Bahia Almejas and Punta Belcher, 2/23/2023, National Geographic Venture
National Geographic Venture
No day is the same in Southern Baja. Unlike the clear skies of prior mornings, a layer of cloud cover threatened to conceal the rising sun from guests who emerged from their cabins this morning. But as is expected more often than not, the sun broke the horizon on the Pacific Coast of Baja.
We began the day anchored just outside the Bahia de Almejas. The morning was met with anticipation from the passengers and staff of National Geographic Venture. The reason: we planned to travel from the ship into the bay to search for gray whales. Just the day before, we had acquainted ourselves with this large cetacean as we entered a series of protected bays. What we hadn’t done yet was observe from the fiberglass boats known as pangas. Observing whales from these smaller boats often makes for more intimate experiences than observing from larger vessels like National Geographic Venture.
Following breakfast, the skies began to clear. Pelicans and cormorants moved purposefully over the surface of the water, heading in all directions. Meanwhile, frigatebirds lazily soared high overhead. They often appeared suspended like permanent fixtures across the seascape. The environment teemed with coastal birdlife, suggesting that the bay harbors appreciable numbers of fish.
Pangas driven by local boat captains carried off small groups of passengers, staff, and crew to nearby areas known for aggregations of wintering gray whales. Within minutes of arriving, the presence of multiple gray whales was apparent. Whales were seen surfacing, rolling, and spyhopping. When spyhopping, a whale lifts its snout out of the water, sometimes high enough for the eye of the animal to break the surface.
All passengers could see these behaviors from the small boats. Guests always hope for gray whales to approach the boats. Happily, we all enjoyed close observations of curious gray whales. In some cases, the whales approached the pangas for several minutes. It’s not known why whales approach the boats, but these animals are curious and intelligent. They are no longer threatened by intentional human persecution like they were historically. It may be that these animals approach us today for reasons that we can relate to ourselves at some level…perhaps out of curiosity and for connection.
Alex Harper is based in Southern Nevada, where he spends most of his time as a freelance naturalist, science communicator, birding guide, speaker, and writer. He serves on the board of directors for the Las Vegas-based Audubon chapter, as well as mul...
The day began with a lovely stretch class led by our wellness specialist as the sun rose over Bahia Magdalena. National Geographic Venture made its way into Puerto San Carlos, and we watched pelicans swoop and dive near the shore. After a hearty breakfast, we loaded into buses and made our way to Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos. The plaza at the docks is always a festive, colorful place, and we were greeted by Mexican music and traditional dancers. One couldn’t help but dance. Excited, we loaded into the pangas of local, certified whale watching guides and set out toward the mouth of Boca de Soledad. On our way, we slowly passed by the mangroves that play such an important role in the immense amount of life found within Bahia Magdalena. Magnificent frigatebirds roosted in the upper branches while double-crested cormorants were seen diving and fishing in the shadows of the trees. We headed out farther into the bay and began to see blows. Several adult gray whales and a few cow/calf pairs dove and logged and blew and swam in the vicinity of our pangas for the rest of the morning…some off in the distance and some close enough to cover our glasses with spray. It was such a special experience to be in this part of the bay where so many pregnant whales come to give birth. All that whale watching caused us to work up an appetite. We went to a restaurant for a delicious, authentic Mexican meal while Los Coyotes, a musical group, serenaded us with traditional tunes. Full and happy, we returned to the plaza to ready ourselves for our afternoon whale watching tours. It’s amazing how much difference just a few hours can make while observing nature. On this trip, we saw less whales, but those we saw came much closer to the boats. The trip ended perfectly with around ten bottlenose dolphins playing across the bow. We returned to National Geographic Venture with great stories and great recaps from our staff to remind us of all the beauty we witnessed that day.
