On the sea in Baja, trading the cold and drab for dolphins

Email|Print| Text size + By Kari J. Bodnarchuk
Globe Correspondent / January 4, 2004

SEA OF CORTEZ, Mexico -- "Dolphins at two o'clock," said Melissa, a fellow paddler, and we all glanced over to watch four gray dolphins come splashing by, arcing out of the water, flipping and slapping their tails playfully on the ocean's surface. A flock of pelicans soon followed, flying single-file just inches above the water.

"OK, cue the whales," joked Rob, another kayaker, and as if in a comedy sketch, they appeared, spouting a misty funnel of spray off in the distance, just to the right of the chiseled brown hills at the base of the Sierra Giganta Mountains. This scene was repeated daily as we kayaked around Mexico's Sea of Cortez, and only the characters changed. Maybe we spotted a fin whale rather than a blue whale; or a great blue heron or osprey stood in for the pelicans.

The day my friend Cathi called from Vermont to suggest a "girls' getaway," temperatures in parts of New England were 20 or 30 degrees. I was game. She wanted to do something active and outdoorsy, requiring little thought, preparation, or extra gear, and preferably a trip she couldn't do with her children, ages 2 and 5. We considered Chamonix, in the French Alps. I wanted something a little more adventurous, in a spot where temperatures were a good 50 degrees warmer than at home. Baja fit the bill on all counts. We weren't big on organized trips, but sea kayaking around an unfamiliar area as wonderfully remote as Baja's offshore islands was not an activity we would do alone.

Seven of us had signed up to spend a week paddling around two uninhabited islands, Isla Danzante and Isla Carmen, off the east coast of Baja, in a newly established national marine park, Bahia de Loreto. This would be a wilderness adventure, we were told -- no showers, no civilization (we saw only a few fishermen, two other kayaking groups, and a lone tour boat all week), and we would carry a week's worth of supplies in our kayaks.

The outfitter, Sea Kayaking Adventures, would provide all camping and kayaking gear, plus guides who, it turned out, could field even our silliest questions and whip up mouthwatering meals, a mix of Mexican and North American dishes. We, in turn, were expected to pitch our own tents, wash our own dishes, paddle, and have fun -- quite opposite the high-stress, rigorous pace most of us were used to.

The paddlers in our group ranged from 26 to 52, and had flown in from Oregon, Denver, Wisconsin, St. Louis, Boston, and Vermont. We had a recreational therapist, two writers, a former submarine officer, and three "computer people," including Rob, who confessed that despite living at the foot of the Rockies, the closest he usually gets to nature is his screen saver. Several of us were experienced kayakers, while others had never paddled before.

The trip began in Puerto Escondido, a half-hour south of Loreto, the oldest settlement in Baja and once the capital of California, when this Spanish-ruled area stretched from Baja to San Francisco. Six hundred miles south of the border (a 2-hour flight from Los Angeles), Loreto maintains an easy pace: It has roadside vendors selling silver jewelry, Mexican blankets, and other handmade crafts; a few small hotels; one supermarket; and several outstanding restaurants.

After a safety talk, during which we learned basic paddling and rescue techniques, and were given a rundown on the boats, we set off in our two-person, 21-foot kayaks. Each fiberglass boat weighed about 200 pounds, had specially designed foam-padded seats and adjustable backrests (a big plus after a few hours paddling), and were named according to their vibrant colors: Mary Kay (bright pink), Winterfresh (light green), Pia Colada (a dusty yellow), and so on.

That first day on the water, we kayaked alongside Isla Danzante, where the jade-colored water was so translucent we could see hundreds of sea creatures below us: starfish, orange sea horses, sergeant majors, and parrotfish, as well as seemingly endless mounds of coral -- and that was just what stayed underwater. A few feet offshore, the water turns deep blue and plunges 1,200 feet, making it an ideal spot for the 70-to-80-foot blue whale to feed.

Jacques Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez "one of the world's aquariums." It is the richest body of water on the planet, biologically speaking, with more than 3,000 species of marine life. I would add that it's a bird-watcher's paradise, a geologist's dream, and heaven for anyone seeking a getaway or a good waterborne adventure.

