Travel

How do we love Baja? Let us count the whales ...

By Alan Solomon

Chicago Tribune

(MCT)

"There is nothing so evil-smelling as a whale ... and a whale's breath is frightfully sickening."

_John Steinbeck, "Log From the `Sea of Cortez'"

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CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico - Can't speak to the aroma. Maybe we were upwind.

The sound a whale makes when she blows right thar, on the other hand, is just like the one made by those high-pressure fire extinguishers: an assertive whoosh.

Then she eases herself back beneath the surface of the water and glides along while, no doubt, considering whether to put on a real show for the people by leaping like an insurance company ad or by merely flashing a little tail ...

It's always an amazing thing to see a whale in person, which in part explains the appeal of what the marketing wizards at CruiseWest call its Baja Whales & Wildlife Cruise.

The other part is Baja, which, except in the ridiculous heat of midsummer, is an intriguing destination for a variety of reasons. But back to the cruise.

Whales, Steinbeck's gripes of wrath aside, are irresistible, whether at Sea World or at the Shedd or even where they're just a dot and a little steam-puff on the oceanic horizon. Viewing one of these things from a boat smaller than a New Bedford harpooneer's and so close she's almost petable - that's a privilege, and that's what we did on this little voyage.

Calling it "a cruise" is obligatory, because it has all the symptoms: You board the 217-foot Spirit of Endeavour, unpack only once, sleep in moderately snug quarters, dine on schedule with strangers and don't stay in any port longer than a few hours. There is some pampering, which, at these prices (expect to pay around $6,000-$7,000 a couple for the week), there'd better be.

And there are differences. Anyone expecting bingo, conga lines, belly-flop contests, blackjack, baked-Alaska parades, Rockin' With the `60s revues or 4,000 fellow passengers (we were 72 on our run) will be disappointed.

But this isn't a National Geographic Channel climb-the-rigging bare-bones expedition either. It certainly isn't a seven-day science lecture. When not cozying up to seagoing mammals, cold beer is there to be consumed, sometimes on white sand beaches. People are offered kayaks and enough instruction to make them fun, even for novices. They snorkel. They laugh.

There is silliness, even during the obligatory science lectures. Allan Morgan, distinguished shipboard naturalist, on how to deal with scorpions in the desert:

"Don't find any scorpions."

So is this finally the cruise for people who have vowed never, ever, ever to take a cruise?

Well, here's what it was for sure:

For seven days in late January spilling into early February, the Spirit of Endeavour sailed from Cabo San Lucas partway up Mexico's Sea of Cortes (aka the Gulf of California) and back, communing with whatever swam or flew her way.

In those seven days, we saw (well, someone saw; years ago in Iowa, I was certain I saw an eagle - that turned out to be a vulture) and identified 39 species of bird, including two varieties of woodpecker, two shades of pelican and a pair of boobies - the blue-footed and the brown.

One morning an entire herd of bottleneck dolphins danced in our wake.

Another afternoon, as a bunch of folks enjoyed a nature walk with Allan Morgan on Isla Partida, a maverick guest scratching his way up a hillside above the group accidentally flushed out a black jackrabbit. That's impressive because black jackrabbits exist nowhere else in the world except on a couple of these islands, and because when left alone, they're nocturnal (which probably explains its choice of coat). This was daytime.

"We never would've seen it," Morgan said, "if someone hadn't been walking up there."

Snorkelers off Isla Espiritu Santo (Day 2) identified Mexican goatfish, coronet fish and pufferfish. I personally identified some kind of fish with stripes. Others, most of whom clearly had never been in a kayak, kayaked. Not a few of my fellow passengers did both.

On the morning of Day 5, we were anchored off Los Islotes, not far from La Paz. This would be the morning that those who dared would don their snorkel gear and wetsuits and swim with California sea lions.

Marine biologist Deborah Purse was our exploration guide. In her briefing the night before - nights, here, were for briefings - she had briefed everyone on sea lion protocol.

