Grey whale, Mexico (Shutterstock: see credit below)
Article 03 February

Know your... grey whales

Grey whales offer some of the most spectacular wildlife experiences on earth – but where, and how, to see these gentle giants?

One century ago, the grey whale was teetering on the brink of extinction. In the 1930s, a commercial hunting ban was introduced; in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act offered further safeguarding. And in December 1993, one of its crucial breeding grounds – the sanctuary of El Vizcaíno – was granted Unesco status. Today, 21 years on, the North Pacific grey whale is thriving.

What’s so great about grey whales?

This 15m-long cetacean is one of the friendliest mammals on the planet – despite having been the victim of whaling for around 200 years. Head to El Vizcaíno and the ‘devil fish’ (so named by whalers for the mammals’ wild reaction on being harpooned) will breach next to boats, and seem to delight in being stroked by human hands.

Also, grey whales undertake one of the longest migrations: every year the Eastern North Pacific population makes a mammoth 16,000km round-trip between its feeding waters in the north-west Bering Sea and the west coast of Mexico. Heading somewhere else? See our top spots for whale watching around the world, and see the peak months and locations for the best sightings too...

Why is El Vizcaíno so important?

A habitat of warm waters, wetlands, marshes, dunes and mangroves, El Vizcaíno, in Baja California, is where these barnacleen-crusted pods head each autumn when the temperature up north starts to drop. Nearly 650km south of the US-Mexico border and comprising two coastal lagoons – Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio – El Vizcaíno is Mexico’s largest protected area, a crucial haven attempting to safeguard wildlife from threats such as overfishing. In the sanctuary grey whales are closely monitored to ensure they can breed and calve undisturbed.

What else can I see there?

This designated biosphere reserve doesn’t only attract grey whales. Bottlenose dolphin, California sea lion and harbour seal are often seen, while four different species of marine turtle also frequent the waters.

Back on terra firma, Coyote, pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, mule deer and hares stalk the desert environs. Birds love it too: countless migratory species, including ospreys and brant geese, are dependent on the lagoons.

Can I visit?

Yes! Tourism is monitored due to the site’s fragility, but selected companies do run tours to the area. To find out more about the Baja California whalewatching experience, read about Wanderlust founder Lyn Hughes’ visit...

Fancy seeing other types of whale too? See our guide to the species you can find around the world...


Main image: Grey whale, Mexico (Shutterstock)