Touch­ing mo­ments with the mighty mam­mal in the Sea of Cortez

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‘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

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