An introduction to Los Cabos’ biggest stars—whales!—and the best ways to see them
By Beto Haro Romero
Beautiful beaches. Excellent restaurants. First-class hotels. And the iconic arch at Land’s End. When you first think of Los Cabos, there are likely many things that come to mind. But you can’t forget Los Cabos’ biggest stars. And, no, we’re not talking about the many A-list celebrities who frequently fly in for quick getaways and events like the recent Los Cabos International Film Festival.
We’re talking about the biggest of the big: whales. In recent years, Los Cabos has firmly established itself as a destination for international travelers who love to whale watch, those who fly from the world over to see the magnificent creatures that can measure up to 100 feet long. And for good reason.
Every year, Los Cabos is visited by several thousand whales. There’s no doubt it’s the best spot in México if you’re looking to see a variety of species. Because of Los Cabos’ unique location—it’s right on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula and therefore surrounded by both the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortés—you’re able to see more kinds of whales. In many other locations, whale watchers can expect to see only one or two kinds of whales. But here we are fortunate enough to be able to regularly see, depending on the month, as many as nine different kinds of whale species. If you’re lucky, just in one outing, you may see up to four kinds.
So what are we talking about? The whales you are most likely to see during your visit to Los Cabos are the humpback and the gray whales. But other species that call Los Cabos home—at least part of the year—are orcas (killer whales), pilot whales, minke whales, sei whales, fin whales, blue whales, and sperm whales.
Whale season in Los Cabos is typically considered to run from late December until late March or early April. This is when many whales venture south. They come primarily to mate and give birth, but some also come to feed off the region’s rich marine life. (We’re not the only ones who enjoy the seafood in Los Cabos.)
Here, we will break down the different types of whales and how you can tell them apart. Plus, we’ll let you know about some of the best whale watching outfits in Los Cabos.
What we commonly refer to as whales are divided into two groups: those with teeth and those with baleen (the filter feeders). In this article, we’ll talk about both. Baleen whales are the largest and can reach up to 100 feet long. These filter feeders eat plankton, krill, small crustaceans, and schools of small fish. These are what you are most likely to see in Los Cabos.
Toothed whales are technically not whales but instead members of the dolphin family. Examples you’ll see in this article—and in Los Cabos—include orcas and sperm whales.
Humpbacks: The humpback whales are the most acrobatic of all the baleen whales you may see in Los Cabos. You can spot them from miles away because they make a big splash when breaching, slapping the water with their long flippers or tails. Researchers suspect they do this in an effort to communicate with each other as well as to rid themselves of the barnacles on their bodies…plus, it just looks like a lot of fun. Humpback whales often travel in pods—this is the term used to describe a group of whales. During the beginning of the season, you may see male whales trying to mate with females. Then, late in the season, you’re likely to spot mother whales taking care of their babies near the shoreline. How else can you identify a humpback whale? A grown humpback can measure up to 40 feet long. And they’re easy to identify because when they are preparing to dive, they show off the big hump on their—you guessed it—back. When you’re on a whale watching tour, you may be lucky enough to listen to a hydrophone, which allows you hear the humpback whales singing.
Grays: The second most common whale you’ll see during these months in Los Cabos, or Baja, is the gray whale. They come from the frigid waters of Alaska to Baja’s more palatable lagoons to mate and give birth. Even whales can have a hard time finding “The One,” and some are forced to travel as far south as Los Cabos to find a mate. Like humpbacks, gray whales also impress when breaching. You can tell them apart, though, because gray whales are solid gray, humpless, and have a smaller tale. These whales measure up to 35 or 40 feet and weigh about 30 tons and are filter feeders.
Orcas (killer whales): The easy-to-identify black-and-white orca was made famous in movies like Free Willy and has entertained millions at various SeaWorld amusement parks. Orcas seem to come as they please in Los Cabos, sometimes hanging around the whole year. Other times, we can go months without a spotting. While we often refer to orcas as killer whales, these predators actually belong to the dolphin family. They travel in large pods, generally measure up to about 20 feet, and have been known to attack other marine mammals like sea lions, manta rays, and gray whales.
Pilot whales: The all-black, dolphin-like pilot whales like to hang out in big crowds. Pods are made up of dozens of pilot whales, which travel back and forth from Los Cabos to farther out in the Sea of Cortés and Pacific Ocean in search of food.
