"Mexico is the most underrated destination for wildlife on the planet," says the woman sitting next to me by way of introduction. Really? I might have argued the point had Sheridan Samano not been a wildlife biologist and owner of a custom-tour company specializing in wildlife. And — even more to the point — we've just witnessed a non-stop parade of humpback whales from our boat off Los Cabos, which prompted her remark in the first place.
In the days to come I'll have more wildlife encounters, enough to make me think that Mexico — at least Baja California — truly is a place to experience large numbers of wild animals in their natural environment.
Here are five species you can bet on seeing.
Humpbacks are the acrobatic stars of the whale world. We watch, enchanted, from the front deck of the Safari Endeavour, a mini-cruiser operated by Un-cruise Adventures. Like the ship, the whales spend their winters here in the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez, mating and giving birth. "That baby may be only a few weeks old," said the ship's naturalist as a mother humpback and her baby surface gently side by side.
It feels like we're in an enormous marine park with the whales, watching them dive, spy hop, and show off their flukes. Then, as if on cue as the sun is setting — the grand finale — one whale launches itself fully into the air before landing with a mighty splash.
Snorkeling with Sea Lions
In the morning, we paddle kayaks along the ruggedly beautiful shoreline of Espiritu Island with Baja Outdoor Activities. After a lunch on shore we motor out to a small island, Los Islotes, where we get a taste of why Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez "the Galapagos of North America."
As we approach, a dozen or more sea lions swim up to greet us. We pull on masks and snorkels and jump overboard to join them. Soon they're diving, twisting and turning around us, sometimes within a whisker's length of our masks. The more we copy their moves — or try to; none of us are as lithe and graceful underwater as these creatures — the more they respond. Is that a grin on his face? The sea lion's, I mean. We can't stop grinning.=
Swimming with Whale Sharks
I've never swum with sharks before, let alone swum after them. It sounds foolhardy, but when we spot one in the shallow waters off La Paz, our guide tells us not to worry. "He'll swim away if he wants to," says Mario, of Baja Outdoor Activities.
Still, the enormity of the creature that surfaces like a silent submarine is frightening — the whale shark is the largest fish in the ocean. At least it has no teeth — it's a filter feeder. "Ready to go?" asks Mario.
Six of us swim hard towards the spot where we last saw a fin. For what seems like many minutes I see nothing but water when — suddenly — I see nothing but whale. Mottled, grey flesh right in front of me. I back-paddle furiously. The shark glides effortlessly before my eyes in all its sleek and gentle glory.
Saving Green Sea Turtles
"63.7 centimetres long," says the volunteer holding a tape measure. The green sea turtle resting beside him could grow up to 1.5 metres long — if it survives.
That's what RED Sustainable Travel's turtle research camp on Magdalena Bay is all about — turtle conservation. "We're planting a seed in people's mind" says guide Manuel Rodriguez, who admits many Mexicans still eat turtle soup. "It's considered a tradition at Easter."
RED employs local fishermen to monitor the turtles — and visitors get to help. Never has "work" been so much fun. We also kayak through mangrove-lined channels and watch pelicans dive for fish. We climb pristine sand dunes and slide back down. We feast on wild prawns. And that night we hear coyotes howl from our tents pitched amongst the sand dunes.
Petting Grey Whales
Almost halfway up the Baja Peninsula, the Pacific Ocean flows into the pancake-flat landscape to form the San Ignacio Lagoon. The water is shallow and warm — the perfect nursery for sea mammals. We've come to see — and even touch — the gray whale. "Originally there were 'no touching' rules," explains a staff member at Kuyima Eco-lodge. "But the whales come right up."
"We watch them and they watch us," laughs Orloff Nagorski, owner of Aventuras Mexico Profundo. A few minutes after arriving in the controlled viewing area, we witness this amazing behaviour for ourselves. Barnacle-covered mothers and calves with skin as soft as a human baby's bottom, pop up beside our boats. It's love at first sight. We smile and pat them. We practically coo. We can't get enough of them.
RED Sustainable Travel (www.redtravelmexico.com) offers turtle monitoring and other adventures from October through May. Aventuras Mexico Profundo (www.mexicoprofundo.com.mx) offers hiking adventures and organizes gray whale watching tours. Un-cruise Adventures (www.un-cruise.com) offers weekly cruises in the Sea of Cortez from November through March. Fun Baja (www.funbaja.com) offers eco adventure tours on land and water.
Where to stay
In La Paz: Costa Baja Resort and Spa (www.costabajaresort.com) - Nice rooms and excellent food. In Loreto: Loreto Bay Resort and Spa (www.loretobayresort.com) could use a little love but the location is spectacular and staff is friendly. In San Ignacio: For a tiny town, Hotel Desert Inn and Hotel La Huerta both offer comfortable rooms. To reserve at the Hotel Desert Inn email firstname.lastname@example.org; For Hotel La Huerta phone +52 615 154 0116.
(For Part 1 of Suzanne's adventure to Baja go to www.piquenewsmagazine.com and read Pique's May 14 issue.)