After the excitement was over, our grins might have lessened a little, but they didn’t fade. There was plenty to smile about as we lounged on the upper deck looking for more dolphins, as well as whales and birds, smooth mango coladas in hand. Oh, life on Baja Expedition’s Don Jose is always grand.
My husband, Mike, and I had chosen to take the Sea of Cortez Journey because we wanted to see a variety of wildlife. Admirers of all living things, we were especially interested in the bird life, and we wanted to see large marine mammals and endemic reptiles as well. We also wanted to snorkel, hike and explore. We were able to see and to do all of the above during our nine-day adventure in the Sea of Cortez.
Fashioned after John Steinbeck’s epic journey of the 1940s, our trip took us on much the same path as the famous author and we saw more or less what he did during his travels. If you want to read more, check out Steinbeck’s The Log From the Sea of Cortez.
Mike and I met the six other trip participants and the crew aboard the Don Jose while it was docked in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. We had arrived a day early so Mike could get to know the big city with the small town feel (I had been there on several occasions) so we felt quite at home by the time we spent our first night onboard. And as usual, our crew of six and our naturalist, James Ketchum, made sure that our stay was a lovely one.
Our first morning on board dawns bright and sunny, perfect for heading north into the vast Sea of Cortez. Most of us are up early to greet the pastels of dawn and to enjoy a fruit-filled breakfast. While snacking on grapes I realize that I am probably the youngest of the bunch, a feat not often acquired at 40-plus years of age. Half of the group are retired and half still work. All of us are married except for one woman who is traveling with her sister, whose husband doesn’t like to travel.
As our boat motors north we long to see whales, but the cetaceans of the day are bottlenose dolphins. We see about 100 “Flippers” after stopping at Los Islotes to snorkel with sea lions. I am enchanted by the big-bellied, pregnant (due in a couple of weeks) female sea lions and the humongous bulls that lounge in the water with me, but I am just as awestruck by large schools of sardines and Sally Lightfoots, colorful crabs that hang out on the rocks.
We spend the afternoon hiking and exploring the tide pools of San Francisco Island. At the end of the day we all sit around with suntans, full bellies, and memories to last a lifetime. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a perfect day,” reflected Phil. Everyone agreed. Good memories in the making and our trip has only just begun.
Our second day begins with a panga (skiff) ride through the mangroves of San Jose Island. Here, among what are mostly red mangroves, we observe upside down jellyfish, which really do float upside down. Frigate birds, most of them juveniles, roost in the trees, but at one point they take to the sky, littering the water and our skiff below. My husband, always the comedian, smiles, “It’s a good thing their aim is bad.” Other bird life includes flocks of purple martins, as well as snowy egrets, reddish egrets, a green heron and great blue herons. We explore tide pools and find a potpourri of treasures, including sea cucumbers, octopus dens, hermit crabs, two baby eels, sunstars, brittle stars, fire worms, chitons, sponges and small hermit crabs. On the beach I photograph sand crabs.
We spend the rest of the day cruising through the San Jose Channel looking for sperm whales, but seeing pods of 100 to 200 long-beaked common dolphins, 30 to 40 short-finned pilot whales, about 50 bottlenose dolphins, and the largest animals of the day, a female fin whale and her calf. We anchor off Del Carmen for the night, the lights of Loreto flickering in the distance. We fall asleep to the cries of baby gulls and the hum of the boat’s generator.
The morning dawns bright and calm as we cruise to San Idelfonso Island, where we do a little hiking and observe baby brown pelicans of various ages. James estimates there are about 100 pelican nests on the island’s southern slope. In addition, we watch as frigate birds, brown boobies and blue-footed boobies attend their chicks and circle the skies. And while many of us were looking up, I spent time making images of Sally Lightfoot crabs. Two devil rays and an unknown whale provided entertainment as we continued north to San Pedro Martir, its waters our home for the night. A fairly large island, it is home to the world’s greatest population of blue-footed boobies. Also there is a large population of brown boobies and 2,000 brown pelicans fledge here every year too.
