Whale watching in the Sea of Cortez

Trip Reports
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Bottlenosed dolphins were riding our bow wave at dawn. The sun was still below the horizon and the mountains of the distant Baja peninsula were etched in salmon pink. The light and the water were a soft grey as we gathered on deck to watch the shadowy figures, chasing us, surfing in front of us, arching gracefully out of the water, calling to one another.

Nature is at its purest in the Sea of Cortez, accurately described by underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau as 'the world's aquarium', and these early morning dolphin-watching vigils quickly became a regular event.

Civilisation - and a mobile phone signal - had faded quickly from memory once we'd slipped away from La Paz, at the southern end of the long finger of Mexico's Baja peninsula, embarking on a week-long adventure exploring a sea of metallic blue, the horizon studded with spiky green cacti against a backdrop of jagged mountains. Un-Cruise Adventures' Safari Endeavour was our home, a comfortable little expedition ship carrying 86 (although there were only 50 on my cruise), our guides four endlessly knowledgeable, patient and enthusiastic marine biologists.

Every day was different, whether it brought snorkelling, kayaking or a hike, the latter made all the more exciting by the fact that it had rained recently - a rare event - and the whole desert was in bloom, the shrubs lush and dense, purple flowers carpeting the rocky ground, yellow butterflies flitting between the towering cacti. One day, a local ranchero turned up kitted out in leather chaps and silver spurs, trailing a string of mules, and we rode the cliff paths around Agua Verde, a beautiful anchorage with sheer cliffs falling into an aquamarine sea.

On another occasion, I paddled a solo kayak along the bottom of the cliff face, venturing into damp, green caves, watching pelicans and kingfishers, scattering hundreds of scarlet crabs with my approach. The luxury of having a place to yourself is something you can get used to quickly.

There's an air of pampering about Safari Endeavour. Although Baja is a pretty adventurous choice of destination, the expedition itself is not exactly hard core, what with the open bar, constant supply of excellent food and the free massages that are offered to every guest. One day, after a particularly tough hike, we arrived back on board to find Jen, the superb bartender, serving iced raspberry vodkas on the aft deck. On another occasion, after dinner, the crew set up a bonfire on the beach, around which we sat, gazing at the Milky Way, sipping hot chocolate laced with rum and cinnamon.

Highlights came thick and fast, from spotting a blue whale to sailing right through a pod of hundreds of dolphins. One day, we booked a tour (the only additional cost all week) across the desert to Magdalena Bay on the Pacific coast, where we took a fishing boat across a mirror-calm lagoon to see grey whales and their calves at astonishingly close-up range; the mothers allowed us to reach out and touch the babies, which was an extraordinary experience. At Los Islotes, we plunged into the water next to a huge colony of excitable, barking sea lions, which I can only describe as being like swimming with dozens of oversized, energetic puppies.

So many shared adventures and the relaxed, all-inclusive nature of the ship mean friendships are struck up quickly, with the mainly American crew as well as fellow guests (all of whom were from North America, mostly aged over 50). We attended some fascinating talks on ecology, helped the expedition leaders collect samples for their marine biology studies, learned to identify birds and fish and played noisy games of charades after dinner. There was no nightlife and very little culture as such, but an expedition to Baja isn't about museums and galleries; it's about communing with nature. After all, it's not every day you can say you've stroked a baby whale.


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Meet the author

Sue Bryant is one of cruising’s most distinguished writers and guest writer for Cruise News

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