Baja and the Sea of Cortez – Blue Whales and Sea Lions

In February 2015 we went on a week-long National Geographic Lindblad expedition in the Sea of Cortez.  We flew a Lindblad charter from Los Angeles to LaPaz, Mexico arriving in the early evening during Carnivale.  Our group of 55 piled into 2 buses and rode 40 minutes around the town, avoiding the parades, to port. By the time everyone go on board, oriented, mustered and had dinner it was time for bed. We had set sail during dinner and then sailed north all night. In the morning we awoke to gray skies and moody clouds interspersed with rays of light and mountains around us. It looked like Alaska. la-paz-area-13

Baja California Sur (Lower California South) is a desert ecosystem. It is usually windy and dry in the winter. This wasn’t a usual winter (are there any of those anymore?).  The wind impacts where the ship can go, keeping keep us from coming this far north as it slows progress.  Also they need to plan for sheltered anchorages in the wind.  Well, it rained the first day. In the desert. The trade for the soft, spitting rain was that there was really no wind and calm seas, allowing us travel this far north to the blue whales. Another benefit of the rain was the blooming desert flowers, a special treat, and the Cardon cacti dropped all their needles due to swelling from the water. Pretty cool.

Since I was snorkeling, I don’t have any cactus pictures.Thanks to Jenny Ross
Blue whales are the largest animal to ever roam, swim or walk the earth. I didn’t know they were here,or that we might see them, what a treat! When they are feeding they surface to breath and then dive back down for 9-11 minutes, during which time the captain guesses where they’ll show up next and then heads slowly that way.  Most often, they surfaced someplace else.  We zigzagged a lot!  We were fortunate to able to watch a couple of these behemoths for a while.

While the whales were down feeding, we watched mobular rays leaping from the water like popcorn. We saw at least one every day that we were in open water. They really leap high out of the water creating a splash that can be seen for some distance.  This day, though, there were so many, jumping with such frequency that I was able to catch some pictures of their short bursts into the air. Really like popcorn. Just amazing.

In the afternoon we headed off to an island at Elephant Rock where we had the option of snorkeling, hiking or beach combing. Of course, we got in the water.  It’s part of the therapy of the winter escape from Chicago. I had brought my wet suit for water that tends to be in the lower 70s in February.  The ship supplies shorties for those who don’t have their own. I heard, days later thankfully, someone say the water was 68 degrees when we snorkeled.  The thought of it still makes me shiver. It was cold.

Elephant Rock
The visibility wasn’t great because the water is rich with plankton. A nutrient rich environment like this favors abundance over diversity. There is not the variety of fish that the Caribbean has, but the schools of fish are huge. We weren’t in the water long (10 minutes, at best) before the lightning and thunder recalled us from the water. It wasn’t raining where we were, but safety comes first.  Once back on the ship I sat on the back deck and watched the sun go down for over an hour. The clouds and the light changing minute by minute was spectacular, with the spotty rain in the distance.  The  day was capped by a double rainbow off the bow of the ship.  We anchored in this quiet cove for most of the night.

Pulling anchor sometime in the night, we were heading toward Los Islotes as the sun rose. Los Islotes is a small island where sea lions come to rest in the sun after a night of hunting.

This area is often called the Galapagos of North America. Only in these 2 places can one see Blue-footed Boobys and Sally Light Foot crabs.  We also saw frigate birds, cormorants, crabs, brown Boobys, fishing pelicans and sea lions, sea lions sea lions – sunning, porpoising, playing, nursing, sleeping, and barking.

Sea lion playing with a very-much-alive porcupine fish, as if it were a bath toy.
Our expedition leader, Jim, talked to us about the sea lions before we had the opportunity to snorkel with them. From Jim: “There are pups that are playful, like puppies. They will come right up to you and may nibble on your fins or snorkel. Don’t encourage them or you’ll get them more excited than they already are. Don’t put your fingers in their mouths, their teeth are sharp and you will bleed (really? He needs to caution against this?). Then there are the sub-adult males, they are like teenage boys always punching each other and wrestling around. They may come swimming straight at you pretty fast with bubbles trailing out of their mouth. They will turn away at the last minute. I’ve had more than one snorkeler almost jump out of the water. Don’t worry, they will turn away. The adults won’t pay any attention to you. You’ll recognize the females, who are lighter than the males, by the graceful way they swim”.

I was a little wary.  I am not very comfortable in the water with animals bigger than myself and generally I think it’s best to be ignored by wildlife.  But who can pass up an opportunity to snorkel with sea lions?  In we jumped. The water was clearer than yesterday’s location and visibility was good. There were huge schools of fish, urchins and the crown-of-thorns starfish.  It’s all so beautiful and peaceful, rocking together in the waves. Then out of nowhere a sea lion came shooting underneath me, just passing by. They move so fast and so effortlessly! They were all around, mostly just doing their thing with an occasion look at me. The pups weren’t out and about today. I think I’m glad for that. The sub-adults were rolling and playing and carrying on. They were fun to watch and ignored the people who sometimes crowded them. It was amazing to hear them barking under water! Who knew?? The adult females do swim more gracefully through the water, there was a surprisingly obvious difference. We were the first ones in the water and among the last out. My fingers were numb. It was totally worth it. This was the highlight of the trip for both of us.

Custom map of our trip
We had lunch as we sailed to Espiritu Santo, a Nature Conservancy island, for the afternoon and a beach bbq dinner. Options this afternoon were more snorkeling (walk in from the beach), kayaking, hiking and/or beach combing. Even though I was still chilled to the bone, the snorkeling was so compelling!  We were back in the water long enough to find an eel and see a lot more fish before our legs started cramping up and we added beach combing and warm sunshine to our afternoon’s activities.
In the mean time, the crew hauled out 55 guests, ~60 collapsible camp chairs, a few tables, wood for the fire, a big grill, the stocked bar, all the food and everything else they needed for the dinner, all on zodiacs with amazing efficiency.  It’s quite an operation. We had grilled tuna on the beach by the open fire as the sun set. The stars were unbelievable.  I could lose myself in that deep, dark, star-filled sky.  Our expedition leader said that we could stay on the beach drinking by the camp fire as long as we wanted, but just know that the ship is going to leave at about 10:00pm.

Once again we fell asleep to the gentle roll of the ship, like sleeping in a gently swinging hammock.















2 Replies to “Baja and the Sea of Cortez – Blue Whales and Sea Lions”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *