a  magazine  of  travel  and  discovery

by George Oxford Miller

"Woo-hooo!" Heather, our expedition leader, screams as we lean as far as possible over the ship's railing. The two dozen bottlenose dolphins that raced our boat this morning suddenly seem blasé. Now, a huge pod, probably close to 1,000, of smaller common dolphins surrounds us with a cirque du mer. The playful creatures shoot through the waves like black-and-white torpedoes and arc into the air as though trying to invent flight for their species. Like synchronized swimmers, sometimes five or six leap shoulder to shoulder in unison. Some even do flips.

Our screams seem to delight them. Their scintillating underwater images shape-shift in the afternoon sun as they speed alongside the hull. Then they burst through the waves and catapult into the air just yards from our clicking cameras. A group of babies race by like footballs bouncing across the water. 

For hundreds of yards in every direction the sea roils with the frolicking dolphins. They don't seem to tire of playing and we certainly don't of watching such a breathtaking wildlife spectacle. After an hour, and dozens of rolls of film, the setting sun transforms the rippling waves into gold ink and we pull away to find a cove for the night. 

"Some experiences are so sublime that you know you'll remember them for the rest of your life. This has been one of those," Gina, a passenger from a Chicago suburb, says.

Our American Safari cruise has no set itinerary as we explore the islands and coastline of Baja California from La Paz north to Loreto. The captain of the 22-passenger ship, the Safari Quest, searches for whales, detours for mega-pods of dolphins, and drops anchor for frequent shore excursions onto the numerous islands that parallel the coast. For seven days we kayak along glowing red cliffs with osprey nests and snorkel amid hundreds of jewel-colored fishes. On shore, we hike through estuaries of dwarfed desert mangroves and forests of giant cardón cacti with their statue-like arms outstretched toward the endless blue sky.

Meanwhile,we get reports that back home in New Jersey, 20 inches of snow fell over the weekend.

We flew into San Jose del Cabo and spent the first night in Hotel Natalia, a charming boutique hotel on the Colonial town square. Then we bussed to La Paz with ample leisure time to explore the artist community of Todos Santos during our lunch break and La Paz, the bustling capital of Baja California Sur, in the afternoon before boarding the Safari Quest.

The Sea of Cortes, or the Gulf of California, lies on the San Andres Fault, which for the last 15 million-years has propelled the Baja peninsula northward and westward away from the mainland. The rift left numerous islands just offshore the 800-mile-long coastline, especially along the southeastern end. Mostly uninhabited, the larger islands support an undisturbed desert ecosystem of wildlife, birds, and rare plants found nowhere else on earth.

The inland sea and deep channels around the islands provide a rich marine habitat for many species of whales, including the rare blue and sperm whale, as well as for abundant sealife for snorkeling and sports and commercial fishing. Jacque Cousteau called the Sea of Cortes "the aquarium of the world."

On our first day under sail we begin seeing fin whales, the second largest and fastest cetacean, and humpback whales with their distinctive show of  tail flukes when diving. Unfortunately, blue and sperm whales, sighted the week before, elude us, but after seeing several pods of 1,000 or more rollicking dolphins, we don't complain.

The second morning at sea, we gather on the deck to watch the rising sun paint the cliffs on the mainland mountains with pastel tones of pink. The setting full moon hovers over the peaks as the sky turns from a fiery rose to deepening shades of blue. Only the cry of an occasional gull and the lapping of the waves against the hull interrupt the solitude.

The sun crests the ridgtop on the island behind us just as we drop anchor at Los Isolates, two rocky, castle-like outcroppings. We hear barking in the distance, but not of dogs. We greet the day by snorkeling with a group of inquisitive and playful sea lion pups.

The pups rush to meet the inflatable skiff as we approach. One springs out of the water and bounces off the gunwale while the others cavort beside us-cirque du mer, version 2. To their delight, we plunge in to join them. One zips toward me and peals away inches from my mask, an antic they love to perform. They dart and swoop and try their best to entice us to play. Instead, we gawk and fumble with our underwater disposable cameras. "They're so acrobatic they really make you feel clumsy," Ray, an engineer from Illinois, says as we return to the ship.

Besides addicting sunrises and sunsets, every day offers new adventures as we explore the land, sea, and underwater wonders of Baja. We also experience the human culture of this remote section of Mexico. In contrast to the bustle of San Jose del Cabo, La Paz, or even Loreto, only five families of fishermen live on Isla Coyote, a city-block-sized island, located between two larger uninhabited islands. Like a tilted block, Isla Coyote slopes steeply from sheer 200-foot cliffs downward to the sea. Six or seven houses and assorted sheds sit on the slope and narrow shoreline.

José, the island patriarch, greets us with a broad smile and proudly shows us around. A 10-foot cross and a white, closet-sized shrine crown the ridge of the island. A clump of cacti covered with red fruit and a partially reconstructed whale skeleton gleam in the morning sun. No school-age children live on the island, so the school with its brightly painted fishing mural sits empty. The stucco, cinder-block buildings are well built and well kept. Some have solar power. Except for José's television, life has changed little since the families homesteaded the rock 65 years ago.

The fishermen are cleaning their catch when we arrive. José's two grown nephews fillet "Cubanos," two-foot rays, on a table at the water's edge. They sharpen their slender knives on flat stones and toss the entrails into the bloody water lapping the shore. Scores of pelicans and gulls circle and wait no-so-patiently on the rocks.

The fillets go into a bucket of brine to be packed in salt in a drying shed. The trip to La Paz to sell fresh fish and for drinking water, salt, and other essentials takes 2.5 hours by boat. To help out, the Safari Quest gives the families hundreds of gallons of water every week during the October to March cruise season.

On our last full day, we anchor in a emerald cove, Agua Verde, surrounded by steep mountains. A rancher from across the ridge meets us on the beach with a string of mules. Dressed in full caballero regalia, he charms us with song as he leads us for a ride through the desert hills to a beachside oasis shaded with palms.

Afterwards I hike to a ridgetop overlooking the Sea of Cortes, the sparkling cove, and a string of tiny islands.  From my vantage, I'm level with an osprey in a nest on top a chimney rock that stands just off the beach. My wife and several others patrol the sugary sand looking for shells. I try to ignore the fact that tomorrow I'll have to shovel 20 inches of snow to get into my backdoor.

Whales, dolphins, and  forests  of statue-like  cacti  inhabit California's southern cousin.
Islands and bays in Sea of Cortes beg to be explored.

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