Travel: Kissing Whales

In search of a warm weather escape with camping, I wondered across a posting for kayaking in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

Camping and kayaking turned out to be the least of it.

I flew from Dulles International Airport, leaving on a snowy day, through Mexico City, arriving at Lap Paz on an Embraer 190.

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 Baja California Sur (BCS)

A Mexican state only since 1974,  BCS is about 30,000 square miles and forms the lower half of the famous peninsula.

Baja_California_Sur_en_México.svg

The biggest city, and the capital, is La Paz, where the trip started and ended.

The extent of my information about Mexico is a steady diet of news about mass killings usually related to drug trafficking, often with police complicity.

I am uninformed: the people of La Paz and Mexico generally were unfailingly polite and helpful to a gringo speaking minimal Spanish and then only haltingly.

La Paz, Waterside

La Paz, Waterside

Paddle, Anyone?

I joined a group of four others on a trip booked through Out Adventures and operated on the ground by Baja Outdoor Adventures, a La Paz based company.

The kayak trip was along the southwest coast of Espiritu Santo island, a Mexican national park located about an hour’s fast boat ride off the peninsula.

espirito map

A day of kayaking began with a 7:30am breakfast prepared by Ricky our cook.  Our trip was supported by a motor boat hauling extra gear, provisions and camping equipment.

Kayakers carry their gear for the day and paddle for about 3.5 or four hours to the next stop in time for a late lunch prepared by Ricky (ready on arrival) followed by snorkeling, more kayaking or a book.

Campsite, Espiritu Santo

Campsite, Espiritu Santo

We pitched tents on pristine beaches where it was quiet enough at night to hear your eyes blink or a distant snorer.

(I never snore.)

The Guide’s the Thing

My last guided trip before this one was trekking in western Nepal with a thieving and lying guide where every day was a pitched battle.

I knew not what to expect.

But, it turns out that my guide karma was blessed.

Enter Francisco Yuen Lau, a.k.a. “Chino”, our expert guide.

Expert Guide Chino

Expert Guide Chino

Chino, born and raised in La Paz, and thoroughly Mexican, is of Chinese lineage, with great grandparents arriving there after living in San Francisco.

He was the perfect combination of affability, professionalism and knowledge.

He is passionate about guiding and nature.

Each evening included a happy hour with Chino arriving laden with photos or books about some aspect of the flora or fauna.

If you didn’t learn something it wasn’t because he didn’t try.

Sea Lions

Northwest of Espiritu Santo lies a sea lion rookery with a population of 400, made up of males, females and pups.

California sea lions (Zalophus Californianus) are especially intelligent and have been trained by the US Navy to accomplish certain tasks.

After setting up camp we motored up for a snorkel.

California Sea Lion

California Sea Lion

The rookery was on a small rocky island and many were barking up a storm while others appeared in deep slumber.

Chino had briefed us on the “rules”: If you swim up to the rocks be mindful of alpha male bulls who can be territorial.  If you want to interact with the pups, play with them by diving underwater.  If you don’t feel comfortable, swim away.

It was an astounding experience.

The pups were lively and made direct eye contact, swimming and swirling within inches of us while managing never to touch us.

I began to dive eight or ten feet under the water and sure enough, I had a pup tracing my every move and after a few minutes, playfully nibbling on my swim fin and even nipping my thigh.

It was a total blast.

I was so exhausted from the repeated diving and playing that I needed a hand getting back into the boat.

I could have stayed there all day.

Across the Baja Peninsula

It’s about 775 miles long and separates the Gulf of California from the Pacific Ocean.

For the most part it is hilly, desert country, varying from 25 miles to 200 miles in width, full of cactus, scrub and buttes.

Baja Desert

Baja Desert

We drove a good four hours east to west across Baja in order to reach Adolfo Lopez Mateos,  the location for our rather inaptly named “whale-watching” excursion.

We did a lot more than just watch.

Of Cows and Calves

Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) migrate down annually from sub-arctic zones to just a hand full of locations to give birth in safe havens.

Those safe havens are in the Baja region and one is located in a lagoon near the threadbare fishing village of  Adolfo Lopez Mateos where fisherman acting as guides use a fleet of boats to reach the whales during the calving season.

These whales can reach nearly 50 feet in length and weigh up to 40 tons.

Life spans are up to 70 years, making me feel young for once.

Whale Watching

Whale Watching

We boarded the boat and headed into the lagoon with the late afternoon sun giving the water that silvery tint with a warm onshore breeze kicking up a swell.

Novices all, a mere glimpse of a mother and calve resulted in awe.

Our captain and Chino took us out of the lagoon near where the Pacific swells were four feet.

The horizon was a panorama of surfacing whales and exploding mist from their continuous exhalations.

As earlier with sea lions, Chino said if we wanted to play with the whales it was up to us to let them know and this was done by splashing the water when they were near.

I was a  little disturbed as our captain started back towards the lagoon with a cow and calve trailing behind our boat but always just out of reach.

Not to worry, Chino told us that after splashing the water it appeared we had their attention and we were taking them in closer for a better chance at playing.

Sure enough, the calf, a good twenty feet long, came along side and popped out of the water ready to be petted, scratched, splashed and (even) kissed.

He would loll about, rolling on his side and back while we made a fuss over his every move.

Mom was always right there, often just under her progeny, keeping an eye out.

This went on for a good 45 minutes; an amazing experience.

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It continued with another excursion the next morning when the wind had abated, the water had cleared and you could easily see the immense size of the adult cows.

Twice that morning an adult playfully raised the stern of a nearby boat a foot or two out of the water by bumping them.

It was easy to see that they could destroy a boat (and its passengers) with ease.

Whales also rise vertically straight out of the water, sometimes for ten or 15 feet to have a look around in an act called “spyhopping.”

Spyhopping

Spyhopping

It seems obvious now that both the sea lions and the whales, fellow mammals, were happy to interact with humans.

Among the Mangroves

Back in La Paz we were given options to design a free day, a nice touch by Chino, and we elected for bird watching in a mangrove lagoon followed by snorkeling and lunch.

Mangroves are a saline woodland with bushes or trees being nourished by the saltwater estuary.

Mangroves can tolerate from brackish water all the way up to twice the salinity of seawater, about 90 parts per thousand.

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Chino took us into a “labyrinth”, a circuitous path in the swamp that was a nesting place for snowy egrets, herons and other water birds.

Heron

Heron

The quieter we were, the better chance we had of closely approaching a bird in a spectacular setting.

Home Run

Brother and sister firefighters will know of my particular interest in safety.

An accurate sign of a professional guide is whether or not they carry a first aid kit on a side expedition.

On our first island hike as we walked away from the campsite I noticed Chino carrying a hefty grey bag.

“What’s in there?”, I asked.

“First aid” was the answer.

Similarly, flotations devices were worn 100% of the time on the motor boat and the van for the cross-Baja trip also had a decent first aid set-up.

B.O.A. seems to run a pretty tight ship and I would either use them again or recommend them to a friend.

Lizard, Santo Espiritu

Lizard, Espiritu Santo

Adios, amigo.

Eric

 

Sources:

BOA:  http://www.kayactivities.com/

Out Adventures: http://www.out-adventures.com/

Wiki

 

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