Minke whales: While you’re less likely to see a minke than, say, a humpback during whale season, they are definitely worth keeping an eye out for. The smaller cousin of a blue whale, the minke whales have a pelican-like pouch under their throats that they fill while feeding on plankton, krill, and small schools of fish. Look for them farther offshore.
Sei whales: The fast-swimming Sei whales prefer the deeper waters found farther offshore, but you can sometimes spot them nearer to Los Cabos. They can measure up to 60 or so feet, have a cool steel gray color mixed in with lighter gray or white markings along its sides.
Fin whales: There’s no mistaking the fin whale, which has a look all its own. The long, hydrodynamic whale was built for speed and swims up to 30 miles per hour. Juveniles are often seen breaching offshore and sometimes nearer the shoreline. As the second-largest whale, an average fin whale can grow up to 70 feet and weigh in at 70 tons. You’re more likely to see one of these than a sei whale or minke.
Blue whale: This, the largest animal to ever exist on Earth, is so big that a baby could crawl inside its arteries and a Volkswagen Beetle could park itself inside its heart. Not too many people have been lucky enough to experience a blue whale sighting, but there’s no better place to look for them than in the Sea of Cortés. Blue whales can reach 100 feet long and weigh up to 170 tons despite the fact that they feed on the smallest creatures in the sea. You’ll know you’ve seen one if you can ID its cool blue color. Fun fact: There’s no whale watching boat in Los Cabos larger than a blue whale.
Sperm whale: Everybody’s heard of Moby Dick, the most famous sperm whale of all. These master divers can hold their breath for up to two hours and go as far as 10,000 feet deep as they search out the famous, never-seen-by-humans giant squid. When sperm whales swim near the surface, you can see the scars from their fights with the giant squid. Look for sperm whales to swim in large numbers; not too long ago, a pod of more than 200 sperm whales was seen in Los Cabos. Unlike other whales that blow straight up, sperm whales—the largest of the toothed whales—breathe at a diagonal angle.
Now that we’ve told you about the whales you’re most likely to see while in Los Cabos, let’s take a moment to discuss how you’ll see them. The region is home to several excellent activities providers, many of whom switch gears to focus on whale watching during winter and early spring. Here is a list of some of our favorite, top-notch companies.
Buccaneer Queen: Centuries ago, pirates were known to roam the waters of the Sea of Cortés, filling their journals with accounts of whale sightings (then known as “monsters of the sea”). These days, the pirate-themed Buccaneer Queen invites enthusiasts to join its swashbuckler crew in a whale watching adventure. To learn more, go to www.buccaneerloscabos.com.
Cabo Expeditions: A leader in eco-friendly adventures, Cabo Expeditions offers whale watching tours on small, speedy boats known as Zodiacs (these are the same ones that Navy seals use). Groups are limited to 15 or fewer people per boat so that participants can get up and close personal with the whales. Boats travel farther out than those of any other company and feature hydrophones so guests can hear the whales. To learn more, including information about private charters, go to www.caboexpedtions.com.mx.
EcoCat: From December 15 through April 6, EcoCat offers two whale watching tours—both designed only for the most serious of enthusiasts. As guests keep their eyes peeled for spotting of gray or humpback whales, knowledgeable crew members will keep the conversation going with plenty of info and trivia. Hungry? Opt for the VIP tour, which includes a special Mexican breakfast buffet at the EcoBar plus unlimited domestic drinks aboard the EcoCat. To learn more, go to www.caboecotours.com.
Cabo Sails: Select from a fleet that includes 28-foot sailboats and options up to 44 feet long in order to enjoy a private, eco-friendly whale watching tour. These tours include not only whale watching but plenty of sightseeing, as you take in views of Land’s End and more. Learn more at www.cabosails.com.
Pez Gato: Known for its sunset party cruises, the Pez Gato catamaran also offers twice-daily whale watching tours. The tour, which includes beverages, focuses on gray whales and humpbacks that you can not only watch but listen to. To learn more, go to www.pezgato.com.
Sun Rider Tours: Enjoy your whale watching with a side of luxury during the dinner and whale watching tour offered by Sun Rider. When you book online, guests can choose to either save 15 percent off the reservation price or upgrade to a free lobster dinner. More of a morning person? Opt for the brunch tour. To learn more, go to www.sunridertours.com.