By Linda Gettmann
I am the lone American amongst
six Brit's and seven Mexican crewmembers on
a week-long wildlife cruise in
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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