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Cruising Mexico’s Sea of Cortez in Baja

By Mark Chester Created: January 15, 2013 Last Updated: January 15, 2013
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A couple dances on the street in Baja. (By Mark Chester)

A couple dances on the street in Baja. (By Mark Chester)

This corner of the world feels remote, and getting here from the Northeast United States requires a stress-free mindset. Baja, Calif., is in transition from being a vast wasteland to a jet-set-like resort getaway. It’s also the gateway to a unique, low-key cruise experience aboard the Safari Endeavour, an 86-guest yacht-style boat that sails the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), out of Baja’s capital city La Paz.

Baja is much bigger than it seems. It’s 1,100 miles long from the North at the California-Tijuana border to its tip at Cabo San Lucas, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez, straddling the Tropic of Cancer.

Plane-loads of snowbirds land at Los Cabos Airport, met by hordes of transfer vans for the 30-mile ride to their resort villas and hotels on the ocean side of Baja, and 30 minutes eastward is the less chic town of San Jose del Cabo, situated on the Sea of Cortez, where ATV riders hugging the coastline look like characters out of a “Mad Max” movie dressed in helmets, goggles, and bandanas.

The late Jacques Cousteau touted that the Sea of Cortez was an underwater museum. He explored these waters filled with several species of whales (Blue, Minke, Gray), tropical fish, manta rays, porpoises, and the gigantic whale shark. Of the more or less 600 species of fish in the Sea of Cortez, 20 percent are endemic.

Pelicans in the Mexican town of Loreta on the Baja Peninsula.(By Mark Chester)

Pelicans in the Mexican town of Loreta on the Baja Peninsula.(By Mark Chester)

Also in these waters, that make their home between Santa Rosalia and La Paz, is the jumbo Humboldt squid. This is not your grandfather’s bait squid.

“They can grow to seven feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds,” said Roger Hanlon when we spoke on the matter. Hanlon is a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass.

“The jumbo squid (Dosidicus Gigas) is an absolute torpedo of strength and swims at jet-propelled speed. It is the ultimate predator that travels in schools of four or five,” said Hanlon, who’s been at MBL since 1995.

A fruit vendor in Loreto.(By Mark Chester)

A fruit vendor in Loreto.(By Mark Chester)

Hanlon knows first-hand. He dove with these “daunting, hair-raising” animals, filming their behavior for a National Geographical documentary.

Diving in the Sea of Cortez was a life-long dream-come-true for Hanlon who studies the sensory ecology, mating system, and color patterns of cephalopods, which also includes cuttlefish and octopus.

The nimble cruise ship Loreto in the Sea of Cortez. (By Mark Chester)

The nimble cruise ship Loreto in the Sea of Cortez. (By Mark Chester)

But there is no need for alarm to cruise passengers. The jumbo squid dives to depths of 1,000 feet during the day, and stays at about 200 feet at night. There are many docile creatures that passengers interface with on a non-threatening, almost therapeutic-like experience.

I felt very calm snorkeling with colorful coral reef fish such as Angels, Sergeant Majors, Surgeon, Cornet, Triggerfish, and others. The array of tropical fish looks like a live, moving mosaic that changes patterns right in front of your eyes. The water is warm and the beaches are white and clean. It is a tropical heaven.

Enjoying the beach during a cruise in the Sea of Cortez. (By Mark Chester)

Enjoying the beach during a cruise in the Sea of Cortez. (By Mark Chester)

One important orientation we were taught is to always shuffle your feet when walking in the water to forewarn rays that lay on the shallow floor.

The Endeavour Safari, which is only 250-feet long, anchors unobtrusively off uninhabited, isolated islands. The dib (durable inflatable boat) ferries us to small islands such as Isla Espiritu Santo, San Jose, San Francisco, or Bahia Agua Verde. Here we beach comb, snorkel, kayak, nature walk, bird watch, or simply plop in chairs, provided by the crew, along with coolers of water, fruit, munchies, and vicariously watch everyone else enjoy their activities. It feels like a drive-in movie, with sunscreen permeating the air.

Kayaks off a cruise ship touring the Sea of Cortez.(By Mark Chester)

Kayaks off a cruise ship touring the Sea of Cortez.(By Mark Chester)

We devoted one day to see Gray whales at Bahia Magdalena. The ship docks at a port in the Sea of Cortez, then we motor coach two hours over land to the Pacific Ocean lagoon. The whales migrate here from the Bering Sea in large numbers between December and April to meet mates and to calve. They greet us in our outboard pangas (small skiffs). The Mexican government has declared these breeding grounds with white sand dunes, mangroves, and sea grass beds, as a wildlife sanctuary.

Other shore excursions include Loreto, the first European settlement in the Californias, founded in 1697, and the first capital of Baja California. It is a sleepy hideaway with a Mexican colonial atmosphere, and it is a favorite sports fishing center.

A local boy sleeps in the passenger seat in La Paz, Mexico.(By Mark Chester)

A local boy sleeps in the passenger seat in La Paz, Mexico.(By Mark Chester)

A voyage in the Sea of Cortez was made famous when author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Edward Ricketts set out on a scientific-literary expedition in 1940, the result of which is the book “The Log From the Sea of Cortez” (Penguin Books, 1951).

In March 2004, Dr. William Gilly, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station and his crew, retraced this expedition to survey any changes from the original scientific exploration.

A caravan of ATV drivers in Baja. (By Mark Chester)

A caravan of ATV drivers in Baja. (By Mark Chester)

Cruising the Sea of Cortez clears the cobwebs. It’s worth the extra time and effort to get to this less traveled part of Mexico.

Mark Chester is a freelance photographer/writer on Cape Cod. His new book is “Twosomes.” (www.markchesterphotography.com)

For more information: American Safari Cruises, 888.862.8881, www.innerseadiscoveries.com. Sea of Cortez sailings depart November through April.

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