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Every year from January through March, an estimated 2,000-5,000 male and female gray whales swimming in groups of 15-20, make their way from the frigid waters of the Arctic toward the lagoons of Baja California. And some other types of whales -- most notably humpback -- seek refuge in the government-protected waters of Samaná province in the Dominican Republic.

Baja California

Every year, California gray whales migrate to lagoons along the west coast of the peninsula (see map here). Two of its breeding areas -- Laguna Ojo de Liebre and Laguna de San Ignacio Â? are positioned on the coast in the middle of the peninsula, a third Â? Bahía Magdalena, is farther south. All three areas play host to migrating gray whales that come from the Arctic Circle to either nurse their offspring in the shallow, warm waters or to mate. Other whale species found here include humpback, beluga and blue whales. The closest commercial airport to the lagoons is in Loreto, but companies also run package tours that begin in the larger cities of La Paz or San Jose del Cabo. Tour groups engage the whales from small fishing boats, called pangas, that run up right next to the school-bus sized creatures.

Baja Calfornia Sur's capital La Paz (tel. 877/MY-BAJA SUR; www.mybajasur.com) is one of the better places from which to launch a trip to Bahía Magdalena. The tourism board's website provides links to whale-watching tour operators, along with fishing reports, lodging, shopping and dining options. You can also check out the offering of Different World Hotels, (tel. 888/903-9512; www.differentworld.com) with member hotels throughout Mexico, for lodging options and recommendations.

Sea and Adventures, Inc. (tel. 800/355-7140; www.kayakbaja.com) has a quick getaways for whale watching in Magdalena Bay that you can choose for two ($300), four ($675) or five days ($795) spurts, with departures throughout January, February and early March that you can choose from. You stay in tents in camps and meals are included along with services of staff, guides, cooks, and the trip itself includes time for kayaking, whale watching, and bird watching. The company offers a five percent discount with groups of five or more and ten percent discount for groups of ten or more, and a twenty percent discount for children 12 and under. The company also offers a ten-day whale watching and sea kayaking trip for $1,300.

The two towns closest to the other lagoons are Guerrero Negro and San Ignacio. Ecotours Malarrimo (tel. 615/157-0100; www.malarrimo.com) in Guerrero Negro will arrange tours not only to the lagoons but also to nearby rock art and missions. The trips take about four hours and depart daily through early April. For a budget approach, you can stay at Motel Malarrimo (& RV Park) if you like -- it's priced at $45 for two people per night. The whale watching trips rates are $49 for adults and $39 for children under 11 years old. The cost includes the national park fee and the services of a guide, roundtrip transportation from onsite Restaurant Malarrimo to departure point at Laguna Ojo de Liebre (also known as Scammon's Lagoon), a light box lunch and beverage, and the three-hour excursion itself.

About 35 miles south of the town of San Ignacio, Ecoturismo Kuyima (tel. 615/154-0700; www.kuyima.com) operates an eco-lodge that consists of tents and palapas huts powered by the sun. There are showers and toilets (don't fret) and meals are served in the main palapa. The whale watching takes place in the morning on a motorboat with a limit of eight people. After you've seen the whales consider hiking, biking, or kayaking tours around the lagoon.

Kuyima has different packages available depending on your choice of length and accommodations. Many of its dates in February are already sold out, with the exception of February 1-4, 7-10 and 13-16, but there are dates available January 16-31. You can opt for the three-night, four day grey whale adventure at the all-inclusive Eco-Lodge, which gives you three nights' stay, all meals, three guided whale watching trips, three other nature site-seeing tours, transportation from San Ignacio and access to kayaks and mountain bikes, priced at $495 per person. Overnight all-inclusive stays are priced at $165 per person per day and include double occupancy, three full meals, guided whale watching tour, and afternoon site seeing tour near the lagoon, with access to bikes and kayaks. If you don't want to do a package and want to rough it instead, you can opt for Kuyimia Camping instead, where the services are offered a la carte. The whale watching boat trip costs $40 per adult and the fees for camping gear and site facilities is nominal.

With more than 25 years of experience, Baja Discovery (tel. 800/829-2252; www.bajadiscovery.com) leads five-day whale watching tours with "safari-style" camping on Rocky Point at San Ignacio Lagoon. The trip starts in San Diego, where you'll be driven by motor coach to the Tijuana Airport and take a private flight to San Ignacio. The base camp on the lagoon is situated in such a way that you can see the whales in various activities nearly 24 hours a day. There are departures scheduled through the end of March and the trip costs $2,175 per person, and all Mexican taxes, fees, transfers between San Diego and Tijuana, transportation between Tijuana and San Ignacio, all ground transportation on the peninsula, boat excursions, lunches, four nights of accommodations, and guides/naturalists with expertise. Or you can opt for "Gray Whale Drive Down" January 28-February 4, departing from San Diego caravan style with other whale watchers to San Ignacio. It's an eight-day trip with a more leisurely pace, with stops in Cataviña, on the way, and some time exploring the village of San Ignacio itself. The price of this trip is $1,295 per person, and it includes four nights' accommodations, three nights at the camp, all meals at the camp, roundtrip transportation from San Ignacio to the lagoon, whale watching excursions, and the experience of guides.

