Whale watchers find big sights on small ships

June 17, 2007|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,Chicago Tribune

I can't speak to the aroma.

Maybe we were upwind. The sound the whale makes when it blows, on the other hand, is just like the one made by those high-pressure fire extinguishers: an assertive whoosh.

Then it eases itself back beneath the surface of the water and glides along while, no doubt, considering whether to put on a real show for the people nearby by leaping like it's in an insurance company ad or by merely flashing a little tail.

It's always an amazing thing to see a whale in person, which in part explains the appeal of what the marketing wizards at CruiseWest call its Baja Whales & Wildlife Cruise.

The other part is Baja Peninsula, which, except in the ridiculous heat of midsummer, is an intriguing destination for a variety of reasons. But back to the cruise.

Calling it "a cruise" is obligatory, because it has all the symptoms: You board the 217-foot Spirit of Endeavour, unpack only once, sleep in moderately snug quarters, dine on schedule with strangers and don't stay in any port longer than a few hours. There is some pampering, which, at these prices (expect to pay about $6,000-$7,000 per couple for the week), there had better be.

And there are differences. Anyone expecting bingo, conga lines, belly-flop contests, blackjack, baked-Alaska parades, Rockin' With the '60s revues or 4,000 fellow passengers (there were 72 on our run) will be disappointed.

But this isn't a National Geographic Channel climb-the-rigging bare-bones expedition either. It certainly isn't a seven-day science lecture. When not cozying up to seagoing mammals, cold beer is there to be consumed, sometimes on white sand beaches. People are offered kayaks and enough instruction to make them fun, even for novices. They snorkel. They laugh.

There is silliness, even during the obligatory science lectures. Allan Morgan, distinguished shipboard naturalist, on how to deal with scorpions in the desert:

"Don't find any scorpions."

So is this finally the cruise for people who have vowed never, ever, ever to take a cruise?

Well, here's what it was for sure:

For seven days in late January and early February, the Spirit of Endeavour sailed from Cabo San Lucas partway up Mexico's Sea of Cortes (aka the Gulf of California) and back, communing with whatever swam or flew her way.

In those seven days, we saw and identified 39 species of bird, including two varieties of woodpecker, two shades of pelican and a pair of boobies -- the blue-footed and the brown.

One morning an entire herd of bottleneck dolphins danced in our wake.

Another afternoon, as a bunch of folks enjoyed a nature walk with Morgan on Isla Partida, a maverick guest scratching his way up a hillside above the group accidentally flushed out a black jack rabbit. That's impressive because black jack rabbits exist nowhere else in the world except on a couple of these islands, and because when left alone, they're nocturnal (which probably explains its choice of coat). This was daytime.

"We never would've seen it," Morgan said, "if someone hadn't been walking up there."

Snorkelers off Isla Espiritu Santo on Day 2 identified Mexican goatfish, coronet fish and pufferfish. I personally identified some kind of fish with stripes. Others, most of whom clearly had never been in a kayak, kayaked. Many did both.

On the morning of Day 5, we were anchored off Los Islotes, not far from La Paz. This would be the morning that those who dared would don their snorkel gear and wetsuits and swim with California sea lions.

Marine biologist Deborah Purse was our exploration guide. In her talk the night before, she had briefed everyone on sea lion protocol.

"Avoid wearing anything shiny," she said. "They might come up and nip at it. And just be aware -- these are wild animals. They are curious. They like to explore you."

Now, this is not an experience limited to cruise-ship passengers. Private boats based in La Paz haul people out most days during winter tourist season.

But the Endeavour crew got passengers in the water before 9 a.m., and long before anyone else. The sea lions evidently were happy to see them.

"Someone got in -- I don't know who it was -- and three of them came up," said Joey Terriquez of Dillon, Colo. "God, they were fun."

The rest of us waited until the swimmers left and had to be satisfied gawking from the dry safety of our inflatable boats, gawking especially at huge males that ruled harems of as many as 15 females.

Cozy cruising

When we weren't swimming with sea lions or snorkeling or kayaking or nature-walking with Morgan, we were likely on a beach that separates desert from sea, staring at impossibly blue water and sharpening our senses with the assistance of one or two cold Mexico-produced malt beverages.

Daily, we landed at least somewhere, did something, all accomplished in an atmosphere of minimal intensity and, it being a ship this size, human scale.

That's key. Rob Earle, captain of the vessel and a 12-year CruiseWest veteran, knows it.

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