"Avoid wearing anything shiny," she warned. "They might come up and nip at it.

"And just be aware - these are wild animals. They are curious. They like to explore you ..."

Giggles. For some reason, even adults giggle during nature discussions.

"They might come up and try to give you a little nip, especially on your fins. For the most part, it's not going to hurt ..."

Now, this is not an experience limited to cruise-ship passengers. Private boats based in La Paz haul people out most days during winter tourist season.

But the Endeavour crew got passengers in the water before 9, and long before anyone else. There would be 16 in all. The sea lions evidently were happy to see them.

"Someone got in - I don't know who it was - and three of them came up," said Joey Terriquez, of Dillon, Colo. "God, they were fun."

The rest of us waited until the swimmers left and had to be satisfied gawking from the dry safety of our inflatable boats, gawking especially at huge males that ruled harems of as many as 15 females.

"It all depends on the size of the rock he can dominate," said exploration leader Jeff Pietka, who was on our boat. There was a pause. "You're chuckling already ..."

See?

When we weren't swapping urfs with sea lions or snorkeling or kayaking or nature-walking with Allan, we were likely on a beach that separates desert from sea, staring at impossibly blue water and sharpening our senses with the assistance of one or two cold Mexico-produced malt beverages.

Daily, we landed at least somewhere, did something, all accomplished in an atmosphere of minimal intensity and, it being a ship this size, human scale.

That's a key. Rob Earle, captain of the vessel and a 12-year CruiseWest veteran, knows it.

"I've had people," said Earle, "when we're in a port with large cruise ships - Skagway (Alaska) or someplace like that - they'll come up and say, `What is this?'

"We'll tell them, and they'll say, `Oh, I wish I had known there was something like this ...'"

The two town stops were refreshing in their own way.

Loreto, at least the older part of town, is a charmer. Home of the first of upper and lower California's Spanish missions, the restored "mother mission" remains a draw; here, too, we experienced our one (of the mere four available) extra-cost excursion of the entire cruise: "Ceviche by the Sea."

Before it was over, about 10 participants would take tortilla dough and, using only our hands and a technique perfected over centuries, shape them into what could only charitably be described as "tortillas."

Later, under the guidance of our host, Sofia Rodriguez, we assembled our own ceviche - a dish combining raw fish "cooked" in juice with various condiments. That was easier than the tortillas.

Still later, along the walls of the old mission, we were treated to wine, cheese, bolillo (a local bread) and a concert by two singers, one of whom - a 13-year-old named Jacobo Davis Morillo - could be the next "American Idol" if we ever straighten out our immigration mess.

The other town, La Paz, once was a major (if sleepy) sport-fishing destination. Today, this state capital of 190,000 is less sleepy but pleasant to poke around ... and if this is starting to read like we're holding back before springing the really good stuff on you, here it comes:

We saw three kinds of whale.

The first, a humpback, was spotted just off Cabo, on the evening we sailed. We saw the spout and a sliver of body, but it was distant, a tease.

On Day 3, the Endeavour sailed into Puerto Escondido and disgorged its passengers onto comfortable motor coaches for a twisting two-hour drive across the peninsula to the Pacific Ocean shoreline at Bahia Magdalena. Terrific drive ("On the left side," driver Juan Carlos reported, "we can see a lot of turkey vultures on the cactus"), but that wasn't the point of this bus ride.

Puerto Lopez Mateos, on Bahia Magdalena, is a fishing village. In October, gray whales leave Alaskan waters.

By late January, they are here.

"They come down here," Morgan had explained, "to breed and to calve. This is one of the three calving areas in the Baja area ..."

When it's whale season on Bahia Magdalena - which lasts 2 1/2 months here - the fishermen use their little 22-foot pangas to take visitors out among the whales.

On this day, the visitors were us.

A boatman would spot a spout, and off we'd go in a loose cluster as the whale submerged. Then, the whoosh, and up she'd come ...

