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Searching for whales in Baja California's Sea of Cortez

One of the most exciting places in the world to encounter wildlife, Baja California’s Sea of Cortez is a vibrant expedition cruise destination thrumming with biodiversity.

Published 20 Nov 2019, 15:00 GMT
Sperm whale breaching at sunrise, Sea of Cortez.
Sperm whale breaching at sunrise, Sea of Cortez.
Photograph by Alamy

I’m barefoot on the bow at dawn wearing only my pyjamas. There are things you learn quickly on an expedition cruise, and one of the earliest is this: if the guides make an announcement over the loudspeaker that they’ve seen something special, you get up, you get going and you get to the bow as fast as you can — no matter what time of day it is.

A handful of us scan the water with our binoculars. Our ship, the 238ft National Geographic Venture, idles in the swell, its plans to drop anchor abandoned as we wait, patiently, for the blue whale to surface again. 

It’s my unicorn: the world’s largest living creature, and also one of the shyest, the endangered blue whale has been at the top of a long list of wildlife encounters I’m increasingly fearful I’ll never see. 

We hear it before we see it: with an ear-splitting wheeze, the blue whale surfaces off our starboard side. The powerful exhalation of carbon dioxide leaves a silver signature in the sky that drifts and catches the early sunlight. The whale’s massive body steadily slinks across the water’s surface, impossibly long and sleek. It’s the animal I’ve wanted to see more than any other in my lifetime, and after three more breaths, I watch it disappear into the mystery of the deep. 

And were it not for this cruise, I’d have missed it entirely. I’d travelled to Baja California to seek out the gray whales of the Baja Peninsula. Each year between January and March, the whales migrate south for the winter to give birth in shallow, protected lagoons along the Pacific Coast. In the 1970s, these sheltered lagoons became famous for offering uniquely close experiences with the vast creatures, leading to them being nicknamed ‘the friendly whales’.

At the last minute I’d managed to secure a berth aboard Lindblad Expeditions’ new 100-passenger ship, joining the vessel during her first season in Baja California. 

Custom-built for passages to Baja California and Alaska, the ship’s shallow draft allows it to access waterways and estuaries bigger ships can’t, while a large fantail at the stern acts as a marina for boarding its two rigid inflatable boats. 

While my head was filled with visions of gray whales, I noticed my itinerary included the Sea of Cortez — somewhere I knew absolutely nothing about. However, it turned out to be the highlight of my trip. 

My introduction to the Sea of Cortez started just before dawn at Land’s End, the iconic granite pinnacles off the tourist town of Cabo San Lucas. Commonly known as the Friars, the pinnacles form the marker where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez. 

It’s beautiful, but we encounter two strange phenomena. The first is the sheer volume of luxury deep-sea fishing yachts heading out of Cabo’s harbour, an endless peak-hour stream of slick white vessels. 

The other is more spectacular: a green flash. Rare and fleeting, only a handful of people see the natural phenomena where light refracts and the edge of the sun turns green as it rises from the horizon. It lasts just seconds, but it feels like magic.

The Friars are stunning geological features in the Sea of Cortez.
Photograph by Chris van Hove

We skip Cabo San Lucas in favour of a morning stop at San José del Cabo, a short cruise away. The small town is the antithesis of Cabo San Lucas: there’s an art district, a specialist block ice shop and gorgeous architecture, but the real beauty of this place is its freshwater oasis. 

Fed by the Sierra de la Laguna mountains, the estuary is home to more than 250 bird species. We spot an osprey and kingfisher sharing the branches of an upturned tree, pelicans nesting on an island, woodpeckers hammering at palm trees and hummingbirds darting through the leaves. 

With the area facing an increase in development, one of the biggest issues is getting people to see the value of preserving the estuary. As part of Lindblad’s global stewardship programme, our ship donates 16 pairs of binoculars to local naturalists to support their education programme, so they can bring local children to the estuary to teach them about the lagoon.

That afternoon, we sail north. Humpback whales launch themselves into the air off the stern, returning to the ocean with a resounding crash; mobula rays cruise just below the waves, their wing tips breaking the surface like twin antennas; and the ship’s biologists collect plankton from the fantail with guests, putting it under microscopes in the lounge for us to examine. 

