It’s often when you least expect it that the most amazing travel experiences take place. As we skim across the mirror-like waters of the Sea of Cortez, basking under a blazing midday sun, the air laced with salt and the warm rubber of the zodiac, most of my fellow guests are thinking more about lunch than wildlife. That is until a grey whale calf decides to put on an impromptu performance, leaving its mother’s side for a moment and leaping out of the water like an SUV-sized rocket, the golden sunshine shimmering off its flanks as it collapses back into the water to a serenade of gasps and clicking camera shutters.
The Sea of Cortez, a finger of water nestled between the Mexican mainland and the Baja Peninsula, is the kind of place where one should expect the unexpected. With a dizzying array of marine life and a multitude of fragile, interconnected ecosystems, the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California (although I also fancy its rather romantic former name, the Vermilion Sea) has enchanted navigators, explorers and naturalists for centuries. Named after Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, and fed by great rivers such as the Colorado, Sinaloa, Sonora and Yaqui, this relatively young sea – created by the temperamental San Andreas Fault some five million years ago – is one of the most diverse bodies of water on the planet, with an estimated 6,000 species, including 900 types of fish, pods of common, spinner and bottlenose dolphins, fevers of graceful manta and devil rays, hunting killer whales, grazing whale sharks and colonies of grinning sea lions. It’s quite possibly the most amazing place you have never heard of.
Although the area has long been a favourite tropical escape for North Americans, who are seduced by the desert climate and umbrella-lined beaches, to really experience the Sea of Cortez, which Jacques Cousteau dubbed “the aquarium of the world”, you need to leave the Peninsula in your wake.
I have done exactly that, setting sail aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird, a ferry-turned-expedition ship operated in a partnership with Lindblad Expeditions, which has been plying the waters of the Gulf of California since 1977, and the famed natural sciences magazine. The Sea Bird is the ideal vessel for exploring this remarkable destination; with a shallow draft, a flotilla of kayaks, a complement of guides and naturalists, and room for 62 guests in 31 outside cabins, the sturdy little vessel allows for a uniquely intimate encounter with this mesmerising landscape of deep waters and desert islands.
The action begins at dawn the next morning, when expedition leader Larry Prussin rouses us from sleep in time to watch a 700-strong pod of common dolphins surround the ship. We had departed La Paz the previous evening, and the dolphins arrive with the dawn, a distant line of white caps giving the sense of the vanguard of an approaching horde. Soon the sleek, powerful aquatic mammals are riding the Sea Bird’s bow wave, leaping and surfing on the ship’s wake, completely in their element, as guests line the rails, cameras ready.
“There really is no place quite like the Sea of Cortez,” Prussin says, as he peers through binoculars from the ship’s wheelhouse. “Nature is just everywhere here, you never know what’s going to pop up next.”
As if on cue, the dolphins veer east, choreographed by intuition, and are soon replaced by a pair of blue whales which surface ahead of the ship. The Sea of Cortez is home to the greatest variety of whales and dolphins in the world – more than 30 species – and the blue whales, the largest animals on the planet, depart their feeding grounds in the eastern Pacific to explore the Sea of Cortez's nutrient-rich waters for a few weeks each year. The tiny dorsal fins of the blue whales belie their magnitude; they can grow to 30 meters in length and weigh as much as a commercial jet liner. The Sea Bird manoeuverers slowly behind the whales, the spray from their spouts lingering in the early morning sunshine like scattered gold dust.
The Sea of Cortez is a truly unique marine environment, but it’s also one under threat. Commercial fishing, poaching and increased industrialisation has put immense pressure on the Gulf of California and its marine life, with some species such hammerhead sharks in rapid decline, and others, such as the endemic totoaba fish, prized in traditional Chinese medicine, and the elusive vaquita, the world’s most critically endangered marine mammal, whose numbers have been decimated by now-illegal gill nets, on the brink of extinction. The problem has become so critical the American Navy recently announced a programme to use specially trained bomb-sniffing dolphins to locate the remaining vaquita so they can be moved to a protected sanctuary before it’s too late.
