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The Sea of Cortez

A beautiful stretch of sea, also known as the Gulf of California

Dinner awaited – medium rare steak and butter-dripping lobster tail.  But...“I hate to do this to you just before THIS dinner but there’s a mammoth pod of dolphins off our bow.” The announcement on the ship’s loudspeaker sounded almost apologetic. This was, after all, our grand finale dinner in a week of spectacular food.



Out there, hardly yards from our keel were hundreds and hundreds of saddleback dolphins, splashing and leaping and twisting in the rays of golden sunset light.

You’ve heard the phrase, “The water was alive.” Well, yes it was. It frothed and churned and bubbled. For a good twenty minutes.

Then we headed in for dinner and were literally settling bottoms into chairs when Captain Shawnda Gallup’s voice echoed again, “Uh. Folks. We’ve got rays. Dozens of them.”

Sure enough, their large black bodies were just inches below the surface. It was like being surrounded by shadows. Seven-foot-wide shadows. And every so often, a set of wingtips would break the surface. One of the beasts actually jumped. Since when do rays jump?

Back to dinner. This time, the hot rolls actually made it to the table.

“Er, you really don’t want to miss this. It’s a blue whale.”

Capt. Shawnda didn’t need to tell us. A hundred feet of body slid alongside our boat. Good God, the thing was only 20 feet shorter than our entire vessel. And it came up hardly five yards from our starboard side. We could see its dorsal fin nearly filling the lounge window.

Blue whales are the largest in the ocean. A family of six could sit for dinner on its tongue, we were told. A small child could swim through its arteries. And it was just feet from our railing. It surfaced not once but three times before our light faded completely.

Welcome to the Sea of Cortez, American Safari Cruises style.

Most tourists wind up in Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip Baja California. If you want to see the rest of this stark and beautiful landscape, it usually involves driving, often down the length of the peninsula.

Or, you could take a boat ... a small boat with only 22 passengers and nine crew, which is a lot of crew and a lot of personal attention.

That first night, sometime between the prime rib and the coffee frangelico, the first pod of dolphins appeared off our bow. It was an hour past sunset and six of them were weaving back and forth, their bodies outlined in bioluminescence so they looked like glowing torpedoes under our keel. And this was just the beginning.   

The Sea of Cortez was actually formed by a fracture on the San Andreas fault (yes, THAT San Andreas fault). It’s five  million years old, making it an infant as seas go. And thanks to a rich stew of plankton, it’s swarming with life: nearly 900 species of fish, half a dozen whales including those mammoth blues, dolphins, sea lions, manta rays, sharks. It’s like the Galapagos, only under water.

Above water,  the desert comes right down to the sea, resulting in a surreal mix of sand dunes, cactus and mangrove. Expedition Leader Kevin Martin explained that’s because the cool water pulls moisture out of the clouds before they can reach land.

Distances here, like some of the sea life, are huge. Baja is more than 800 miles long (think Seattle to San Francisco) and over 100 miles wide in places. The sea, itself, is 130 miles at its widest, explaining why we couldn’t see the other side.

We spent our first few days at Isla Partida just north of La Paz. On one outing, we scrambled across boulders to the other side of the island and onto a windswept cliff with water stretching to the horizon.

The next day, it was off for a swim near Los Islotes, bulbous fingers of red basalt north of La Paz worn smooth by weather and stained white with guano. From a skiff, we slipped into the water and were instantly surrounded by slick black heads and twitching whiskers. Dozens of sea lions moved with lightning speed, darting and swooping, doing barrel rolls and folding their bodies backward like gymnasts.

The smallest pups were the most curious. One, hardly bigger than a dog, surfaced in the middle of us, lay back so just his nose and chin were out of the water and slowly backstroked around us.  Then the group got a bit too friendly ... a grab here, a nip there. On the rocks, a huge bull bellowed and we figured it was time for a strategic retreat.

The service aboard the Safari Quest is what separates this trip from most others. The food was not only topnotch, it could be custom tailored. One woman, who had recently dropped 75 pounds, stuck to her diet. It was amazing what Chef Gipson could do with Pam-fried egg whites. Meanwhile, the wheelhouse supplied her husband with the latest NCAA basketball rankings.

As for us, Hotel Manager Michael quickly cued into our love of mojitos (lime and rum drinks) by the hot tub and made sure one showed up every day when we hit the water.

More Stories By Bill Hirsch Yvette Cardozo

This husband & wife writing/photography team specialize in adventure travel. Yvette Cardozo worked eight years for major metropolitan newspapers; has done freelance travel and outdoors articles and photography since 1974.
Bill Hirsch worked at a variety of research and writing jobs in government and private industry and has been doing freelance articles since 1982.
[email protected]

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