From a small boat, it is something to see.

The typical adult gray whale is 39 feet long, occasionally as long as 50 feet, which in either case dwarfs our pangas. Sometimes the whale by our side would be alone; sometimes there would be a calf.

"The babies sometimes approach you," Morgan had said.

None did. Mother and calf would merely surface in tandem alongside our boats, check us out, then move along, leaving us in an eerie silence. The episode never lasted long. Neither did the silence.

Morgan, from a neighboring boat: "I think this is a good time for a whale joke."

Smart-guy passenger: "A whale, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar ..."

Morgan, correctly sensing the smart guy had no punch line, finished his joke, everyone groaned - and up, as if on cue and with a whoosh, spouted a whale no doubt in search of a minister and a rabbi.

Seeing a whale that close never, ever gets old.

Question: Is it harassment? Do we bother the whales? Not really, Morgan said.

"If the whales didn't want to be here, they would lose you," he said. "They have a choice."

Moments later, a monster gray whale bulled directly toward the starboard side of our panga - we didn't spot it until the last second - ducked underneath and surfaced on the other side, rising so close that some passengers screamed in terror-delight while others scrambled as best they could to focus their cameras and videocams ...

Was it playing? Ticked? We will never know.

We were out there for two hours - long enough to see thousands of pelicans, startled by something unseen, rise explosively from their roosts like a great brown cloud before resettling; long enough to see a great blue heron, clearly aware of our presence, glide effortlessly above shoreline mangroves before stopping to observe; long enough to see a lot of things ...

But it's the whales, however many there were, we'll remember.

"I figured we'd see whales," David Logan, a passenger from outside Tampa, said afterward, "but I never thought we'd be that up-close and personal."

Bettye Porter, of Houston, was still aglow long after the panga flotilla returned to shore.

"I don't care if I don't see anything else on this trip," she said. "That's the reason I came ..."

And it wasn't over.

On the morning of Day 4, back in the Sea of Cortes, a blue whale was spotted off our bow. We followed this whale for an hour. "I wasn't expecting to see blue whales yet," Morgan said, as surprised and thrilled as the rest of us. It was twice the size of the grays we saw.

After surfacing, spouting and submerging several times, there was a wait until it finally surfaced again, let out a whoosh, arched its back for one great dive - its massive fluke lifting out of the water, then sliding down as if a gesture of farewell ...

In every way, an inspiring, relaxing, fun cruise in a special place.

But long after we almost forget the oblong tortillas, and the Wisconsin couple that somehow flipped their kayak in three feet of calm water, the sea lions, even the Spirit on Endeavour, we'll think about those whales and get goose bumps.

The rest will come back to us when it can.

"Trying to remember the Gulf," Steinbeck wrote lovingly of this gulf, "is like trying to re-create a dream."

Even with whales in need of a mint.

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IF YOU GO:

THE CRUISE: "Baja Whales & Wildlife," by Cruise-West. Eight days, seven nights round-trip from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, up the Sea of Cortes (also known as the Gulf of California) along the Baja Peninsula. Stops in La Paz, Loreto and several islands, plus a motor coach drive across the peninsula to the Pacific side for whale-watching.

Offered late December 2007 through early March 2008.

THE PASSENGERS: On this cruise, probably 80 percent were 60 or older, most of them active participants in such water sports as kayaking and snorkeling. This is not a cruise for the passive or sedated. Also not recommended for children, especially small ones ("There's not a lot for them to do, frankly," said Capt. Rob Earle), and not recommended for people with serious mobility issues (many steps, no elevator, multiple transfers to and from bobbing boats, etc.). But assistance is plentiful for the slightly wobbly.

THE SHIP: The Spirit of Endeavour, our ship on this cruise, was 217 feet long with a capacity of 102 passengers; in overall style and decor, if it were a car, it would be a Buick. It is being replaced next season by the similar but slightly longer Spirit of Yorktown: 257 feet long, 138 passengers. (Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, for the sake of comparison: 1,112 feet long, 3,634 passengers.)

