WHALE WATCHING WITH LINDBLAD EXPEDITIONS
by Jodie and Dale Wendel
"Look, at 9 o’clock, there’s a Grey Whale calf spy hopping!"
"Watch out! A mother and her calf are passing under the zodiac."
It was difficult to know what direction to look; whales were all around, spouting, floating, and some spy hopping. Wherever I pointed my camera was wrong; what a delightful dilemma.
This was our best day of whale watching off of Baja California on the Lindblad Expeditions MS Sea Lion. During the trip, besides the plentiful sightings of California Grey Whales, we saw Blue Whales, Humpback Whales, a single Sperm Whale, and numerous dolphins, birds, and cacti. We boarded the ship in La Paz, Baja California Sur and left it 7 days later on the Pacific side of the peninsula at San Lucas.
Our America West flight left Los Angeles on time and landed 10 minutes early in Phoenix, the America West hub. Our bags showed up and we set off in search of the AeroMexico check-in counter. The passenger terminal is on three levels and the escalators don’t seem to connect all of them. We found an elevator which had a button labeled "Ticketing," so it took us to the proper lever, wherever that was. After a very long walk we found the AeroMexico counter, however no one seemed to be there. We sat and eventually someone showed up and checked us in.
Unlike the huge security line we saw when exiting the America West gates, we found a very short line for access to the AeroMexico gate. The line, however, moved very slowly. The personnel were quite careful. Every piece of hand-carry was repeatedly scanned by the X-ray before being allowed to pass.
The flight was uneventful, we even had free booze. Our flight passed over mainland Mexico before crossing the Sea of Cortez to Baja. The Sonoran desert looks quite barren from the air. There are, however, occasional patches of irrigated green.
We arrived in La Paz, Baja California Sur, on time and were the next to the last passengers through immigration. It was, therefore, no problem finding our luggage. A Lindblad representative quickly grabbed our bags and loaded them onto a bus. We loaded ourselves onto the same bus. An hour town tour filled the time before we could board the M/S Sea Lion.
La Paz seems to be a normal town with no significant tourist impact, except right on the waterfront. It looks to be fairly prosperous, judging by the shops we saw. The teen-aged females must have a fair amount of spending money if the number of shops offering them trendy clothing is a reliable indication.
We had cocktails on the bow as the ship left port. Since it was so pleasant the staff introductions were on the bow rather than in the lounge. If fact, the crew even moved the hors d’oeuvres to the bow so we wouldn’t have to go inside for them.
Our first stop the next day was at Isla Santa Catalina. But while reaching it, we were treated to glorious views of Blue Whales! The cruise brochure promised the possibility of seeing some but wasn’t encouraging. They were all around us, spouting and diving. While we were busily watching the whales, a line of Bottle Nosed Dolphins approached at right angles to our course. Estimates of numbers are difficult but there must have been hundreds. Although intent on feeding, some peeled off from the line and rode our bow wave for awhile before rejoining their parade. In the midst of all this, a lone bull Sperm Whale appeared and gave us a nice view of his tail or flukes.
After a morning of whale tails we tried snorkeling in the afternoon. Lindblad provides all of the equipment you might need, including shortie wet suits. The wet suits didn’t help; the water was very cold. In addition, it was so murky that very few fish could be seen. We got out after about 20 minutes because our fingers were numb.
A brief interval back on the ship allowed us to dry, warm up, and change for a hike up a dry wash on the island. The naturalist who led the hike was Dr. William Lopez-Forment, a Mexican. He has done extensive research in Baja and seems to be in love with the desert. He is intimate friends with each and every plant on the island, not species but each plant. According to William, Isla Santa Catalina has the best population of Barrel and Cardon’ cactus anywhere.
The walk up the wash was delightful. The Cardones are gigantic with some seeming to be over 20 feet high. They are similar to the Saguaro cactus in southern Arizona. The winter rains have expanded the accordion-like skin of the cacti to a beautiful plumpness. However, this was the wrong season to see any masses of flowers.
At one point in the hike William shouted, "Aye corumbá! This cactus is unknown on this island." He was referring to a rather nondescript, spindly cactus called a pencil cactus. Many of its branches grew to a height of 6' but only through the generous support of another plant.
