Sea of Cortes Aboard CruiseWest's Spirit of '98
Dolphins and whales and birds, oh my!
Possibly Baja California's most resilient inhabitant, the Gray whale travels one of the longest migration routes of any species - 12,000 to 17,000 miles round trip from Alaska's cold waters to the warm waters of the Southern Baja Peninsula. Over its lifespan, a whale can travel the distance to the moon and back.
It was on the fifth day of our voyage that we first saw the whales - hundreds of them. Excited, I had awakened at 4:30 and sat watching from my cabin window as the earth turned toward the sun for another day. By 6:30, touches of a coral blush peeked from behind silhouettes of the Baja hills. Soon, a beautiful strong coral ribbon blazed across the sky, casting a pinkish tinge on the water.
We left the ship shortly after breakfast and boarded buses to head west across the Baja Peninsula to the Pacific. Dozens of turkey vultures atop telephone poles and palm trees calmly watched us leave. We were on our way to Bahia Magdalena, the protected bay that is home to hundreds of whales. Upon arrival at the western port city of Alfredo Lopez Mateo (a name that is bigger than the town itself,) we donned life jackets, climbed into pangas (small boats holding six people), and headed into the bay.
Immediately we saw a mother and baby whale! They stayed close to our boat and we watched them for a while, entranced. Babies weigh 1500 pounds at birth and can swim within three hours. A fully-grown gray whale is 35-50 feet long and weighs 35-40 tons (about the same as 10 average elephants).
The baby came to the surface to breathe more often than the mother. Then our panga driver broke the spell as he motored off to another spot. More whales. Here, there, everywhere. They were so close that we could almost reach out and touch them. People in some of the pangas got "kissed" by a whale, i.e. they were sprayed by mist from the mammal's blowhole.
Our time among the whales was too short and we returned to land for lunch at a nearby restaurant. It was set in a palapa, a hut made of wooden posts with a thatched roof of palm fronds. The dining area was a large room with metal framing, a dirt floor, and brick walls. Glassless windows were covered with what looked like bamboo sticks.
Service was slow. Slower than slow. After ten minutes, someone brought baskets of corn chips. Ten minutes later, they brought salsa. We HAD to relax because it was probably another 30 minutes before meals were delivered to the tables. Our plates laden with a lobster tail, three or four barbecued shrimp, a delicious, delicate breaded fish, some rice, and lettuce with a glob of mayonnaise beside it. What a seafood-lover's feast!
Whale watching was only one of the many adventures offered on our journey in the Sea of Cortes. We went snorkeling, kayaking, and some people just enjoyed lazing in the pleasant Baja sun. The Spaniards thought this was an island, but it is a peninsula with over 3,000 miles of coastline. Baja is a desert between two bodies of water. The desert reaches directly to the sea and the mountains rise quickly out of the desert.
Shore excursions took us to Loreto, Mulege, Cabo San Lucas, and LaPaz. Loreto is in an area of tectonic and volcanic activity and is home to some endangered species, including the BigHorn Sheep. It is a small town, with shops on both sides of the main cobblestone street. We visited the Mission, which was rebuilt in 1720. The altar in a side chapel is pale blue and gold with copious silk flowers. A charming hotel has a beautiful courtyard with pale rose and gold stucco walls and wrought iron fixtures, and a small silver shop tempted us with beautiful jewelry.
The entry into Mulege is a small dirt road beside a calm river full of fish and shorebirds. The small main square is always alive with colorful Bougainvillea, which blooms here all year round. Hummingbirds chirped gaily among the blossoms. The cobblestone streets are narrow and uneven. The river (the only one in Baja) runs for 20 miles from an inland lake to join the sea at Mulege. The mission, constructed in 1744, is made of stones, with niches along the walls. Children were having catechism classes on the outside steps and in various places inside. They all smiled cheerfully.
While we were there, an unexpected Mexican fiesta seduced us with spirited mariachi music, delicious food, and a piñata that blindfolded children tried to hit with a stick, hoping some of the candy inside it would spill out. The margaritas were strong, and a whole pig was roasting on an outdoor spit, constantly basted with scrumptious BBQ sauce made from pitted dates. The selection of food included salad, beans, BBQ pork, chicken, vegetables, wonderful tamales, tortillas, and flan.
In La Paz, the largest city of Baja Sur (South), we visited a small weaving establishment, yet another mission, Ibarra Pottery, and the Museum of Anthropology and History. One of La Paz's landmarks is the polka dot tree on the waterfront. Its trunk, painted white with big circles of colors, resembles an ad for Wonder Bread. The tree is in front of an ice cream store that offers a number of unusual flavors. I tried the pitaya (cactus) ice cream and found it to be a bit sweet and loaded with seeds.
One night, I had just settled into bed when "Dolphins on the bow!" blared from the loud speaker system in the cabin. "Hurry to the bow of the boat if you want to see dolphins. I quickly pulled on my jeans and a jacket and headed to the front of the boat where I experienced one of the most amazing sights I've ever seen.
Four dolphins, two on each side of the bow, swam along with the boat in bioluminescent water. This water had a glow to it, as though illuminated by an underground light. The dolphins looked ethereal and ghostly. In the dark, you could see the outlines of their bodies and an aura around them like a bright green/white skeletal frame. Bioluminescence is caused by protozoas, tiny one-celled animals. When disturbed (such as when a boat or a dolphin swims through their habitat), they get excited and emit a strong glow that can be green to blue.
Apparently, dolphins like to swim with fast-moving boats. No one knows whether they will stay a few minutes or an hour when they show up. They could easily outswim the boat, so when they stay with it you know they must be enjoying themselves. Each pair swam in unison, turning slightly this way and that for the excited passengers. After about 10 minutes or so, as if on cue, all four of them ducked into the calm water and disappeared from sight. I finally went to sleep with visions of glowing dolphins dancing in my head.
One of the pleasures of cruising on a smaller ship is its ability to make unscheduled stops to watch for whales, take passengers out on small boats to look for birds for an hour or two, or stop at a beach for the voyagers to enjoy. Another pleasure is the friendliness of everyone aboard. With 70 or 100 fellow passengers, it is easier to mix and get to know folks than on larger liners with 1,000 or more passengers. Also, all passengers eat at the same time and the dining room has no assigned seating, so you have an opportunity to sit with nearly everyone on board at some time during the cruise. The food aboard ship was superb and plentiful, but not gluttonous like the large liners.
Whether its whales or snorkeling, port calls or photo opps, missions or museums, shopping or just relaxing in the sun, a smaller ship is definitely the way to go!
For more information, the web site address is: http://www.cruisewest.com/
© 2001-2007 Ellen Sarbone. All rights reserved. Email editor@eTraveller.com.