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Paddling Among Porpoises, Out Bound Travel Sept. 2000

Paddling Among Porpoises, Out Bound Travel Sept. 2000

| September, 2000

By Tan Chung Lee - OutBound Travel Magazine September 2000 A pristine wilderness of cactus gardens, fossilized islands and a marine environment where whale, dolphins and sea birds call home - that's the Sea of Cortez. The best way to explore all this is to get close to the water - by kayaking- and enjoying good old-fashioned exercise to boot. A flock of pelicans stood on a rocky shoreline, eyeing us as warily as we were surveying them. Above us, frigate birds glided gracefully looking for tell-tale ripples on the ocean surface. The moment they spotted fish, they would dive in a vertical swoop to grab their prey. At the same time, we kept our eyes peeled for ospreys and blue-footed boobies. If we were lucky, we might also spot dolphins or sea lions and even hear a fin whale or blue whale nearby. We were paddling on the calm cobalt-blue waters of the Sea of Cortez alongside Isla Danzante (Isle of Dancer). The sea birds were not the only natural wonders that greeted us, up-close and personal, on our first day of kayaking. The wrap-around scenery of jagged mountains, with their dark folds and sharp ridges, was also a spectacular sight. Our first stop at a picturesque spot, called Honeymoon cove, on Punta Arena on Isla Danzante was a prelude to what we would encounter the rest of the week: Clear waters, views of the sharp jagged features of surrounding volcanic isles and birds on the hunt for prey. We saw a flock of seagulls in a feeding frenzy, pouncing on squid and fish in the water just a couple of meters form the beach. Walking to the top of the headland that sheltered Honeymoon Cove, it was easy to see how it had earned its name: The pristine beauty of this cozy alcove was breathtaking. Except for a lone yacht anchored in the middle of the ocean, there was no other boat or soul in sight. Somehow, the scenery reminded me of the Galapagos Islands, with similar volcanic island and bird species. Only the giant tortoises and marine iguanas were missing. There were 16 of us on a one-week sea kayak expedition to explore, close-up, the famed wildlife of the seas off Baja California. We comprised 12 guests, led by four guides, including Terry Prichard, the owner of Se Kayak Adventures, the trip's outfitter. At first, I had started out with some trepidation as it was several years ago since I had kayaked. But I need not have worried. An hour-and-a-half of instruction at Puerto Escondido, south of Loreto, Mexico, from where we launched our expedition, was sufficient to ease my doubts. We were taught how to paddle, maneuver our fiberglass two-seater kayaks and what to do in case we capsized. A number of my fellow kayakers were novices. Kayaking the entire week proved to be a breeze. It was astonishing how stable - and compact - the kayaks were. They carried our personal gear, camping equipment and all the essentials needed to operate a mobile kitchen, complete with stove, Dutch over, tables and chairs. Even a portable loo was stored in one of the kayaks. If there were any limitations, they never showed as our guides surprised us night after night with delicious meals. Our menu included grilled fresh fish, lasagna and Mexican specialties like tacos and chili rellenos and there was always a freshly-baked cake every night, courtesy of the Dutch over. And every evening before dinner was served, there was a cocktail hour of margaritas allowing us to reflect on the glorious sunsets or to exchange notes on the day's kayaking. The Sea of Cortez is recognized as of the more rewarding places to kayak. Just off the coast of Baja California, it is one of Mexico's national marine parks, rich in fish and other marine life. Also known as the Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortez was made famous by John Steinbeck in his book, Sea of Cortez. Like Hemingway, he had long discovered the joys of fishing in Mexican waters. So have many American angling enthusiasts who flock here regularly on deep-sea fishing expeditions. The other lure is sea kayaking. Yet, despite the pull, there are not many kayakers here. Apart from ourselves, there was only one other group and we saw them only once. Nor did we see the deep-sea fishing boats. Most of the time, there was only our group and we had plenty of opportunity to commune with nature. There was plenty - on land and at sea. For a start, the Baja landscape is striking, comprising volcanic mountains with multicolored layers of volcanic ash and lava. Each island in the Sea of Cortez is different, Isla Danzante, for instance, is a place of high volcanic cliffs while Isla Carmen, another island where we camped, is full of fossilized shell, which shed some clues to the Sea of Cortez's origins. It is believed that some 20 million years ago, the Baja Peninsula, that finger-shaped piece of land stretching down from California, was connected to the rest of Mexico and the Sea of Cortez was non-existent. Then came the shift of geological plates which rendered apart Baja peninsula from the mainland, creating a rift that became filled with what is now known as the Sea of Cortez. This ocean is incredibly rich in marine life, with as many as 800 species of fish, dolphins, whales and sea lions. Our expedition saw us paddling from Puerto Escondido to Isla Danzante and Isla Carmen and around parts of the two islands and back. Our typical day started with breakfast, kayaking for two to three hours before arriving at beach for lunch, some exploration and , perhaps, snorkeling. Because of its pristine environment, the Sea of Cortez's coral gardens and fish could even be viewed, in some spots, right from our kayaks, so clear is the water. Rainbow wrasse, stone fish, trumpet fish and the multi-armed purple gulf sunstar, a starfish variety, were some of the natural wonders to be seen. Another bout of kayaking would follow for two hours or so before ewe would beach again, set up camp for the night, perhaps go exploring a sandy canyon have cocktails, dinner, chat, play games or observe the stars. Although we were all provided with tents, many of us preferred sleeping under the star-studded sky, cooled by the gentle sea breezes. Isla del Carmen, where we spent two nights camping at different spots, is a geologist's dream. This 120,000-year-old fossilized limestone island was once a living coral reef and we whiled away hours of pleasure roaming the shell-encrusted beaches and admiring the rocky formations offshore. One of us even found a small arrowhead, which was used probably by on of three tribes that had once settled here and must have been oh, centuries old, it was turned over to the museum in Loreto. Beyond the pebble beach of Ensenada de Marques, still on Carmen Island, we explored the various cactus species endemic in the Baja -barrel cactus, cardones (which looked like candelabra) cholla and galloping cactus, which can stick onto your clothes if you are not careful. The cardones are the world's largest cactus species, soaring to heights of some 10 meters. The Baja Peninsula was home to an astonishing 120 varieties of cactus alone. Another highlight of our expedition was seeing a massive fin whale swimming just a few meters from our campsite on Ensenada de Marques. We heard it long before we saw it. It was 6 am and there was heavy panting in the air-it was the fin whale breathing. We observed about half an hour. Although it did not breach, it surfaced several times to show us its dorsal fin as it glided by. We later say the same fin whale while kayaking in the open sea. Our other reward was seeing a pod of dolphins. Marine life, plants, geological formations…the Baja certainly surprised us with its diversity, and to think it is essentially a desert. But, then, that is the magic of the Baja.

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