This would be a good point to mention the other members of the excellent naturalists staff. Larry Hobbs was the "whale man." He has been involved in marine mammal research and teaching natural history for over 25 years. Whenever the ship was moving in daylight he could usually be found on the bow and could spot a whale spout seemingly while looking the other way. With his years of experience he was able to identify most whales by their spouts or blows.
Our "bird man" was Bryan Gates. He is a native British Columbian who worked as a biologist for the Provence, spending more than 30 years in wildlife management. Since retiring he has traveled extensively, leading natural history tours or as a naturalist. He was on the bow as much as Larry. There is a public address microphone available on the bow so the passengers anywhere on the ship could be aware of what is going on or what is being seen without standing next to one of the naturalists.
Lee Moll has a degree in Environmental Conservation from the University of Colorado. On this trip she covered the many interesting geological aspects of the peninsula. Her knowledge also extends to whales and birds. She also drove zodiacs for many of the tours.
William Mercadante was the undersea specialist. This involved producing underwater videos and presenting little water creatures on the video microscope.
It’s interesting watching the naturalists interact with each other. Their primary duty is to educate and entertain the passengers however they take any opportunity to learn from each other. I think they are all striving to become generalists, which, of course, makes them more valuable as shipboard naturalists.
Our second morning was just as pleasurable as the first. We arose early and boarded a zodiac at 6:30 for a cruise through a mangrove swamp on Isla San Jose’. (The early hour was necessary since the area was accessible only at the very high tide caused by the full Moon.) The three mangroves, black, white, and red, comprising the swamp are actually not related other than by their love (or tolerance) of brackish water. We followed the twisting channels looking for endemic bird life, herons, pelicans, king fisher, and mangrove warblers. As we rounded one bend we encountered an anchored zodiac from the ship. Three members of the dining room staff plus a deck hand were on board. We were offered fresh croissants, blue-berry muffins, fresh fruit, hot coffee, and Mimosas. It was quite an unexpected treat.
At the end of the zodiac tour we landed on the island rather than return to the ship. We took a short walk with William. When we returned to the ship at 9:30 we were offered our usual breakfast. This was our third meal so far. When we awoke we had coffee and a sweet roll in the lounge. Then there were the goodies from the anchored zodiac.
The ship then moved a short distance to Los Islotes, an islet on the north end of Isla Espiritu Santo for one of the featured activities, swimming with the sea lions. Later in the afternoon we took a zodiac cruise along the rocky shore for a close look at the adults, juveniles and pups laying on the water’s edge.
In addition to the sea lions, many birds inhabit the island. So many that the higher flat surfaces not washed by the sea are covered with white, like the icing on a cake. This white, however, is not icing. We saw Pelicans, Blue Footed and Brown Boobies, and Magnificent Frigate Birds. The Pelicans were quite numerous everywhere we went on this voyage.
Our fifth meal of the day was a beach bar-b-que set on a sandy beach in a secluded cove. (Our fourth was a sandwich buffet around noon.) The energetic staff and crew not only hauled the food, tables, and gas grills ashore, they also brought folding camping chairs for all passengers. Food included fish, ribs, mashed potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, beer & wine, coffee, and "killer" chocolate brownies. As dusk descended the bonfire was lit and William told some Mexican folk tales including how the rabbit got on the Moon. S’mores were the final treat of the night. (Someone on the crew must have been a Girl Scout.)
As we lay drowsing in bed the next morning waiting for a 7 am wake-up call, we noted that the ship had slowed, usually a sure sign that something worth viewing has been spotted. Since the morning’s planned activity was to be looking for Humpbacked Whales on the Gorda Banks, we assumed that some had been spotted. We quickly dressed and headed to the bow. A small group, headed by Larry Hobbs, was watching three Humpbacks in the distance. Eventually the ship moved on so we ducked below for a quick breakfast of coffee and fresh cinnamon rolls.
We returned to the bow in time for the next whale spottings plus some cavorting Thurston’s Devil Rays. They leap from the water, flutter around looking a bit like a card table, and the plop back into the water. Besides the sightings of solitary whales, we had two encounters with mothers and calves. The last calf was repeatedly breaching. At each appearance the air was filled with the sound of clicking shutters. We finally had to break off our whale watching to rush on to Cabo San Lucas and the afternoon’s activities.