Expect standard staterooms to be well-appointed and comfortable, smallish but not claustrophobic. All have a window or porthole; there are no inside cabins. (There will be eight somewhat larger "deluxe" staterooms on the Yorktown, vs. three on the Endeavour.) Bathrooms on this class of ship are acceptably snug. No verandas, spa, running/walking track or exercise room; limited deck seating but plenty of room to stroll, gaze at the moon or watch for porpoises. In-cabin TV (closed-circuit movies) with built-in VCR (free movie library onboard, or BYO). Convivial all-American crew. During our week, a calm one weather-wise, the ship experienced virtually no rocking at sea and little engine noise.

Handsome, roomy lounge for cocktails, mid-day reading and relaxing, pre-dinner "social hour" and evening briefings by staff. Perfunctory gift shop. No laundry service (bring quick-dry washables). No room service.

A welcome extra: Each stateroom is equipped with two sets of full-size binoculars for sea and land use. Nonetheless, if you have compact binocs, bring them. Trust me.

ACTIVITIES AND EXCURSIONS:

Included: Two days each of kayaking and snorkeling (instruction and all equipment - wetsuits included - provided). Guided desert nature walks. "Swimming with sea lions" opportunity; alternatively, observing the sea lions from small inflatable boats. One dedicated whale-watching day (other whales, dolphins, etc., as they occur). Escorted cultural experiences (food, music) in Loreto and La Paz, and ample, independent time in both towns. Four extra-cost excursions: "Ceviche by the Sea" (making tortillas and ceviche), $16, including lunch, in Loreto; San Javier Tour (daylong motor-coach drive to observe villages, desert-mountain scenery, rock paintings and the namesake 1758 mission), from Loreto, $95; a La Paz shopping tour (which got excellent reviews), $40; and a visit to a reptile center, also in La Paz, $45.

EVENING ENTERTAINMENT: Aside from a "To Tell the Truth" contest featuring crew members (which was hilarious), evenings are reserved for briefings on the next day's activities, followed by casual socializing; the bar is open as long as there are customers. No shows, no casino, no discos, no midnight buffet.

DINING: All meals included, though one-at Bahia Magdalena-was lunch at a Puerto Lopez Mateos restaurant, which might have been the week's best meal of any kind (among the choices: local lobster). Additionally, many passengers chose to lunch independently in Loreto and La Paz.

Onboard, one unrushed seating for each meal; no assigned seats or tables, and most everyone changed dining companions nightly for the fun of it. Casual dress; no formal nights. Some guests stayed with shorts and sandals even at dinner, though most did not.

Dinners typically featured four special entrees, including one vegetarian, plus steaks and chicken available nightly. Lunch specials, supported by daily burgers and hot dogs; full, freshly cooked breakfasts daily (no breakfast buffets, apart from an "early bird" selection) or lighter options.

Food was mostly OK, with a few choices on either side of that. At dinner especially, preparations were ambitious but often spotty: A "seared tuna" wasn't seared (i.e., flash-grilled, leaving a rare center) but cooked to gray all the way through; a "veal saltimbocca" was not veal saltimbocca; etc. But a beef tenderloin one night was extraordinary, and a deck-top barbecue lunch (grilled flank steak, marlin, chicken, salads and sides) was wonderful. Adequate wine list.

Don't expect Mexican favorites onboard; aside from some breakfast specials, any hint of Baja flavors was inadvertent.

COST: From $2,399 per person, shared cabin; most in the $3,049-$3,549 range. Prices vary by room choice and timing. Alcoholic beverages extra, but not much else. A no-tipping policy is in place; many guests tipped favored crew members anyway.

INFORMATION: Call 888-851-8133; www.cruisewest.com.

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Alan Solomon: asolomon@tribune.com

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© 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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