I got to the motel my fellow groupies were ready to roll, so we jumped in the van with Tony and off to the lagoon we went. (During whale season Tony spends most of his time over in Guerrero Negro since he has back-to-back excursions, but he does try to make it back to Peñasco for the Mermaid’s Market.)
The weather was darn near perfect when we landed so we didn’t delay getting to the lagoon because you never know when it will turn. Tony Ballesteros may be the “Whale Whisperer”, but he can’t control the weather. Tony does watch the weather and a few of us were monitoring it on our various phone apps: We weren’t so much concerned with the temperature as we were about the wind. We did have some Mystic Whale Tour swag to keep us warm and I think most of us were prepared to get at least a little wet, so we packed appropriately for the most part. (Mary Snyder turned me on to the WindFinder app which seems to be very accurate so you might want to download it before you go.) I would highly recommend a hooded, mid-weight, water-resistant jacket, shoes that you won’t mind getting wet and dirty, gloves, scarf, beanie, and a dry bag for your personal items. (I just picked up 3 today and the 10L looks to be ample size for all the stuff you would need to carry for the day including a light or compact jacket.) The bottom of the panga usually gets wet and the whales do like to spray in your face. Tony’s website, www.mysticwhaletours.com has an FAQ section that covers all of this and you should give it a read.
Lucky for us we had pretty good weather the entire time, which is why my weekend trip turned into a week. It did sprinkle one day, but there was no wind, so we all opted to go out anyway. Once you see the whales up close you want to go out every possible chance you get because, as we found out, every time out is a different experience: Some days the whales are super friendly and surround the boat, and other days they just ignore you. Mary claims that the last day (I had to leave at 6am, but more about that later) was the absolute best day of the whole entire trip! I wouldn’t have believed her if it weren’t for the video she took – and let’s just say that she went out of her way to mention my name and say how it was the absolute best day of all. I have to admit, I would’ve done the same to her. What are friends for?
One of the many benefits about going with Tony, besides not worrying about anything, is that your group is purposely kept small and private. There’s always plenty of room in the panga so everyone is not tripping over one another and, believe me, you’ll appreciate it once the whales start showing up and you’re trying to get from side to side as fast as you can. After seeing boats crammed with like 18 people last year (pre-pandemic), I know everyone in our group very much appreciated the private charter experience. I must throw in a disclaimer here: Our group opted to pay extra to double-up on our excursion time and to take additional trips, which were not included in our original package.
In order to get to Laguna Ojo de Liebre, you must go through miles and miles of salt flats first, which just so happens to be the site of the world’s largest commercial salt company, Exportadora de Sal, SA de CV. I guess you call it a commercial plant since the majority of its salt is designated for commercial use like salting the roads, but they do also produce table salt. The company was founded in 1954 by Daniel K. Ludwig, a shipping magnate and businessman, who wanted to supply the demand of salt to the U.S. It was then sold to Mitsubishi and the Mexican Government jointly in 1973. During our trip we toured the plant and got to see the entire process. The salt is scraped out of the salt beds, loaded onto these giant dump trucks and then dumped onto conveyor belts where it is washed and sorted and eventually shot out of a giant tube onto a ginormous mountain of salt. You walk along a catwalk, mere feet above a dozen or more large conveyor belts where the salt is separated, washed, crushed, and processed. After the tour, if you’re super sneaky, you can run over to the giant mountain of salt and make salt angels and possibly pocket a rock or two (ssssh, I didn’t tell you that). Some of the salt flats you pass through are a pristine white and some have a light pink tint to them…Himalayan sea salt, huh?
After touring the processing end, you drive around the mountain and get a look at the barges where the salt is loaded onto. Tony knows everything about the plant – from how the salt is collected, processed, and loaded to where it goes and how it gets there. From the backside of the mountain, it’s fun to watch the bulldozers mess around on top of the hill and come down because they look like Tonka Trucks from the bottom. Those guys look like they have a fun job.
