Sea Kayak Adventures with Whales in Baja, Mexico
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Eight days, two notebooks, three camcorder batteries.
Would they be enough?
Bienvenidos a Mexico!” the sign at Loreto Airport announced.
Balmy air wafted into the open-air room under the lovely “palapa” roof made from fan palms fronds. I wondered why there was a ceiling fan turning at exactly 12 r.p.m. above my head. At that point I was in “vacation mode,” measuring time by the number of trips my duffel bag made around the nearby carousel as I waited for a new stamp in my passport.
I had arrived for a weeklong “Islands Expedition” in the Sea of Cortez, offered by Sea Kayak Adventures, Inc.
Paddling the crystalline waters of the Sea of Cortez.
Owners Terry Prichard and Nancy Mertz have been running trips here since 1993, and their experience shows in the organized schedule and thorough pre-departure information provided to guests. They offer three other paddling trips here as well: an exploration of the sheltered lagoons along the Pacific coast of the Baja Peninsula, a strenuous twelve-day circumnavigation of Isla Carmen (the largest of the three islands east of Loreto), and, upon demand, a custom paddling trip from Loreto to La Paz. SKA also arranges a special one-day whale-watching tour, which seven of the nine people in our group would be taking tomorrow. Whale activity is at its peak in the late winter as the Gray Whales calve, breed, and prepare to migrate north.
Whale watching at breach level.
“You can’t get lost in Loreto,” said Judy, the tour guide who fetched our group at the airport and delivered us to the Hacienda Suites Hotel. A good starting point for sightseeing,she said, is the famous mission – the first in all the Californias. Another guest and I strolled down Avenida Salvatierra, named for the Jesuit padre who founded the mission in 1697, until we saw the bell tower rising above the rooftops in the late afternoon sun. The old clock on the tower, not original equipment, is correct twice each day at about 10:30. Oh well – the rest of the place is still very much in use. Mass is held in the chapel, and the storehouse building next door is now the Museum of the Missions.
The first Spanish mission in the Californias was in Loreto.
Loreto was the first Spanish Baja capital. The Mission is the oldest on the peninsula.
We didn’t exactly get lost, but after deciding to take a different route back to the hotel, we couldn’t find our desired street. We saw a bit of the town, though, ending up on Loreto’s waterfront street, with its broad walkway and shops and restaurants. Loreto is a city of over ten thousand people, but it feels smaller and very friendly. It would be much larger today if not for the European diseases that killed off the very people the missionaries were trying so hard to help. Despite its sleepy, laid-back ambiance, Loreto contains two modern surprises. First, it has become a major tourism hub for kayakers and R.V. tourists. Dollars are widely accepted at a current rate of about ten pesos per dollar. Second, the town has several internet cafés. In fact, the whole Baja Peninsula is wired with fiber-optic lines for modern communications. I utilized the internet café, but I never turned on the television in my hotel room.
Kayaks and gear are provided by the company.
People taking kayaking trips should understand that they can be somewhat strenuous. The next morning, after waiting twenty minutes for my breakfast at a small outdoor café across town, I had to sprint a mile with a tummy full of chorizo and eggs to catch the tour van from the hotel. I think it was the toughest part of the trip. Many restaurateurs here seem also to be in “vacation mode.”
The van, with Judy as our guide, was taking us southwest to Magdalena Bay for whale watching. The twenty-two-foot open boats, owned by the local fishing cooperative, are used for tours in the winter when the Gray Whales are in town. Our young boat captain, Jimmy, knew how to get close to the whales without crowding them. He loved his job and cooed over the calves as if they were his own children.
I feel like I need to make a disclaimer here, something like “Results not typical and may vary.” We were a lucky group. Jimmy drove us across the lagoon to La Boca de Soledad, where it opens to the sea. He placed us well ahead of a mother and female calf (another driver had noted the telltale ridges on the calf’s head), and we waited to see if the two would come closer. The mother, about 45 feet long, checked us out while the month-old calf, about 18 feet, playfully breached the surface nearby. Then the two sidled in close to the boat and lolled about in the calm water. We could hardly believe our eyes when the mother gently lifted the calf to the surface, as if to present her little girl for our approval. When the calf had lost all inhibition, she swam right up to me, lifted her head, and let me tickle her nose. She may have been attracted to the underwater camera I was holding below the surface as I leaned out over the gunwale, but I like to think she chose me in particular. I’m usually not fond of spending my time on structured, organized tours, but this one was worth every minute and every peso.
