Getaway: Baja whales and wildlife up close on Cruise West Mexico cruise

Fran Golden

Our panga operator was whistling as if calling a dog. The dozen passengers in the little open-air boat had all heard tales of how the California gray whales that migrate to Mexico's Magdalena Bay, sometimes get curious and come so close to the boats you can touch them.

And our operator was convinced he could whistle to attract a 30-foot whale. It didn't work.

So we had to content ourselves with viewing about a half dozen grays from several yards away. That's still closer than you tend to get to whales - close enough to make out the white spots that blotch the grays' slate bodies.

We had come to the bay in the Pacific by bus, across the jagged Sierra de la Giganta Mountains and desert of the Baja California peninsula, as part of a cruise in the Sea of Cortez. Several million years ago the long, finger-shaped peninsula split off from Mexico along the San Andreas Fault, and the sea was formed.

Cruise West explores the waters and surroundings from January through March, on one-week cruises on its Spirit of Endeavour, a 102-passenger ship.

Whales are the big draw for the nature-loving crowd.

The grays migrate from Alaska, and bear and calve their young in Mexico's shallow lagoons. Some of these lagoons became slaughtering grounds when they were first discovered in the 1800s - most infamously, Captain Melville Scammon sailed his brig from Boston in 1857, trapping and killing all the whales in a lagoon that today bears his name. By 1874, the grays were nearly wiped out. Today, the breeding grounds are protected.

The grays were not the only whales we sighted.

In fact our first "breech," a diving humpback whale, occurred minutes after we left our embarkation port of Cabo San Lucas, Baja's most famous resort town and southern terminus.

But the big show was a few days into the cruise, off Isla Del Carmen, when the Endeavour's three ever-vigilant exploration leaders, binoculars at the ready and scanning the sea, put out word for passengers to grab binoculars and head to the ship's outside decks. Spouts had been spotted, and our captain had turned our vessel in pursuit.

And there it was, a blue.

To put this sighting in perspective, blue whales are among the largest creatures known to exist on Earth; bigger even than dinosaurs.

At 100 feet in length and up to 150 tons, they tend to stick to open waters, so sightings are rare.

"How cool was that?" said one passenger, after our glimpse.

But minutes later, not to be outdone, a Sei whale, the third largest whale species, gave us an even bigger thrill when it decided to go under our ship's bow, rising on the port side and then flapping his (or her) tail. An impressive performance for sure - so much so that one startled fellow nearly dropped his camera in the sea.

John Steinbeck came to the bio-rich Sea of Cortez in 1940 (a year after his "Grapes of Wrath" was first published) and together with biologist Ed Ricketts wrote about nature in "The Log from the Sea of Cortez."

But most people today know Baja for Cabo, with its big stretches of white sand beach and tourist scene; or for the tacky northern city, Tijuana, near the California border. Up until 1973, you couldn't drive the more than a thousand miles between the two. There were no roads.

Leave Cabo and head north and much of the time you will pretty much find yourself in the middle of nowhere - many areas are protected including some of the nearly 250 uninhabited islands offshore.

With its remoteness and numerous biospheres, some call Baja the "Galapagos of the North." But after the very blue sea, most of the landscape is dusty desert compete with giant cacti.

On the edge of the desert, in small, agricultural areas, giant osprey nests occupy power poles. And any time you are near water there are sightings of fish and marine birds, entire flocks of pelicans, dolphins and more (Cruise West gives you a typed list of all wildlife sightings at the end of your cruise, and ours filled an entire page).

My pal and I had a "find" of our own after we did a wet landing (our feet got wet) off one of the Endeavour's inflatable dinghies on tiny Isla de Espiritu Santo (Island of the Saints' Ghosts), one of several remote islands we would visit - this one owned by The Nature Conservancy. On a walk on a beautiful, two-mile white sand stretch known as Bonanza Beach - Gilligan's Island surrounded by desert - we chased away huge turkey vultures to see what they were pecking at.

Turns out it was the remains of a tortoise, including a shell about the size of a side table. Dead or not, it was a cool sight. We got kudos for reporting our find when we returned.

On the rocky, guano-covered island of Los Islotes, we were supposed to have the opportunity to snorkel with sea lions. I was among those brave enough to don a wetsuit, but when we got to the island the seas were too choppy.

Still, the ship got close enough for us to see and hear hundreds of sea lions barking and the island's other inhabitants, flocks of birds including blue-footed boobies (their feet fluorescent blue), squawking away. Sea lions, it turns out, like to nip like puppies. And males can weigh 850 pounds; females 220. So while the greeting sounded welcoming, and several of the creatures, mostly females and juveniles, dove off the rocks into the water as if to say "come play," I was just as happy to watch from the ship.

Sometimes nature close up is better than nature touching.

Fares are from $2,599 per person including accommodations, meals and most shore excursions. Look for special discounts online at www.cruisewest.com, or call 888-851-8133.

Life on the Endeavour

The Endeavour is a small, comfortable ship designed for travelers seeking mild adventure - the kind where you don't have to rough it. The ship's public areas are a dining room, a large lounge area and sundeck space (where a must-do taco buffet is offered one afternoon). The average age of passengers is 60-ish; some younger, a few older.

Days are spent doing easy, guide-led nature hikes, exploring on your own, snorkeling or kayaking (gear is provided, including wetsuits) or on organized tours. Most days, inflatable boats take you from the ship, and sometimes your feet get wet as you reach shore.

Nighttime entertainment consists of a daily nature-spotting recap during cocktail hour and a post-dinner lecture or video in the lounge (on subjects such as whales and Baja cowboys). The food is better than you might expect including irresistible dessert selections. You sit with whom you'd like, and a convivial atmosphere prevails.

During our weeklong cruise, in addition to nature spotting, we spent a little time in civilization, too. In the sleepy fishing village of Loreto (population 10,000), my pal and I shopped for silver, pottery and other trinkets, explored the first mission established in the Californias (Jesuits arrived in 1697) and enjoyed stuffed chiles and enchiladas at a casual cafe. In La Paz, capital of Baja California and a city of 180,000, we roamed the more developed seafront stretch, admiring the views and boats in the yacht harbor.

Most activities on our cruise were of the non-strenuous variety - slow and leisurely. But a boulder scramble up a gulch one afternoon on Isla Partida satisfied those looking for a little more challenge (I made it about two-thirds of the way up the canyon and then ached for a couple of days).

- Fran Golden