Nature's wonders in Baja California

Published 10 February 10 01:42 PM
By Tom Uhlenbrock 

The golden moment in whale watching is when the whales turn the tables and become people watchers.

But, sometimes, you pay the price.

Kathryn Winter of Chicago was one of the passengers in a Zodiac following a Gray whale and its calf in Bahia Magdalena, Mexico, when the mother approached her admirers. The curious whale drew up to the boat, within reach of the outstretched arms.

"I leaned out and was petting her," Winter said. "She was really soft, like there was a bit of foam rubber underneath all the barnacles."

Then, the mother did what whales do when they surface – she exhaled a salty blast from her dual blowholes, soaking Winter and everyone else in the rubber raft.

"Who knew she was going to sneeze?" said another of the passengers, brandishing a waterlogged camera.

Our eight-day excursion with Lindblad Expeditions aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird was titled "Baja California: Among the Great Whales." Indeed, blue whales, humpbacks, pilot black whales, orcas and Gray whales were the stars, with a supporting cast of dolphins, sea lions, pelicans and other ocean creatures.

Prices for the trip range from $4,850 to $6,110 for doubles or $7,270 to $7,990 for solo travelers, depending on accommodations, and include round-trip airfare from Los Angeles to La Paz. Departures are in January, February and March, when the whales visit Mexico.

Lindblad, one of the world's top eco-tourism companies, has teamed up with National Geographic to offer trips to the planet's most interesting places, covering the globe from the Arctic to Antarctica. The 200 or so islands off Baja California in the Pacific and Sea of Cortez are known as Mexico's Galapagos because of the evolutionary treasures found there.


Isolated for a few million years, uninhabited because of a lack of fresh water and surrounded by nutrient-rich seas, the islands boast the largest number of endemic species in North America: bats, lizards, rattlesnakes, jackrabbits, squirrels, plants and insects found nowhere else in the world. Because of their rare inhabitants, the islands are protected. You need a permit to walk them, and marine reserves surround many of them.

While most of the 54 passengers on the Sea Bird were entranced by the charismatic marine mammals, the most exciting find of my trip was not quite so charming. The rattleless rattlesnake that naturalist Adrian Cerda Ardura turned up on a three-hour hike of Isla Santa Catalina was understandably upset when coaxed from the shade of a cactus. We wanted to see if it really had lost its rattle over eons. It had.

Female Gray whales travel from the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic 7,000 miles down the California coast to Bahia Magdalena in winter to give birth or to get pregnant. Males follow to help in the latter process. The migrants begin showing up in December.

The Mexican government was one of the first to give whales protection, outlawing fishing in the bay in 1954 while the whales are present in the shallow lagoons. In return for the loss of their business, the fishermen were granted the 25 whale-watching permits, and each of the Sea Bird's four whale-watching Zodiacs had a local fisherman aboard. Regulations limit watching to two boats per whale, at a respectful distance. You don't chase whales; you follow them. If the whales come close, it's their decision.

After dousing the raftload of tourists, the mother went beneath the Zodiac, which briefly traveled under "whale power," to the delight of its occupants. The baby then joined the fun, moving up to touch the boat and getting its share of love.

Mike Greenfelder, the Lindblad marine biologist who was piloting the Zodiac, noted that Bahia Magdalena presents a unique opportunity for whale watchers.

"Occasionally, in the Arctic, we'll get minke whales that are curious," he said. "But here, mother whales will come up and rub the boat. They'll push their babies to the boat. We get babies that won't leave us alone. It's always something to pet a whale."

Lindblad offers voyages on 12 ships, including the National Geographic Explorer, an ice-class vessel that can navigate polar passages. The Sea Bird and its sister ship, the Sea Lion, have 31 outside cabins that can hold 62 guests.

The Sea Bird has a lounge and restaurant, and decks fore and aft for wildlife watching, sunning and reading. The cabins are cozy, with plenty of space to stash your stuff, and feature showers in the commode closet and a sink in the room. Each cabin has two single beds or one double.

While comfortable, the Sea Bird would not be mistaken for a splashy cruise ship. No disco, no ice rink, no swimming pools, not even a hot tub, although a masseuse was on board. It had one thing in common with the larger ships: Plenty of good food, with desserts beginning at breakfast and continuing throughout the day.

But Lindblad attracts a clientele eager to walk off those extra calories. Most are 50 or older, many are repeat cruisers with Lindblad, and all enjoy exploring the natural world. They hiked on every island and signed up when snorkeling was offered, although the water was 66 degrees, chilly even with the wetsuits provided.

Which brings us to our weirdest experience with nature.

We took the Zodiacs to Los Islotes, a group of tiny islands of red volcanic rock that look like they are dusted with powdered sugar. The icing was guano deposited by the seabirds that breed there. California sea lions give birth on the island, and the young males come out to swim with snorkelers, performing their graceful underwater ballets.

But the frisky youngsters nip one another and will grab the wrist or flipper of a swimmer. "They look at us and say, 'Wow, a playmate,'" said Sue Perin, our expedition leader. "Snorkel with your hands by your side, no appendages out to attract the sea lions."

The pups swim around you, blowing bubbles, and occasionally streak straight toward your mask, veering away at the last second in a daredevil maneuver.

Dr. George TerraNova, the physician on our ship, had a more unusual encounter. One of the young males climbed onto his back as he swam and, well, did what young male creatures sometimes do.

"All of a sudden, I had something heavy on my back and two flippers around me," TerraNova said. "He actually stayed there for 30 or 40 seconds. It was like a puppy humping somebody's leg. Hilarious. That's a behavior nobody ever told me about."

A half dozen blue whales were in the waters around the ship when we awoke the first morning. The whales can grow to more than 100 feet long and 150 tons, making them the largest animals ever to roam the planet. They dive deep to dine on krill, a tiny shrimplike crustacean.

"This is the healthiest blue whale population on earth – some 2,000 feed in these waters," said Greenfelder, the marine biologist.

The blue whales were followed by pilot black whales and four orcas, or killer whales. The orcas were the "transient" type, which hunt down prey in packs, like wolves. Transient killer whales will eat blue whales.

Dozens of long-beaked common dolphins chased our ship, gathering at the front to "bow ride" the pressure wave generated by our passage. They were replaced by bottle-nosed dolphins, which tagged along with the Zodiacs.

At Bahia Bonanza, you could join a hike led by a naturalist, kayak along the shore or walk on your own along the long, curving white-sand beach. Coming back through the sand dunes, I discovered the bleached skull of a bighorn sheep. We were told to leave our discoveries where we found them, so I took a photo to show Ardura, the naturalist. "That's a goat," he said.

Our evenings began with cocktails and hours d'oeuvres in the lounge, where we'd recap events of the day. Greenfelder used scuba gear to shoot video of the snorkeling and explained each of the reef residents that appeared on the screen.

One evening was spent at a beach barbecue; on another, Capt. George Coughlin sped up to catch sunset at Land's End, the scenic tip of the peninsula at Cabo San Lucas, the former fishing village turned megaresort that docks up to six cruise ships a day. The timing was perfect. The sun was glowing orange through El Arco, the arch cut in the cliff above the water. We were joined by a sightseeing boat from the resort town.

Loaded to the gills, in more ways than one, laughter and voices came from the boat as it circled the Sea Bird with the stereo blaring the Baha Men.


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