Eye to Eye with Whales and Whale Sharks in Boundless Baja
By Tim Leffel

Where a cacti-studded desert with sun-scorched mountains meets the sea, a wealth of life is just under the surface.

Sea of Cortez adventure tour

Day 1 itinerary: kayak for two hours to a secluded beach for lunch, then swim with sea lions, then swim with whale sharks. Head to La Paz as a glorious sunset spreads across the sea.

In a destination so packed with wonders and wildlife, this is no fantasy. We get into our BOA kayaks on one of the many quiet beaches dotting protected Espiritu Santo Island off the coast of Baja Sur and start paddling. We go past cliffs and coves while watching diving sea birds, go through an arch, and eventually pull up to a beach where lunch is waiting. We look out at a perfect bay we have to ourselves, feeling sand between our toes as we eat ceviche and tacos.

After a short boat ride we come to La Lobera, where the female and juvenile sea lions are docile enough to interact with humans—a rare trait outside the Galapagos. They swim under us and next to us and occasionally one will come out of nowhere and be face to face with my mask.

We're going to top it off with a grand finale, a rather rare experience that usually requires a long boat traverse on rough seas and a questionable outcome. There are only a few destinations where a snorkeler can interact with whale sharks, the world's largest fish. When we arrive at the prime gathering spot in the Sea of Cortez, however, we can see the city of La Paz in the distance. As soon as our boat pulls up and we've got fins on, the guide says "Follow me!" and starts swimming fast. When everyone in my group stops suddenly, I look down and see the tell-tale blurry spots pass my field of vision. I start swimming the direction those spots are going and in a moment I'm eye to eye with a whale shark that's three times as long as the boat we came in. It seems almost too easy, but Baja has a way of serving up sea life almost on demand.

Waters Thick With Whales

We had first landed in the busy resort city of Los Cabos, where winter-white tourists emerge into the warm sunlight by the jumbo jet load. We make our way straight to the marina though and board an Uncruise ship that will take us north to La Paz. Sure, it would be simpler to merge onto the highway that gets you there in two hours, but this way we can see humpback whales on the way.

It doesn't take long for that to happen. On my first visit to this region many years ago a guide said to me, "You can almost walk on whales in January" and that image has stuck in my head ever since, of a magical coast teeming with giant sea mammals. They're not quite that thick in reality, but we get a long series of blowhole spoutings, humps emerging from the water, and whale tail flukes emerging before a dive. After a while when we've seen a dozen, people start drifting back from the bar with a drink and munching on canapés. All of a sudden, there's a collective gasp as a big mama breaches, hangs in the air for a second, then plunges back down into the water. The one person not putting something in her mouth gets the photo.

whale breaching
©Suzanne Morphet

After our full day of sea adventures the following day, we get a good night's sleep and then head for more exercise in the morning. We make the short drive from La Paz to Todos Santos and split up. Half the group goes for surfing lessons while the rest of us go mountain biking with Todos Santos EcoAdventures. We ride through the funky town and out to the trails for some single track leg-pumping up steep hills and through harsh terrain. Eventually the scrub brush gives way to larger plants after we leave the switchbacks and we ride past flowering cacti circled by butterflies.

Baja cacti

There's little sound besides our huffing and puffing and at one point I get too lost in my thoughts to notice the deep sand directly in my path. I try to dismount as the bike comes to a plodding stop but instead I fall to the left in slow motion, landing in a dry creek bed a few feet below. I miss the cactus on one side and the thorn bush on the other, instead brushing up against some kind of wild sage. "You smell very aromatic now," says my companion who helps me back up. At the end we recount the days' successes and failures on boards and bikes as we gaze out at the deep blue sea from a restaurant with a panoramic view.

Baja sea turtle

Glamping With Sea Turtles

When it's time to leave the south and head toward less populated areas the next day, we go way off the beaten track to the RED Travel sustainable camp at the southern end of Magdalena Bay. This is another prime whale watching spot, but we're here to interact with another kind of wildlife. The tourism part of the RED operation here is mainly a way to fund scientific research and move turtle poachers into less destructive lines of work. Huge sea turtles are caught in specially designed nets that allow them to still move around and come up to the surface. On a regular schedule boatmen check the nets for any catches and we watch our "turtle whisperer" Jose go to work. He keeps them calm while another person takes detailed measurements of their dimensions and weight and tags them for tracking purposes. "There are seven kinds of sea turtles in the world," explains one of the founders of the program, "and five of them are here in Mexico. Many of them leave and migrate back, so with this program we can keep tabs on their movements and habitats to better protect them."

Before we see this in action though, we eat lunch at the base of mountain-sized sand dunes and then scale them for panoramic views of the area. The wind whistling past our ears is strong at the summit and my sunscreen-covered arms and face are quickly coated with a layer of grit. I try not to talk much for fear of a crunchy layer on my teeth as well. After playing in the sand and snapping photos making us look like we're in the Sahara, we descend and get into kayaks for a paddle over to the turtle tagging base and our camp on Punta Lengua. We throw bags into our glamping tents, equipped with cushioned cots and mats, and get the lowdown on the proper procedure for covering our number twos with sawdust in the composting outdoor toilets.

Baja Magdalena Bay dunes

After participating in the sea turtle tagging and watching the poor guys get the equivalent of an ear piercing on their flipper for the greater good, we're devouring the guacamole and sucking down margaritas from a giant punch bowl on the beach at sunset. The kayak paddle over to the peninsula camp area turned out to be much tougher than it looked when we started. As the wind continued to pick up and we had to navigate the shallows, "Against the Wind" and "Break on Through to the Other Side" were the soundtrack in my head. Now after a good dinner we're sitting by a campfire and listening to more contemporary songs that everyone knows. I'm feeling both my age and a bit of nostalgia as I realize Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have entered the songbook standards for a man with a guitar next to a fire.

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