Beyond the headlines of Mexico's drug-related violence, sea kayakers are having a whale of a time camping along the wildlife-rich waters of Baja California.
Mainstream tourists find the manufactured brand of wild life at the end of the Baja peninsula around Los Cabos resorts. Meanwhile, savvy paddlers are relishing the real thing in stunning abundance near the still sleepy mid-peninsula town of Loreto.
Locals promote Loreto as Baja’s “unCabo.” It’s most notable landmark is a 300-year-old mission.
The New York Times recently listed the area as No. 8 on its list of the “41 Best Places to Visit in 2011”.
After a 90-minute flight from Los Angeles, paddlers land along the glistening Sea of Cortez, where several outfitters have the kayaks, gear and itineraries.
Among the most experienced in this area is Sea Kayak Adventures, which organizes trips from Canada to Patagonia from the company’s base in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
“One-third of the world’s marine mammals live in the Sea of Cortez,” said Terry Prichard, who runs the company with his wife, Nancy Mertz. “We’ve known for many years that this is a very special place.”
Indeed, in just the first few hours on the water, our group of six paddlers and two Mexican guides encountered dolphins, a sea lion, squadrons of pelicans and cormorants and the constant companionship of gulls, oyster catchers, frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, turkey vultures and ospreys.
However, before launching our kayaks, we carved out a day for a van shuttle over to the Pacific side of the peninsula. The goal was to marvel at one of the wildlife wonders of the world at Magdalena Bay, where gray whales congregate from February into April to beef up their newborn calves.
We piled into a panga – a 22-foot outboard-powered fishing skiff – and cruised into a lagoon protected from the pounding Pacific surf by a barrier of sand-dune islands. Within minutes we were in the midst of whales – almost touching distance – although we were pleased our skipper got us close without trying to make contact or harass the marine mammals.
Mother grays weighing 30-40 tons would rise and blow beside us, showing the knuckles on their backs while their calves would awkwardly bob up around them. Sometimes the babies resembled little two-ton pickles gasping for air.
At one point we had eight whales surfacing around us.
“This is one of the best whale years we’ve ever had,” Mertz said later. “Last year was one of the poorest years because sediment from a hurricane partially blocked the whales from entering the bay. The ocean has resolved that.”
The wildlife experience continued as we set out for five days by kayak in the Sea of Cortez. After paddling across a wind-exposed channel we relaxed in the lee along the shore of Carmen Island. Bright-orange Sally lightfoot crabs caught our attention as they scurried across rocks exposed by low tide.
“They seem to be able to run in all four directions; but more than this, perhaps because of their rapid reaction time they appear to read the mind of their hunter,” observed John Steinbeck in “The Log of the Sea of Cortez.”
We made camp on a white-sand beach that turned out to be the Promised Land for the seashell enthusiasts in our group. Instead of using tent pegs, we used anchors made of cord strung through 4-inch squares of quarter-inch plywood buried in the sand.
The beach was crisscrossed by tracks of hermit crabs that would come to life under our feet from seemingly empty seashells they where inhabiting.
Beach hiking was mesmerizing, bordered by turquoise waters on one side and cactus on the other.
Blue whales, the largest creatures to inhabit the earth, worked offshore, revealed by spouts that resembled Old Faithful erupting from the sea. Each surface would be announced by a 20-foot high blast of mist that would stand visible for 15 seconds before dissolving in the wind.
A full-grown blue whale weighs as much as the National Football League. A human could swim through its arteries.
The blues looked like freight trains rounding over the top of an underwater mountain as their backs rolled up above the surface before sinking down out of sight. Every few rolls treated us with an encore as the blue’s giant fluke would emerge and create a waterfall we could see through binoculars two miles away.
Nights are long during winter, but the desert delivered a stunning spread of stars. Mars shined so brightly it cast a shimmering reflection across the sea.
We used headlamps before bedtime to comb the desert in search of scorpions, which would glow like fluorescent bulbs in the beam of a hand-held black light.
Vlady de la Toba, our Mexican trip leader, made us meals that he delighted in telling us he’d prepared first for his girlfriend’s approval.
Edgar Escobar, the other guide, with a degree in marine biology, was especially proud of his chicken mole, featuring five chili powders and chocolate in a recipe endorsed by this grandmother.
De la Toba is from a family that’s operated Baja lighthouses for five generations. He sees guiding as a powerful force for preserving Baja’s wildlife experience. He sells T-shirts and donates the profits to a program that trains local fishermen to be guides.
“Fishermen get 20 pesos per kilo of fish,” he said in his self-taught English. “If they can get 60 pesos for taking people bird watching, we can save fish and sea turtles from their nets.”
The marine bounty amazed the snorkelers in our group, with a colorful smorgasbord of anemones, urchins, sea cucumbers and numerous fish species.
Nevertheless, we were still camping and living a Spartan life that makes you feel like a king to have a hot meal and a Dutch-oven baked desert.
The portable toilet, group sessions to wash dishes, sleeping on the ground, bathing in salt water – all played into supercharging the mundane.
We were fascinated by the pellets coughed up by turkey vultures, and especially at finding the long skeleton of a coronet fish and other bones at the base of a tall cactus, where the ospreys had perched to eat their meals.
We peered into tarantula nests and felt the spongy texture of their webs.
We marveled at the flavor of prickly pear cactus in our salad.
We never tired of watching blue-footed boobies swarm the skies, gathering like locusts until one bird would rocket head-first into the water, followed by dozens more pouring down like a hail storm pummeling the sea surface.
At the end of a day of human-powered exploring, a margarita never tasted so good, even without ice.
Our group became a unit poised to take every negative Mother Nature delivered into a positive.
We looked at the sea salt that encrusted our clothing after a few days as a status symbol – like laundered, well-starched shirts.
We even got to where we relished the weather that challenged us on a few days midtrip.
One gusty afternoon forced us into a serious hour of nonstop paddling into a headwind. My wife, Meredith, leaned forward in the bow of our tandem kayak to try to reduce the wind resistance as she muscled her paddle into the whitecaps.
Her paddle strokes whipped sprays of water that splattered my face like a waterfall.
At times I vented my frustration by yelling curses at her.
She couldn’t hear a word I said.
It was a perfect storm.
And a destination we highly recommend.