Cruising the Sea of Cortez,
Up Close and Personal
by Ann Hazard
Photo Credit: Terry Hauswirth
Ann Hazard is the author of Cooking with Baja Magic, Cartwheels in the Sand, and the recently released Agave Sunsets. She has also written over 100 articles on Baja, Mexico, and Mexican cuisine. Visit her at http://www.bajamagic.com .
Every time I visit Baja, it’s like the first time. Without fail, I’m humbled by the wild emptiness of its mountains, the magnificence of its endless beaches, the clarity of its waters and the multitudes of sea life that flourish in the Sea of Cortez, along its eastern shores. However, most of Baja’s shoreline is inaccessible by road and largely uninhabited. Rugged islands dot the sea, surrounded by pristine bays. More species of marine life inhabit this sea than any other on earth, including several species of whales, dolphins, rays, whale sharks, and tropical and big game fish. I’ve driven the peninsula several times, and flown over it too many times to count. Every time I make the journey – whether by land or sky – I ache to visit those places I see from the air, the places the roads don’t go.
This spring I got my chance. My family and some close friends took a weeklong Baja Whale and Wildlife Cruise aboard the 102-passenger Spirit of Endeavor. We departed on Saturday, March 21, from the main dock in downtown La Paz. We headed north after sunset and awoke Sunday morning off the shore of Isla Espiritú Santo – its craggy, almost lunar outline a dark silhouette against the brilliance of the sunrise. Inhaling the salt air, I drank up the silence, broken only by the sound of the waves gently lapping against the shore, and the squawk of sea birds as they dove for their breakfast.
Later, we took a boat to shore and went snorkeling. The water was that perfect shade of pale green tinged with aquamarine, and crystal clear. We skimmed over green and rust-colored coral reefs that looked like huge heads of cauliflower. Between the coral and waving meadows of seaweed, we swam among needlefish, angelfish, navy blue damselfish, tiny polka-dotted blowfish, turquoise, lavender, green and pink parrotfish, silvery triggerfish, moray eels, and the occasional game fish.
Lunch was served topside on the ship – and it was a sumptuous barbecue of fresh fish, chicken, burgers and hot dogs with plenty of trimmings. Afterward, we went back to the beach and boarded kayaks where we skirted the shoreline and watched the fish swimming beneath us. Others of our group went hiking through tangled thickets of exotic cacti, up steep hillsides to photograph the magnificent, pristine views.
The Spirit of Endeavor is definitely not your typical cruise ship. There is no casino, nightclub or swimming pool onboard, but we did enjoy world-class cuisine and roomy, comfortable accommodations. The crew was young, friendly and energetic – most of them wearing two or three hats and working 12 hour shifts every day. Our waitress, Shanda, cleaned the rooms after serving us breakfast. She also did beach duty, helping passengers in and out of inflatable boats on shore excursions. At dinner, she was back on duty in the dining room – ever cheerful. I wanted to adopt her and take her home.
Every morning we awoke to see the sun rising dramatically over the Sea of Cortez, and every day we were anchored off a different island. For the first time in my life, I was experiencing – up close and personal – places I had only previously seen from 35,000 feet above sea level. We even snorkeled with sea lions at Los Islotes off Isla Partida. Amazingly enough, if we got too close to one of the males, he would blow a circle of bubbles, letting us know where the boundaries of his space were and giving us a big hint to stay outside it!
Wednesday morning found us just offshore of Loreto as the sun’s first rays danced across the sea and lit up the city, accenting its colonial buildings, backdrop of palm groves and the craggy Sierra de la Giganta Mountains – the most ferociously dramatic on the entire peninsula. It was breathtaking. We disembarked and went on a tour of the Mission (the oldest in either Baja or Alta California—established in 1697) and the newly renovated downtown historic district. Later the wind came up and the captain moved anchor to Puerto Escondido, an hour south of town. On the way, we were treated to a whale show the likes of which most of the crew had never experienced before. We saw countless blue whales, blowing and rolling and showing their flukes. One even did a belly roll under our bow. Sperm whales showed up too. The first sight we had of them was a monstrous splash of white water off to the starboard. I ran upstairs, knocked on the door of the bridge and begged the captain to let me in. He did. We saw seven or eight sperm whales breeching in the next half hour and it was more exciting than I could’ve ever imagined.
The next day, as we motored back toward La Paz, I was in my stateroom about 6:45 a.m. contemplating getting out of bed. Over the loudspeaker I heard these words: “Orcas. 4:00.” I never got up and dressed so fast in my life. Out on the bow, I ran back and forth from port to starboard with the other passengers, as killer whales were sighted all around us. An immense pod of dolphin swam, flying in and out of the water at top speed – hell-bent on not being breakfast for Orcas. The whales stayed with us for nearly two hours. The itinerary on the Spirit of Endeavor varies from week to week, depending on weather and whale sightings. Every other cruise but ours went to Bahía Magdalena to hang out with gray whales. We were late in the season and they’d already left for points north, but obviously the blues, sperms and Orcas (plus several other species) more than made up for it with us.
On Friday, we anchored back in La Paz, where we were able to take city and adventure tours, or just wander down the newly renovated malecón on our own. Our last evening was celebrated with a romantic, traditional Mexican fiesta – complete with mariachis, ballet folklórico and a buffet – on the waterfront deck of the Governor’s Mansion next to the La Concha Hotel on the outskirts of the city. After dinner, the livelier of the passengers and crew hit the town. It was, after all, Saturday night in La Paz, and the last Baja Whales Cruise of the season. Plenty of reason to celebrate!
Cruise West operates this cruise from late December through late March. Discounted airfare to Los Cabos or La Paz is available when you book. For more information, visit www.cruisewest.com or call 800-580-0072. To book locally, contact Awesome Escapes at www.awesomeescapes.com or 858-358-0903.
P.S. For those not wanting to end their adventure quite so soon, there is an add-on option to travel to Mexico’s Copper Canyon. If you opt for this, you’ll fly to Los Mochis on the mainland, where they will board the first class “El Chepe” Railway, taking you along the edge of canyons where the terrain varies from cactus to cedar to pine forests with waterfalls and breath-taking views. In one 22-mile stretch you will rise 8000 vertical feet. For information on Copper Canyon, visit www.coppercanyon-mexico.com or call 888-654-0394.