By Anne Z. Cooke; images by Steve Haggerty/ColorWorld
Fifty yards off the starboard bow a whale surfaced to breathe, blowing an airy spray of mist and leaving a widening circle of ripples. On the port side of Un-Cruise Adventure’s expedition ship, the Safari Endeavour, a squawking band of sea gulls hovered over a rocky islet occupied by a colony of croaking sea lions. As for people, on shore or otherwise, there are none, or so it seems to this first-time visitor cruising the Sea of Cortes in the Gulf of California, the 700 mile-long finger of ocean that separates Mexico’s Baja Peninsula from the mainland.
Standing at the rail with my binoculars, I was struck by the wealth of flora and fauna that flourish here in what marine biologist and diver Jacques Cousteau called “the world’s aquarium.” Seven species of resident and migratory whales frolic in these clear blue waters, in company with dolphins and porpoises, green turtles, surface-feeding mobula rays and migratory and resident birds by the thousands.
For a week we’d explored in solitude, snorkeling in glass-clear coves and sunning on white sand beaches. We’d hiked narrow trails to dusty cliff-top ridges. Kayaked across aquamarine bays. But except for a single distant glimpse of Lindblad Expedition’s 64-passenger Sun Bird and two private yachts, we’d had the lonely Sea of Cortes to ourselves.
Behind us on the bridge, Captain Jill Russell, the Endeavour’s 40-something skipper, was in her element, watching the clouds for a hint of weather. A chunky dynamo with energy to burn, she thrives on the spirit of adventure. Button-holed by a photographer asking where the ship was heading, she smiled mysteriously, “Can’t say yet. But I’ll know when we get there.”
The only competition to the Un-Cruise Adventure’s Safari Voyager (replacing the Endeavour) is Lindblad Expedition’s 64-passenger Sea Bird, sailing here in January and February, and occasional ports of call to major towns by two big passenger ships, one each from Holland America and Carnival.
If you book a sailing in February or March, consider choosing one that includes a day trip to Baja’s Pacific Coast, to see the migrating grey whales. Our outing to the protected lagoon at Magdalena Bay, where the whales come to give birth and to nurse their infants through their first weeks, was more astonishing than I had ever imagined.
“Tomorrow we’re heading for the historic village of Loreto where you’ll have two options,” said Expedition Leader Mark Hopkins. “You can spend the day there, touring the old Mission church and shopping. Or you can join the two-hour bus ride over to Magdalena Bay to see the whales with their babies.”
By mid-morning we were there, motoring slowly across the lagoon in a 14-passenger panga. At first the lagoon seemed unoccupied. But just as we’d decided the trip was a bust, a mottled hump silently broke the surface. Then a second black back rolled up, with a calf by her side.
As the day warmed, so did the whales, rolling sideways to fix an eye on us, and “spy hopping” between the pangas for 360-degree look-around. A few whales slid next to the panga, as if courting the touch of a human hand. Soon whales were everywhere, steering their babies gently among and under the boats.
According to Russell, Un-Cruise expects its ship captains to act independently when he or she wants or needs to alter an existing itinerary. “They trust us to make the right decisions,” said Russell. “That’s what I like about out-of-the-way places like the Sea of Cortes. Big cruise ships have to stop at ports with facilities, docks, tour buses, shops, guide services, the works. But here in Baja we get to decide when and where to anchor and what to do that day.”
It’s the kind of flexibility that Un-Cruise encourages. When Cruise West, Alaska’s oldest and best-loved cruise line announced it was going out of business and selling its fleet of expedition-style ships, Un-Cruise was waiting in the wings.
“The vessels were already there, in Alaska, and they came on the market at the right price,” said Un-Cruise spokesperson Sarah Scoltock. “It was a matter of being there at the right time.”
When the purchase was complete, Un-Cruise Adventures’ fleet had doubled, along with its portfolio of expedition-style itineraries. “Comment cards and feedback say that our passengers want good food, a choice of wines and the little luxuries that matter,” said Scoltock. “But they don’t want to sit in the lounge and look out the window.”
In the magnificent Sea of Cortes, that goes without saying.
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