Judy has been living in Baja for over ten years. An English tourist traveling in British Columbia, she came down to escape winter’s onset and never went back. Many people come south down the Peninsula in airplanes or R.V.s to get away from inclement weather or the bustle of civilization. We thought we were about to escape both, but things don’t always go according to plan.
Mist & Mountainsl Sea & Sand.
Paul, our kayaking guide, briefed us on the trip that evening and gave each person three “dry bags,” vinyl duffels that seal tightly to keep water out. These would be our suitcases for the next week. Two were for camp gear and clothes, and a smaller third bag would hold items that a person might want to get at during a day’s traveling, such as a camera. For identification, each set of bags was labeled with the name of a plant or animal from either Baja or Vancouver Island, where Sea Kayak Adventures conducts trips in the summer. Focusing on other things, I casually accepted the first set offered to me, named “Otter.” My inattention cost me; someone else got to be “Loon.”
Paul also introduced us to Lino and Jesús, our other kayaking guides. These two had grown up. in the area and knew the islands well. The waters around the three local islands, Coronado, Carmen, and Danzante, are now a marine park, and the fish stocks are recovering after having been depleted by years of large-scale commercial fishing. We would visit Danzante and Carmen, and while we couldn’t catch any fish, we could look all we wanted. Paul went over our tentative itinerary but explained, “We have to be flexible, because everything depends on the weather.”
Usually it helps a lot to speak some Spanish down here, but after I ordered my ceviche and burritos in what seemed a pretty authentic accent, the waitress brought the wrong dish. Next time I’ll use the universal language: pointing.
Sea Kayak Adventures offers new Seaward tandem kayaks.
Sea Kayak Adventures recently updated its kayak fleet with brand-new Seaward tandem kayaks. These twenty-one-foot boats are very stable and hold up to 850 pounds each. Lino and Jesús would escort us in sleek single-cockpit models. Our put-in point was in Puerto Escondido, just south of town. We stuffed the boats’ storage compartments with gear and provisions, received a short paddling lesson (no prior paddling experience is required), and got underway.
Fifteen water bags, one propane tank, and six bottles of rum and tequila; would they be enough?
Our three-mile crossing to Isla Danzante had its ups and downs – literally. There wasn’t much wind on this overcast day, but our boats rocked gently on six- to eight-foot swells. I shared a boat with our guide Paul. We were in no danger of capsizing, and I found the motion enjoyable. It made us work a bit harder, though, and we arrived at Honeymoon Cove looking forward to the avocado-and-cheese sandwiches we would have for lunch.
A short hike up the hill gave us an excellent view west to the Sierra de la Giganta range on the Peninsula. Named “The Mountains of the Female Giants” by the Jesuits, the range was reportedly inhabited by Amazon-style giants according to a legend told by the native Indians. However, tour guide Judy thought it came from the feminine shapes of many of the peaks. Missionary work was lonely, remember.
We didn’t paddle very far down the west side of Danzante before making our first camp on a rocky beach in Manta Ray Cove. Paul wanted to stay near the north end for an early crossing to Isla Carmen the next morning before the wind kicked up. We now measured time by the cycle of meals, and after setting up tents and sleeping bags, we were looking forward to happy hour. As we sipped our piña coladas and munched on fresh pineapple, we noted the dark clouds to the southwest and pondered Paul’s warning about flexibility.
Wow! After chicken, fruit salad, and couscous, we were treated to a chocolate “torta,” or cake, baked by Lino and Jesús, and washed it down with Mexican hot chocolate. Such a meal is not conducive to staying up late. Paul wondered if we would make it to “Baja midnight” – also known as 9 p.m. I think I was still awake then, trying to doze off despite my blood-sugar level as raindrops began tapping on my tent.
Next morning, a pattern was established: any dessert left over from last night became the breakfast appetizer. The cake went surprisingly well with egg tacos, and after breaking camp, we paddled north until we could assess the channel conditions. Piece of torta! The water was still smooth, and we could easily see two dolphins cruising by in the distance. I was determined to get some underwater footage of the magnificent mammals. Reaching Carmen, we paddled south to Punta Arena, a low-lying point covered by rocky beach. As Lino and Jesús were cutting up carrots and cheese, it happened.
