Whale Trip - Baja California, Mexico - March 2006
Last Updated: 22-Mar-06
Mary Ellen Carlin and Roswitha talked about motorcycle or flying trips to take, when Mary Ellen asked if we should go to Mexico to see grey whales with the Baja Bush Pilots (BBP) in March 2006. Roswitha thought it would be a great idea since her mother, Rosi, was coming from Austria for five months, and would be home alone for December and January - house and cat sitting - while Scott and Roswitha were traveling on the other side of the globe. Also, Roswitha has been known to jinx any whale watching trip she has ever been on. People would see whales on other boats, on the day before and after, but never where she was. So this was a last-ditch effort to break the jinx, or completely give up on whales. We decided to book our rooms and split the cost of flying down in Mary Ellen's Cessna 421 (N678SW), which is a very comfortable way to go, indeed.
Thursday, March 16, 2006
We took off at Palo Alto (KPAO) at 8:35 a.m., and flew IFR (instrument) to Brown Municipal San Diego (KSDM). The flight took about 2 hours and we flew at up to 11,000' in mostly nice weather watching mountain waves (lenticular clouds) around us.
KSDM is a relatively quiet airport with a nice restaurant, and friendly folks (especially Chris) helping us understand all the requirements flying into and out of Mexico using KSDM as a very convenient stop for fuel and customs (the latter only on the way back into the U.S.A.). Tijuana Airport is only about 1-2 miles further south on the other side of the border.
|Clouds on the way South from KPAO
||Downtown Los Angeles in front of us
|The border is somewhere between the two airports
Since Mexico only allows VFR flights, we continued at 8,500' direct to San Felipe (MMSF), which took about one hour and was mostly over pretty empty and scraggy desert landscape, although there was a fair amount of snow on the mountains northwest of the Sea of Cortez. We chose MMSF as our airport of entry (AOE) primarily because BBP had Daniel there to help answer all the border questions for novice pilots to Mexico.
|Our pilota Mary Ellen
||MMSF (San Felipe Airport)
All in all, it was a relatively fast entry; it took us about 45 minutes, since there was quite a queue when we came in. Everyone was very friendly and helpful. The procedure was:
- Taxi to get fuel and get the bill.
- Tell the military guys (the ones with the guns and in fatigues) where you come from, where you are planning to go, pilot details, and how many passengers - this is a standard procedure at all Mexican airports we encountered, no need to worry about the guns. This is a parallel procedure to the flight administration, and one seems to check the other. Maybe.
- Park the aircraft.
- Fill out customs forms (US$21 per person) for all passengers and the pilot (this was one of our bottlenecks, since we were 5 people and had to borrow pens - so if possible bring your own).
- Clear customs and immigration.
- Complete aircraft paperwork for entry, flight plan, and show all prepared paperwork to be able to get the plane into and out of Mexico (This was the other bottleneck since there were only two clerks and the process takes a while. Mary Ellen had everything well prepared, but the processing still took a good 20 minutes. It may have sped things up a little if we had the Flight Plan forms all filled out at that time also).
- Pay the fuel (~US$3 / gallon), landing fee (~US$10) and get all the stamps (in the correct order - just follow where they point you, the order could change from day to day).
Around 3:00 p.m. we were on our way to El Gallito (MGLL), the dirt airstrip connected to Hotel Serenidad in Mulegé (pron. Moo-le-hE). The two hour VFR flight at 5,500' along the coast was beautiful. We saw many wonderful beaches, a few boats and very few, small settlements. MGLL's identifying features (besides GPS) was the river on the northern end, the church north of the river and two small hills between the airport and the water to the west, and its position at the northern end of the Bahia de Constitucion.
||Coastline on the Sea of Cortéz
The landing in MGLL was excellent (Mary Ellen aimed to land AFTER the concrete patch, since she'd heard that it was bumpy), and ground control was very personalized and efficient. Jack McCormick, the organizer of BBP, was on a hand radio doing the control.
|Palo Verde - Alternate airport to Mulegé
|Town of Mulegé a few miles up river, Hotel Serenidad next to runway
|Base for 32
|Plenty of runway left - Watch out for the dogs!
BBP had arranged for a truck of fuel from Loreto Airport (MMLT) to come to MGLL, so we filled up. The 25 US$ (handling and delivery) cost was well worth avoiding having to go to MMLT to fill up. The full tanks, however, made for a relatively long ground roll at the next take off.
|Panorama of the landing stripScroll left/right with your cursor or arrow keys, [shft] zoom in, [ctrl] zoom out
We were too late to sign up for whale watching on Friday, so we signed up for Saturday, and checked into rooms that were basic, but completely adequate. The beds were very comfortable, and the Margaritas made up for everything anyway. Rosi, Roswitha and Scott shared the three bed Rinconcito (little corner) at the very far South West corner of the Hotel Serenidad which meant it was fairly quiet except for the trucks on nearby highway 1 and on the road right behind the hotel. The only draw back of this unit was that the California King bedroom was between the single bedroom and the bathroom, but the Margaritas were really good. The other rooms were named, Loreto, Tabasco, etc. and were colorful, modern, and comfortable double rooms.
