From the bridge of the Safari Endeavour the view in the distance seemed to resemble the thin white line of a coral reef that stretched from one shore of Baja California’s Sea of Cortez to the other. But that was impossible. No such reef exists.
Our ship, one of the small-scale luxury vessels operated by Un-Cruise Adventures, had set sail from the bustling port of La Paz five days before, heading north with a passenger list of just 28 and a crew of 22, all under the skilled guidance of its captain, Kendra Nelsen.
By night we dropped anchor in isolated coves, while our days were spent kayaking into sea caves, snorkeling with sea lions and hiking on uninhabited desert islands. But on the day we spotted the mysterious reef we had been sailing around for several hours in no particular direction, simply in search of sea life. All the passengers had their binoculars out.
As the ship drew gradually nearer we could see that the surface of the water was literally frothing white with plumes of spray and numerous splashes.
“It’s a super-pod of dolphins,” our on-board guide and naturalist, Jeremy Saenez, declared, clearly as excited by the spectacle as we were. “It happens when a number of pods come together to feed.”
Moments late the entire ship was surrounded by a mass of leaping and diving dolphins that numbered in the thousands. Interspersed among the dolphins were several gray whales whose graceful flukes were breaking the water. It was a National Geographic moment none of us will ever forget.
The Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, is a large inlet of the eastern Pacific Ocean along the northwestern coast of Mexico. It is enclosed by the Mexican mainland to the east and by the mountainous peninsula of Baja California to the west. The gulf is 750 miles long and an average of 95 miles wide, about 200 miles across at its mouth. It covers a total surface area of 62,000 square miles, making it the one of the largest peninsular bodies of water in the world.
Despite its spectacular rugged scenery and close proximity to the United States, the vast majority of the land on the Baja Peninsula — as well as the multitude of islands that dot the Sea of Cortez — is uninhabited simply because of a lack of water. Two major exceptions are the fishing port and capital city of La Paz and the tourist mecca of Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of the peninsula. Aside from tourism, the only commodity that has ever brought treasure-seekers to the Sea of Cortez is its riches in the form of pearls.
Fortunately, as a result of its isolation and lack of development, the Sea of Cortez has served as a sanctuary for wildlife for millions of years. It is home to the greatest variety of seals, dolphins and whales in the world, as well as manta rays, turtles, a veritable rainbow of fish and vast flocks of sea birds.
Its harsh, rugged landscape of red rock cliffs, chaparral and cactus has hardly changed since the arrival of Nunez de Guzman, who was dispatched by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and discovered the gulf in 1532.
Because of its limited facilities, the Sea of Cortez (with the exception of Cabo San Lucas) has never become a port of call for the mega cruise ships that ply the Mexican Riviera. But because of its many sheltered islands and coves, the area is a favorite destination for pleasure boating and small-scale cruise ships like the Safari Endeavour.
Un-Cruise Adventures specializes in high-end cruises that feature elegantly appointed ships and an intimate friendly environment, where 15 minutes after boarding, every crew member knows your name. Everything is included in the cost of the cruise, including all activities from snorkeling and kayaks to early morning yoga classes, sumptuous meals and any alcoholic drink that suits your fancy. The cabins are exceedingly comfortable and available in varying sizes. There are also special programs for kids that involve them in activities that combine fun with education about the Sea of Cortez and its natural wonders.
Un-Cruise Adventures, particularly on the Sea of Cortez, are far less structured than many cruise lines. The itinerary for the day is based on what seems best at the moment, though there always seems to be time for snorkeling expeditions, kayaking, paddle-boarding or simply leaping off the ship into the deep blue water.
One optional shore excursion that is very popular is a day trip from the port of Loreto across the peninsula to Bahia Magdalena on the Pacific Ocean. This shallow bay is famous as the site where the great herds of migratory gray whales come in the spring to have their calves. Here, passengers board small power launches to glide among these gentle giants.
Impromptu activities can include a mule ride to a beachside oasis amid the idyllic setting of Bahia Aqua Verde, a sunset or moonrise champagne boating party, or a dance under the stars by firelight on the beach of a secluded island. And if you’re lucky, you might even encounter a super-pod of dolphins.
It is an unfortunate fact that many people have shied away from booking Mexican vacations because of the violence that has plagued the region. This has been far less the case on the Baja Peninsula and should not unduly influence your plans. The Sea of Cortez is one of the most beautiful (and convenient) travel destinations near the United States, and its density of wildlife is on a par with Africa and Alaska. It is one of the great natural wonders of the world.
WHEN YOU GO
The best way to get to the Sea of Cortez is to fly to either La Paz or San Jose del Cabo.
Un-Cruise Adventures offers a variety of tours: January through March, June through October and November through December. Book before Feb. 28, 2014, and receive one night pre- or post-cruise free at the Hilton San Jose del Cabo: www.un-cruise.com/mexico-cruises or 888-862-8881.
Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.