El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve

Huge, friendly, barnacle-laden gray whales come here in the thousands every winter to peaceful, salty lagoons on the Baja Peninsula to court, mate, socialize, and give birth, after a journey of 6,000 miles (9,600 km) from arctic feeding grounds—longest migration of any mammal.

These dramatic natural phenomena take place in sheltered bays along Baja’s irregular west coast, especially in two lagoons—San Ignacio and Scammon’s (or Ojo de Liebre), ironically named after the whaling captain who discovered them in 1850 and then slaughtered them almost to extinction.

The population, now protected, has rebounded almost to pre-whaling numbers, around 20,000, and whale-watching has become popular, making these marine mammals more valuable alive than dead—important for continued recovery.

They are so comfortable now in the 55,555-square-mile (143,600-km2) reserve that frolicsome ones flip 10-foot-wide (3-m) tails and play dangerously close to visitors’ small boats, peering at them with myopic four-inch (10-cm) eyes. Any visitors’ unease vanishes when a trusting 40- foot-plus (12-m) mother and calf half her size hang around to be patted.

Vizcaino is the largest protected area in Latin America. Within it the Mexican government has set aside 16 core areas for special protection. These include islands with hundreds of elephant seals, herds of sea lions, nesting petrels and other seabirds, and 10,000-foot (3,050-m) mountains with bighorn sheep. There are caves with paintings recording prehistoric wildlife, and a desert tract where endangered pronghorn antelopes whizz along at 70 miles an hour (113 kph)—the western hemisphere’s fastest mammal—leaping 20 feet (6 m) at a bound. They adapt to the desert by erecting their fur to admit cool breezes, warming up on cold nights by flattening fur over dense guard hairs.

Vizcaino’s varied altitudes, climates, and habitat in relative isolation over millions of years have given it (and Baja overall) interesting, often unique biota—imperial eagles, black and peregrine falcons, magnificent frigate birds, brown and white pelicans, giant Mexican cereus cactus, bobcats, mountain lions. Of 38 mammals, 15 are endemic. Dense zooplankton riding the California coastal current attracts a broad seagoing wildlife spectrum including four endangered sea turtles and 60 kinds of seabirds.

Three other whale species are here—killers; highly endangered humpbacks, still killed illegally when their friendly approach to boats makes it easy for poachers; and blues, up to 100 feet (30.5 m) long with average weight of 143 tons (130,000 kg), probably largest animal that ever lived, only a few thousand believed surviving worldwide.

Best times are February–March. San Diego, served by international airlines, is a starting point for boats taking visitors to Baja, with visitors staying aboard overnight. So is Ensenada just south (where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island). Guerrero Negro, a village named for another whaling captain and closer to the lagoons, has a restaurant and motel where tours can be arranged, or whales can be watched less intimately from shore.

Visitors should be sure to take sun lotion, sweaters, and waterproof slickers.

The whole 800-mile (1,300-km) Baja peninsula, longest in the world, separated from mainland Mexico by the Sea of Cortez (or Gulf of California), is largely undeveloped and fascinating, with fin, minke, sperm, and pilot whales, three kinds of dolphins (sometimes pods of 1,500 or so) in the sea, and red-billed tropicbirds, blue-footed boobies, elephant trees, elephant cacti ashore. Fifty-three islands are a special U.N. World Biosphere Reserve, sanctuary for both land and marine birds. 1857 Constitution National Park, 45 miles (72 km) east of Ensenada, and San Pedro Martir National Park,150 miles (240 km) south, are extraordinarily beautiful mountain and forest reserves with bobcats, gray foxes, mountain lions, mule deer, raptors, acorn woodpeckers, pinyon jays.