COVER FEATURE: Into the ‘Aquarium of the World’

Cruising the Sea of Cortez, inaccessible by large cruise ships, gave the author a week of close encounters, drawing him to the wild side of this maritime desertscape.
Eric Lindberg
March/April 2017

They first appear a quarter-mile off the starboard bow as a churning mass of whitewater. As Captain Barrett slows the boat, the frenzied splashing moves toward us. At a hundred yards we spot them—sleek forms leaping from the water and arcing through the air. They close in, and we’re soon surrounded by a superpod of dolphins—hundreds of them.

Racing next to the hull and riding our bow wave, the dolphins stay with us for several minutes, erupting from the water like missiles and hurtling skyward before slipping back beneath the surface. Then suddenly they peel off, and the superpod vanishes. The sea is calm again.

At first glance the Sea of Cortez seems lifeless, a narrow 700-mile finger of water surrounded by Mexican desert. But just a few hours spent here reveals a place brimming with life—a place famed French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau named “the aquarium of the world.”

I’m aboard the Safari Endeavor—a small, expedition-style vessel belonging to the UnCruise fleet of adventure travel ships. For the next week, 58 other passengers and I will explore beaches, islands, and coastline. Much of this coast is roadless, and with no deep water anchorages, the Sea of Cortez is inaccessible by large cruise ships. The comfortable but compact Safari Endeavor is perfectly matched for exploring this remote seascape.

North to Isla San Francisco

Burro riders leave the calm waters of Bahia Agua Verde for a few hours of exploring Baja’s interior canyons and mountains. © Eric Lindberg

Leaving the dock at La Paz, we cruise north to uninhabited Isla San Francisco and anchor in a sparkling horseshoe-shaped bay. After breakfast, expedition leader Annie Fiske lists the day’s choices: “In 20 minutes, we’ll take two skiffs out looking for marine wildlife. Another skiff is going ashore, and Jeremy will lead a hike to the top of that peak across the bay. Or you can hang out on the beach and take a walk.”

I join the hikers, and 35 minutes later we reach the high point of the island. Across the strait to the west rise the mountains of the Baja peninsula. Behind us the Sea of Cortez stretches to the horizon. Aside from the Safari Endeavor anchored far below, and a smattering of fellow passengers on the beach, there’s no sign of civilization.

As we sit down to fresh mahi-mahi and scallops for dinner, the ship heads north to Bahia Agua Verde. Sometime in the night we arrive and anchor in the protected bay. The maneuver does not wake me up. This will be the routine through much of the week; spend the day exploring, then motor into the evening and awaken in a new location each morning.

Bahia Agua Verde

Rising before daybreak, several passengers gather on deck as the last stars twinkle out. Dawn comes softly in the salty air. Standing in the pink sunrise light, we sip coffee in silent communion. We’re not alone. Magnificent frigatebirds with seven-foot wingspans wheel overhead. Two sea lions eye us curiously as they swim slowly past. A large fish launches into the air and smacks back down once, twice, then a third time. A school of smaller fish drifts alongside the ship. It’s a maritime safari.

At breakfast Annie announces the day’s options. Ride a mule into the arroyos with local rancheros. Search for wildlife on a skiff tour. Relax on the beach. Or snorkel with Baja’s underwater life. After this morning’s above-water show, I’m ready to get wet.

The ship carries everything needed for water sports: kayaks, paddleboards, and snorkeling gear. Pulling on a wetsuit, I join eight others for the short skiff ride to Roca Solitaria, a towering rock pinnacle just outside the bay. It’s also a seabird colony. As we pull up to the rock, a cacophony of squawks and screeches floats through the warm air. Blue-footed boobies, pelicans, and frigatebirds perch on the steep pillar, launching off to fish the surrounding waters.

Pulling on mask, snorkel, and fins, I slip into the water. As our guide leads us slowly around the rock, Baja’s underwater world unfolds. Moorish idols, angelfish, triggerfish, puffers, and countless other neon-hued species swarm around the submerged rocks. An octopus undulates slowly along the sandy bottom. Larger fish patrol the deeper water. Whenever I lift my head for a break, I’m back in an aviary of circling, shrieking sea birds.

