The blue whales in the Sea of Cortez (see the previous post) was a neat experience but the grey whale encounters on the Pacific side of the Baja Penisula were breathtaking. Often female grey whales with calves will come up alongside the boat and occasionally let you touch and rub them. This is the experience we had. Grey whales can reach 15 metres (50 feet), weigh about 35 tonnes (75,000 pounds) and live approximately 60 years.
Each winter the whales migrate from Canada and Alaska south to The Baja Peninsula traveling up to 11,000 kilometres. There are a number of bays and lagoons along the Pacific (western side) where the pregnant mothers deliver their babies. At birth, the calves are about 4 meters (13 feet) long and weigh approximately 800 kg (1,764 pounds)! The babies are often playful and occasionally bring their heads out of the water making interesting photographs.
We were hoping to get some good underwater shots with our underwater cameras to get a different perspective of them as most people see then only from the surface. The water, however, is very green filled with phytoplankton and visibility was maybe 10 feet. Therefore, it proved difficult to get any good photographs but we have included a few to give a different perspective.
If someone is wanting a wonderful whale experience for themselves or for their family then we would highly recommend the grey whales at the fishing town of Adolfo Lopez Mateos, Magdelena Bay, Baja California Sur, Mexico. We were there towards the end of February.
Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) are the largest whales in the world reaching lengths approaching 30 metres (100 feet) and weighs up to 180 tonnes (400,000 pounds). They start arriving in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park, Mexico in February each year. There seems to be a sweet spot called the blue triangle where they are regularly seen. Danzante Island, Del Carmen Island and Monserrate Island make up this blue triangle in the Sea of Cortez. Some whales like humpbacks with their spectacular breaches, or grey whales that come next to your boat are more photogenic. However, blue whales just break the surface of the water to exhale, take in more air and descend.
On our way to our dive site, we saw some large waterspouts caused by the exhaling blue whales off in the distance so a detour was in order. Marine park rules dictate that you keep your boat a specific distance away from the whales. The way it works is that you see the blue whale in the distance, you move the boat towards them but by then they have descended again. The boat captain guesses where he thinks they will come back up (usually 6-9 minutes later) hoping they will surface closer to the boat. We played this game about 8 times and each time they came up a long distance from the boat. Great experience but now it was time to go to our dive site so off we went. Unexpectedly, the whale surfaced about 30-40 metres (100-130 feet) away from the boat which was close enough to get these photographs!
The purpose of our dive was to photograph Horn sharks and we got lucky on our second dive around Danzante Island in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park, Sea of Cortez, Mexico. Thank you to Juan Carlos Reyes Valerio our dive master for finding these rather reclusive sharks. Although we found 3 different horn sharks, 2 were deep in crevices and they were impossible to photograph. However, it only takes one and this shark was out in the open apparently waiting to be photographed. Horn sharks are not strong swimmers and this shark is trying to tuck as close to the rocks as possible.
This area has more than sharks and we saw 3 different species of ray, two that stayed still long enough for us to photograph. The ocellated electric ray or bullseye electric ray (Diplobatis ommata) can generate a moderate electric charge for self-defence. The bullseye or ocellus on the back is very distinctive and is where it derives its name. It is a small ray reaching about 10 inches (25cm) in length.
The second ray we were able to photograph was the spotted round ray also known as the Cortez round ray (Urobatis maculatus). They have short tails compared to many other rays and reach a length of about 17 inches (45cm). This ray didn’t stick around for very long before it headed to deeper water.
A surprise for us to come across was the banded guitarfish (Zapteryx exasperata). We were not aware that there were a guitarfish species in the Sea of Cortez. This fish can reach up to 4 feet (1.25m) and has both dorsal fins of nearly identical size. Unfortunately, it had its head facing away from us partly going into a crevice.
Every day we walk the arid canyons and hills around Danzante Bay along the Sea of Cortez. The sparse vegetation has many cacti and some flowering shrubs. Surprisingly, we see hummingbirds out here on a regular basis which we did not expect.
At Villa Del Palmar where we are staying, they have flowering plants that attract the hummingbirds on a regular basis. There are two species that we have identified. The Xantus’ and the Costa’s hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds proved difficult to photograph as they don’t stay still for very long. To get closeup shots we shot at 600mm with our 150-600mm lens. With such a narrow field of view, it takes time to find the hummingbirds. After you find it the next step is to focus on the bird but most of the time the hummingbird has decided to move to the next flower. They zip around from flower to flower in a very irregular pattern.
The key to getting these photos was patience and taking lots of photos (most of them were discarded). Hopefully, you will enjoy these beautiful little birds.
Mystery solved thanks to Spider ID! We stumbled across a large tarantula a few weeks ago that we definitely identified as a Baja tarantula. However, over the last number of days, we have been photographing this spider but couldn’t positively identify it. We were told it was a tarantula but we have discovered that although it is commonly misidentified as a tarantula, it is actually a female Crevice Weaver Spider (Kukulcania).
There are about 8 individual spider webs like the one below across a 30-foot wide volcanic rock outcrop. It is smaller than the Baja tarantula with the body segments about 1 inch (2.5cm) not including the legs.
The two pictures below were taken on a sunny day which makes the spider look darker. The second picture is a close-up to highlight the eyes.
This spider came out of his den to investigate what was caught in his web. It attacked the beetle, I assume biting it, spun some web and went back in its den. The whole encounter lasted less than 45 seconds and was fascinating to watch.
Nestled in the tiny remote village of San Javier is a Jesuit mission called Mision San Francisco Javier de Vigge-Biaundo, or San Javier Mission. The current building dates back to 1744 and is one of the best preserved and oldest Jesuit missions. It is in remarkable shape considering it has had little restoration. In fact, it is still used as a church today.
The drive takes you on a winding road through the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range offering stunning views of the mountains, canyons, and Loretta Bay far in the distance. We made the trip on our own with a rental car but you can also take a tour or taxi. From the town of Loreta, the drive takes approximately 35 to 45 minutes (38.6/24 miles).
It is incredible to imagine how the early Jesuits were able to build such a big structure in this remote location. The builders mined limestone from the surrounding hills and the alter pieces were brought by ship and then horseback and donkey from Loretto Bay to the mission.
The main altar, as well as the two side altars, are framed with 18th-century oil paintings. The altars were built from gold leaf brought in from Mexico City.
Our trip to Isla Mujeres, Mexico to swim with whale sharks was all we hoped it would be. The visibility here is better than some other locations as whale sharks come to Isla Mujeres to feed on Bonito (tuna) eggs which are clear, unlike other areas in the world where they feed on plankton.
Although we were focussed on whale sharks it is not uncommon to find manta rays in the same areas. On our 3rd & 4th day we had fewer encounters with the whale sharks but found areas where there were also manta and mobula rays. We had some great encounters with these rays!
One of the photography techniques we would like to perfect is Over-Under such as this one. Over-Under photos are tricky as you need to take into account the lighting and focus of both below and above the water line.
Whale Shark Facts:
they are called the Gentle Giants for a good reason as they can grow to over 40′ in length & weigh up to 21.5 tons (47,000 lb)
they are filter feeders and feed mostly on plankton, copepods, krill, fish eggs as well as small crabs & fish
their life expectancy is 70 to 100 years
they reach sexual maturity at 30 years and give birth to live young
they prefer to stay near the surface but can dive down to 5000′
they have no natural predators and humans are their only threat to survival
their mouths can grow to over 4.5′ wide
they filter an average of 1,500 gallons of water every hour