Last Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend Bryant and I decided to break from the traditional dinner-date-and-roses thing and give ourselves an adventurous trip instead. Since neither of us had visited Mexico in years, we headed south to Cabo, but not for the sunbathing and relaxed vacation that many go there for (and I’ve enjoyed in the past). We were in Baja California for four days, and our primary motive was to see two magnificent creatures: a whale and a whale shark.

Baja California is a favorite spot for grey whales to calve and take care of their young in warm waters from December to March every year. They migrate there from their Arctic feeding grounds 6,000 miles away in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. One of the best places to see these awe-inspiring animals is in Magdalena Bay, since it is protected by many low barrier islands and the waters are much calmer than the Pacific Ocean right outside the bay.

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Magdalena Bay was our first stop, but it was a bit of a haul from Cabo San Lucas, so right after landing in Cabo, we rented a car and drove up the coast for six hours, finally arriving in a sleepy little town called Puerto San Carlos which probably wouldn’t see any tourists at all if it weren’t for the whales. To break up the drive, we stopped at a town called Todos Santos, the home of the original “Hotel California” that inspired the song by The Eagles.

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Bryant and I in front of Hotel California

After arriving in Puerto San Carlos and getting a good night’s sleep, we woke up on Valentine’s Day ready to see some grey whales. We were picked up by our tour guide from Magdalena Bay Whales, and met the rest of our group by the water, where we climbed into small panga boats and headed out.

 

As we discovered very quickly, Magdalena Bay is very big, so we traveled for about an hour before seeing any whales, but I didn’t mind because the scenery was so gorgeous. The water was this deep, rich blue, and there were these red dusty mountains rising straight up from the bay. If Mars still had large bodies of water today, I imagine that this is what it would look like.

Then finally…we saw a whale spout! Our first whale sighting was a mom and between one and three calves – it was kind of hard to tell because we only saw them when they surfaced. Whales go through a very rhythmic set of deep dives to feed on plankton and then breathe at the surface, and they can hold their breath for about half an hour. It was incredible to see the mom and baby breach at the same time, their smooth backs arching perfectly in sync, and watching the whales spout. The spouts rose six or seven feet in the air, and the mom’s was big enough to make a rainbow before the wind carried it over to our boat and splashed us in the face with a lovely fishy smell. The whales were so close to the boat, and once, the mom and baby both swam right underneath our boat so that I could see their beautiful tails pumping gracefully up and down right below the water. Grey whales can grow up to 50 feet long, and it was so humbling to be in the presence of these gentle, powerful giants.

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After that first sighting, we saw about four other whales, and after a while we realized that we’d been out for a very long time, we were very far from land, and the lack of food and a bathroom were really starting to get to us. I was the only one who spoke Spanish on the boat, so I communicated this to the boat driver, and we went full steam ahead over the wind-swept waters of Magdalena Bay to a beautiful island where we had lunch before heading back to Puerto San Carlos.

Next stop was to see whale sharks. We finished up Valentine’s Day by driving for three hours south to La Paz, admiring the sunset over the Mexican desert. La Paz is a large city on the Sea of Cortez, and we got dinner at a carnival that was set up right along the Marina. The next morning, we had some time to spare, so we drove to Balandra Beach half an hour away from La Paz. The beach was very beautiful, with perfectly crystalline waters and soft white sand. It was practically deserted since we got there earlier than the crowds. We then headed back to La Paz and met our tour operator, Sun Rider, who would take us out in a group to snorkel with whale sharks.

Whale sharks come to the Sea of Cortez every winter to feed, and La Paz is one of the best places to see them and swim (respectfully) with them. They are a type of shark, not a whale, as their name might suggest, but they are similar to whales in that they are filter feeders and eat plankton. This made me a bit more calm as I prepared to swim with them – they have no interest in humans! Whale sharks are the largest shark and the largest fish in the sea, measuring up to 30 feet long and weighing up to 40 tons.

Since they are so darn big, it was slightly daunting, humbling, and incredible to get to snorkel alongside them. Their smooth movements give the impression that they swim slowly, but that is far from the truth – even when the whale sharks were slowing down to hang out with us, we were kicking our fins super fast just to keep up. It was such a treat to get to be so close to these creatures, in their environment, but I kept my distance, both for my safety and the safety of the whale sharks, since they have very sensitive skin that can become prone to infection if touched by humans.

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We finished up our trip with 24 hours in Cabo proper, featuring a visit to the famous Arch and Lover’s Beach in Cabo San Lucas. These places are only accessible by water, so I used my Spanish to barter a private boat for Bryant and me to go see both sights for under $10 roundtrip. Even though our boat driver was half an hour late to pick us up from Lover’s Beach, and since we were the last ones left on the beach we thought we might be stranded there overnight, he did eventually come and we had a great time.

 

We were so impressed by all the wonderful sights we got to see during our weekend getaway, and Bryant and I both agreed that it was the best possible way for us to spend our Valentine’s Day together. I was so humbled and inspired by the creatures that let me catch a glimpse into their incredible life journeys. Cabo’s sun, Magdalena Bay’s wildness and magnificent whales, and La Paz’s adventure with whale sharks was a perfect combination.