Variety of birds on a sand bank
Animals,  Bird place of the month,  Birds,  Mexico

Of whales and birds in Baja

John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

At the top end of that chain are the biggest animals on the planet. Blue whales come here to mate and calve each spring, while many other whale species are also to be seen, either seasonally or, in the case of fin and sperm whales, year-round. And the gulf’s 900 plus islands are important nesting sites for thousands of seabirds.

Blue whales and more

We spent a week in Baja California Sur, staying in both La Paz and Loreto on the gulf coast. While in Loreto we did two whale watching trips. The first took us out into the Sea of Cortez where we were fortunate to see lots of blue whales as well as two fin whales and a humpback. There were bottlenose dolphins too, playing in the waters close to one of the islands.

As you can imagine, I took loads of photos, especially as I had my camera on the burst setting for much of the time. I promise I’ve edited very thoroughly! And while I shared some of these in one of my postcards from Mexico, the versions below have been edited and are in a larger format.

Back of a very large grey-blue whale with a small fin
Blue whale (note how small the dorsal fin is)
Spray from a whale in front of mountainous land
A Blue whale spouting
Whale's tail disappearing into the sea
A Blue whale diving
Whale's tail disappearing into the sea
The tail of a Blue whale
Whale's tail disappearing into the sea in front of rocky land
Another Blue whale tail (each tail is distinctive and helps scientists to identify the individuals)
Large whale on the surface of the sea
Fin whale
Whale's tail disappearing into the sea in front of mountainous land
Humpback whale’s tail (all I got of him!)
Bottlenose dolphins

Grey whales

The second whale watching trip was from the small port of Adolfo Lopez Mateos on the Pacific coast. This small town is a commercial fishing port for ten months of the year, but from mid-January to mid-March the fishermen clean up and repaint their pangas and turn them to a different use, whale watching in the Bahia de Magdalena.

This second trip was all about the grey whales, who come to these warm seas to mate and calve. We’d been told that quite often these magnificent beasts will come so close to the boats that you can pet them, but also warned that of course these are wild animals and there are no guarantees you will see them at all. In the end it was a ‘medium’ day in our guide’s estimation. We didn’t get to pet any whales, but we saw loads, several quite close to our boat. However I found them much harder to photograph than the blue whales of two days ago as they were moving faster and surfacing less, and the sea was rougher. Just the same, it was a fabulous experience!

Hands holding a camera with a small boat and large whale in shot
My husband Chris photographing the whales
Small boat and part of a whale emerging from the sea
A Grey whale surfacing near one of the many other pangas that were out in the bay
Two small boats and part of a whale emerging from the sea
Grey whale and pangas (we were rather jealous of the people in the boat on the right!)
Part of a large whale in the sea with blow hole visible
But we got pretty close too: the back of a Grey whale with blowhole
Part of a large grey whale with smaller one
A Grey whale and calf

Sea birds of Baja

From the shore in both towns we saw plenty of sea birds: pelicans, gulls, cormorants, and more. And on the grey whale trip from the Pacific coast we saw frigate birds in the mangroves there. Below is a gallery of birds for Georgina’s Bird Place of the Month challenge.

My feature photo is of Royal terns, Double-crested cormorants, Western gulls and I think a Great blue heron (or possibly a Grey heron), photographed in a foggy Bahia de Magdalena. Click on any photo in the gallery below to get a caption identifying the species and location, and to open a slideshow of all images.

I visited Baja California Sur in February 2024

60 Comments

  • SoyBend

    Nice tail shots of the blue whales, Sarah! I know how hard it can be to time it just right when photographing sea creatures. Also liked you pelican pictures. They are ungainly yet graceful- looking bird.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you again Siobhan 🙂 I enjoyed the challenge of photographing the whales but sometimes I had to just put the camera down and enjoy the spectacle!

  • rkrontheroad

    Excellent whale shots! I’m surprised they used such small boats. Apparently the whales didn’t seem to disturb the boaters. We used to go to a spot on the northeast end of the Baja. The whales didn’t come up that far, but the dolphins were plentiful.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Ruth 🙂 I guess the boats are small because they’re the best ones for fishing, and the enterprising fishermen have put them to the profitable extra use! And maybe they disturb the whales less, although our captain was concerned at one of the other boats getting a bit closer than it should have done.

  • Annie Berger

    Had never heard of the Sea of Cortez until chatting with friends who have traveled the world to see specific animals. I can see from your great photos why they also insisted on going there, Sarah. We’ve seen a few whales in a few spots but certainly not the incredible variety you did. Thanks for making us feel we were almost there, too.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Annie 🙂 I first heard of the Sea of Cortez via the work of Steinbeck and when I later read about the large numbers of whales to be seen there I became determined to visit!

  • wetanddustyroads

    Your whale photos are truly amazing Sarah! Oh, and it’s kind of scary to see how small the boats are against the whales! Also love your feature photo of all the different birds in one shot.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Corna 😊 It was too exciting seeing the whales to think about being scared! And I was glad the captain took us to that sandbank on the way back to port, there were so many birds there.

  • Image Earth Travel

    John Steinbeck’s quote resonates with me after living on a boat for 21 years. The sea gets under your skin and never leaves.
    I find it exhilarating watching dolphins and whales in the wild and can’t for the life of me understand why Japan still kills over 900 each year for “scientific research”.
    While spending 7 weeks in Japan last year, I did see a couple of whale restaurants. 🙁

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Wow, you lived on a boat for that long?! What an interesting lifestyle that must have been 🙂 Did you travel the world or were you moored in a single location? I hate to think of so many whales killed like that. I do understand that in some very traditional remote communities, e.g. Inuit, they rely on whale meat as a staple food and kill a few each year according to agreed limits, but in a modern society like Japan there are more than enough alternative food sources.

