Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Baja: A Gray Whale and Sea Lion Adventure

(revised 3/27/08 with a link to Rob and Kay's slide show. See end of blog)
The desire to visit the California gray whales, swim with the California sea lions and escape winter weather in the northern U.S. brought ten experienced paddlers from the cold northeast and the wet Pacific Northwest to sunny La Paz on Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. They were drawn by the prospect of what amounted to back to back trips in very different climates and conditions.

The first segment, whale watching in Magdalena Bay on the damper and cooler Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula, was more boat riding than kayaking. The second segment, in the Sea of Cortez, promised more kayak time and warmer, dryer weather.

La Paz, with good connections to Los Angeles, was an ideal starting point for both legs of the expedition. Ground and sea logistics for the trip were handled by Baja Expeditions (BE), an experienced outfitter with offices in La Paz and San Diego, California.
The group, four from Seattle, two from Vermont, two from Maine and two who can’t decide whether they are from Maine or Vermont, gathered at the Hotel Los Arcos on a Saturday in late February of 2008.

On Sunday morning, promptly at 0730, the BE van and guides J. J. Puebla and Anibal Lopez rolled up to the hotel. After a quick breakfast and briefing at the BE offices the van headed north for a three hour drive to a campsite near the town of San Carlos on the northerly portion of Magdalena Bay.

Magdalena Bay is a 50 km long bay along the western coast of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. It is protected from the Pacific Ocean by the sandy barrier islands of Isla Magdalena and Isla Santa Margarita. The bay is noted for the seasonal migration of the California Gray Whales that go there during the winter to mate. Nearby mangrove swamps provide sanctuaries for sea birds.
Our van was met by two pangas, all purpose utility boats powered by large outboard motors. Gear went into one and the guests into the other for the short run down a narrow estuary to the base camp.

The camp consisted of about ten, ten foot by ten foot tents, large enough to stand in. Back from the beach two larger tents served as the dining room and kitchen areas. The area proved to be windy much of the time and the sturdy tents offered good protection.

The beach and camp area rested on some of the finest and most pervasive sand many of the guests had experienced. It snuck into every opening and quickly recoated the canvas tent floors despite frequent sweeping. But, except for the sand, the camp proved to be very comfortable.

An ample lunch appeared shortly after our arrival and by early afternoon we were settled in, fed and ready for the first whale spotting trip. We joined the guides and panga driver and headed south into the bay in a heavy, consistent chop. The windward side of the panga proved to be a wet spot when we moved at any speed but most were properly dressed and the weather was not too cool so we all survived with a minimum of chill.

In mid-bay spouts appeared as the big mammals rolled slowly along, rising to breath and announcing their presence with a water spout and hearty gush of air.

That night, following dinner, J. J. gave a lecture on “whale behaviors”, which was informative and alerted us as to the types of movements we could look for on future spotting trips. On the way to the sleeping tents the stars put on a spendid show against the jet black sky.
Monday the wind persisted, but so did the guests. Kayak trips to the mangroves were offered at 0600. That was the only time kayaks were used in the camp due to the distances that needed to be covered to view the whales. Hot drinks were available at 0630 and breakfast was served at 0730. By 0700 most of the guests could be seen wandering around the camp with a hot drink in the official BE thermal cup. By 8:30 the panga was loaded heading down the long bay in search of the whales.

As predicted by J. J. we saw breaching, spy hopping and extensive mating behaviors. The mating ritual was the most surprising. One female and one or more males would roll and twist on the waters surface like a giant water ballet. Unlike many species the males tolerate each other and show little competition for the females.
One whale bravely slowed near our boat and then drifted over to a point where he could be petted on the rough snout by the panga skipper. He then rolled away and passed under the boat with shear grace. A most impressive spectacle.

The wet, wind blown whale watchers returned to camp at 1330 for a late lunch and then returned to the open water for an afternoon of whales. The panga bristled with cameras and hundreds of pictures were taken. But, except for the mating ballet, the whales never exposed much of their massive bodies and then they were often some distance away. Perhaps clever editing by the photographers will bring the whales in to better view but it is likely many of the photos will show only open water.