Not only does Tony know everything about the salt plant, but he also knows everything about everything else! Every trip out to the lagoon we were peppering him with questions about the whales, salt flats, restaurants in town, where to get this or that, and just general history of the area. He is truly a wealth of information. You do have some free time and there are some great restaurants in the area – lots of lobster! Guerrero Negro has some of the best birria I’ve ever had and the shrimp tacos, that you just stand on the sidewalk and eat, are phenomenal. Not to mention that every restaurant carried the same Malbec, which was pretty good – so I was a happy camper since I was only able to fit a couple bottles in my luggage. I am almost as excited to go back for the food as I am the whales…not quite, but close.
Once you arrive at the lagoon, you can’t really see the whales, but you can catch some spouting and the occasional breach. There are a few palapas set up for day use and along with a place to check-in and get your life vests, there is a small restaurant, gift shop, info on the Grey Whale, and a whale skeleton, as well as a cool patio carving in the cement floor of a Grey Whale. But probably the most interesting thing, besides knowing the whales are not far away, are the restrooms. Yep, the restrooms – the views are amazing! The elevated huts are roomy and have a large-picturesque window…there you sit (gentlemen, I recommend you do the same) looking out onto this fabulous lagoon, with Grey Whales spouting, thinking WTH? A million-dollar view with no modern conveniences or electricity! They are very primitive, and ecological, meaning that you have to fill a pail with water to “manually” flush the toilet. If this doesn’t appeal to you then you can use the standard port-a-potty down by the dock, which no one seemed to complain about.
Adorned with our life jackets and lunch, down the docks we went to our awaiting pangas and captains. Some of us were just coming off the first 11-day cruise aboard the Astoria where we swam with whale sharks in La Paz: A pretty awesome experience that I thought would be kinda hard to top. Hah! Gil was our captain that day and in our panga was me, Dan, Candy and The Flying Nun (aka Mark). Dan and Candy have been out with Tony before, so they knew what to expect. Me, not so much. This was only my 2nd experience with ocean going semi-trucks and my swim with the whale shark was a bit cloudy and the instructor held my hand the entire time, so there’s that.
Oh, they’re so gentle, they said. They will just lay there and look up at you, they said. They just swim around the boat, they said. So, imagine my surprise when out of nowhere our boat starts rocking and something is going crazy under and all around us. I happened to be recording at that exact moment so needless to say, some expletives spilled from my mouth as I was almost crapping myself. I looked around to see if anyone else was freaking out. Nope, no one else, just me. Gil was trying to tell me that a “VERY HAPPY” calf was making all the ruckus. WTH? This is what a happy baby does? I hate to see what a pissed off one does. What about a pissed off mama? OMG! Once I calmed down and realized that we were not all going to go overboard, I got to see and enjoy this wonderful little baby splashing around having fun. I think it was trying out some new moves, obviously not having quite mastered them yet – these are the teaching grounds after all.
Mary, Patti, Bob, Annie and Tony were in another panga and, for the most part, the two pangas hung close by one another. The captains are constantly on the move trying to get their passengers the best whale watching experience possible. Gil has been shuttling whale watchers, season after season, for a number of years and told me he lives right there on the property during the season. You could clearly see that he loved his job, and he was even recording us on his own phone – he sent me a couple videos of my interaction with a calf, which was very cool. That first Friday out, even though we didn’t have Tony “The Whale Whisperer” in our panga, we did have Candy “The Whale Whisperer”: The whales were coming to her one right after the other. We had so many whales come to our boat that I’m pretty sure the other boat got a bit jealous. Even when they moved into our area, the whales still came to our boat. Hah! Eventually we felt sorry for them and Candy started sending the whales over to their boat.
