Close Encounters With Blue Whales In The Sea of Cortez
‘The aquarium of the world’ more than lives up to its name
Peering over the side of a six-man motorboat, I see an enormous plume of water shoot 10 meters into the air. Immediately afterwards, another one explodes behind me. I spin around in time to see the fine spray descending like the tail end of a geyser eruption.
“There are nine of them. Maybe 10,” says our captain, Oscar, squinting into the sun.
It’s day one of a three-day trip to The Sea of Cortez, the narrow body of water separating Baja California from mainland Mexico, and I’m feeling lucky: I’ve already seen more blue whales—the largest animal on planet Earth — than I expected to in my lifetime. In the last two centuries they were hunted almost to extinction. And yet, here are nine or 10 of them: hulking, improbably graceful, and in very close proximity to our tiny boat.
Adult blue whales measure about 30 meters in length and weigh approximately 200 tons. Their hearts alone are the size and weight of a small car. Considering this for a moment, my own miniscule heart skips a beat. It’s impossible not to feel awed — and, yes, maybe a little frightened — in the presence of such enormous fellow creatures.
One emerges from the water, just a few meters from our hull, its glistening back rolling in a perfect arc. The blowhole sinks slowly into the blue, and the back follows, sliding serpentine through the bright, white spray.
After what seems like an age, the hooked dorsal fin appears, and finally the foam-framed tail: the shape and color of a small fighter plane. The tail flicks with a sensual flourish, sending salty water high into the air. Then the whale begins its dark descent, up to 500 meters below the surface of the sea.
Jacques Cousteau famously described The Sea Of Cortez as “the aquarium of the world.” Once you get here, that can seem like an understatement: My very first boat trip brought sightings of blue and humpback whales (two of the seven kinds to be found here), a pod of dolphins, a pair of giant turtles, and about a dozen somersaulting Manta Rays.
Cousteau was not the first celebrity to bring this miraculous region to the world’s attention. John Steinbeck came here 75 years ago, in the spring of 1940. He was too late to see the blue whales — they visit between December and March — but he did see a raft of other species, all of which he writes about in his playful maritime diary, The Log From The Sea Of Cortez.
I first visited Baja in March 2007. At the time, my wife and I were desperately trying to get pregnant, and we thought that a road trip to Bahia Concepción (Conception Bay) might miraculously solve our problem. It didn’t — at least not in the short term — but it turned out to be one of the best holidays of our lives.
One afternoon, on a gray whale-watching trip to San Ignacio lagoon, we got so close to a calf that we were actually able to kiss it. We felt privileged to have seen these gregarious, intelligent mammals, some of which live for as long as 120 years, in their natural habitat; it was like a close encounter with a band of benevolent aliens.
Having seen the grays, which are mostly to be found on the other, Pacific side of Baja, I was determined to see the blues, too. And so, eight years later, I found myself on a 60-seat airplane traveling to Loreto, Mexico — the country’s mecca for spotting these shy, elusive creatures.
As we descended through the clouds, I caught my first glimpse of the town Steinbeck describes as “buried in a grove of palms and greenery.” My window seat gave me an unobstructed view of the sea, “smooth as a lawn,” and “the rolling, rocky, desert country” of southern Baja.
Steinbeck didn’t come to Loreto for the whales. He came to see the town’s world-famous church, La Mision Nuestra Senora de Loreto. Predating everything from El Cabo to San Francisco, it was the first mission ever to be built in the Californias, constructed by Italian Jesuits in 1697.
When Steinbeck arrived, it was “a mass of rubble.” But since then the building has been lovingly restored, the courtyard planted with orange trees and bougainvillea. The statue of The Virgin of Loreto is still in a glass case behind the altar, just as he found it, “a look of terror in her face, of the virgin mother of the world, and the prayers of so many people heavy on her.”
After visiting the church on my second day, I walked next door to the Jesuit Mission Museum. It was closed. The smiling lady at the tourist information office told me that it would “probably” open again in the afternoon. It didn’t. I tried to get online to check the opening hours. I couldn’t. I suppose I should have been irritated. But I wasn’t. It felt good to be disconnected for a few hours, so far from the speed, noise, and efficiency of New York.
Unable to check my Facebook page, and with no cell phone reception, I found myself in the main square, drinking a beer with Ron, a recently retired firefighter from Bellingham.
“I came down to Loreto last year,” said Ron. “And I was bowled over, man. I mean just look at this place!” He paused for a second, pointing his Corona in the direction of the picture-perfect plaza. “This year I thought ‘screw it’ — I’m going to rent a house for six months. I worked the same job for 40 years. I figured it was time to have some fun.” With that, we ordered another round and sat back in the Mexican sun, phone-less and fancy free.