Our fourth day dawns with a sea lion serenade. After photographing both blue-footed and brown boobies, and other things like crabs eating fish, we circle the big island in the skiffs. We gawk at many non-breeding pelicans and sea lions. Afterwards we shiver alongside reef fish and sea lions as we snorkel in the chilly waters. Two hours later we are warm and dry as we search for chuckwallas and iguanas on San Esteban, the third largest island in the northern Sea of Cortez. Searching together amid desert vegetation, including stately cardon cactus, we find 17 chuckwallas and six spiny iguanas.
Snorkeling in the Sea
Our fifth day dawns with a blanket of pink clouds stretching over our ship. While we enjoy breakfast on the simple but comfy boat, the captain moves us to Rasa Island, which was declared a marine migratory bird sanctuary in 1964. The sun beams as Enriqueta Velarde leads us on a guided tour. (Enriqueta studies the breeding and feeding ecology of the birds and lives on the island for three months each year.) Of course, we weren’t free to walk wherever we pleased because the island provides a nesting place for approximately 500,000 birds. There’s no doubt in my mind, we saw most of the half million. En route along a path that leads to a shelter for the researchers and a “store” where T-shirts are sold to raise funds (also necklaces and carvings made by local Indians), we pass thousands of nesting Heermann’s gulls. A mind-boggling place, Rasa Island provides nesting opportunities for many birds. The day we visited researchers estimate a population of 260,000 Heermann’s gulls, 200,000 elegant terns, and 50,000 royal terns. Amazingly, the island boasts 95 percent of the world’s population of Heermann’s gulls and elegant terns. In addition, visitors may see a pair of peregrine falcons, ravens and yellow-footed gulls too.
Later in the day, we spend a quiet afternoon on Angel Island, the second largest island in the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California. (Only Tiburon is bigger.) Although we search for more chuckwallas and iguanas while exploring the island, we don’t see any, though we do see a lot of fresh scat and many tracks.
Back on board the Don Jose, we sip icy cold mango coladas as we head to La Partida for the night. We arrive at dark, but make our way onto the island just the same. The moon is in half of its glory as we stand there, straining to see the source of the cries before us. James whispers that we are hearing 500,000 black storm petrels and 250,000 least storm petrels. As our eyes adjust to the dark, we try our best to observe petrels flying among fishing bats. The two species share the rocky slopes, a phenomenon found here and nowhere else.
Another colorful dawn greets us as we make our way south, stopping to circle an island that is home to hordes of sea lions. Later we stop on the peninsula at San Francisquito to search for fossilized shells. Phil and Judy, two of the more hardy folks in our group, and James brave the 59-degree waters to see amazing numbers of spiny puffer fish. Judy emerged from the water beaming, “The puffer fish decorate the kelp like decorations on a Christmas tree.” In addition, they observe gulf opal eyes, Cortes damsels and green moray eels.
Calm waters and the gentle hum of the engine greet the dawn on Mother’s Day. The mothers in our group rejoice in our first gifts of the day, the sighting of sperm whales. Actually the entire ship grins from ear to ear as we observe sets of two and three whales, including a mom and her baby. Later, we watch in amazement as the groups eventually come together to form one large group of nine. We watch the behemoths spy hop and dive for about four hours before continuing south, the whales numbering 30 at one point.
After a brief break and lunch, we sight a large pod of pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins, which entertain us by riding the bow. James estimates there are about 100 bottlenose dolphins and 50 to 60 pilot whales. Later in the afternoon, we thrill to the group of 800 to 1,000 long-beaked common dolphins. It was an amazing time for us—we had dolphins in our midst and views of Catalina Island to the east and Monserrat to the west. So far we had gotten all that we had asked for. We wanted sperm whales and we got them, I wanted them to group together and they did. Christine wanted dolphins in mass and we got them.
As we continued south, stopping off at San Jose Island to stand in awe of fossilized turtle shells, as well as whale ribs and vertebrae, I couldn’t help thinking back to the first day of our journey. It was wildlife-filled and we enjoyed every minute of it. But our first day was no different than the last day or the other days in between. All of our days were filled with beauty and animal life and I knew that our journey was one for the memory books, one to be enjoyed again and again.
For information about the Steinbeck Journey and other trips, contact Baja Expeditions, 2625 Garnet Ave., San Diego, CA 92109. Visit www.bajaex.com or call (800) 843-6967.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.