Off Baja California, the 'Mexican Galapagos', zoologist Mark Carwardine flirts with the world's friendliest whales.
I am a whale addict. Since I saw my first exactly 30 years ago, I've been whale-watching in at least 50 countries - many more times than I can remember - and yet every time I head out to sea I get the same buzz of anticipation I felt the first time.
But there is one whale-watching hot spot that has had a greater impact on me than anywhere else on the planet. I've returned there once, twice or three times a year since the late 1980s, doing research, taking photographs and leading tours. I miss it enormously when I'm somewhere else.
It's Baja California, on the wild Pacific coast of Mexico. Look at a map of North America and down in the bottom left-hand corner is a long stretch of land that looks rather like a giant chilli. This is Baja. It's one of the longest peninsulas in the world, stretching 1300 kilometres south from the Californian border. A greater variety of whales and dolphins can be seen here in a couple of weeks than anywhere else in the world. One moment you could be surrounded by thousands of boisterous common dolphins or enjoying a close encounter with an inquisitive fin whale, the next you could be alongside a group of deep-diving sperm whales or watching a family of rare and elusive Peruvian beaked whales.
But there are three thrilling, uplifting, life-changing - and virtually guaranteed - highlights of any trip to this "Mexican Galapagos": tickling implausibly friendly grey whales under the chin; listening to humpback whales singing their haunting, unearthly songs; and enjoying unforgettably close encounters with gargantuan blue whales. Best of all, with more than 3000 kilometres of untamed shoreline and few whale-watching boats in the region, most of the time you have the whales, dolphins and other wildlife to yourself.
Baja is a world of peace and tranquillity. As John Steinbeck says in his classic The Log from the Sea of Cortez: "Whatever it is that makes one aware that men are about is not there. Thus, in spite of the noises of waves and fishes, one has a feeling of ... quietness."
I remember one evening on my most recent trip, I was sitting on the deck of the boat, under a glorious sky, listening to the sounds of the night: the water lapping against the bow, coyotes calling from nearby sand dunes, a cacophony of barks from distant sea lions and the thunderous blows of whales all around. Absolute heaven.
Friendly grey whales
Grey whales are widely regarded as the friendliest of all whales: it's hard to tell who is supposed to be watching whom. Spending time with them is arguably one of the greatest wildlife experiences on earth: a blur of leaping, laughing, spouting, splashing, stroking, playing and patting.
These inveterate travellers commute along the length of the western North American coastline, between summer feeding grounds in the Arctic and winter breeding grounds in Baja. For several months each year, practically the entire world population of grey whales gathers in four mangrove-lined breeding lagoons along the Pacific coast of Baja to socialise, mate and calve. My favourite lagoon is San Ignacio.
All encounters are from pangas, fibreglass boats seating eight to 10 people and operated by local fishermen - perfect for close encounters. The whales are as playful and trusting as kittens: they come alongside the boats and nudge them, or push them around in circles, or even lift them up, ever so gently, and then lower them back into the water. Best of all, they lie there waiting to be scratched and tickled. (If you're wondering whether it's a good policy to encourage people to touch wild animals, consider this: if you don't scratch and tickle them, the whales simply go and find a boatload of people who will.)
The calves are usually most playful but sometimes a huge cloud of bubbles will erupt from the water beneath the boat. There is a slight swishing sound and then a gigantic, bowed head appears right alongside. It is the mother - all 15 metres of her - who is always nearby, watching. Even she enjoys the occasional scratch and tickle.
Just a brief flirtation with a friendly grey whale is often all it takes to turn normal, quiet, unflappable people into delirious, jabbering extroverts. Everyone becomes the life and soul of the party. I have seen grown men and women break into song, burst into tears, slap one another on the back. I have done it all myself and like nothing better than to watch other people falling under the spell, knowing that their lives will never be quite the same again.
Stephen Fry sums it up best. We spent a couple of weeks filming in Baja for the BBC television series Last Chance to See and he became a whale addict after our first day in San Ignacio. "Suck my pants and call me Noreen," he said. "That was the best day of my life. What a phenomenal experience. Epic. Epic. Epic."
It's hard to believe that these same grey whales once had a reputation for being ferocious and dangerous. They were hunted ruthlessly in the second half of the 19th century and again in the early 20th century, until there were almost none left (numbers have bounced back since, thanks to strenuous conservation efforts).
Yankee whalers entered the Baja lagoons in small wooden rowing boats and harpooned them. But the whales fought back - chasing the whaling boats, lifting them out of the water, ramming them with their heads and dashing them to pieces with their tails. They would "fight like devils", so the Yankee whalers quickly dubbed them "devilfish".
Nowadays, somehow, they seem to understand that we come in peace. The survivors appear to positively welcome whale-watching tourists into their breeding lagoons and, far from smashing our small boats to smithereens, welcome us with open flippers. They seem to have forgiven humans for all those years of greed, recklessness and cruelty. They trust us, when we don't really deserve to be trusted. It's a humbling experience.