When I discovered that Ron and I were booked on the same scuba diving trip the following morning, I felt an immediate relief. The prospect of an open water dive was thrilling. But, in all honesty, I was terrified. I hadn’t dived in almost 20 years — and never in the company of 200-ton whales.
At 6am, I awoke to strange shrieking sounds echoing across the water. Throwing open the curtains, I saw a white pelican silhouetted against a pink and yellow sky. The bird plunged vertically into the water, reappearing a moment later with a wriggling sliver fish in its beak. It threw its head back savagely, swallowing its catch in a single gulp.
We started our scuba trip bright and early at 7am. I was told by our captain, Marcos, to watch for blue whales on our way to the dive site: It was easier to spot the spouts in the morning sun. Myself, Ron, Marcos, and a middle-aged couple from Fort Lauderdale — Bernie and Margaret — set off together in the motorboat, the leathery mountains soaring above us on one side, the flat sea stretching out before us on the other.
As soon as we’d found our seats, Bernie launched into a long and violent complaint about the high cost of margaritas, and the low temperature of the water at his hotel. “And of course they’ve done nothing to rectify the situation,” said Margaret, rolling her eyes in disbelief. Ron and I smiled politely, trying to think of a tactful way to change the subject. Fortunately, a whale intervened on our behalf. “Tails!” shouted Marcos, indicating two fan-like objects about 50 meters from the boat. “It’s a pair of blues!”
Ron and I grabbed our cameras, while Bernie began to unlock a mysterious black, plastic suitcase. “Time for the drone,” he said with obvious pride, fishing out what looked like a large toy helicopter. Wielding a remote control, he let out a whoop and sent the contraption humming into the air. “Best remote camera on the market,” he grinned.
And the loudest, I thought; it sounded like a swarm of hornets.
The whales didn’t seem particularly impressed by Bernie’s state-of-the-art camera. When we spotted them 10 minutes later, they were about half a mile out to sea. Our time was limited, so Marcos turned the boat around, and we made our way towards the dive site: a reef close to Danzante Island. The mild irritation I felt towards Bernie seemed to melt away as soon as we entered the water. Descending slowly towards the stony sea floor, I saw that we were surrounded on all sides by shoals of parrotfish, psychedelic coral, and pulsing anemones. The sheer volume of life was startling.
Marcos pointed towards a steep wall of coral. There, in a hole about the size of my fist, a yellow eel eyed us suspiciously, then quickly retreated. Looking more closely, though, I saw that it wasn’t the eel to which Marcos was drawing our attention. Cowering under the reef, and partly obscured by shadow, I spied a California horn shark, mottled grey in color, and a meter or so in length. Steinbeck describes the horn shark as “a baleful personality” and “a sluggish grey length of hatred.” This guy just looked terrified.
After our dive, we moored at Playa Blanca on Isla Carmen. When Cortez came to Baja in 1539, he thought he’d discovered an island. He was wrong, of course. But he could be forgiven for his mistake: There are almost 100 islands in the gulf, spread out along one of the longest peninsulas in the world. The conquistador’s attempts at colonization fell spectacularly flat, but he did at least manage to attach his name to the sea.
On the beach, the water was clear and cool, and a pair of ospreys flirted in the perfect blue of the afternoon. I couldn’t resist a quick snorkel before lunch, so I grabbed my mask and flippers, and flopped awkwardly into the glittering sea. After a few dreamlike encounters with purple starfish and spaced-out seahorses, I ran into a giant, multi-colored lobster with claws the size of my head. I paddled away in a mild panic.
Back at the boat, we ate fish tacos whilst looking out onto Robinson Crusoe beach. The surface of the water was like corrugated silver, the only sound the gentle splash of dolphins frolicking in the distance — until Bernie laid down his taco, picked up his cell phone, and entered into a long and laborious conversation with a client back home in Florida. “My cell service rocks,” he reassured me with a wink. It was time to take a walk.
Strolling along the sand, far from Bernie’s nasal tones, I soaked up the silence, inhaling as much fresh air as possible before the following day’s trek back to New York. As orange crabs scuttled across the black, volcanic rock, and tiny birds played tag in the surf, I closed my eyes and tried to hold on to this moment, like a shiny shell in the palm of my hand. Looking out over The Sea Of Cortez, and seeing the faint outline of a full moon over the mountains, I remembered Steinbeck’s closing lines:
“The laws of thought seemed really one with the laws of things…the gardens of the sea, and the beer, and the work, they were all one thing, and we were that one thing too…”