Dominican Republic

Another spot, albeit not in Mexico, where you're guaranteed some whale watching is the ecologically-minded area of Samaná on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic, believed to be one of the top ten whale watching spots in the world. Before El Catey International Airport opened in November 2006, Samaná was a bit more difficult to get to. (Still, you're more likely to be able to get a flight from the U.S. to Puerto Plata, a three-hour drive from Samaná, than El Catey at this point.) There are a handful of new five-star properties that have sprung up and three new cruises stop at a nearby island called Cayo Levantado, so it's safe to say that the secret is out. For an overview of what to do, head to Dominican Republic Tourism (tel. 888/374-6361; www.godominicanrepublic.com). There are many hotels and resorts to choose from and this site gives you a good starting place. I stumbled upon Debbie's Dominican Republic Travel Page (www.debbiesdominicantravel.com), a homespun, informal version of what TripAdvisor does on a grand scale, with reviews of hotels and tours.

In Samaná, as in Baja, it's advisable to try one of the government-sanctioned touring companies, such as Victoria Marine (tel. 809/538-2494; www.whalesamana.com). With trips guided by marine biologist Kim Beddall, Victoria Marine runs two excursions daily from two different locations: at 9am and 1:30pm from Samaná, and at 9:30am and 2pm from Cayo Levantado, with a capacity of 60 people per boat. The cost is $50 for adults, $30 for children under ten years (not recommended for children two and under), and includes drinks and a snack; there's a bathroom on board and even Dramamine for those who get seasick. Trips are offered January 15 through March 20. The boat goes out into Samaná Bay where you can see humpback whales in their mating and calving environment.

Amber Coast Adventures (tel. 809/972-3065; www.ambercoastadventures.com) has a winter getaway trip to Cabarete, a good two and a half to three hours from Samana, March 1-9, priced at $1,685 for land only. The trip includes six nights at a luxury condo/hotel right on the beach, with surfing and kiteboarding lessons, along with yoga, horseback riding, hiking, day trips and gourmet dinners. For an additional $400 you can stay two more nights and go on a whale watching excursion in Samana. The website does not contain many up-to-date details, but if you email or call them with an inquiry they'll send you a brochure

Canadians, take heed. Fly and Sea Travel Club (tel. 888/995-3483; http://flyandsea.ensembletravel.com) based in British Columbia, has a trip to Samana priced from $1,679 CAD (about $1,430 USD) that is good for February 18-March 4. It's an eight-day trip that puts you in a junior suite at the Royal Golden Gran Bahía Principe El Portillo -- one of the new hotels. It's an all-inclusive package with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and roundtrip airfare from numerous departures in Canada -- Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. Using Gran Bahía as a base, you can explore the area and book your whale watching adventure.

If you're thinking of traveling with the family, you might want to consider the all-inclusive Viva Wyndham Samaná. (tel. 800/WYNDHAM; www.vivaresorts.com), with rooms available from January 2-February 1, double occupancy, starting at $93 per person for family/superior rooms. (Single occupancy costs $140 per night.) Kids two and under stay free of charge, and kids 3-17 cost $30 per child per night. The rates jump up February 2 until April 7 to $108 per person for double occupancy; the price for children stays the same. If you want an ocean view room, it's an additional $15 per person per night. A whale watching excursion called "Soplo a las Once" is offered for $100 per person. It's a daylong trip that leaves around 8am and returns around 3:30pm. The cost includes transportation to and from the resort, taxes, a boat trip out to watch the whales, the services of a guide, fruit and drinks on the boat, and a lunchtime stop (lunch provided) along the coast.

Protecting the Whales

Keeping in mind that ecotourism is growing phenomenon, it's important to choose providers that are permitted to travel in these protected waters, in a way that does not disturb the whales or compromise their ecosystem. For more information on the regulatory specifics of whale watching, along with worldwide whale population statistics and other info, visit the International Whaling Commission's website: www.iwcoffice.org. The organizaton's efforts have helped whale species receive protection worldwide that has helped bring these creatures back from near extinction. In fact, according to the whaling commission, both gray and humpback whales have experienced a population increase in recent years.

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