Touching moments with the mighty mammal in the Sea of Cortez
‘Quick! Quick! She’s coming up again!” I leant over the side once more, reaching as deep as I dared. Just below my hand – rising slowly from shadowy suggestion into highdefinition reality – was the head of a baby grey whale. The twin blowhole slits pucker as the animal prepared to exhale. Surely this time…
Pfff! The sea exploded in my face and suddenly I was touching rubbery flesh. The nose nudged the gunwale, prompting half a dozen hands to reach out in a frenzy of patting and scratching, as though this 16ft infant sea mammal was a long-lost family labrador.
Laying hands on a wild whale is, undeniably, a powerful experience. And the flood of emotion rather drowns the words of our skipper, Art Taylor. “Remember, it’s not whether you touched a whale,” he told us at an earlier briefing, “but whether a whale touched you.”
He’s right, of course: our craving for contact can blind us to the privilege of simply watching this extraordinary animal at such close quarters. In my defence, however, the baby has come to check us out, not vice versa. And its enormous mother is keeping tabs on us. Any objections, and she could upend us with one swipe of her tail.
I was in the San Ignacio Lagoon, halfway down the wild peninsula of Baja California on Mexico’s Pacific coast. For millennia, these sheltered waters have provided a winter sanctuary for grey whales before their summer migration to Alaska. The lagoon, a Unesco World Heritage Site, was the centrepiece of our 12-night cruise around Baja (pronounced bah-hah) on the MV Searcher, a sport fishing boat that has been conducting wildlife cruises here for the past 30 years. We arrived at first light, the signature heart-shaped blows of whales beautifully backlit as Art navigated our entrance from the open ocean. Leaving the Searcher at anchor, we spent the next few days venturing out with boatmen in small skiffs – known locally as pangas – for closer encounters.
Our guides, Lee and Patty, helped us spot wildlife and interpret the whales’ behaviour. Each trip brought something new. One morning we found ourselves in the middle of a torrid cetacean love triangle, the water churning around us as two males competed lustily for a female. Another, day, escorted by a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins, we nosed through the mangroves, finding herons, egrets and other elusive water birds. Patty explained how this vital habitat provides a breeding nursery for most of the peninsula reef fish.
But the mother-and-baby encounters are undoubtedly the highlight and, by the end of day two, they had broken any remaining ice on board the Searcher. After dinner, we sat out on deck beneath the stars, conversation lubricated by our adventures and a glass or two of Californian red.
It was, indeed, in another country that, four days previously, our cruise began: in San Diego, to be precise. We set sail at sunset, slipping across the border by darkness and woke the next morning to find Mexican officials signing off the paperwork over coffee with the crew.
For the first two days, we headed south through a heavy swell. Deep troughs and foaming white caps put paid to whale watching. But as sea legs stiffened, it was a chance to become acquainted with the local seabirds. Lee tossed handfuls of popcorn off the stern so we could sort through the retinue of gulls, while shearwaters scudded past, auklets skittered across the bows and the odd albatross angled low over the waves on long, stiff wings.
Meanwhile, we were getting to know our new home, from our bijou cabins below deck to the living area up top, where we slid in on benches to enjoy our meals, share photos or gather for briefings. Our seven-man crew, “Team Searcher,” formed a friendly, tight-knit unit, whether piloting the skiffs, spotting wildlife or serving up our food. Art directed proceedings with warmth, humour and safety briefings. Charley whipped up culinary miracles from the tiny galley, the aroma of his freshly baked bread wafting around the deck to join the occasional bluesy strains of Dan’s harmonica. After hours, Patty and Lee gave talks on everything from pinnipeds to cacti.
On day five, after leaving San Ignacio and sailing through the night, we awoke to flat, calm seas. This meant sunblock, binoculars and a day on deck. To port, the desert backdrop unspooled from one headland to the next, providing a convenient visual reference against which to pinpoint any sightings out on the vast blue.
And the sightings certainly arrived, Art directing us by PA to wherever the action was. First up, a fin whale, revealing a telltale dorsal fin as it spouted and dived. Then hundreds of long-beaked common dolphins, the front-runners riding our bow wave while the sea boiled with their companions. Californian sea lions loafed in the swell, green turtles hung at the surface and a leaping mako shark broke the horizon in a twist of silver. And after lunch, the big one: a blue whale, revealed by a towering blow and a clear lilac colour spot beneath the darker waves.