Last night, we rounded the cape that forms the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula and began making our way north through the open waters of the Pacific towards Magdalena Bay. The norteño winds were blowing, and the sea conditions were quite different from the flat, glassy waters we experienced earlier in the week. After breakfast, as National Geographic Venture advanced over the swells, a masked booby flew alongside us for several minutes, affording us excellent views of this beautiful seabird. Over a third of our guests this week are part of a group organized by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and this morning we enjoyed talks from two TNC guest presenters. Tom Dempsey’s talk, “Building Ocean Conservation Solutions for Scale,” focused on actions his team is taking to reduce two different types of adverse human impacts on whales – entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes. TNC has partnered with fishing communities along the California Coast to create a robust recovery system for lost crab fishing gear, the loose vertical lines of which are one of the more common entanglement threats to whales. Containerships striking whales are often an invisible cause of whale mortality, and Tom also described his team’s vision to bring a “whale safe shipping” certification to the international container shipping industry. Having such a standard would recognize compliance with ship routes and speed restrictions and would allow merchandisers to apply market pressure to reward good behavior. Soon after Tom finished fielding questions from guests, the expedition leader made an exciting announcement over the ship’s public address system: a killer whale had been sighted near the ship! National Geographic Venture slowed down and turned around to allow guests to come out to the bow to enjoy this sighting. The very tall, angular dorsal fin was indicative of an adult male killer whale, and it stayed near us for some time. Our position at the time was just offshore of the southern tip of Isla Margarita, near the Rehusa Channel, which forms the southernmost entrance to Magdalena Bay. Although gray whale calves and their highly protective mothers are inside the shallow waters of the bay, killer whales very rarely enter Baja California’s gray whale lagoons. Although we don’t fully understand why, our naturalists shared theories of why this might be. Once we got underway again, TNC’s Frank Hurd shared a great talk titled, “Sustainability through Partnership – Working with Fishing Communities to Ensure a Better Future for Marine Ecosystems & Everyone that Depends on Them.” Frank has worked closely with local fishing communities here in Baja California Sur and has helped them use scientific tools to create size limit restrictions that can protect their marine resources and future livelihoods. As we witnessed yesterday in Cabo Pulmo, the key elements to efforts like this being successful are initiation and ownership of regulations from within the community. TNC and its partners are working in many other geographies around the world to scale this community-driven, relationship-based approach to marine conservation. Over lunch in the dining room, we breathed a sigh of relief as National Geographic Venture passed through La Entrada, the principal opening of Magdalena Bay to the Pacific. The seas calmed as we entered protected waters and saw our first gray whales of the trip. We enjoyed a presentation from naturalist Rich Kirchner on the “Birds of Baja” before anchoring just offshore of one of the narrowest parts of Isla Magdalena. Excited to stretch our legs and explore this new environment, we loaded Zodiacs to shuttle guests to the beach. In front of us, a sweeping expanse of barchan dunes formed an isthmus connecting Isla Magdalena’s rugged mountains of metamorphic rock to our south and north. These rocks are exotic terranes, accreted onto the edge of the continental plate millions of years ago. Ocean currents then deposited huge quantities of sand in this area, and these rocky outcrops were connected by dunes to form the barrier islands that separate Magdalena Bay from the open Pacific. We broke into smaller, naturalist-led groups to explore this spectacular landscape of shifting sands. We saw shell middens left behind by inhabitants of this area thousands of years ago, fine grains of powdery sand blowing and cascading over the crescent-shaped dunes, succulents that are slowly managing to stabilize their dynamic environment, tracks of kangaroo rats, lizards, foxes, and coyotes, interesting plants such as satiny locoweed and Magdalena twinevine, and a loggerhead shrike perched atop an island of desert thorn. We crested the dunes and took in the sweeping views of Sand Dollar Beach and the waves of the open Pacific with all our senses. Now it was time to beachcomb! In addition to hundreds of sand dollar skeletons – and a few sand dollars that were still alive – we found an abundance of sea turtle ribs, crabs, bird skeletons, and shells left behind by mollusks such as cockles, scallops, and pen oysters…and much, much more. Exhilarated by the beauty of this special place and the joy of exploration, we eventually walked back across the dunes towards National Geographic Venture , glowing in the soft light of the late afternoon sun. After cocktail hour and evening recap, the hotel team treated us to a Mexican fiesta in the dining room. We enjoyed ceviche, guacamole, tamales, and enchiladas mineras. We somehow managed to save a little space for delicious tres leches cake, and then we returned to the forward lounge one last time for a presentation by naturalist Megan Wehrenberg on mangrove ecosystems. Today was yet another full day, and we are excited for the opportunity to spend time searching for gray whales tomorrow!