In a 15-passenger inflatable Zodiac boat, we’re zooming around the aquamarine water of Los Cabos, Mexico. Whale-watching season runs from mid-December to mid-April when thousands of ballenas (whales) ply the waters day and night. Although they’re easily spotted from shore, we’re told that if we want a glimpse of them up close and personal, our best bet is to board a fast boat with a trained guide to hone in on them in the shallow waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez.
Powered by two Yamaha outboard motors, a Zodiac has enough thrust, maneuverability, and visibility to pursue these stealthy creatures wherever they surface. Compared to larger boats, small crafts enable passengers not only to get closer to marine life but also to experience the relentless motion and power of the sea.
My husband and I book a 10:30 AM reservation with Cabo Expeditions, a company that runs whale-watching excursions out of the modern marina at the port in Cabo San Lucas. The bright sunny morning was perfect for boating or any outdoor activity. After removing our shoes and placing our belongings in a large storage locker on the boat’s deck, we don bright orange life vests and are ready for the hunt. We sit next to the other boaters who are all sporting digital cameras.
Looking tanned and seaworthy in a white pique shirt, navy Bermuda shorts, and mirrored sunglasses, our bilingual guide Augusto greets us and helps passengers on the boat one by one. Twelve people are seated on the rear half of the tube; three are on cushioned seats at the stern. A company photographer commandeers the prime seat at the front of the boat.
“Any questions before we leave?” asks Augusto. Positioned at the helm, he tells us we’ll see gray whales and humpbacks, mostly mothers with calves that migrate thousands of miles each year from Alaska to these warmer waters.
“Why are there so many whales in Los Cabos?” one young woman asks.
“This is where they are born so they return here every year,” he replies.
“How fast can they travel?” asks someone else.
“Usually six or seven miles an hour but they can swim as fast as 20 if they have to, but only for short distances,” he responds.
The eye-catching covers of most whale-watching trip-brochures invariably show close-ups of huge whales breaching head first out of the water. In reality, whale watching is more akin to going fishing. You stare at the water patiently and come to accept you may not make a single catch that day. The unpredictability of the sport is what makes it exciting.
We pass Lover’s Beach, Land’s End, and Los Arcos, where we stop briefly to take photos as we travel north on the Pacific. Bouncing on the waves, we soak up views of striking rock formations along the shore. Augusto instructs us to call out when we spot a whale, using the positions of a clock to pinpoint location. Like a schoolteacher, he orients us to 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. Our entire crew of 15 whale hunters crook our necks in every direction to see who will be first to spot the big one.
“Four o’clock,” yells a passenger on the starboard side. By the time I click my camera shutter, the whales are submerged beneath the water again. I realize that getting a good view, let alone a photograph, is going to be tough.
Whales breathe through blowholes on the top of their heads so when they exhale, it pushes up an explosive spout of water. Augusto explains that the spout offers a visual clue that the warm-blooded mammals are nearby. As promised, we see some spouts followed by glimpses of barnacle-covered gray whales.
“Let’s go east,” says Augusto as he changes course looking for richer waters. We head to the Sea of Cortez and travel the equivalent of five land miles on a path that parallels the highway called “The Corridor,” which links the anchoring cities of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Remarkably, desert vegetation meets the aquamarine waters almost at the shoreline.
At Augusto’s beckoning, we sight a few more whales a distance away but they are nothing to write home about. Then he slows down the boat and turns off the engine. Everyone remains silent as he turns on a special listening device that amplifies sounds underwater so we can hear the whales singing to each other. We know we’re getting closer.
Then came the grand finale. Two enormous whales breach up towards the blue skies and slam down on their sides. I thought the boat might capsize when we all got up from our seats angling to get unobstructed views. They “skyhop” seconds later, raising their heads above the water. The action creates a huge splash that looks like a tidal wave. Cameras click and we all ooh and aah as our lenses fog up with spray.
We’d already spent two hours on the boat, but everyone is disappointed when Augusto signals it is time to head back to the marina. He revs the motor but we remain vigilant in case the whales perform again. No such luck.
It takes a few minutes to regain our sea legs after we get off the boat and return to the expedition office on the marina. Before stopping at a nearby cantina for margaritas, we wait for the company photographer to download his shots from the voyage. They’re projected onto a large overhead TV screen set up for viewing by customers. He was either more practiced at whale photography or had a far better telephoto lens than any of ours.
For an additional $35, we cave in and purchase a CD with copies of the several dozen whale shots he took, along with a print photograph. I’m still not sure whether it was the same whales we saw or stock photography. It really doesn’t matter.
IF YOU GO: WHALE-WATCHING IN CABO
Cabo Expeditions (behind the Tesoro Hotel) on the Cabo San Lucas Marina
- Costs $85 per passenger for a 2½ hour guided whale-watching tour, including bus transportation from and to your hotel.
- Boats leave about every two hours between 8AM and 3:30PM.
- Check for exact times; reservations are recommended.
[A version of this article was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 10/14/12.]