I am told that on my first visit to the beach as a baby my response upon seeing the ocean for the first time was to take off running towards the water. Apparently I made it waist deep into the Atlantic before some guy managed to get a hold of me. Well, many decades later, I would definitely say that I have not yet outgrown my love of being in the water or interacting with its inhabitants, and I’ve had a great time incorporating these experiences into my travels. I’ve had the chance to dive reefs all over the world, snorkeled with sea turtles, sea lions and dolphins, and even enjoyed kayaking with orcas in my home waters.
Recently however,I had opportunity to explore the Sea of Cortes via the Safari Endeavour, an 84 passenger small ship that journeys each year from November to March to what is fittingly called “Cousteau’s Aquarium” and I’m here to report that not only did I spend most of the trip Baja's Bounty with my face in the water, I had one of the best, most exhilaratingly up-close, once-in-a-lifetime, wildlife “bucket list” experience of my traveling life: a full hour swimming and snorkeling with several juvenile and adult whale sharks.
While I will certainly not soon forget snorkeling once more with playful sea lion pups later in the expedition and simply enjoying the utterly stunning landscapes in the Sea of Cortes, my whale shark encounter was definitely the highlight for me.
Due to the fickle nature of animals and weather, the guides on these sorts of expeditions are quick to never over-promise on wildlife encounters or excursions and Mark our Expedition Leader was true to form. But luck was on our side, and that’s how I found myself leaping fins first off the back of a small motor yacht with my heart pretty much in mouth. It may sound cliche, but truly nothing can prepare you for their size when they are near you in the water. I may have known they were harmless sharks, filter feeders and not carnivores, but still their powerful tail fins and bodies the size of a delivery truck are definitely a deterrent to being in their direct path. Whale sharks feed while moving parallel to the surface of the water a few feet under it, or by diving deep and then coming up vertically- their wide oval mouths taking in a stream of water from which they filter out the krill that is their main food source. During this vertical feeding it is absolutely amazing to be treading water and peering down as this enormous oval mouth comes ever closer to you as the shark ascends. We were lucky to have several different whale sharks of various genders and sizes in the small inlet we visited. The cooler temperatures of Baja’s Sea of Cortes at certain times of the year make the krill population explode and this draws a number of whale sharks to the area despite them being mostly solitary creatures.
At another point in our expedition, we found ourselves in a remote and very sheltered cove for an arroyo burro ride, and as our Zodiac motored back to the ship we spotted a juvenile whale shark. It was not really exhibiting feeding behaviors, and the calm crystal green waters were the perfect lens to spend over 20 minutes just watching it glide and play in the water, at times seemingly aware of our Zodiac and the lone kayak deployed by the naturalist staff. It was one of the perfect moments you find on the sorts of adventure expeditions where the daily dynamics of weather, wildlife and nature rather than a strict itinerary drive the experience. An expert staff including the naturalist Expedition Leaders as well as the Captain and crew as to be found on the Safari Endeavour are attuned to these patterns and willing to take the time or make the effort to incorporate them into the expedition. This is what sets small ship expedition travel apart, and this unforgettable Baja journey was a classic example. That, plus ticking off a bucket list item and destination! Well, that in my book is a win win all around… Now, how to top that in 2015?
My Trip Photos:
View a few of my trip photos at right.