A Sea Full of Surprises
Baja California, the long finger of land dangling into Mexico with the Sea of Cortez on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, is full of surprise encounters: it is a playground for whales and other marine mammals.
In La Paz, Mexico, we embarked on the Sea Bird, a small cruise ship fitted out with all sorts of equipment designed to investigate this surprising environment. The trip opened worlds of wonder to us.
The Sea Bird is operated by Lindblad Cruises, a line that specializes in ecotourism. Our guides were specialists in the flora and fauna of Baja and though they had studied their specialties for many years, they as well as we were constantly surprised by what we encountered.
"Look, a Blue Whale," Steve our expert in marine mammals shouted. "It's the largest animal that has ever lived on earth!"
We saw the dark, majestic body of the whale surface and then slowly sound, several times. We watched its dorsal fin and its graceful tail disappear quite close to us. We peered through binoculars while we waited breathlessly for it to emerge again from the mysterious waters that some call the Sea of California.
Steve was full of information: "These waters are ll,000 feet deep at their deepest...the whales have a different song in each ocean basin... their low pitched voices can travel l500 miles...no one knows how long they live...ivory harpoons have been found in whales...best estimate..135-200 years."
He told us the area is young in geological time. Millennia ago, tectonic plates shifted separating the Baja from the mainland causing the depths of the Sea of Cortez and thrusting up the Sierra Madre Mountains on the mainland of Mexico.
"The rocky islands you see are of volcanic origin," he explained.
Just then another whale surfaced quite close to the ship.
"A Brydes Whale," Steve shouted. "I've never seen one before."
We had not either. The Sea of Cortez is full of whales as well as twenty other species of marine mammals. There is plenty of room for them to cruise its deep canyons and plenty of food brought up by upwelling currents. Our scientist/guides on board seined the waters with a net to see what sort of plankton they could find. They put a drop of water under a microscope and hooked this to the t.v. in the lounge so we could see the fascinating array of life on the t.v. screen--life forms only visible when magnified. We saw the larvae of star fish and many beautiful shapes of diatoms. I thought we might see krill, the preferred food of baleen whales, but such was not the case. The seine net could not go deep enough to strain out krill.
Our day of whale watching changed to evening as we watched the vivid colors change on the rugged Baja landscape we passed.
The next day we saw two humpback whales spouting and sounding in unison, perhaps a mother and her calf. We got quite close and Andrew, the ship's underwater camera man went out in the zodiac to film them. I gasped when I saw how close he was to the whales flukes when he plunged into the water. I asked him if he got any pictures when he was back on the Sea Bird.
"My heart was just pounding," he said, "but I couldn't get close enough for filming...we had equipment to record their voices, but they were not vocalizing ."
We learned to identify whales by their spouts...Humpback whales had V shaped spouts while the Blue Whale spouted straight up. Gray whales have a heart shaped spout.
Two Common Dolphins rode the bow wake as we cruised along. I leaned over the rail to snap photos. Toward evening the sunlight on the islands we passed turned their rose madder colors to deep royal blues as a full moon rose over them. a perfect photo opportunity.
We also had an underwater camera and we used it the next day to photograph California Sea Lions.
We were up early and the sunrise shining on the islands turned them to gold. After breakfast we donned wetsuits provided by the cruise line along with fins and snorkels.
We could hear the barking of the sea lions as they cavorted on a picturesque rocky island. These were young males, pups, and their mothers. We slipped into the sea and were greeted by playful sea lions under water. They zoomed by us and peered into our masks with their large eyes. They played. I imagined that one was dancing with me...twisting, looping, and sleek. I wished I had just some of its under water grace. All around us were vivid flashes of bright colors and the fanciful patterns and shapes of tropical fish going about their lives around the rocky island, hiding in crevices, feeding, peering back at us.
We stopped at Arroyo Blanco to kayak around the sea caves. We heard the water boom, surge and recede, sonorous and low, in the caves where we paddled. Paddling close to rhe rocks we saw Sally Lightfoot Crabs and lizards and many types of sea birds: pelicans, blue footed boobies, osprey.
On the sandy beach, well worn small stones and shells washed in and out with the waves.
We found paddling around the islands easier than walking.
Many varieties of cactus march up the stony hillsides of the islands we visited. We took hikes, mindful of the thorns. These rugged islands are not an easy place to live, yet many species of plants have found a way to cling to the rocks in drought and to store water in the rainy season.
We were told that 99% of the living space on planet Earth is in the oceans. I felt we had only scratched the surface on this cruise yet there were mysteries and surprises abounding. We were fortunate to see a Blue Whale, a Brutus Whale, Humpback Whales sounding and spouting in unison. We followed a Sperm Whale, but it was elusive. We examined minute plankton through a microsope. We saw many dolphins and swam with California Sea Lions. We saw tropical fish and kayaked in sea caves.
We came home with a deep respect for the surprising life found in and around the Sea of Cortez.
By Barbara Spring