There were just a few at first, heading south about 150 feet offshore. “Dolphins!” someone called. Dang! Missed them, I thought, knowing it would take me a minute to get my snorkel gear on. Less than a minute later, another group of four or five followed the first. Aha! I scrambled for my gear, waded out with my camera, and swam hard to get into the path. Sure enough, more soon approached, largely ignoring me but coming pretty close as they went by. Close to a hundred of these dark-grey bottlenose dolphins passed, and a few even turned around for another look at me. Two swam by close enough to appear on my film despite the low visibility due to the strong tidal current. I could even hear them chattering to each other – probably saying, “Wow, that guy must be getting stung to death!”
Okay, they hadn’t warned me about the jellyfish. SKA arranges rental of “shorty” wetsuits to vacationers who request them – more for the cool winter water than for sting protection – but the full-length suit I had brought was better for the occasional jellyfish-infested bay. Too bad I had decided against taking the extra two minutes to dig it out and don it. Thirty minutes later I emerged hypothermic and covered with red welts. I’m not fond of cold water or wounds, but this experience was worth every “ouch” and every shiver.
Kayaks can handle very shallow water. Near Punta Baja at the south end of Carmen, we glided across a glassy surface and looked at the reef just a foot or two below the emerald-green water. We planned to camp for two nights on a sandy beach nearby. SKA provides tents, sleeping bags and pads, sheets, and camp chairs. The pads are crucial on rocky shores. At this beach most of the guests pitched their tents among the bushes up on the dune, but a few of us chose spots on the beach, well above the high-tide line. After the boats were secured nearby, we took a hike inland.
\Baja has a Sonoran-style desert, similar to that of southern Arizona. It’s a pretty setting, with tall cacti and surprisingly green trees such as palo verde, creosote, and the torote, or “elephant tree” with its thick trunk to store water during those long dry spells that reportedly occur in the desert despite our current experience. More light showers fell as we viewed vultures perched on the huge Cardon cacti, similar to Arizona’s Saguaro but unique to Baja. The ancient natives had learned how to treat ailments from arthritis to ulcers using desert plants, and the locals of Loreto still utilize this natural pharmacy. Uh, got anything for jellyfish stings?
Peanut butter on French toast isn’t bad. Syrup was available, but I needed protein to fill me up for what would be our longest paddle, about 2.5 hours. Lino stayed to mind the camp as we headed around Punta Baja to a beach on the east side of Carmen Island. After a lunch of bean burritos and fresh papaya, Jim and Cathy gathered several hermit crabs for a race. We all chose from the bunch and placed our racers in the middle of a circle in the sand. My crab never even moved. Rats – first the Loon thing, now this!
After a stop at Punta Baja to check out the layers of ancient fossilized seashells and poke around in the tide pools, we returned to camp and were soon – clean! We had been hoping for warmer weather, but we couldn’t wait any longer to bathe in the calm water – especially the people who had to share tents. We all agreed that a good bath will quickly change your outlook.
Speakin of quickly changing outlooks, I glanced up from my rum punch and noticed a spot of color in the otherwise grey western sky. A small cloud below the overcast had turned bright pink, and in the next few seconds, the entire cloud ceiling lit up, tinting the glassy water and the sand below. People scrambled like fighter pilots to retrieve cameras. In five minutes it was over, the sky suddenly turning slate grey again.
The author, penning what you are reading.
The calm evening had raised our hopes that the weather would finally clear. Then, as warm brownies were being served, Mother Nature flipped a switch; dessert plates began blowing off the table and the rain tarp threatened to collapse. Guess which item we rescued first. We later checked on the boats and ensured our stuff was battened down, and suddenly everyone decided it was a good time to retire. I lay listening to rain pelting my tent and the previously calm water now angrily lashing the shore. I felt like Robert F. Scott in his tent in Antarctica: “For God’s sake, look after our people” – or at least our brownies.
Late that night I was awakened by Paul. He had gotten up to check the boats again and seen that the waves were reaching well above the high-tide mark – and high tide wasn’t for seven more hours. It was time to move up onto the dune. We simply dug up the stakes and sand anchors and lifted my tent in one piece. Thank heavens for modern dome tents – this is a snap! Ooh, poor choice of words. As we struggled up the sandy slope in the strong wind, a loud snap announced the failure of one of the three structural aluminum poles, and the tent began to collapse like an accordion. We found a somewhat sheltered spot among the bushes, and Paul went for the repair kit. He’s been guiding all his adult life, here and in Canada, and was well prepared for just such an emergency. A splint was applied, the pole was reinstalled, and I crawled back inside to doze off listening to the wind howl.