The ship tied up to a dock pretty much in the heart of town. We eschewed the offered tours and bird watching to do a bit of shopping. Cabo is the exact opposite of La Paz. It is heavily impacted by U.S. residents and tourists of all nations. All of the shop keepers we encountered spoke acceptable English. Most of the beach front is covered by either resort hotels or condos. The harbor is filled with yachts and fishing boats. Sport fishing is a very big business here.
We departed around 5 and took a long leisurely look at the famous arch, El Cabo Falso, and Lovers Beach. We enjoyed Sangrias on the bow during our departure. This evening’s dessert was sea-sick pills. The Pacific was not true to its name.
The remainder of our cruise was spent within Magdalena Bay. We entered the bay through the South entrance. It doesn’t really look like an entrance; we cruised along with Isla Margarita on the starboard. Just as we reached its end, Isla Magdalena appeared on the port side and we were inside the bay without ever passing through something that looked like an entrance. The southern part of the bay is the area where mating occurs. Although we saw many California Grey Whales, singles and amorous pairs, we proceeded in a steadfast manner without altering course or speed. We did not have the necessary permit for whale watching there so we could not pause.
However by midmorning we did pause to go ashore on Isla Magdalena. About a 30 minute hike took us through the sand dunes to the Pacific side and Sand Dollar Beach. The sand comprising these barrier islands is the finest I have ever encountered. It approached the consistency of talcum power. The wind had shaped the ever moving dunes into the classic crescent shape with steep lee slopes.
Sand Dollar Beach is a beautiful, unspoiled, long sweeping crescent of sand that is aptly named. It is littered with perfect Sand Dollars, many larger than the width of your palm. There were quite a number of other shells on the beach along with some dolphin bones. We also encountered piles of shells as we crossed the island.
After lunch, the local pilot, Alejandro, arrived and we moved through the Hull Channel to the upper bay. This part of the trip was the bird-watchers special. Brian took over the microphone from Larry and called out the birds perched along the shore, in the mangroves, or flying over. After we left the shallow, narrow channel we again started seeing whales. Now, however, they were mother-calf pairs. The northern part of the bay is the nursery. We anchored for the night at Bahia de Soledad where we remained for all the next day.
After dressing that morning we went into the lounge for coffee and a fresh cinnamon roll. As we were eating, a curious whale was "spy hopping" on the starboard side of the ship. I went on deck and took a few pictures before it stopped. The purpose of this behavior is unknown. The whale’s eyes stay below water level in 80% of these jumps, so they are not spying.
At 8:20 we went ashore for a nature walk with William. It was not a great nature experience since there is almost no vegetation, however it was a pleasant walk and we heard a lot of Mexican history from William. We also saw two perfect examples of barchan dunes, the wind-shaped crescent dunes whose leeward side is the natural angle of repose of the fine sand, 32o. When we reached the Pacific shore we found it heavily littered with shells of all kinds. It was also littered with a lot of plastic debris from passing fishing boats.
We returned to the ship at 10:30 and after a brief potty stop went whale watching in a zodiac. We found a throng of boats already engaged with a very friendly mother and calf. They were quite enjoyable and did not seem to mind the presence of all the water craft. They moved from boat to boat, rising alongside to be touched, and pushing the boats around. Although I know, intellectually, that the adults are immense, having one rise to the surface right next to you and then move away so that you can see the broad expanse of her back gives you a true feeling for their size.
In addition to the zodiacs from the ship there were some pongas from a nearby town, each with a load of whale watchers. Pongas are fiberglass boats of a design unique to the area. They are flat-bottomed and reputed to be very stable. The fishermen use them in the rough waters of the Pacific. During the winter whale watching season they are also used for that purpose. A $1,500 permit is required for each craft that is so used. The ship hired pongueros (ponga drivers) to ride along in each zodiac, each with a permit exemplified by an embroidered red flag that they kept carefully sealed in a baggy in their inner pocket.
The mom and baby that we were watching eventually grew tired of us and moved off. Perhaps it was time for the baby to nurse. We went off in search of others and saw many, however none quite as friendly.
Our turn in the zodiac ended at noon so we returned to the ship for lunch. Our next opportunity was at 3:40 in the afternoon. Once again no especially friendly pairs however we saw many, many whales.