My compadres and I spent two to five hours on the water each day, paddling by cliffs where white trees grew out of cracks in the volcanic rock, past valleys full of towering Cordon cactus and sage-colored scrub, and around rocky headlands where birds perched on rocks and held out their wings to dry in the breeze.

Although the Sea of Cortez can be choppy and full of swells, we had four days of glassy or just slightly rippled seas. The calm conditions helped preserve our strength and made spotting the wildlife a lot easier. Kayaking along Isla Carmen, past sandy and coral beaches, we spotted blue-footed boobies and ospreys overhead, and a manta ray with a 6-foot wingspan just floating on the water's surface. We saw a green sea turtle about twice the size of my kitchen sink, dozens of blue and fin whales, and three strange logs sticking out of the water that Lino, one of our local guides, said were the head and flippers of a sleeping sea lion.

For lunch, we stopped off in wineglass-shaped bays with names like Honeymoon Cove, White Beach, and The Aquarium. Here, we snorkeled around angelfish and wrasses, and explored tidal pools, where we found tiny hermit crabs the size of a baby's fingernail. Or we walked along rock ledges that lined the shoreline, occasionally spooking big, scarlet-red crabs that went clicking across the rocks as they scurried away from us. Some had simpler ideas: "OK, today, I'm working on tanning my thighs," someone said, and that's about as ambitious as our goals were by midweek.

At night, we sat on the beach, kicked back in our camp chairs, and rested. This required dipping tortillas into the ceviche bowl (a Mexican dish of yellowtail fish, cilantro, onion, tomato, and lime juice), watching the sun dip and the moon rise simultaneously, and sitting through a repeat of the day's matinee: pelicans skimming the surface, dolphins swimming past, and the occasional, familiar poofing sound of a whale in the distance. Those of us with extra energy played Frisbee, while others went for a walk. And some took advantage of the onboard library: In a dry bag, our guides had packed books on whales, birds, and the history of the area.

Bahia de Loreto protects 800 miles of coastline and islands off Baja's east coast. This area was formed when tectonic plates split, cracking open mountains and severing a part of Mexico from the mainland. This left behind a 1,000-mile-long finger-shaped stretch of land now known as Baja California and one of the planet's youngest seas. That was about 25 million years ago. Meanwhile, as the area was split open along the San Andreas Fault, there was intense volcanic activity, forming the mountains seen here today. Now, this quiet, protected area is a popular destination for overnight kayaking trips.

A natural bonding went on after the sun set and seven strangers and their guides sat around a beach staring, mesmerized, at lunch bags filled with white sand and burning candles (our pseudo campfire, since fires were recently banned in the marine park) and talked about everything from geology, relationships, and pedicures to outdoor adventures. Then the evening's real entertainment began: name games, brain teasers, and a much funnier and wackier version of charades.

Several of us slept in spacious tents on the beach each night -- we were given three-person tents for doubles and two-person tents for singles and had plenty of room to spread out. Others, however, chose to fall asleep under the shooting stars and bright moon, spreading their tarps on the sand and laying their Therm-a-Rests and sleeping bags down on top (with temperatures in the 40s or 50s at night, they also donned fleece hats and jackets).

By week's end we had shared adventures, secrets, and lots of laughs, kept talk of work to a minimum, and enjoyed the simplicity of living outdoors for a week, with nothing more than the gear we could stash in our kayaks.

Best of all, Cathi and I had fully thawed out from the subzero New England temperatures, Rob had captured dozen of photos for his new screen savers, and we were all recharged and ready to get back to children, jobs, and cold-weather lifestyles.

After six days on the water, covering about 37 nautical miles, we headed back to Puerto Escondido, where a van would whisk us back to civilization. As we paddled the last few miles from Isla Danzante to the mainland, a pod of more than three dozen dolphins crossed our path and put on a final show: flipping, leaping, and slapping their tails on the water's surface, while pelicans flew overhead waiting to scoop up morsels left behind by the feeding dolphins.

Kari J. Bodnarchuk is a freelance writer who lives in Somerville.

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