We were just in time for happy hour and enjoyed too many Margaritas, chips and salsa, and dinner right next to the pool. It was a very pleasant evening especially considering the cold weather we had left behind in the San Francisco Bay Area. The food was okay, but not really great for Mexican, but the Margaritas made everything a lot better anyway.
|Margarita and dinner at Hotel Serenidad
Friday, March 17, 2006
We had decided to have a nice, late and leisurely breakfast and then walk into the town of Mulegé. It is a pleasant walk of about 2-3 miles along the river. We spent a few hours in town sightseeing, shopping, having a drink with Dwight and Howard at Las Casitas (the other BBP hotel for the event), and lunch at Equipales (great for Lobster, one serving feeds two people easily). Then we took a taxi back to Hotel Serenidad for a nap and afternoon walk at the beach, before we took another taxi back into town for the street fiesta.
| Morning take-offs ...
|| ... for the first whale watching
|Scenes from our walk to town ...
||... along the river
|Downtown MulegéScroll left/right with your cursor or arrow keys, [shft] zoom in, [ctrl] zoom out
|Mission of Mulegé
||Waiting for a taxi
|Lunch at Equipales
||One plate of lobster is enough for two people
|Aircraft returning from ...
|| ... whale watching
|The judges ...
||... took their job very seriously
|Taking a walk to the beach we see the church at the other side of the river
||Stowed fishing nets on boats
||Dried and salted manta rays
|Dried fish ...
||... along ...
||... he beach everywhere
|A fresh catch being cleaned
||Many small sharks and tuna
|Fins and guts get removed ...
||... and the local birds help
||Yet others are busy otherwise
|Desserts for street party, some of us started here
||Others took the more traditional approach
|So much choice
||And of course mariachis
Saturday, March 18, 2006
Whale watching plans had been changed a few times it seems. In previous years BBP went to Laguna San Ignacio (MRCX), but there was some issue with getting into the boats. So this year the plan was to go to Lopez Mateos (MMTB) where one could use a dock to get into the boats. Unfortunately, the unions there were on strike and no one could fly into that airport on the weekend we were there (this may not have been too bad, since some of the pilots reported bumpy and tricky landings on a crushed shell runway). So Jack (BBP) made arrangements for everyone to fly into Ciudad Constitucion (MCCB, a paved runway) and then take a bus for 45 minutes to get to a lagoon south of San Ignacio to see the whales.
On Friday night, we learned that two thirds of our group of 47 aircraft had already gone whale watching, one third to MRCX and the other to MCCB. But the latter group was quite disappointed, not only did they barely see a whale (we later learned that the whales - being further South - probably already started to migrate back North at the time so the numbers were dwindling rapidly), but the bus ride was also more like 2.5 hours round trip, and they only left MCCB at around 5 pm (which would rule out seeing Loreto on the same day as whale watching). The group that went to MRCX was very happy with having seen and touched plenty of whales. Keeping Roswitha's whale watching Karma in mind, we decided quickly that MCCB was not a good choice for us, and that we wanted to go to MRCX if at all possible. However, the boats were all booked for Saturday and no trip could be arranged for us until Sunday before we flew back home.
We decided to get an early start on Saturday and try MRCX before the crowds hit. So we took off at 8:30 a.m. The ground roll was long and the left cross wind departure low as we headed up the river and flew for about 30 minutes at 6,500' across Baja California. We were the very first plane at Laguna San Ignacio (do not mix this up with San Ignacio which is a military site), and one of the first boats out. We had a brief orientation in the snack shack, showing us where the boat would go, and the basic rules of the boat. Getting into the boat was very easy using a crate as a step from the shore to the boat. (However, I understand that this may depend on the tides, and at another time, some wading may still be required). Our captain was Salvador, but there is another whale boat captain named Jonas.
||Flight over the mountains from East to West Coast of Baja California (MGLL --> MRCX)
|Laguna San Ignacio Airport (MRCX)
|Our lone plane
|| and pilota
|Time for a group picture with the airport recorder
||A 4 km minibus ride and we are at the launch site (whale bone decoration)
|This seem to be the accomodations for the staff and scientists
We spent about 2.5 hours out on the water, and saw and touched numerous gray whales. Most of the whales here are mothers and new calves, and it was easy to identify them from the number of barnacles on the mother. It was absolutely fascinating and magical to see the sheer number of them, the small and the large ones, and how gentle the whales were with our boat (even when they seemed to rub off some of the barnacles from their skin under the boat, or when they pushed our boat for a little while). They seemed to respond to our splashing in the water; they would come up to the boat and look at us, and allow us to pet them. Often they would also spray us as they breathed. Everyone in our group got to touch at least one whale. We saw at least a hundred (the day before they counted 217, and numbers were dropping as they left to migrate north). But seeing and touching whales was what we had expected. For me the most fascinating thing was actually hearing them. The boat took us out to the mouth of the lagoon; there were very few boats around, the air was absolutely still, and there were whales all around us. We could hear them breathing in surround sound. It was fantastic.
|Put on swim vests and in the boat you go
||On our way
|Is it time to take pictures?
