From the Baja: whale tales and other wonders

October 17, 1993|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Contributing Writer

Baja California, Mexico -- Ididn't get to touch a whale and a sea lion didn't jump into the back of my kayak -- as happened to a fellow traveler -- but a coyote did steal my sandals, and I was visited at my campsite by a flock of pelicans fighting over a still-flopping fish.

Not bad for a city girl.

Here among towering dunes, mangrove stands and endless blue waters is Mexico at its most pristine. No bustling cities, no tour-group-trampled ruins, no giant resorts with pool-side mariachi shows, no souvenir stands with cheap crafts and paintings on velvet; just miles of white beaches, bountiful bird life and -- if you time your visit right -- whales, whales, whales.

It is to these sheltered waters on the Pacific side of southwestern Mexico's arid 800-mile-long Baja California Peninsula that the California gray whales migrate each January through March to mate, bear their young and gorge through the winter months. Then, babies in tow, they turn around and head 5,000 miles north to Alaska's arctic waters to pass the spring and summer before repeating the process the following year.

The peninsula juts down from California like a dagger, its eastern shore separated from the rest of Mexico by the Gulf of California, its western side flanked by the Pacific Ocean. Magdalena Bay, meanwhile, is tranquilly sandwiched between the peninsula mainland and the 50-mile-long barrier island of Magdalena. While the not-so-pacific ocean rages on one side of the island, the bay remains calm, except when the winds kick up periodically.

We were among the nature lovers who had come to Magdalena Bay to see the whales.

Several companies send small whale-watching ships into the region, but we chose a more intimate approach. Intrigued by the idea of meeting the animals more or less on their own "sea level," we paddled after them in sea kayaks. These sturdy, 20-foot vessels glided quietly through the water, allowing us to hear every bird call, every splash of a sea lion, porpoise or whale, and to savor the animal and plant life around us with only the plop of our paddles intruding on nature's own sounds.

We were an eclectic group -- 11 Japanese conservationists, a 60-something North Carolina doctor-nurse couple, two young lovers from Florida, a Brooklyn businessman. We had signed on with San Diego-based Baja Expeditions, which operates whale-watching trips out of La Paz, southern Baja's peaceful coastal capital.

After spending the night in a pleasant hotel in town, we were bused four hours north across the desert to the tiny Magdalena-Bay-side village of Lopez Mateos. From there, kayakers, gear and food were shuttled the 15 minutes to Magdalena Island in two pangas -- 26-foot motorboats that carried provisions and served as expedition vehicles for pursuing the whalesat a faster-than-paddling clip.

Our five-day kayaking-and-camping trip required an affinity for outdoor living, but I wouldn't call it really roughing it. Baja Expeditions provided two guides -- in this case, Robin and Peter, both Americans. A four-man Mexican camp crew helped us set up our company-issued two-person tents each day and prepared meals that were a far cry from your typical camping fare. No freeze-dried entrees here.

We awoke each morning to strong coffee, fresh-squeezed fruit juice and either eggs and bacon or pancakes with blueberry jam. Our picnic lunch along the route was a variety of salads, tropical fruits and vegetables. Dinner was a feast. One night we had a spicy sea bass stew with green chilies, salsa and soft corn tortillas; another night we ate spaghetti with scallops we'd helped catch off a mangrove island near the evening's base camp.

The kayaking, meanwhile, was a cinch.

Before you turn the page at the mere mention of kayaks -- with visions of raging rapids and violent underwater rolls -- relax. Sea kayaks are a sturdier breed of boat, and Magdalena Bay is steadier surf than most river routes. Seldom did we encounter more than a ripple, and some simple instruction about leaning into the waves and paddling cross-wave got our group of mostly novices quickly into the swing of the sport. Our dexterity improved with each day's on-the-tour training; while most of us chose to navigate rock-steady, two-person kayaks, the gutsier took a turn at the more rickety -- but more fun -- single-person kayaks our guides used.

Before we could embark in our kayaks, however, we had to pass the dreaded dunk test -- a safety precaution designed to show us how to behave in the highly unlikely event our kayak capsized. With our guides at either end of the kayak, each kayak twosome had to rock once, twice, three times, then purposely tip over, quickly release the waterproof skirts that kept water from slashing into the boat, then float to the surface.

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