Singing humpback whales
Just off the southern tip of Baja California is another magical place: a breeding ground for humpback whales. If you wanted to design the perfect whale for whale-watching, you couldn't do much better than a humpback. They're easy to identify, shamelessly inquisitive and capable of performing some of the most spectacular acrobatic displays. Herman Melville, who mentioned them in Moby-Dick, knew what he was talking about when he described them as "the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water generally than any of them".
Their speciality is breaching - leaping out of the water - and they seem to do this a lot off the southern tip of Baja. Flying through the air, arching their backs and waving their enormous flippers, they hit the water with a thundering splash, as if someone has dropped a submarine from a great height, before disappearing beneath the surface.
One of the highlights of any visit to Baja is a chance to listen to male humpbacks singing their plaintive songs.
Drop an underwater microphone, or hydrophone, into the water and it's possible to eavesdrop on an entirely different world.
The air is filled with a baffling medley of moans, groans, snores, squeaks and whistles. With elements of jazz, bebop, blues, heavy metal, classical and reggae rolled into one, this mesmerising, unforgettable live concert sparks a roller coaster of emotions: soothing and melancholic, shocking and unsettling, mesmerising and awe-inspiring. Human words don't do justice to the longest and most complex song in the animal kingdom. There is nothing else quite like it.
Gargantuan blue whales
Rounding the Baja peninsula, turning north, is an even more extraordinary world. This is the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California, which lies between Baja and "mainland" Mexico. It is a well-kept secret that tends to be overshadowed by San Ignacio, its more famous neighbour. But visiting the grey-whale lagoons without venturing into the Sea of Cortez is like buying a book and reading only the first chapter.
Dotted with islands harbouring huge numbers of frigatebirds, red-billed tropicbirds, blue-footed boobies and many other seabirds, the Sea of Cortez is also home to weird and wonderful elephant trees, the world's tallest cactuses, endemic Xantus's hummingbirds, mobula rays that leap out of the water like flying pancakes, ocean sunfish, giant whale sharks, several species of sea turtles and so much more. There is even an islet, called Los Islotes, that is probably the best place in the world to snorkel with friendly, inquisitive and playful California sea lions. But it's the whales that draw people. And, in particular, it's the blue whales. This is one of the best places in the world to see the largest and most impressive animals on the planet.
Hundreds of thousands of blue whales were killed by whalers and, although they were given official protection in the mid-1960s, most populations have never recovered.
But this one seems to be thriving. This community accounts for as many as one in three of all the blue whales in the world - dividing their time between Baja California, central and southern California and the Costa Rican Dome (an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water off the coast of Central America). Seeing a blue whale is every naturalist's dream. But it's impossible to prepare someone for their first encounter. An average-size blue whale is stupendously enormous: almost as long as a Boeing 737 and weighing as much as 2000 people. Quite simply, it takes your breath away. When one of these animals surfaces next to the boat, you are hooked for life.
It's worth travelling all the way to Baja for that single experience alone.
Baja California is a finger of land spanning two provinces connected by a handful of flights and one road, the Transpeninsular Highway (Highway 1). Qantas has a fare to the main airport, Los Cabos, from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2350 low-season return including tax. Fly to Los Angeles (about 14hr), then to Los Cabos (2hr 25min). See qantas.com.au. For US transit, Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
Whale watching there
The main whale-watching season is from early February to the end of April. The best way to explore is on a marine safari; see the Latin American Travel Association, lata.org. It's possible to drive or fly to San Ignacio Lagoon (from San Diego or Ensenada) and stay in a camp onshore. Local fishermen take tourists out in their pangas daily.
The state capital of Baja California Sur, La Paz, is the only real city on the peninsula. It has a languid old centre, the most attractive malecon (promenade) in Mexico and two renowned taco joints: Rancho Viejo and Super Taqueria Hermanos Gonzalez.
Mulege is an oasis in a sparsely inhabited wilderness of hilly desert. Visit the cave paintings in the Sierra de Guadalupe and the quieter beaches of Bahia Concepcion.
Loreto was founded by the Spanish in 1697 and the original mission church still stands. But the crumbling Mision San Francisco Javier de Vigge-Biaundo in the hills outside town is the most enigmatic in Baja. Mexico's largest marine park, Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto, lies offshore.
Until the 1980s sister towns Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo were little more than villages. Today, "Cabo" is a resort that parties until dawn. The jagged cape that gave the region its name remains enchanting and the arty surfer town of Todos Santos is a short drive away.
Hacienda Paraiso de La Paz Inn is La Paz's most charming guesthouse. Double rooms cost from $95. See haciendaparaiso.com.
La Mision Loreto overlooks the Sea of Cortez. With an old-world look it is new, with modern spa and pool. Double rooms from $115. See lamisionloreto.com.
Arriba de la Roca is the most stylish boutique in Todos Santos. There are four luxurious cottages and sensational views over the Pacific. Double rooms cost from $275. See arribadelaroca.com.