|Whales to the right|
|Whales to the left
|And sometimes they are behind you
|Flukes (of Mommy and Calf?)
|Rosi pets whales left
|Now it is Mary Ellen's turn
||A good time was had by all
||Coming back for more
|And here comes the next one
||Scott is petting
||Trying to take pictures
||And petting some more
After a lunch at the launch site (fish tacos and a quesadilla), we headed back to the airport where we saw now about 23 planes parked (including a DC-3). After our long ground roll at take-off with full tanks, we decided to not fuel up in Loreto (MMLT), but still visit the town, since we heard that it was quite pleasant and had an interesting church. If MMSF had no fuel on Sunday we would fly back to MMLT in the morning to fill up. The flight took us about 40 minutes (at 5,500').
||Now it is Denis' turn (only hand is visible)
||The Photographer gets to pet, too!
|| and back to the much busier airport we go
|Now about 23 aircraft are parking
|Including a DC-3
|On our way to Loreto, we still smile about the whale experience
Remember, the military guys are the first ones to get information from each landing aircraft. Don't believe them if they say you are all done. You still have to talk to the airport administration. The MMLT landing fee was 26 US$ for 2 hours. This was plenty of time for us to see the town and old mission church, shop and have some ice cream.
MGLL was just a skip and a hop of 30 minutes VFR at 5,500' from MMLT. We arrived around 4:30 and had just time to freshen up before we got together for drinks and the pig roast that signified the end of the trip.
|Mmmh, Mmmh, icecream
|Flying back along Highway 1 and Constitucion Bay
||MGLL between the two
|Two types of dessert - Chocolate Cake
Sunday, March 19, 2006
We had an early breakfast and wanted to be out by 8:30 a.m. MMSF had plenty of fuel so we did not have to fly back to MMLT. At one point it seemed we could leave even earlier, but then we finally took off around 9:30 partially because of the somewhat disorganized nature of the exodus. The arrival and Friday take-off was very nicely managed. The Friday return went extremely smooth. We left before everyone else on Saturday morning, and were one of the last ones back on Saturday evening, so we never had experienced anything like Sunday morning, and did not really expect up to 9 aircraft jockeying for position for the start box (though it was very polite and orderly, but it still was quite dusty and loud). Typically, it was expected that one aircraft was starting up, one in the box, and one on the runway (back taxiing and then taking off). We had five aircraft taxing behind and in front of us before we took off.
||taking off at the pool over breakfast
The straight out take-off was much simpler than the take-off the day before despite all our luggage. The weather was clear in MGLL, but it started to get quite cloudy along the coast (ceilings were as low as 3,000 and the tops were partially at 15,000) near Bahia de Los Angeles. The ride below the clouds was quite rough. It was extremely useful to have all the BBP planes in the air, and being able to get Pilot reports along the entire flight. For example it was very useful to know that MMSF was clear while we were flying VFR on top at 15,500'. We had up to 15 nm headwind and flew for about 2.5 hours.
Customs and Immigration in MMSF was very quick. We re-fueled, paid our landing fee, and filed the return flight plan, all in less than 30 minutes. We kept our entry forms, since they are valid for 180 days. The flight plan was the bottleneck, but still everything was very efficient and friendly.
|Looking back at Hotel Serenidad
||and the town of Mulege
||Multi colored hills
||and more clouds
|Finally, San Felipe harbor
||San Felipe airport building
We left MMSF at 12:30 p.m. (Mexico time) just in time for our 12:30 p.m. arrival at KSDM. We flew VFR on top at 9,500' most of the way. We had some headwind, and changed our arrival time to 12:35 with SD FSS, which gave us a window at US Customs of an additional 15 minutes. Mary Ellen provided and relayed pilot reports for weather south of MMSF to SD FSS and a pilot south of us who was heading South and tried to get Baja weather. We tried to talk with Tijuana 50 nm out, but could not raise anyone. Around 20 nm out we finally got acknowledged by Tijuana, and immediately were diverted for traffic separation. As soon as we were over the border, we filed IFR and went almost 20 nm into the U.S.A. before we were turned around for the VOR approach into KSDM.
After we landed it looked like the weather at the coast was getting clear, and we had flown up and along a ridge of clouds that was just a few miles land-inward.
|Snow on the Sierra Nevadas
||Some peaks to peek
|Icing while IFR in California
We arrived in our allotted window and cleared customs within about 20 minutes, refueled and had lunch, before taking off IFR to KPAO. The flight took about 2.5 hours, and we flew mostly at 10,000'. Many of the Central California mountains had snow. As we got further North the weather situation continuously improved. Most of the snow on the mountains in the San Francisco Bay Area had gone, and we landed around 4:30 p.m. to a balmy 70° F which was still quite a bit cooler than Mulegé, but not as bad as we had feared in San Diego.
|Waiting for customs, filling out a form
|Downtown Los Angeles
|Reservoir South of San Jose
||Downtown San Jose
In summary, it was a wonderful trip and whale watching experience, and being part of the BBP group was fun. In retrospect, we probably would recommend adding some time to the trip if possible. Flying in a group of pilots with the bad weather South of San Felipe was very reassuring.
||Back at Palo Alto
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