Sailing the Sea of Cortez
A small cruise provides big adventures along Mexico’s western peninsula.
By Lauren Buchholz
There are hundreds of ways to fall in love with Baja California.
Maybe it’s the waving fluke of a blue whale as she pilots her sandbar-size body through waters less than fifty yards from your ship. Perhaps it’s kindled while you search for geodes on a beach lined with sea caves and hermit crabs.
It might be in the way the night sky becomes a gallery of constellations, or simply in the aroma of fresh lobster being cooked for dinner.
Whatever reason compels you to open your heart to Baja California, you’re bound to find it when you join Captain Bill Bailey aboard the M.V. Westward for a life-changing journey along the peninsula just south of the U.S. state of California.
Bienvenidos a Baja California
I joined the Westward as she traveled north from La Paz to Loreto earlier this year. Although the ship has a long history of working in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, this was her first season in the Sea of Cortez.
Our small group of travelers was met at the Los Cabos airport by Captain Bill and the ship’s chef, Tracie. From there we had a two-hour drive north to La Paz, the port of departure for our six-day cruise.eled north from La Paz to Loreto earlier this year.
Although the ship has a long history of working in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, this was her first season in the Sea of Cortez.
During the drive to La Paz, Bill was our tour guide as well as our driver. We scanned the desert landscape as he pointed out cardón cacti (a larger cousin of the saguaro) and a plethora of birds, including a blue-beaked crested caracara. We passed several small towns north of Los Cabos where tourism development projects appeared to have been abandoned. Bill told us these communities were slowly recovering from Hurricane Odile, a Class 4 hurricane that had swept across the peninsula the previous fall.
By the time we reached La Paz, our brief acquaintance with the peninsula had left us eager to discover more. We stepped aboard the Westward and into our journey.
Life aboard the Westward
At 86’ in length and nearly a century in age, the Westward is an intimate alternative to modern cruise liners. A traditional voyage includes no more than eight passengers and slightly fewer crewmembers. On our trip, there were ten people all told.
The Westward has been comfortably updated since its 1924 christening with private rooms and modern bathrooms, but the ship retains much of its historic feel. From the open bow, we could search for sea life during the daytime and admire the heavens at night. The diesel engine was shut off every evening, allowing us to fall asleep to the sound of sea turtles rising up from the water for breath.
There was no phone or Internet access and no television. Most of our trip was focused on exploring the Baja peninsula and all it had to offer. Still, the Westward crew pulled out the stops when it came to one particularly important onboard event: dining.
Tracie has a reputation as a superb chef, and our trip did not disappoint. Every breakfast included a hot egg dish, just-baked pastries, and fresh fruit. Lunches were composed of such fare as homemade pizza and salads from around the world.
Dinner, however, was the main event: a three-course meal every evening that showcased perfectly-paired appetizers and local wines, entrees like fresh trigger fish and lobster, and decadent desserts. We ate on the al fresco dining deck and were graciously served by the crew.
Tracie’s meals were an experience in and of themselves, and it is no small compliment to say that we looked forward to them just as we looked forward to the new adventures each day held in store.
Aventuras en el Mar de Cortés
Bill sailed the Westward leisurely between ports, letting weather, prevailing winds, and the whims of the group dictate what our schedule would be for the day. The crew were equipped with a wealth of local knowledge and experience that ensured every stop had something new in store.
On our first day out to sea, we kayaked to a frigatebird colony near Isla Espíritu Santo . The frigatebirds had established a roosting area some years ago atop a man-made barrier near an old pearl oyster farm.
Now, the barrier was completely covered in nets of white droppings and a disorderly array of nests, upon which were perched hundreds of the black-bodied birds and their ruffled white chicks. The members of the colony took little notice of us, soaring above our heads and calling to one another in an unceasing clamor.
At times they passed so close to us we could have reached out and touched them.
At several other ports, we took kayak trips and island walks guided by Sarah, the trip’s naturalist. The diversity of the landscapes scattered along this stretch of sea was astonishing.
We journeyed from wetlands brimming with birdcalls to enormous cardón forests that had stood as sentinels of the landscape for hundreds of years. One sunset walk along Isla La Partida skirted the edge of an island marsh, an oasis of green in the desert landscape.
We spent several hours roving a beach near the rural town of Timbabichi, playing with wild hermit crabs and crawling through a network of sea tunnels and caves carved into the boulders that lined the water.
Halfway through our journey to Loreto, the Westward stopped at a fishing village on the isolated island of Pardito. This tiny island offers little protection from the elements and no source of fresh water. Its residents have to travel several hours to sell their fish and purchase necessary supplies in town, and accessing or leaving the island is impossible during storms.
Despite the challenges of living on Pardito, the locals cannot imagine calling any other place home. Their dedication to their way of life is equaled by their kindheartedness. They were happy to take
time away from processing the day’s catch to meet with us and let us tour their village. We left with fresh fish for dinner – and another set of stories to share.
Las ballenas: The whales
By the time we docked at the Loreto port, the Westward voyage had already earned its status as a life-list trip for any avid cetacean fan. We saw a large pod of common dolphins and several whales on our trip north, including an adult blue whale that we followed for close to an hour.
Yet the most phenomenal wildlife experience was yet to come.
The final leg of our trip took us by road to the San Ignacio Lagoon, located on the Pacific side of the peninsula. Our route cut across the peninsula in the shadow of towering volcanoes and through a number of historic towns before culminating near the mouth of the lagoon. In the calm waters, grey whales have established an annual haven in which to raise their calves before migrating north.
Small boats are allowed to travel through part of the lagoon, where passengers have the chance to see – and possibly touch – the friendly, curious whales.
This leg of the trip was in partnership with Kuyimá, a local tour group that runs whale watching excursions in the lagoon. After we had arrived at the Kuyimá base camp, we donned life jackets and cameras and split into two pangas (skiffs). We were on our way to personally meet some of the world’s largest living animals.
The boat ride out was a rainy one, but this hardly dampened the spirits of the group. All around us, adult grey whales were rising and diving effortlessly through the water, occasionally breaching or spyhopping to get a better view of their elated audience. Ten-foot-long calves frolicked next to their mothers.
We were met by a single adult female, nicknamed La C for a prominent mark on her dorsal fin. La C proceeded to spend most of our trip surfacing alongside the skiff so we could pet and photograph her. For those aboard the panga, it was an experience bordering on transcendent. Nearly an hour passed unheeded as passengers and whale reached across the barriers of their respective species to connect with one another.
We rode back to the shore for the final time, filled with a mixture of wonder and disbelief. After ten brief days in Baja California, our small group had come to know and love the peninsula in ways we never could have foreseen.
Captain Bill would be proud.
Bill Bailey will be captaining the Westward for a second season of Baja California tours from mid-November of this year through mid-March of 2016. The tours have changed slightly from last season; at the time of this article, they are slated to be 11 – 12 days in length. For dates, rates, and availability, visit their website.
Lauren Buchholz is a freelance author and photographer on a mission to change the way people see the world…one story at a time. Visit her photography gallery.
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