The next morning was also spent going out in the zodiacs to be among the California Grey Whales. We went with Larry and Jimmy, a ponguero. Both are exceptionally adept at finding whales. Some mothers and babies approached us. Jodie tried taking some underwater photos by putting her waterproof camera over the side and pointing it in the general direction of the whales. Success was limited, trying to catch a moving target without being able to look through the view finder is difficult. In one instance we had a mother and calf moving around under our zodiac, sometimes moving it, and at the same time there was another calf spy hopping not more than 50 yards away.
After lunch the ship moved back south through the Hull Canal and anchored on the south side of Devil’s Bend. It was a little sad leaving the whales. They had been such fun to watch. Activities for the afternoon were kayaking and hiking. We chose to have one last hike with William and then went back to the ship to prepare for the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail Party and Dinner. As Lucas, the boatswain, was driving us back to the ship he asked if we had had a tour of the ship yet. We said we hadn’t so he slowly drove around the ship pointing out various features.
Passenger access to the zodiacs is on the stern. They are made fast with the side parallel to the stern. There is a step built into the stern railing on the 200 level. A nonslip mat is placed on the zodiac side tube and a wooden step is placed inside. Two crew on the ship plus the zodiac driver assist each passenger getting into and out of the zodiac. The crew were very good about getting the not too nimble into and out of the zodiacs.
When we got back into our cabin, I showered while Jodie finished packing. Then we wandered into the lounge shortly before 6 pm. Shortly after we arrived Bette Lou, the expedition leader, announced over the PA system that the ship had run out of water. Since no showers are available, why not just come on down to the lounge and have a drink on the captain. After a bit of radio work the ship received permission to move on to its dock in San Lucas immediately rather than in the morning. That way it could pick up water.
We departed the ship at 8:30 the next morning for the 3˝ hour bus ride back to La Paz. For the most part it was typical Sonoran desert. Near the start of the trip we made a side excursion to view a Creeping Devil Cactus. This cactus spreads by growing branches outward, allowing them to drop to the ground and take root, and the originating stalk dies. We also saw many Osprey nests on power poles. There were occasional patches of irrigated farming. The water was deposited in the Pleistocene era and comes from very deep wells. It is not being replenished. We also had to pass through a Mexican Army check point where the bus was inspected for ???
We reached La Paz around noon and checked into the lovely Los Arcos Hotel. After the provided luncheon buffet we explored the shopping area again. Since it was then siesta time, many stores were closed however enough were open so that we could complete our required souvenir buying.
There was a very colorful folk dancing show before the farewell dinner in the hotel’s nicely appointed restaurant..
The next morning we went off to the airport where we had manual hand-carry and luggage inspection plus hand-carry X-ray and then boarded the flight to Phoenix at 10:30. In Phoenix we quickly passed through an almost vacant immigration area, found our bags and immediately rechecked them just outside the customs area, a surprising convenience since we were changing airlines from AeroMexico to America West. We found that our flight to LA was quite delayed however we were able to get on an earlier flight as stand-bys.
About the Sea Lion: our cabin was quite small and without much storage, but adequate for a trip of this duration. The bathroom is very much like that in a motor home. It is difficult to find a place to hang wet things. (The provided wet suits are left hanging on the top deck.) There is a usable medicine cabinet. The cabin dimensions are 7' 4" by 12'. The two beds are 6' long and rather narrow. Our luggage easily fit under the bunks. All air conditioning controls, PA controls and bathroom light and fan switches are near the ceiling close to the shower door-like bathroom door. We were never able to achieve a satisfactory setting on the air conditioning thermostat; the cabin was either hot and humid or too cold. We were encouraged to keep the heavy window curtain closed when we left to cabin to keep the air conditioner condensation from dripping on one of the beds.
There are two closets suitable for hanging long clothes, each about 1˝’ wide and 4' tall. Under each is a drawer, the only drawers in the cabin. Between the hall wall and the closets is a small desk and chair with storage space on top of the desk. There was also a largish (1˝’ x 2˝’) table between the two beds with a shelf underneath.
Breakfast and lunch were frequently buffets. Three entrees were offered for dinner, meat, fish, and vegetarian, but must be chosen at lunch time so that the chef would know how many of each to prepare. Rice and some sparse vegetables accompanied the meal. Wine could be purchased by the glass or bottle. There was also a featured dessert however, ice cream was also available. The dinners were mediocre, however the decaf coffee was always good.
The itinerary made up for the small cabin and mediocre meals!