Tony had told us that the mama whale usually checks us out first and if we pass inspection, she then will then go down and push her baby up to the surface to interact with us. This did indeed happen a few times. He also told us that we would never see a baby alone – it might look like it is alone, but you can bet mama whale is nearby. This also happened a few times – a little freaky when you see her “appear” out of nowhere under the boat. A lot of times mama and baby stayed at the surface interacting with us – having the two of them together was always a treat. The calf, that Gil took the video of, was so sweet: It just laid alongside our boat looking up at us while we rubbed its smooth skin. I think that baby stayed with us the longest out of all of the babies that we saw. Anytime the whales came right up to the boat was a treat since it didn’t happen every time we went out. Some days we would just see them “spying” or breaching off in the distance and other days they seemed to toy with us, coming super close to the boat, but always staying just out of our reach. I leaned over the panga so much last year, putting my arm into the water trying to touch them, that I think I bruised my armpit – if that’s even possible. Even though the whales looked like they were close to the surface, they remained out of reach. Blanca was a huge, almost completely white whale that did this to me forever one day. I swear she knew exactly how long my arm was – down to the mm – so she would come up just far enough to get my hopes up and then swoosh! down under she went. I am happy to say that she did eventually come up out of the water so that we could touch her, and I swear we saw her on multiple outings…or Blanca was a “him” – I don’t know how to tell the difference. The coolest thing is when they come up and look you in the eye. So soulful.
That first trip on Friday was such an awesome experience and so much more than I was expecting. I had seen the photos of past trips but being there in person was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. (After that first day, Guerrero Negro went on my yearly “To-Do” list.) Needless to say, we were all very excited and sharing stories on the can ride back to the motel and we all decided that we wanted an extended trip on Saturday as well.
Back at the motel we all had time to shower, relax and have a glass of wine before heading to dinner at Restaurant Mario’s out on Highway 1. Mario’s is a cool restaurant with a sand floor, whale museum and interesting décor with ocotillo columns and accents. Tony has donated various photos to their whale museum/lecture arena. Good variety of food, though I didn’t make it past the lobster tail, guac and Malbec, of course. They have a neat little selection of salt souvenirs for sale and out front we took shots around the colorful Guerro Negro tourist letters that you see all over Mexico now.
Our motel seemed to be within walking distance of pretty much everywhere we wanted to go and offered nice, clean accommodations. Housekeeping even did Mary’s laundry for her – I opted to wear the same pair of jeans whale watching for 3 days in a row – ewww. I figured they were just going to get wet and dirty again and I had a clean pair or two to wear out to dinner every night. Remember, Mary and I packed for a weekend, not a week, so after everyone flew back home, we were back and forth to each other’s room – do you have this? Did you bring this? Can I borrow this? Tony, where is the pharmacy so I can buy this or that?
From here on out I’m pretty sure I will get most days and events mixed up as so much happened on our trip and I didn’t take notes. Like I do know Mary was the first one to get hosed by a whale, but not sure if it was on Friday or Saturday. And we saw hundreds and hundreds of blue cannonball jellyfish floating by on Friday, but not sure when we actually caught one. Some things are very clear – like the Saturday night we went to the “hoochie-mama” bar after dinner and hung out with the local talent and Barbara, the bartender. Patti and Dan played pool while Candy, Mary and I hung out with Barbara. That night there was karaoke, line dancing and an attempt at pole dancing on the way out the door – I won’t mention any names (you’re welcome, Patti). Good times!
1. Nanook of the South
2. 3 Grey Whales come to visit
3. Tony Ballesteros taking photos in the salt flats
4. Giant dump trucks hauling salt to the processing plant
5. Me making a salt angel
6. Patti stealing salt rocks
7. Mario and Alicia…what! Where did they come from?
8. Restrooms with a view at the Lagoon
9. Me, Candy, Dan, Mark (The Flying Nun) and Gil, our Captain
10. They are all so sad…no whales wanted to visit them. This was actually Saturday when we had Candy and Tony, two Whale Whisperers. Mark, Mary, Patti, Annie and their captain.
11. Tony, Mary and Patti
12. Mary holding a cannonball jellyfish
13. Whale eye looking up at us from just under the surface
14. Lobster tail at Restaurant Mario’s
15. Mitch, last seen aboard the Astoria, made an appearance in Guerrero Negro
16. Barbara the Bartender
17. Dan and Patti enjoying a game of pool
18. A Grey Whale comes to visit Mario and me
19. Dan gets some whale action