Following a late dinner our guides provided addition information on types of whales and their living, traveling and eating habits. Most interesting.

After just two days a camp routine had been adopted by the guests, anchored by the meal and panga schedule. The tents proved very comfortable, no one was going hungry and even the sand was becoming tolerable.

Tuesday dawned calm. What a nice break after the constant wind of the first two days. The morning panga ride began with a slow cruise through a nearby mangrove swamp with its varied and abundant birds including herons and ibis. A fat coyote was spotted dozing on the sunny shore. That was followed by more whale watching, which was much easier on the flat, calm waters.
Following lunch we again boarded our faithful panga and headed due west to a narrow sandy neck on Isle de Magdalena, the barrier island that defines the westerly edge of the bay. Landing 100 meters from shore we waded the shallow water to the sandy island and then walked over an amazing sand dune landscape another 100 meters to the westerly shore and the pounding Pacific Ocean.

After a short morning panga ride, that was rewarded with the discovery of a mother with calf, we returned to camp, loaded our gear and retraced our Sunday path down the estuary to the waiting van for the return trip to La Paz and the beginning of the second phase of our combo trip.

Upon arrival the van swung by the BE offices so the guests could be fitted with wet suits for a future swim with the sea lions in the chilly winter waters of the Sea of Cortez. Then it was off to the hotel to shake off the last of the sand and wallow in the hot showers.

At 0730 the van returned to transport us to the BE offices for a quick breakfast and allow us to store unneeded luggage and gear. We then covered a short route to the docks where the dive boat “Rio Rita” was waiting to carry us north to Espiritu Santo Island where we would find a new base camp.

During the two hour, 25 mile ride it was decided to pass by the camp and go directly to the Los Islotes sea lion colony and do our snorkeling, taking advantage of the good weather and calm water.
Los Islotes is a busy place with boats arriving regularly from La Paz carrying divers, snorkelers and just plain sightseers who were wise enough not to get into the water. Swimming with the sea lions is an unforgettable experience. You can be up close and personal with a fast moving, at times, curious mammal. While relatively safe you must remember you are in their water and that they are a wild animal.

The group wasted no time getting suited up and into the water. The sea lion experience lived up to expectations. Several of the guests took wonderful movies of the fast moving sea lions that will be enjoyed by the “folks back home.” The four Seattle swimmers lasted only a short time in the chilly waters. They were followed shortly by most of the New England contingent, leaving just two of the men to enjoy the nippy water and the cavorting mammals. Those two, apparently impervious to the chill, stayed until they ran out of camera memory or batteries for their cameras.

Mid afternoon we arrived in camp and hauled our gear to shore. The Rio Rita stood off in deep water while we transferred gear and guests to a waiting panga for the short trip to shore.

The new camp was a bit more primitive than the last, though still very comfortable. Instead of walk-in tents with cots the guests moved into nice dome tents set along the beach. A large sun tarp provided an escape from the hot sun near a single large tent that served as the camp kitchen. Perhaps best of all, the fine clingy sand of Magdalena Bay was replaced by a coarser type that, while still easy to walk in, didn’t cling nor blow nearly as much.

Following lunch the guests joined the guides for a wet exit drill with the kayaks. BE insists its guests know how to get out of a boat in the event of a capsize. Not wanting to get wet again the guests mounted a feeble protest to what was viewed as an unnecessary immersion but, in the end, all participated and likely enjoyed the experience. Fortunately the shallow water in the bay was much warmer than at the Los Islotes sea lion colony.

The bay in front of our new camp was alive with sea birds, particularly the California Brown Pelican. All day long they smashed headlong into the water in pursuit of the small fish in the bay. They look so clumsy but seem to be good fishermen.

Finally the day arrived when we would actually go for a kayak trip. The disadvantage of base camp kayaking is that you basically have two paddle choices; leave camp and turn left or right! We went left, or south, and took a slight detour to an offshore island before exploring several coves and ending up on a beach three coves south. After a stretch the guides led a climb up the north ridge to the site of caves inhabited by ancient people of the area. The walk was accompanied by a brief history of native cultures delivered by the two guides.

