The Desert And The Sea: Baja By Boat

I won't soon forget my first "friendly" encounter with a whale. As I reached my hand into the clear waters of Baja California's San Ignacio Lagoon, I went straight for the rubbery tail section of a gray whale calf passing under our small skiff. Untutored in whale etiquette, I quickly learned that wasn't such a bright idea: In a watery flash, the 15-foot, two-ton creature gave the little Mexican fishing panga a powerful jolt as it whacked its flukes against the boat's side and dived under the water. The calf's 35-foot mother looked on anxiously from a distance of not more than 10 feet. Only then did my guide inform me that whales loathe the surprise of being touched on their flukes.

Oh, well. The experience was still a tremendous thrill. But petting whales was just one of countless pleasures on my nine-day natural history tour of the remote shores and islands of Baja California. Our group consisted of 20 passengers and two marine biologists. We traveled in relative comfort, if not luxury, on the Searcher, a 95-foot sport-fishing boat based in San Diego.

The boat's crew of six worked tirelessly to ensure our trip was packed with a wondrous array of wildlife viewing. On most days, we rose at or before dawn and spent every waking hour--with the exception of meals--either on deck or in skiffs. We traveled far out to sea to find an elusive blue whale, which, at about 100 feet, is the largest mammal on earth. We hiked remote islands and desert canyons for close looks at harbor seals, nesting ospreys, and bizarre-looking species of cactus found only in Baja. We snorkeled among coral reefs in the calm Sea of Cort s and explored tropical mangroves filled with exotic birds, such as tricolored herons.

For natural history buffs who love the desert and the sea, nothing tops exploring Baja California by boat. It remains one of the few regions in North America that is largely unscathed by man. And our appreciation was enriched by the knowledge and enthusiasm of our guides, who prepared us for each coming day with after-dinner lectures and slide shows.

The $2,050-a-person trip is organized by the American Cetacean Society (310 548-6279), a nonprofit whale conservation group in San Pedro, Calif. The ACS makes at least two trips each winter to Baja and leads summer whale-watching expeditions off British Columbia. Our voyage covered more than 1,200 miles of coastline both along the Pacific and in the Sea of Cort s, before ending in the resort town of Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of Baja.

QUEASY FEELING. This is clearly not a trip for everyone, though. The Searcher is a seaworthy vessel with the latest electronic navigational equipment. But it is a bit cramped and spartan, lacking many of the amenities people expect on a cruise this expensive. The cabins are tiny and mostly below deck--without portholes. There are only two small showers on board. Many long and noisy nighttime hours are passed motoring the great distances between anchorages. And the seas along Baja's Pacific coast are often rough.

I found that out shortly after the Searcher left San Diego harbor, at midnight in a rainstorm. As the engines roared, the odor of diesel fumes permeated my little cabin. The noise and smell combined with the boat's pitching about in the swells gave me some queasy misgivings.

By the end of the second day, though, my doubts were dispelled. The seas had calmed, and the clouds broke, revealing a sublime sunset. Dozens of dolphins were giving us an

acrobatic welcome, jumping and flipping in the boat's wake. Meanwhile, the crew had fixed the problem with the engine fumes, and I was able to switch to a more airy cabin.

The best change of all, though, was the aroma wafting from the galley, where the wisecracking cook, Missy, was whipping up crab cakes and chocolate fudge pie. Her cooking--and the salt air--made for a week of hearty eating. A typical day's menu might include huevos rancheros for breakfast, steak burritos for lunch, and fresh halibut for dinner.

After mastering my first shower at sea, I began to mingle with the other passengers, discovering that our group was about as diverse as the flora and fauna of Baja. The entourage ranged from a pair of retired high school physical-education teachers to a 4-year-old boy, one of four small children on the trip. Many of my shipmates were seasoned nature travelers and had already logged excursions to the Gal pagos Islands and other exotic destinations.

Along the way, we dropped anchor off rocky, windswept San Benito, a trio of islands 40 miles from the coast. There, we spent a day hiking around coves packed with elephant seals. We learned in the previous evening's lecture that these creatures, hunted to near-extinction a century ago, spend most of the year at sea. But from December to March, they come ashore to mate and give birth to their pups--at San Benito and a few other islands.

CRUSHED PUP. We walked as close as we dared to the 15-foot, two-ton bulls, who made threatening snorts with their trunks. Nearby, harems of females and plump pups lazed in the hot sun or played in tide pools. Occasionally, we noticed the flattened corpse of a pup--probably carelessly crushed by a bull loping across the beach in pursuit of a female.

We visited the mangroves in San Ignacio Lagoon and Magdalena Bay, the same waters where, beginning in December of each year, thousands of gray whales end their 6,000-mile migration from the north. The whales stay until late March. They come to the warm waters to mate and calve before returning to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea near Alaska.

Biologists have spent careers studying the gray whales and their clock-like migrations to the lagoons, which are strictly protected by the Mexican government. But no one has yet figured out why these whales began 18 years ago to allow and even encourage humans to touch them.

The phenomenon struck me as all the more mysterious when, one evening, I pulled an old book from the Searcher's bookcase and read that gray whales once launched violent attacks against whalers in these same lagoons during the 19th century. I thought about that the next day as I sat in my little panga with the other tourists. Our cameras and binoculars at the ready, we politely positioned ourselves close to a group of cows and calves and waited for them to come to us. Finally, a calf bubbled to the surface, allowing us to pat his head. Soon after, the cow came alongside, filling the air with mist from her blowhole. Then she rolled on her side and cast a sharp glance our way. We must have passed the test, since the two lingered for a good 20 minutes.

Her gaze came back to my mind during the flight home to Los Angeles. As the plane dropped close to the runway, I was struck by how strange the buildings and freeways looked. All of a sudden, the faraway lagoon where I touched a whale seemed to make a lot more sense.