  • kzmcb

    Your bird shots are amazing, Sarah, and I know how hard it is to capture whales, especially when they’re far off. I’d never thought of rapid setting, but any which way my arms and eyes get sore.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Alison 🙂 Yes, the boats are small (the one we went out in for the blue whales was bigger, although not huge) but if anyone has ever fallen in, it wasn’t mentioned! However, lifejackets are compulsory, of course. I loved bouncing over the waves in this small boat but they stayed inside the bay so it wasn’t very choppy. They pointed out the line of surf that marks the ‘real’ ocean, but said they never crossed it on these trips, although of course as fishermen they do – amazing in such small boats!

  • margaret21

    What a fabulous set of photos. And you did so well with your whale watching. Our only experience was off Vancouver Island, years ago. And while we had a wonderful time observing birds, seals and so on in profusion, we only got to see one whale, briefly, at the very end of our voyage. Great bird captures!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Margaret 😊 It’s a bit of a lottery, this whale-watching lark! We were lucky in two very different trips off Vancouver Island, also years ago – one for orca / killer whales (which aren’t really whales at all, of course) and one for greys. But our last attempt before these excursions, a few years back in the San Juan Islands, was pretty much a washout – no orca, which was the purpose of the trip, and just one distant humpback. But this time around we did well on both the excursions, especially the first 😀

  • Marilyn Armstrong

    Fantastic whale pictures! A blue whale — they are so rare these days. Isn’t it wonderful when the whales do a whole show for you? It makes you love the sea — if you didn’t already love it.

    The Steinbeck quote is very “right on.” I was raised on an island — a very big island. Whenever I’ve lived far from the sea or other water, I’ve been unhappy. I need to be near water.

    The only really good whaling trip we went on we saw many whales, beautiful whales, leaping and twirling. Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned the excursion, so I didn’t have a camera and it was before cell phones or at least before cell phones with cameras. Early 1990s I think. I didn’t have a jacket or coat. It’s much colder when you are out on the ocean. We were at lunch and the guy who owned the restaurant also ran the whale watching boats off that same dock. They had extra room, so he packed up our lunches and off we went. No camera, but lots of whales. But you saw a live BLUE WHALE. That’s outstanding.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Marilyn 😊 Yes, it was extra special seeing all those blue whales. They’re definitely endangered so fairly rare, but they seem to like those waters and at this time of year there are usually plenty to be seen (no guarantees however). Your impromptu trip sounds wonderful although it’s a shame you have no photos to show for it. On the other hand, maybe you appreciated your time watching the whales all the more if you weren’t fiddling with camera settings trying to capture the perfect shot, as I was much of the time. But I did make sure I put the camera down now and then, just to take in the scene properly 🙂

  • the eternal traveller

    You did well to capture so many wonderful images. I usually put my camera on the sport setting when I’m trying to photograph moving things but the burst setting is a great idea. I’ll try that next time.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 🙂 Yes, the burst setting works well but you have to be prepared to spend time afterwards selecting the best couple of shots and deleting the rest!

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    OK let’s start first with Steinbeck’s quote. He’s right. I lived in Derby, Bedford and Crowborough before I moved to the Kent coast in 2011; Michaela hails from Birmingham but moved to Gosport at 18 and has lived on the coast ever since. Now, neither of us can even imagine living away from the sea. On to Baja then. Wow what a fabulous collection of wildlife photographs, what thrilling expeditions you must have enjoyed. Sounds an amazing place to spend some time doing exactly what you did. Fantastic viewing for you!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Phil 😊 Steinbeck was right about a lot of things, I’m a big admirer! And yes, these were fantastic expeditions, especially the first blue whale one. Mainly for those magnificent whales but also a particularly good guide (she even brought home-made cake for our snack!) You two would love Baja, and it’s a great area for independent travel as the driving is relatively easy 🙂

  • Alli Templeton

    Congratulations, Sarah, again you demonstrate your excellence in wildlife photography with some superb shots here. 🙂 I can only imagine how awe-inspiring it must have been getting ‘up close and personal’ with the whales, in particular the grey where you managed to get near enough to capture it’s blowhole with such clarity, not to mention the adorable calf! And I find the pictures of the tails of the diving humpback and blues really quite moving, and surprisingly humbling. Did you feel that too when you were there on the boat? The birds are captured beautifully too, especially the brown pelican and the frigatebird. You could easily compile a wildlife calendar with your skills. 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Alli 😊 (that’s me, blushing!) Yes, it is a humbling experience to be so close to such immense yet graceful creatures – especially the blue whales, knowing they are the largest creatures on earth.

  • Terri Webster Schrandt

    How amazing, Sarah! I’ve spent a bit of time on the Sea of Cortez near LA Paz and La Ventana..the windsurf mecca November-March…lots of Americans and Canadians love it. I didn’t know these facts about the Sea of Cortez.

    Such an incredible variety of seabirds, not to mention cetaceans! Years ago we swam with the whale sharks in LA Paz, a truly mind bending experience. I bet you have a million photos. Thanks for sharing Baja with us!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Terri 😀 We like La Paz a lot (didn’t get to La Ventana) but I wasn’t aware it was a wind-sufing mecca. We were there primarily for the whales and other wildlife, and it didn’t disappoint! I really liked the town too so I’ll probably post about that in due course.

  • Marie

    Looks like a wonderful – and very successful – outing…What a privilege to get so close to such magnificent creatures. I like that last fella – the frigatebird….

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marie 🙂 We went to Baja primarily because of the whales so it was great to see so many. And I like the frigatebirds too, and they were a bonus on the grey whale trip as our captain brought the boat in quite close and lingered a while so we could get our photos 🙂

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