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Whale Tale
By Linda Gettmann

I am the lone American amongst six Brit's and seven Mexican crewmembers on a week-long wildlife cruise in
the Sea of Cortés, presented by Baja Expeditions. In Loreto, we board an 80-foot live-aboard, the Don Jose, which will serve as our home while out at sea. As Jose, our naturalist, makes the cabin assignments, we get settled in, watch a safety video and get acquainted with the crew. Then, we cast off from Puerto Escondido…

Under the canopy of a blue sky, we motor south, passing a few sailboats that are making good headway in the afternoon breeze. The air is fresh and warm, and as those of us from the northern climes bask in the sunshine, we feel the dampness evaporate from our bones. The striking scenery is captivating. We pass chiseled rock formations and sculpted mountains that jet out of the sparkling blue water. Subtle shades of brown are created as red, green, gray, tan, and yellow hues mingle within the rock and dirt layers. They form unique horizontal and vertical designs on each cliff face. The lightest tones are the whitish squiggles that meander down the mountainsides. They were created by the once-roaring creek-beds, which are now bone dry and bleached from the sun.

As we glide through the clear blue-green water, pieces of seaweed and a few translucent moon jellyfish drift along with the waves. A hazy cloud forms wispy streaks across the light blue sky and obscures the distant, craggy mountaintops. The sun fades behind the hill as we anchor for the night in the bay at Puerto Aqua Verde. Our chef, Roberto presents a scrumptious dinner complete with dessert and wine. The sky turns crimson behind the rocky peaks, silhouetting cactus, scrubby trees, and circling vultures.

The following morning, after breakfast, we pile into the dinghy and go ashore for a walkabout. Puerto Aqua Verde is a tiny fishing village that until a few years ago had no road in. Consequently, everyone has a boat pulled up on the beach near the fishing shacks.

Our eagle-eye birdwatchers and naturalists spy a variety of birds in the desert trees and bushes. Black Turkey Vultures pose on a dead snag, scrutinizing us with their beady eyes and licking their hefty bright red beaks. Watching orange butterflies, nesting cactus wren, darting lizards and an amazing creature called a tarantula wasp keeps our full attention while we are on shore. When boarding the dinghy for the short hop back to the Don Jose, we visit with a group of sea kayakers preparing to embark on a week's paddling journey to La Paz.
As we head south, we meet up with a dolphin school. "Bloody dolphins up ahead," shouts Tony! Tony is a British nature guide who, even on holiday, is partaking in a wildlife trip. Our captain, Jose, steers a course toward the frothy white water churning in the distance. As we get closer, hundreds of black dorsal fins slice through the waves, while slick gray and white bodies leap over the whitecaps. Tony exclaims, "there must be over 300 long-nose dolphins surrounding us!" Everyone, including the crew, runs to the bow for a closer look at the smiling cetaceans.

The magnificent school of dolphins are feeding on small fish, jumping over each other in two's and three's and wrestling the pelicans and brown boobie birds that will be today's lunch. When the bow of the boat approaches the school, the dolphins rush to surround us. They are leaping and tail slapping on all sides of the boat. Back and forth, under the bow they go. We are all snapping photos and leaning out over the side, trying to get closer to these friendly mammals. We have used two rolls of film, and we haven't even seen a whale yet! But then, just as we pass Isla Santa Catalina, Jose spots a sperm whale up ahead. We are able to gently slide up to within 50 yards of it as it lay on the surface breathing in oxygen to sustain it on its next deep dive.

The angled, bushy blow is usually sufficient to identify the sperm whale from a distance. At close range, its huge square-shaped head (which encompasses about 1/3 of its body length) and brownish, wrinkly, rough-looking skin are unmistakable. The largest of all the toothed whales, these cetaceans grow to 60 feet long. They prefer deep waters and feed primarily on squid at great depths.

Inside the sperm whale's immense head is a vast cavity, called the spermaceti organ. It contains a mass of weblike pipes filled with a yellowy wax. The wax can be cooled or heated, possibly by water sucked in through the blowhole and shrinks or grows in density. This is believed to be used in buoyancy control and may also be used to focus sonar clicks.

The sperm whales breathe at the surface for five to fifteen minutes to re-oxygenate between dives and then throw the rear third of their body high into the air. This provides a fabulous "tail shot", as they gracefully lift their triangular tail flukes and descend vertically toward the sea floor. Diving to depths ranging from 1,000 feet to over a mile, they can remain submerged one to two hours.

After a brief lull in the action, barely enough time to reload film and get a cold drink, our captain calls our attention to two fin whales blowing off in the distance. We alternate watching a pod of sperm whales, a small schools of dolphins, and four fin whales that are swimming in the five-mile wide channel between the Baja coastline and a myriad of offshore islands. The show lasts three hours and "wow, look at that!" becomes the phrase of the day.

Second only to the blue whale, the fin whale is the second largest species on earth. Once one of the most abundant of the large whales, the fin whale was heavily exploited by the whaling industry and its population has been severely depleted. Since it is almost impossible to judge when one will surface, or how far away it will be, it is a challenge to get a close-up view.

