The whales of Baja

Start the new year with a change in scenery that will change your life:
a cruise full of activities, and nature at its grandest, in the Sea of Cortez

Dale Conour

Jump to our list of whalewatching outfitters

"We've got a whale!"

Naturalist Pete Pederson's heads-up is what everyone's been waiting for all day, and I win the first spot with him, thanks to some dogged looking on my part; he's the expert, but I throw caution to the wind, and add, "There are two ― one larger and one smaller." Peering through his binoculars, Pederson immediately confirms it; a large spout, and then a smaller one, hang in the air far out on the horizon.

I'm onboard the M/V Sea Bird, on an eight-day guided nature expedition of the Baja California peninsula's waters, cruising both the Sea of Cortez to the east and the Pacific to the west. As the first whales of the trip approach, passengers scramble to the front of the ship, firing up cameras and camcorders, shouting with every new exhalation. Pederson and his fellow staff naturalists explain how to use the clock method to identify positions of spouts (12 o'clock straight ahead, 3 o'clock directly right, and so on) and soon identify our visitors as the second largest animal species in the world ― fin whales, mother and calf.

When they pass, we turn about, into the wind, to accompany them. I'm perched on a small seat built into the inside of the prow, leaning out over the water as our ship dips and soars. The whales labor against the waves with incredible power, scattering them into spray; I'm in awe of the mother's size when I realize how much of her, like an iceberg, is still below the surface. I don't bother with my camera: No photograph, no film, can ever capture the experience of seeing a whale in the wild. And it couldn't be better timed than the start of a new year: being reminded what the world has to offer when you take time to notice; rediscovering what you can see when you really look.

Off the shores of Baja, cold, nutrient-rich waters rise from deep basins to meet the sunlight, creating a rich broth of plankton. That makes a good seasonal home for marine life, including some 875 species of fish and 20,000 California gray whales that make an annual trek of up to 10,000 miles from the Bering Sea and the north Pacific Ocean to breed and calve.

It's one of nature's greatest shows on earth, drawing thousands of visitors ― and a phalanx of local and international guides ― each winter. Our 152-foot ship, operated by longtime outfitter Lindblad Expeditions, is large enough to hold the trip's 51 guests plus crew in comfort (as well as a flotilla of inflatable Zodiacs). But it's small enough to provide some sense of intimacy with the surroundings, including access to areas where no cruise ship could go.

Despite the number of whales that congregate in the Sea of Cortez, it's still a big place. Most of Sunday, our first day at sea, is spent spotting birds, not whales ― dark storm petrels skimming the waves, brown pelicans locked in formation, graceful frigate birds soaring high above ― as we make our way to our first stop, Isla San Francisco, for hiking and kayaking.

We break into three groups based on difficulty of hike, and I join the ambitious troop following veteran marine biologist and naturalist Larry Hobbs, who spent a career researching the lives of whales and marine mammals before leaving the frustrations of the grant chase behind.

It's more of a ramble than a hike, really, since there are no real trails to speak of:

"Where to now, Larry?"

"Well, uhh, I think we'll go over up that way maybe, make our way up toward that rise ..."

We learn to recognize different cactus, are shown easily overlooked wood-rat dens, visit with a young chuckwalla lizard that several of us nearly stepped on, and get in a good scramble on the way up to one of the tallest points on the small island. It's buffeted by strong gusts, but offers a sweeping vista: to the left, the Baja peninsula's Sierra de la Giganta, rugged mountains clearly created out of the epic violence of geology, if not the battling giantess of myth; blue Canal de San José stretching northward; and at right, Isla San José, with an emerald peninsula jutting into the canal. My normal life suddenly seems far away, and it feels like if I only lift my arms, the winds of the Sea of Cortez could bear me anywhere.

We continue south overnight, and arrive at Los Islotes, at the tip of Isla Partida, Monday morning. Some 200 California sea lions live on these rocks this time of year, and they're habituated enough to Zodiacs full of camera-toting tourists that older residents merely keep an eye on us while the young cavort around the boats like curious puppies. And snorkelers, as I'm about to learn, are entertainment.

I slip into the cold water from the bobbing craft and kick away, and am amazed at the amount of sea life teeming just below us.

"The Gulf of California offers the best diving and snorkeling you'll find outside tropical waters," says Lindblad naturalist Carlos J. Navarro, a biochemical engineer specializing in marine biology who has lived on the shores of the Sea of Cortez for most of the past 18 years. I follow damselfish and sergeant majors, darting about in schools. King angelfish, violet with yellow tails, and thin-striped convict tangs, rarely seen in this area, drift by. Patrols of surgeonfish, protected by razor-sharp blades protruding from their tails, idly browse the seaweed.

But then I get that feeling of being watched myself, and 10 yards away to my right, I see a big adult sea lion, illuminated in the light from above, casually drifting in the opposite direction. With a flick of his tail, he disappears into the gloom, and suddenly, as if an OK sign has been given, juvenile sea lions appear out of nowhere, everywhere, flashing past, and as I lie still, circling me and nibbling my flippers.

A sea lion shoots directly at me, not swerving away until he's a whisker's length from me, and I flinch. Within a few minutes, another pup leaves his mother's side to pull the same trick ― only this one I see coming from at least 15 yards away, so it's like being tracked by a torpedo. There's nothing threatening about their behavior; it feels more like being toyed with.

"I don't know what makes someone a sea lion magnet," says Hobbs when I climb back into the Zodiac, "but you've got it." There's no espresso strong enough to get me feeling as buzzed as I am right now.

