For Europeans venturing out of a cold, damp winter, the experience of arriving into Baja’s bright sunshine is a fantastically uplifting one. Bodies that have braced against winter gales and struggled with frozen windscreens are suddenly assaulted by light and heat. During the transfer to the marina you can almost feel yourself uncurling in the sun’s warm embrace.
This year we had upgraded to a catamaran whose extra space and comfort was appreciated by all in our international roster with guests from Denmark, France, Switzerland, England and the US.
As soon as we were all settled on board we slipped the quay and headed north into the sparkling blue of the Bay of La Paz, eyes eagerly scanning the way ahead. Within half an hour we were welcomed by a school of about 30 bottlenose dolphins giving everyone a chance to dash for their camera and practice capturing the moment. After ten minutes the dolphins moved on but they seemed to leave a positive energy with the group. Strangers compared shots, laughing at the empty ones where seconds earlier a mum and calf had been, and congratulated each other over the good ones. The boat oozed with a feeling of wellbeing and as the breeze stiffened we hoisted the sails and headed out to the islands under canvas, at one with the wind, in harmony with nature. Tonight we would anchor under the stars at Holy Spirit Island and before dawn surge onwards to the whale grounds in the north.
Watching guests take breakfast on the first day at sea is interesting. As usual the calm conditions precluded any sea sickness and whilst our shared passion for cetaceans helped to strip away national identities, breakfast served to remind me of the diversity in this group. The English settled down to cereal followed by boiled eggs, toast and cups of tea while the French and Swiss lady preferred a bowl of mixed fruit and yoghurt. My American friend drank coffee and didn’t appear to eat anything but, oh, the Danish. Toast spread with peanut butter and topped with slices of fresh ginger and avocado. ” Is that a national dish?” I enquired.
All morning we made good progress up the St Joseph Channel, itself an area that in previous years has yielded glorious encounters with cetaceans. My mind wandered back to a day in 2003 when we had spent an entire afternoon with families of twenty to fifty pilot whales moving slowly south. Like some mass gathering of the clans our initial excitement had turned to true wonder as thousands gradually proceeded passed us. Today though, back in those same waters, nothing. Isn’t nature wonderful?
As we reached the northern end of the channel cries of “dolphins” went up and scattered groups of common dolphins could be seen passing south on both sides of us. Almost anywhere else this would be a cause for great excitement, but here in the Sea of Cortez, I pushed on knowing that now we were close to the deep submarine canyons favoured by the great whales, and so it proved.
As we rounded one last point great columns of whale breath greeted us and shrieks of excitement erupted onboard. First one, then two, and finally three large whales were identified and as the evening drew near we clung to their every breath burning the images into the memory banks as they surged gracefully through the water. Fin whales was the perceived wisdom. Big ones too.
That night the boat rocked with laughter and talk of encounters old. Toasts were made and friendships sealed. The global network of friends of the whales grew a little larger. Later, at the bow, I lay on the trampoline and watched cosmic grains of sand trace streaks of light across the night. Not a bad day when your dreams come true before you wish on a shooting star.
At first light, still on the trampoline, I was woken by the blow of a single dolphin out for an early morning mooch. Reaching for my binoculars I scanned the horizon, the boat swinging helpfully on its anchor, and there they were, still in the same place, working the plankton. Whale watching at 5.30 in the morning from inside a sleeping bag, marvellous. I wonder if the Danish couple are going to have sliced ginger on toast every day for breakfast.
The day that followed was gloriously easy and easily glorious. So much planning had gone into it, so many phone calls and e-mails but all that was in the past. Today, not three miles away were at least five large whales. The sea was calm the sun was already hot and we had all day to enjoy it. Yesterday we had grabbed the moment. Today we took our time and savoured it. I manoeuvred the boat to within about six hundred metres of the main activity and cut the engine. We settled down for a day’s entertainment thrilling at the sound of the multiple whale blows that gradually surrounded us. The kayak was launched and the Danish couple paddled off to enjoy the whales in enhanced privacy. Not long after, a large whale surfaced about four hundred metres away, a blue. It proceeded towards us in a series of shallow dives before raising its tail flukes and disappearing into the depths fifteen metres off the stern. It was a moment of pure Mexican magic, a flagship encounter with a blue whale. Our patience and delicate presence richly rewarded.
After lunch I took a turn in the kayak with my old friend Paul. We headed off in the direction of some pelicans and gulls which were chasing shoals of fish. As we neared, the sea parted and the blue whale from earlier surfaced about a hundred metres away. We both cried out in shocked delight and though we tried to paddle closer the whale kept us at a respectable distance before gracing us with a full tail up terminal dive. As its footprint spread out across the still water we sat in awe, whispered wows as much as our overloaded minds could manage.
We stayed there until late afternoon watching the whales from our floating hotel before returning to the previous night’s anchorage to digest the day’s events and go beachcombing before dark. One of life’s few perfect days.
In the morning, the whales were gone and we motored slowly on through a glassy calm. As I sipped on my early morning tea, the thrill of yesterday still washing over me, a two metre shark suddenly breached next to the boat, a remora stuck to its tail. There, splash, gone! The two of us that saw it stared at each other open mouthed for a moment and then burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” came the cry from the galley.
“Well a shark just jumped out the water next to the boat with a big remora stuck on its tail”, I replied.
“Yeah, as if. Do you want a boiled egg for breakfast?”
“Ooh, can I have two?” I asked hopefully.
“No”, came the immediate response. Oh well, so much for being captain.