After lunch back in camp the group split up. Six took an afternoon paddle with J. J. and four took a hike up the narrow gully east of the camp. When the groups returned most took advantage of a nearby fresh water well to scrub off the sweat and grim of the day. Having the well was a distinct advantage for the camp site.

The warmer nights at this camp, as opposed to whale camp, allowed the guests to enjoy the wine, the beach, the stars and good conversation well into the evening.

Saturday we went north, to explore the coast and get even more exercise. We shore crawled past nearby coves, watching the ever present pelicans and their other feathered fishing friends. We passed through the shallow channel that separates Espiritu Santo from its northern neighbor, Isla Partida. Fog enveloped us as we made our way north, along the Partida shore creating a surreal atmosphere.

Returning to the channel we returned to the west side of Partida and settled into a west facing cove for lunch. BE went all out for the affair, even transporting the white plastic chairs from the base camp to the lunch beach. It was a little embarrassing for the hardy paddlers but we used them and hoped no one saw us luxuriating on a remote Mexican beach.

Our lunch took an ironic turn when the squid salad was unveiled. By coincidence a dozen squid had committed suicide on the beach and offered up quite an aroma if you were caught down wind. Eating squid on a beach covered with their cohort's carcasses seemed strange. But our BE supplied squid was actually quite tasty!

After lunch a wind had kicked up giving the group a wet but safe crossing back to the shelter of Espiritu Santo but no wet exits were required and the group returned invigorated from a good paddle.

Sunday was moving day once again. We rose early, packed, cleared out the tents and then were offered two choices; a panga hunt for whales in the Sea of Cortez or a lazy morning in camp. Six chose the panga and four stayed, exploring the canyon east of the camp just south of their own.

At noon the Rio Rita returned with a new group of campers and loaded us up for the return trip to La Paz and the bustle of normal living. The ride south was highlighted by a dolphin escort we picked up just outside the La Paz harbor. Twenty or more cavorted in the Rio Rita’s wake for ten minutes giving everyone a memorable show. They are remarkable and very entertaining creatures.

Once ashore it was back to the BE offices for a farewell margarita, some tee shirt shopping and a hardy thank you to our guides, both of whom did a wonderful job herding the group and answering an endless stream of questions. They clearly love what they do and the environment in which they operate which made the trip even better for the guests.

Overall the trip to Baja was a success and it conclusively proved two things. First, if you want warm weather in the winter, go to Baja. Second, if you want to travel with a fun, compatible group, go with a bunch of kayakers. Most of the group had not met before the trip nor had they done any “adventure” travel together. Travel can bring out the best and worst in people. This group was great! There were no whiners. Everyone took the sun, sand, spray and other outdoor indignities in stride while contributing to a healthy and entertaining conversation. It would have been hard to vote anyone off of that island!

Baja Expeditions deserved high marks for the talent and dedication of their people, and the efficiency with which they ran the trip. Vans showed up on time. Boats showed up on time. The food was varied and good and they were able to accommodate any special food or beverage requirements of the guests.

La Paz proved to be a perfect jumping off point for the trip. While it is growing rapidly and risks being overtaken by the pressures of tourism it has not become a tourist mecca like Cabo San Lucas. No one tried to sell us a time share. Souvenir shops are hard to find. Good restaurants are plentiful. It is hard to find Mexico in Cabo. La Paz has found a way to retain its charm.

So, if you want to be warm and make new friends, gather a group of kayakers (canoeists might do) and head to Baja.

It has been asked, “if everyone was such a great kayaker why didn’t they kayak out to see the whales?” The answer is simple. It’s against the law. Our guides advised us that kayakers are not allowed on whale watching trips. Only licensed and trained operators can get up close the Magdalena Bay whales and then, only if they obey a strict set of rules designed to protect the giant mammals. So while kayaking was allowed in the past, that is apparently no longer the case.
(To view Glen and Sarah's slide show of the trip click here. To see Rob and Kay's slides, click here.)