Sunshine! After spending a rainy morning under the tarp sipping tea and reading, I felt the air grow almost hot the instant the clouds parted. A big blue patch appeared in the sky, and we all became fighter pilots again. Soon the bushes around our tents were festooned with colorful bedding and clothes, damp from the rain and humidity. They dried surprisingly quickly – a good thing, too, because thirty minutes later the rain threatened again. By dusk the sea was a bit calmer, and Paul said that if it were like this the next morning, we would cross to Isla Danzante.
Having retired before Baja Midnight yet again, I was awake at 5:30. Venus lit up the southeastern sky, and for some reason the Big Dipper looked enormous. Paul rousted us soon thereafter to break camp and prepare the kayaks. By the time we fastened our spray skirts and put paddles in the water, the west wind was kicking up whitecaps. Paddling straight into the wind, we made slow progress and got splashed a few times. As we neared Danzante’s eastern cliffs, a northerly tidal current kicked in, and we had another fight getting down the coast to the cove where we would stop for a hard-earned brunch of tea and quesadillas.
Great – more headwinds! We fought our way around Danzante’s southern tip and turned north, now having to paddle parallel to the waves. This condition presents the greatest danger of capsizing, but the seas today weren’t rough enough to be dangerous. Jesús entertained us with constant singing, his high, husky tenor competing with the wind. We rounded Punta Arena – without seeing any dolphins this time – and soon eased into Manta Ray Cove, site of our first night’s camp.
Beach tents or lodge -based camps are cozy.
After camp had been set up and a late lunch devoured, several of us swam out to the edge of the bay to view the angelfish, puffers, and huge schools of sergeant-majors as the low sun sent its rays slanting down through the blue-green water. Later a ring-toss game was improvised on the beach (using a discarded piece of rubber hose), and one of our lady guests proved to be quite a ringer. Another proved somewhat less skilled but very persistent at tossing pebbles into the luminaria bags, to everyone’s amusement. The nearly-full moon rose over the island’s hills, and I persuaded Paul to drive me around the bay so I could film the scene while he paddled.
This being a conservation area, everything has to be packed out, and as we ate our way through the trip, all the boats gradually grew lighter except the one carrying the portable toilet. After breaking our final camp, we glided across the glassy bay and out into the channel – too late to film the two passing dolphins and the playful sea lion that was following them. The sun was bright, and puffy white clouds covered the tops of the mountains under a deep blue sky. Small manta rays were jumping several feet out of the water in the distance. After a final lunch stop at a rocky beach near Coyote Point, we headed back into Puerto Escondido for the take-out, a ride back to the hotel, hot showers, and a farewell group dinner.
Whales calve in the warm Sea of Cortez waters
The wet weather was very unusual for the area. It provided me a somewhat atypical experience, as did the whale-petting and the jellyfish encounter. Sometimes it’s good when things don’t go according to plan. Good or bad, it’s often these unplanned events that make a trip really memorable. I measure time not so much by years as by unforgettable experiences.
Suites is one of two hotels used by Sea Kayak Adventures for its guests. The other is the Villas de Loreto, on the shore near the southern edge of town. Both are a ten-minute stroll from the stores and restaurants of the main streets, but the Villas de Loreto feels more rural and isolated. You’re more likely to hear roosters crowing than cars honking there.
The Hacienda is just one year old and is built around a nice patio with a swimming pool, restaurant, and outdoor bar. We partook of the weekly Saturday-night fiesta, with its excellent buffet dinner and performances of Mexican music and dancing. The 25 spacious rooms are reasonably priced, and the hotel offers special package deals. The on-site Hacienda Adventours can arrange a variety of sports and leisure activities for guests.
The Villas de Loreto has 11 rooms and a couple of rental cabins surrounded by nicely landscaped grounds. Besides a pool, restaurant, bar, and gymnasium, it contains the Dolphin Dive Center, Loreto’s only full-service PADI facility.
No matter where you stay in Loreto, you’ll find plenty to do and friendly people to help you with your vacation needs.
Sea Kayak Adventures
1036 Pine Avenue
Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814
Jetsetters Magazine adventure feature with photos courtesy of Sea Kayak Adventures.