As the sun climbed higher its heat refracted the light on the horizon, playing tricks on the eye as distant islands took on impossible shapes resembling huge inverted pyramids. Aztec or Mayan we joked. A sense of peace pervaded the boat though not the captain. A faulty fuel gauge was causing concern and the decision was taken to make for Hidden Port to refuel. Well named, this partly developed resort nestles under the Sierra Gigante mountains whose foothills encircle the bay on three sides. Watching the sunrise set its banded cliffs ablaze is yet another of Baja’s many delights. The distance was about forty miles and as we chugged along the Sea of Cortez gave ample evidence to support its claim to be one of the best whale watching areas in the world.
Time and again whale blows could be seen both near and far. We sidled up to some fin whales for a while but the desire to reach the fuel dock before closing time meant we soon moved on. The show, however, moved with us. To port, the quick flash of a minke whale (?), then, much further away, a huge blow, surely a blue. Later, to starboard, multiple blows halfway to the horizon and even off the bow, large and medium sized spouts two to four miles ahead. A season’s worth of whale watching all in one day. The truly remarkable Sea of Cortez. Next year we’ll have to try to spend longer here, three months would be nice. As we got closer to Hidden Port and people it became even easier to spot the whales because local operators have realised the potential and their boats now shadow them, at a reasonable distance, so far as I could see.
That evening, with fuel tanks full, we dropped anchor in Honeymoon Cove and as the light faded we settled down to watch an extended family of bottlenose dolphins as they moved slowly through the bay, their breaths loud in such a sheltered place. The final instalment of another thrilling day.
Up early, we crept around Danzante Island and motored gently into the new day, the burnt orange and fiery reds of the dawn extinguishing conversation and holding each of us in trance like adulation. I find the ever changing hues of light and cloud and colour endlessly attractive to the eye, and one of the great pleasures of being on a boat is the uncorrupted view of the horizon. Each sunrise or sunset laid bare, each shift in nature’s moods broadcast across the senses in full as it was this beautiful morning.
The plan today was to head north east along Carmen Island whale watching if possible and then spend some time ashore visiting the salt pans. Within a couple of hours a breeze had developed and with the sails up and engine off we cruised along, the now familiar breakfast routines well under way. As if on cue, the first spouts of whale breath were spotted as the last of the dishes were being stowed and we spent a delightful hour and a half sailing along with a group of whales four hundred metres off the starboard bow. Identification was difficult. They were baleen whales similar to fin in length but with just a few noticeable differences in their surface movement and the shape around the dorsal fin. Sei or bryde’s was the consensus. Either way, they were a pleasure to behold.
Eventually, we gybed away from them and headed in to Salinas Bay spotting the blow from two humpbacks as we approached. Much easier to identify. They were quite small and close in towards the cliffs and reefs. The wind, funnelled by the island, was noticeable and the decision was made to leave them and head ashore to explore in the hope that it would die down by the afternoon.
Carmen Island has about forty miles of stunning beaches, reefs and rocky coves, and, except for one mostly deserted settlement, no one lives there. In the past, salt was extracted here but now the few remaining machines lie rusting in the heat and cacti grow where workers once sat. We spent the rest of the morning exploring the salt pans, lazing on the beach and visiting the small church that unseen hands still care for. Its white washed charm is striking and across the threshold of its simple wooden doors a sense of peace and calm prevails, the ideal setting for a quiet prayer of thanks.
Back out in the glare of a Mexican afternoon, we ventured forth once more and before long had relocated the two juvenile humpbacks from earlier. As the day drew to a close we watched them feeding in the darkening water, applauding and clapping each rising of their somewhat floppy tails.
As the sun set, I turned the boat, the end of a long day, and now, sadly, the beginning of our journey south, and a slow return to “normality”.
On the way, of course, there were treats I had saved for the guests. On St Joseph Island we kayaked and rowed through the mangrove stands watching the fish dart among the roots and admiring the reddish egrets, the night herons and even the green tailed towhees that can be spied here. For those who preferred it, the cactus forest that spreads into the island offered the chance to admire some of the one hundred species that grow in Baja, including the largest of all, the cardon cactus, whose older specimens reach twenty metres in height and have lived for two hundred years. At Los Islotes, the California sea lion colony offers the chance to test your nerve in the water as these boisterous pinnipeds career towards you at breakneck speed before twisting away in apparently impossible manoeuvres.
All of this and some wonderful meals with conversations ranging from humpback whale research to why women need so many pairs of shoes. As we neared the marina on our final morning, the mood onboard became more introspective as the prospect of re engaging with everyday reality loomed. And then, as if offering some magnificent farewell the sea seemed to explode with activity. Dolphins and sea lions were spotted approaching us and as eyes focused on the water, the cry of “Whales” erupted on three sides. On the bow, about fifty metres in front what looked like a grey whale surfaced while off the port quarter blows were visible at about five hundred metres. It was on the starboard side, however, that huge splashes could be seen from whales breaching about three miles distant. We had already slightly over run our return time and so with reluctance I had to press on in the opposite direction to the breaches that were spotted twice more. An hour later we were tied up on the pontoon and our magical week at sea was over.
The following morning the minibus arrived to take us across the Baja desert to visit one of the grey whale lagoons on the Pacific coast. This year there were very few whales in “our” lagoon but a mother and her calf still came up to the panga to be “stroked”. Its remarkable behaviour and never fails to amaze me given the murderous courtesy shown in the past.
The end of a trip is a time of reflection for me, about the practical details and how they might be improved as well as the chance to have a well earned rest. It’s also a time to reflect once more upon the dream that is Planet Blue, to savour another unique gathering in a unique place and to look forward to the next instalment in my life’s adventure