A Whale of a Journey: Kayaking Baja’s Sea of Cortez

Natural Habitat Adventures July 11, 2016 0
Lobtailing grey whale in Mexico

Gray whales smack the water, creating sounds that carry for miles underwater. © Chris Burdon

During the spring of 1995, I joined a Natural Habitat Adventures kayaking trip in search of Pacific gray whales in Baja’s Sea of Cortez. We zigzagged from one end of the Baja peninsula to the other in hopes of sighting one of these magnificent whales.

As we traversed the azure waters of the Mexican coastline, each morning I would sneak out of my cozy whale cabana, go down to the galley and Pedro the cook would look up with a twinkle in his eye. On the first day, I had struck a secret deal with the boat captain that Pedro would take me to shore in a dingy in the dark and I would wait on the beach until first light.

Whale Cabins on the Baja Peninsula

A whale cabana along Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. © Mike Bruscia

Once there was a sliver of light, I was allowed to run and explore as much of the side canyons and shoreline as I could cover in the two hours before the other guests woke up and wandered down for breakfast and morning announcements. At the pre-arranged time, I would see the dingy leaving the mothership heading toward the beach to pick me up. Sometimes, to get there in time, I had to scramble over rocky drops and slippery slopes. More than once I came back to the boat with cactus spines poking out of my fingertips or palm. Our guide acted quickly to remove them and before I knew it, we were off in search of the whales again.

We were treated to about 10 minutes with a gray whale that made us all squeal with delight. Our boat was 80 feet long, and I remember looking over the bow at its head and then racing to the stern to see the whale’s tail extend a foot or two further.  To this day, I can still tap into the feeling of that moment, knowing that we were so fortunate to see these grand creatures so close to my home state of Colorado.

This whale watching tour remained very vivid in my memory. I was so intrigued by what I had seen that, in February 2000, I returned to the Baja Peninsula to explore the area further, this time by kayak. I paddled over from La Paz in my little yellow rented kayak and set off to find the many landing beaches that my friend Pedro had dropped me off at each morning of my previous trip. I wanted to really explore each of those arroyos on foot.

Gray Whale in Baja Peninsula, Mexico

A gray whale spouts water from its blowhole. © Mike Bruscia

The Baja weather this time of year is so mild that I didn’t bring a tent with me. I borrowed a tarp in town that had a bunch of holes in it, but it did the trick as a ground cloth and then I laid my sleeping bag on top and slept under the stars. The Milky Way so was bright that I often fought off sleep to stare at the distant galaxies above.

Each day got better and better, the Mexican coastline grew more intriguing, and beautiful stretches of coral reefs provided amazing snorkeling opportunities. There was a Velcro leash on the end of the rope that I used to tie up my kayak on shore. Sometimes, I slipped the leash on my ankle and would tow my kayak behind me while snorkeling. When the patch of reef ended, I would hop back into my kayak and paddle on.

Mobula rays were the second-most interesting wildlife I encountered on this kayaking adventure, after the goats — more on that later. Mobula rays feed like baleen whales by straining krill through filtering plates in their gills. They also launch themselves into the air and perform remarkable acrobatic spins. Some belly-flopped, while others gracefully re-entered the water at the perfect angle.

Spyhopping gray whale in San Ignacio Lagoon

A breaching Pacific gray whale. © Deborah Doyle

With just one full day to go, I still hadn’t found that most memorable cove that had inspired my journey. I was beginning to wonder if it was on mainland Baja rather than on Espiritu Santo when I rounded a corner and then there it was! I paddled quickly to shore, grabbed my daypack, and set out as fast I could to the top of this narrow canyon. When I got to the flat summit, I could almost see 360 degrees. I sat down and took several self-timed photos of myself sinking my teeth into mangoes or with bottlenose dolphins doing acrobatics in the background. I was so amazed by what I saw!

I spent most of the day exploring the mesa. By late afternoon, I retreated in search of shade. As I approached my kayak, I saw a couple on the beach and a sailboat in the little bay. After a week completely on my own, it was wild to see other humans. I jumped at the chance to speak with them, and they invited me out to their sailboat for an early dinner of hot grilled cheese sandwiches, cold Cokes and warm brownies. After a week of just eating only salsa and beans from cans, tuna fish from foil pouches, and fruits and vegetables, I jumped at the chance for a new kind of meal. I paddled out and we had a great meal together. The couple was from Idaho and had rented the boat in Los Angeles for six months.  They were testing out the idea of buying a boat to live on. We chatted at length until a gust of wind surprised us all.

Suddenly, one gust turned into a squall, and I had to quickly jump back into my kayak so that they could pull up their anchor and sail out of the bay and away from the dangerous rocks. My perfect day turned upside down in a flash with the arrival of the storm. I was unprepared for the pouring rain, so I secured my kayak high off the beach, grabbed my sleeping bag, packed up, and ran up to a little cave that I had noticed earlier in the day. It seemed like the perfect shelter to protect me, since I had no tent to sleep in.

Some goats apparently had had the same idea and beat me to the cave. They had no interest in sharing their dry real estate with a drenched human. I tried to inch my way under the roof of the cave, but for each step I took toward them, they took two toward me. They made it clear there was no room at the inn. I couldn’t believe I had been forced out by goats, but I retreated to a little sheltered spot under a sparse tree, rolled myself up in the holey tarp, and got some rest. That day was one of the most memorable of that trip and I still dream about going back again. Travel by kayak truly opens up coastlines for exploring!

Wouldn’t you also like to get close to the great grey whales of Baja on an agile skiff and check out the Mexican desert and coastline, along with an expert naturalist guide?

Friendly grey whales up close

Grey whales are quite friendly and curious about humans. © Melissa Scott

This guest post was written by Natural Habitat Adventures Expedition Leader Andrea Reynolds.

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