The two fin whales we are watching allow us a closer view. They are about 60 to 70 feet long and fill the lens of my camera. Some fin whales can grow up to 80 feet. Unlike the sperm whale, this species is a baleen whale and has no teeth. Instead, these whales have hundreds of comb-like baleen plates, or "whalebones" hanging down from their upper jaws. The plates overlap inside the mouth and have stiff hairs that form a sieve used to filter food out of the seawater. The fin whale has many folds of skin, or throat grooves, that extend from underneath the lower jaw to behind the flippers. They take in tons of water per mouthful and use their baleen to filter out the fish and krill (tiny crustaceans). The way the whale is structured allows one of the largest animals in the world to feed on some of the smallest ones. Fin whales typically blow 20-foot tall vertical sprays, two to five times, before diving to depths of several hundred feet, where they stay submerged for 15 minutes or longer.

We are treated to several more close encounters with these gentle giants before the light dims and the blazing Baja sun dips behind the jagged mountains. As we pull into the lee of Isla San Diego to anchor for the night, the whales are still blowing spray high in the air, visible in the red twilight glow. Our first full day aboard leaves us all breathless. We all wonder aloud if it can get any better than this!

The next morning, we set off for San Jose Island, and pass the picturesque sandstone cliffs lined with red, white and gray earth. Once ashore, Jose shows us fossils embedded in the sandstone and rock; whale bones, a turtle skeleton, and many different types of shells. The ancient sea level is very apparent, marking the waterline on each cliff. The water carved sandstone sculptures along the shoreline that resembles mushrooms. Its force smoothed out rock edges and rounded corners, as though an artist molded the shapes by hand. Along the canyon walls, fossil shells and bits of bone stick out every few inches. We see that vegetation that appears to be dead from far away is really very much alive. There is only a three-inch annual rainfall, so each plant only produces the leaves and surface area that it can support. Large stovepipe cacti reach their prickly arms toward the sky.

Next, we go snorkeling to cool off and see what lies beneath the transparent blue water in the Sea of Cortez. We see species that are new to me, like the king angelfish, coral hawkfish, indigo wrasse, and panamic fanged blenny, as well as familiar sea urchins, sea stars, balloonfish, groupers, and coronetfish. During the winter and spring, water temps drop to 65F degrees or so, rising to 85F in the summer. This is a refreshing interlude in our day, and I must practically be dragged out of the water to continue our wildlife adventure.

We embark on a side trip to a mangrove estuary near the end of San Jose Island. Another incredible ecosystem is revealed to us in this diverse peninsula, as blue herons, white ibis, red egrets, oystercatchers and pelicans fly by the boat while we make our way through the narrow lagoons. Jose reaches in the water and shows us a Mexican dancer nudibranch and an upside-down jellyfish living in the nutrient-rich canal. A huge bundle of sticks at the top of a scraggly tree is home to an Osprey.

On our way to Isla Cerralvo, a Green Sea Turtle swims on the surface. He poses for a photo opportunity, then dives for the depths. We see an army of several hundred manta rays coming toward us with their front "wings" sticking up out of the water like two periscopes. They glide along the surface feeding on plankton and jumping out of the water. They can be seen in the distance as far as our binoculars will reach, and entertain us for over an hour as we make our way toward La Paz and our anchorage for the night. As we near the bay, a school of eagle rays swim in formation under the bow and then glide off in the twilight as the last pink hue of sunset fades over the Sea of Cortez.

At Los Islotes, the sea lions are the animal of the day. Luis masterfully maneuvers the small boat through the waves and around two mammoth rocks that are home to hundreds of sea birds and sea lions. Adults and pups are basking in the sun, and playing and swimming near by. This sea lion rookery is a protected habitat where scientists and students come to study these barking mammals.

Awkward on land, the sea lions swim circles around us as we snorkel with them in the lee of the island. Young pups play with us, swooping so close it seems they will crash into your facemask. Then, they twist away only to come back to the surface and float upside down and look at us looking at them! Big brown eyes and long whiskers highlight their friendly faces. Once again, I have to be dragged out of the water. I could stay and play with them all day long.

On this last day, we search for whale spouts. We are anxious to catch one more glimpse of nature's largest creatures. Our captain finds a young gray whale near shore in a shallow bay, south of La Paz. Gray's have two blowholes and make a double spout when they exhale. Jose explains that this gray is probably last year's calf. He is about 18 feet long and is off feeding alone. It seems odd that he is not in the company of other whales if he is only a one-year-old calf. Jose tells us that they learn to find food themselves and will go away from the pod to eat. He spyhops us as we approach from the rear, but doesn't seem to be bothered by our presence as he dives and surfaces several times near the boat.

Our weeklong whale-watching adventure comes to a close with all of us enriched by our close encounters with cetaceans, mammals, manta rays, hundreds of sea birds and spectacular desert scenery. Baja captivates visitors, bombarding the senses with unfamiliar and dramatic sensations at every turn. Snapshots of our whale tale will forever be etched in our memories in the vibrant blue, red, and golden hues of Baja's majestic light.

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