Baja is one of the world’s hotspots for blue whales: the largest animal ever known and once hunted almost to extinction. We saw several more over
the next 24 hours, as we rounded the tip of the peninsula and made our way up into the Sea of Cortez. One obliging female and calf allowed us an hour in their company. “She’s a 90-footer,” announced Art. “As big as this boat.” The world’s largest mum raised her tail flukes in salute before descending into the depths.
Blue whales may scoop the size prize, but the true cetacean show-stoppers are humpbacks. We had already spied a number of these sociable whales at a distance. But day seven brought the house down, when a courtship tussle between two bulls just off our bows culminated in what can only be described as a breach-off. Over 15 minutes, the massive antagonists took turns launching themselves from the surface, each towering briefly in front of us before crashing back in a colossal detonation of spray. It was an awesome display of power and exuberance.
Marine life is not Baja’s only drawcard. Our itinerary also took us ashore, with Lee and Patty leading a series of hikes around the peninsula’s wild islands and coastlines. Our first such stop had come before San Ignacio, at the Islas San Benito, where we became painfully acquainted with the notorious cholla cactus, its spiny balls clinging to the feet of the unwary. Here, we found the crumbling terrain honeycombed with the nest burrows of petrels and other seabirds that return after dark, and the bays crowded with northern elephant seals. South of San Ignacio, each new landing brought new treasures. At Los Frailes Beach, we wandered inland in search of desert birds, watching gila woodpeckers scaling cacti and Costa’s hummingbirds zipping around the blooms. On Isla San Francisco we picked through strandline artefacts, finding empty cone shells, a desiccated triggerfish and the skull of a brown pelican. At Timbabichi we followed coyote tracks beneath a Badlands backdrop and watched an osprey pluck a writhing, 3ft-long reef cornet fish from a lagoon. And at Isla Santa Catarina, searching among barrel cacti for the island’s endemic rattle-less rattlesnake, we instead found emerald-tailed lizards, a black-footed jackrabbit and a botanical garden of desert flora.
Wherever our wanderings, every day ended back on board the Searcher. And darkness was always magical. At anchor one night, after a lavish, margarita-fuelled barbecue, I stayed up on deck to enjoy a dramatic lightning show and found myself eyeballing a huge green turtle below the stern.
But the ultimate way in which to appreciate the Sea of Cortez is, of course, to jump in. Thus, where conditions allowed, we donned wetsuits and took the skiffs out for a spot of snorkelling. Among coral gardens littered with sea stars we found a teeming kaleidoscope of reef fish, including such gems as Cortez angels and guineafowl puffers. And at one sheltered berth beneath a towering sea stack, we even slipped overboard beside a colony of California sea lions. Leaving the adults sprawled among the boulders, the pups swam out to join us.
Our final snorkel was a little more daunting. Anchoring near the resort of La Paz, we set out in pangas across a bay where whale sharks – the world’s biggest fish – gather to filter-feed on seasonal plankton. Once our panganero (driver) had located one at the surface, his job was to unload us close enough for a good look. The sharks move deceptively fast so timing was everything. “One, two, three, go!” came the order as we tumbled overboard. My first attempt ended in failure, but on my second dive I surfaced beside the cavernous maw. The huge body slipped past me like a spotted submarine, gills flaring, before, with one sweep of a kitchen door-sized tail, it receded into the murk.
Our final afternoon saw us sailing back towards Cabo San Lucas, on Baja’s southernmost tip. Morning would bring farewells and a flight back to San Diego, but meanwhile the sea was still springing surprises: squadrons of batlike mobula rays leaping from the water; a pod of pilot whales riding our bows. As the aroma of Charley’s last supper percolated round the deck, my companions drifted indoors for packing, photo-swaps, guest book entries and all those other final-night rituals. And yet I couldn’t drag myself away from the deck. I had touched plenty of Baja California over the past 12 nights – from cactus spines to a living whale – and yes, all of it had touched me. Who knew what the next 10 minutes might bring?
Naturetrek’s (01962 733051) naturetrek.co.uk) 14-day Baja California and Sea of Cortes whalewatching and wildlife holiday includes an 11-night cruise down the western coast of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and into the Sea of Cortez. From £5,895 per person departing on March 8 2018 and including BA flights from Heathrow to San Diego, hotel accommodation and most meals and guiding. Prices for 2019 available on request. US visa applications (https://esta.cbp.dhs. gov/esta/) should be made at least 72 hours before departure.
BIG SPLASH Humpback, above; the Searcher, left; spotting wildlife, below
IN FLIGHT Laysan albatross, left; lizards live among barrel cacti, below