While underway each day, we scan the surrounding seascape for marine mammals. They appear daily: gray, humpback, blue, sperm, minke, and pilot whales, and dolphins, giant manta rays, and seals. We stop often to watch wildlife, always keeping a respectful distance from the animals.

Overland to Magdalena Bay

UnCruise passengers on a day trip enjoy close encounters with gray whales in Magdalena Bay. The whales have migrated more than 12,000 miles to calve babies in these protected waters. © Eric Lindberg

At midweek we dock at Puerto Escondido and board vans for a day trip across the Baja peninsula. Ahead lies a different kind of wildlife encounter. Climbing into rugged mountains, we pass through forests of giant cardon, the world’s largest cactus. Two hours later we reach the Pacific Ocean at Puerto San Carlos. We’ve come for whales.

Each winter hundreds of gray whales migrate here to Magdalena Bay. The warm, shallow waters are perfect birthing grounds, and babies are born soon after the whales arrive. Licensed pilots take visitors out in small motorized skiffs to observe them at close range. Whales often swim up to skiffs, surfacing alongside and allowing passengers to see them up close.

Six of us board a skiff and head out on the bay. Within 10 minutes, two mother-and-calf pairs appear. As our pilot Mario idles the engine, one mother swims under us and pops her head up several feet from the boat. With baby by her side, she drifts to the boat and gazes up at us. The contact is clearly initiated by the whale. Opportunities to look into the eyes of a wild, sentient creature at close range are rare, but here at Magdalena Bay, people and wildlife come together on mutually agreeable terms.

Sands of Ensenada Grande

Sunrise with instructor-led yoga on the upper deck of the Safari Endeavor is a daily ritual on the Sea of Cortez. © Eric Lindberg

Returning to Puerto Escondido, we head south along the coast. For the next few days we meander, staying in quiet bays at night and awakening each morning in a new place. On the island of Isla Partida, we anchor off Ensenada Grande, a crescent white-sand beach. We have it to ourselves.

Snorkeling with sea lions

Our last day brings us to aromatic Los Islotes. This isolated rocky outcrop is home to a large colony of boisterous California sea lions. Their hoarse barks, paired with the pungent tang of beached marine mammals and bird guano, reach us long before we drop anchor next to the twin islets.

On the larger islet, hefty bulls preen for females and challenge rivals with posturing bravado. The rocky shelf at water’s edge is carpeted with sea lions basking in the sun. Cavorting pups play tag. Pelicans, boobies, and cormorants view the action from rock perches. It’s a circus with no ring leader. And we’re about to slip into the midst of it for our most intimate wildlife encounter yet.

Pulling on wetsuits, masks, and snorkel, six of us plop overboard from the skiff. The thought of sharing water teeming with unruly sea lions is daunting at first. But within seconds I’m face down and awestruck by the scene unfolding below. Columns of sunlight twist and coil toward the depths. Dense schools of silver sardines sparkle as they part and regroup around the fast-moving sea lions. In the underwater silence, the chaos becomes a tranquil ballet.

Moving close, the agile pups spin and dart around us like dancers. The shy ones hang back, but the naughty pups head straight for us in a game of chicken, circling and blowing bubbles before dashing away. Clearly we’re in the water for their entertainment.

After 20 minutes as a sea lion toy, I pause to float and check the action above water. Frigatebirds circle overhead. The surface bubbles with sea lions. On the rocks, a raucous chorus of howls erupts between jostling bulls. Other sea lions join the singalong and the air rings with yips and barks. A week of wildlife encounters has brought me increasingly closer to the wild side of this maritime desertscape. Today my baptism with sea lions has me fully immersed in the wonders of the Sea of Cortez.

Eric Lindberg is a frequent contributor to EnCompass, and a freelance travel writer and photographer based in California.