A small pod of common dolphins joins us to bow surf and, as we pick up speed, another much larger pod of around 100 appears. My cabin sits a metre above the waterline on the upper deck near the bow, and I watch them leap into view through my windows for an hour. It’s as if they’re trying to peak inside. 

More than 30 cetaceans can be found here, including sperm whales, blue whales and whale sharks. The reason? What lies beneath the surface. The Sea of Cortez is subject to some of the highest tidal fluctuations in the world, almost as if the gulf takes a breath, inhaling and exhaling the ocean. 

Despite being the youngest sea in the world, the Gulf of California is deep. Tidal surges push cold-water currents upwards, where they mix with warm-water surface currents. Assisted by at least two hydra thermal vents, this deep-sea cauldron cooks up a surge of photosynthetic life that, in turn, attracts marine creatures from all over. 

I join an outing to Isla San Francisco, one of more than 100 uninhabited islands in the region. The island is made of two large red volcanic ridges covered in cactus and scrub, connected by a sunken white salt plain. On one side is a sheltered anchorage, and across the salt flat is the rocky intertidal zone. 

Mobula ray launching itself out of the water.
Photograph by Getty

Under the guidance of the ship’s naturalists, we gently lift the rocks and marvel at the galaxy of life that wriggles among the pools: there are starfish, sea cucumbers and small crabs, as well as sea urchins and coral oysters that curl between my fingers and slip across the palm of my hand, before being returned to their homes. 

While other passengers head off to hike the ridge, I paddleboard across the moon-shaped bay, where hundreds of bright red Sally lightfoot crabs bask on rocks, and a flock of brown pelicans watch me from the boulders. 

There are just a handful of small yachts at anchor here, yet during our entire time on the Baja California Peninsula, the only other cruise vessel we see is Lindblad’s sister ship, the National Geographic Sea Bird.

Hours later, with the tide flooding in, I slip under water for a different perspective. There’s not much coral, but plenty of life everywhere along the reef: vibrant purple fans, giant clams, starfish and schools of sergeant majors watching my every move. A guineafowl puffer, the size of a rugby ball and covered in black-and-white spots, takes cover under the rock face, disturbing a three-foot zebra moray sporting a band of white and reddish brown that serpentines away.

But it’s nothing compared to the underwater party at Los Islotes, a protected sea lion rockery off the coast of La Paz. We visit at dawn, before the day-trippers arrive at the popular site. Slipping into the water, our group is immediately set upon at high speed by the curious, playful and pushy juvenile sea lions, who come within inches of our faces before spinning back in a fierce display of underwater gymnastics. 

Our final afternoon in the Sea of Cortez includes a beach barbecue on Playa Encantada at San José Island. Under the guidance of naturalists, we hike up the interior via a dried up creek bed, the air scented with the minty aroma of Mexican lavender, past flowering trees and more than a dozen different types of cactus. On our return, we manage to spot the endemic Xantus’s hummingbird, no bigger than a thumb and faster than a golden snitch, thrilling the birdwatchers among us. 

After dinner, what seemed to be a fairly lacklustre sunset suddenly fires up, turning the sky an intense orange. The giant cardon cactuses stand perfectly silhouetted along the saddleback ridge. It feels like our last magical Mexican moment. 

Satisfied (and filled with s’mores), I board a rigid inflatable boat bound for our ship, which is anchored offshore. But the Sea of Cortez has one last brilliant show to offer us. As we cut through the water, we leave an enchantment of phosphorescence glowing in our wake, a reminder of the magic that swirls beneath us.

Walking back to the beach on San Jose Island in the Sea of Cortez.
Photograph by Chris van Hove


Getting there & around

Aeromexico flies from London to Cabo San Lucas via Mexico City; American Airlines, United and Delta fly to Cabo San Lucas via their US domestic hubs.    

Lindblad Expeditions cruises around Baja California from December to April with departures from Cabo San Lucas aboard its ships NG Venture, NG Quest and NG Sea Lion, with a maximum of 100 passengers on departures ranging from five to 15 days. 

When to go

Baja California and the Sea of Cortez is accessible year round, but is best visited from January to April when the bulk of the marine life migrates into the Sea of Cortez and the gray whales are in the Pacific lagoons.

More info

How to do it

Lindblad Expeditions’ California and the Sea of Cortez: Among the Great Whales cruise departs from January to March and costs from $5,990 (£4,870).

Published in the Cruise guide, distributed with the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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