However, things are slowly changing for the better. The people of Baja, who live on and depend on the Sea of Cortez for their livelihoods, are increasingly recognising the value that tourism and sustainable fishing offers the region; legislation and Unesco-recognition is protecting more of region (more than 11 protected sanctuaries have been established in the past 20 years); and operators such as Lindblad Expeditions National Geographic are helping to fund conservation initiatives that can help preserve this underwater wonderland for generations to come.
As you might imagine, education is as much a part of a Lindblad Expeditions National Geographic cruise as sightseeing. In addition to insightful lecturers and talks given by the Sea Bird’s complement of naturalists and scientists, each day we clamber into the fleet of zodiacs to explore the desolately beautiful coastlines and dramatic interiors of the desert islands. Passengers have options at each landing, from hiking to “relaxed sauntering”, guided by passionate naturalists and environmentalists. There are also special photography walks for travellers looking to hone their skills.
On Isla Santa Catalina, naturalist David Stephens, a Washington native, points out some of Baja’s 110 species of cactus, 70 per cent of which are endemic, as we hike up a dry arroyo in search of spiny tail iguanas, pinto chuckwallas, rattleless rattlesnakes and ancient agave fermentation pits. During one of the regular photography walks, I join Nat Geo-certified photo instructor Linda Burback to explore the former mining town of Santa Rosalia, tracing graceful pelicans as they skim across the waters of the harbour and perch in the ruins of the warehouses that once stored ore from the French-owned copper mine.
A few days later, I cruise the protected coastline of the tiny San Pedro Martir Island with naturalist Berit Solstad. Here, the skies are a blur of white feathers, red beaks and blue feet. San Pedro Mártir is home to 95 per cent of the world’s population of elegant terns and Heermann’s gulls (the eggs of which were once used in the coveted pan dulce aqui pastries of Santa Rosalia’s El Bolero bakery) but shy blue-footed boobies and yellow-footed gulls, eared grebes, graceful frigates and proud brown pelicans also build their nests on the tiny, protected pumice islet. High on a rocky crest above us, a mating pair of ospreys keep a watchful eye on our progress. As we cruise from San Pedro Martir, we’re escorted by a pair of rarely encountered long-finned pilot whales.
There are opportunities to explore as a group, and chances to grab a paddle board or kayak and explore at your own speed. At Bahia Bonanza, an elegantly curving bay of white sand and turquoise water on the island of Los Islotes, I join a group of snorkellers guided by Mexican biochemist Carlos Navarro.
He has an intimate knowledge of the Sea of Cortez, having studied it for much of his life. At Isla San Marcos, some guests snorkel at a hidden grotto, while others trace a dried riverbed inland, or take to the coast in zodiacs in search of brown-footed boobies, pelicans, herons, egrets and vibrant Sally Lightfoot crabs, before silently trailing a pair of graceful humpback whales as they meander past the ship.
We finish our adventure in style, first by greeting the dawn from the zodiacs, capturing the ship through a natural hole in a fang of rock that juts from the ocean; then with a snorkelling expedition with the sea lions of the Espiritu Santo Biosphere Reserve. It’s a truly spectacular experience as the inquisitive, puppy-like sea lions show off, tumbling and swooping through the water, inches from snorkellers, trails of bubbles in their wake, their whiskers dancing in the currents.
“This is always my favourite part of the trip,” Solstad reveals over the roaring of the sea-lion colony. “It’s encouraging to see so many sea lions living in a safe, pristine environment.”
Overfishing may have reduced shark numbers in the Sea of Cortez, but that has allowed the populations of whales, dolphins and sea lions to flourish. With a little help and the efforts of companies such as Lindblad Expeditions, there’s hope this aquatic wonderland will continue to thrill travellers for generations to come.