After a day of snorkeling and bird-watching at the southernmost end of Baja, in Cabo San Lucas, I begin Wednesday morning with what's become my usual routine, making a quick visit to the bow to check for any whales before picking up a prebreakfast latte to-go down in the lounge. Pete Pederson and Lindblad veteran guest Jean Pitts are watching a flock of birds spooling over a patch of water. Whales? As the Sea Bird veers toward it, a dolphin fin breaks the surface of the water, then another, and another, all cutting their way toward the ship.

Soon Pitts and I are leaning over the bow, watching a pod of common dolphins ride the pressure wave. They are so close, we can hear them expel when they breathe. She's from Dallas, I'm from California, and some 35 years separate us ― but I glance up at her watching the dolphins, and the look of delight on her face matches my own.

We sail into Bahía Magdalena, at 60 miles long, one of the largest bays on the West Coast. Early in the season, its entrance is a hot spot for mating whales, but the only action we catch is a couple of groups of gray whales and the curious sight of a sea lion floating along with its flipper in the air (to cool off or warm up, according to Hobbs ― everyone should have a naturalist at hand).

In the afternoon, we take on a local pilot and his apprentice son to negotiate Hull Canal, a narrow mangrove-lined waterway on the north end of Bahía Magdalena that will lead to our ultimate destination: the lagoon in Boca de Soledad, which is a "nursery" for gray whales. Bottlenose dolphins surf the bow wave for a while, and we see a wealth of birds: blue heron, great and snowy egret, long-billed curlew, whimbrel, and ibis.

The mangrove forests eventually give way to low-slung dunes, which come alive in golden whorls and dark shadows in the low light of dusk. From the crest of a dune, two coyotes watch us pass before trotting away to the evening's business.

Our first full day in Boca de Soledad is spent following gray whales from a respectful but still breathtakingly close distance in the Zodiacs, leaving alone one pair that appear to pick up their pace when we start to follow. Then we celebrate our cruise drawing to a close with help from some locals ― a buffet dinner catered by the restaurant Ballena Gris ("Gray Whale") and music by a guitar-wielding trio from the town of Puerto López Mateos.

Later, I take a wool blanket from my cabin to lie on the deserted bow and watch the stars slowly wheel. But soon I'm no longer alone. The whales sigh as they rise from the waters of the mouth of solitude. The sounds of their spouting can travel far over still water at night, but after days of searching, watching, and listening, I know they're swimming close by ― one to port, and an adult and calf to starboard. I stand at their arrival, peering into the night. And I notice something I've missed: Every few minutes, pelicans glide by, silent and just above the water, passing the ship like spirits in the dark.

Before Friday's sunrise, we slip away from the Sea Bird in our Zodiac and motor out onto a sweep of glass reflecting a gray sky. After spotting a few spouts (we're all getting pretty good at it), and following an adult around for a while, we tag along with a mother and calf. A few minutes pass, then they suddenly stop swimming. The mother goes still, floating at the surface and possibly nursing. Pete Pederson idles the engine, and we bob nearby, watching the calf swim and roll around its parent, acting like any bored kid.

Laguna San Ignacio farther north may be a more popular destination (it's the home of the "friendly whales"), but its crowded Pet-A-Whale! environment is very different from here, where our handful of Zodiacs and the Sea Bird are the only boats around. "That was so great to see whales just going on about their lives," Pederson says, as the pair dive from view.

Pederson, along with his wife and co-naturalist, Gretchen, and their comrades are an inspiring lot in this new year. The enthusiasm and passion they exude for their work never seems to ebb; from their reactions, you'd think it was the first humpback whale or blue-footed booby they've seen, rather than the thousandth.

At dawn on Saturday, we wake near San Carlos and sleepily board buses in the harbor for a quiet ride across the narrow peninsula to the modest La Paz International Airport. Our chartered AeroMexico flight lifts off, and the Bahía de La Paz is soon below. I sigh as we rise, the ripples on the bay giving way to the bigger picture of currents and gradations of blue and green. The boats plying these waters are tiny now. But I'm searching intently, greedily, not letting go.

And then, at 1,200 feet, with the world growing beneath us, I'm rewarded. It could have been like many moments that slip past us: the smallest puff of mist that dissolves into a transient yet telltale mark upon the water. But I turn to the Pedersons across the aisle, who are, like the others, already absorbed in something else entirely: "Hey, Gretchen ― I got a spout at 3 o'clock!"

They laugh, and Pete, nearest the window, can't help taking one more look.

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Cruise Baja

Whale-watching season in Baja hosts outfitters large and small, local and international. Do you want an afternoon spent in a small panga in Laguna San Ignacio, guided by a local, with a high chance of actually touching a whale, or do you want to spend the time and money to see a wide range of sea life and terrain in an all-inclusive experience? Here are four outfitters with solid reputations. Prices include tours, meals, and accommodations.

American Cetacean Society. 12-day expeditions Feb-Apr, embarking from San Diego. $3,275; www.acsonline.org or 310/548-7821.

Ecoturismo Kuyima. Outings into the San Ignacio Lagoon Whale Sanctuary in a small motorboat are staged Feb-Apr from the company's cluster of thatch-roof, two-person huts at the edge of the preserve. From $495; www.kuyima.com or 52-615-154-00-70.

Lindblad Expeditions. 8-day expeditions embarking from La Paz, Mexico. "Baja: Among the Great Whales" '07 runs mid-Jan--Mar. From $3,990; www.expeditions.com or 800/397-3348.

Oceanic Society. 12-day expeditions, embarking from San Diego. $3,090; www.oceanic-society.org or 800/326-7491.