Cruising With Whales Off Baja Clipper Cruises Take Passengers for Close Encounters by Larry and Gail Taylor

We had arrived in Mexico’s Magdalena Bay on the fourth day of our Clipper Cruise and were in our “panga” slowly approaching water spouts in the distance.
Soon we saw a massive object. Just under the surface, greenish in color. Our ship’s naturalist, stood at the prow, Capt. Ahab style, gazing intently at the water. “Thar she blows!” he shouted. “Get your cameras ready!”
Our little boat edged ever closer. Then, suddenly, a giant whale broke the surface, and, “whoosh,” it launched a plume of mist into the air. We could feel the drops on our faces. Closely following this mother whale was her new-born calf. Unbelievably, she came even closer, gently nudging our port side.
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“Touch them,” said the naturalist. “It’s OK. They like being petted.” To gain their attention, we splashed our hands in the water then reached out and stroked the two. Their skin felt like smooth, slightly spongy like a scuba diver’s wetsuit. The Mexican government permits these interactions if whales initialize the contact. Mother and baby seemed to want us to stay, but we left after several minutes in order for other boats to enjoy the experience.

This close encounter with whales was the big reason my wife and I had signed up for Clipper Cruise’s Baja and Sea of Cortez Whale Watching Expedition. We embarked on the Yorktown Clipper mid March from La Paz, Baja Mexico. For years, living in Southern California, we had watched whales along the Pacific shore, migrating between Alaska and Baja’s warm water and secluded bays, to mate and give birth.

Taking tourists to this area to observe these largest of all mammals has become big business. Thus, after reading about Clipper’s nine-day itinerary, we decided it was finally time to take the trip south. Clipper’s small ships have the advantage over large cruise lines, being able to come near the shore. (Yorktown Clipper is 257 feet long, 43 feet wide, with a draft of only 8.5 feet.) Another big advantage–the ship had several naturalists aboard who would be able to fill us in on the animals, plant life and geology of the region. Conde Nast recently selected Clipper as one of the world’s best in the small ship category. Altogether there are four ships in the line, traveling throughout the world, none of which carries more than 138 passengers. The company’s main appeal is to adventure travelers of all ages who want to explore unconventional areas. No musical shows or casinos on Clippers, but amenities abound–quality accommodations, good service and fine food.
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The first three days out of La Paz we cruised the east side of the Peninsula in the Sea of Cortez, sailing around Espiritu Santo Island and surrounding islets, all virtually uninhabited by humans and home to a wide variety of plants and animals. We were taken ashore in motorized landing crafts, nicknamed DIBS. Each held up to 16. Most beach landings were “wet.” We disembarked a few feet from shore wearing Tevas or carrying shoes.

During these excursions, passengers had the choice of taking organized walks, along secluded beaches or inland over sand dunes into rugged desert terrain. There were three types of hikes–easy, moderate and strenuous–all led by naturalists, who would stop at intervals and explain the environment. Of special interest in these rarely visited areas were the countless sea shells and the skeletal remains of animals–spiky balloon-like puffer fish, bleached bones of beached whales and seal lions.

My wife and I are avid snorkellrs; so we usually took the moderate hike which would leave plenty of time to the view the colorful tropical fish in the crystal clear lagoons. One species in particular stood out for us–the fantastically ugly devil scorpion fish, rarely encountered in the world’s major diving areas but in abundance here. We took a good look but were wary of touching these poisonous creatures.
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On the morning of our second day out, we got in the DIBS and cruised among the coves and crannies of Espiritu Santo to see the crowds of sea lions lounging on one another, overflowing the rocky outcrops. Above were flocks of sea birds nesting on ledges or swirling in the air. The naturalists worked hard filling us in on all we were seeing. To top off this excursion, on the way back to the ship, we were joined by dolphins cavorting in front of us.

After three days off La Paz, we headed to Cabo San Lucas , at which point our ship would turn north into the Pacific. At Cabo some passengers had a chance to go ashore to browse and shop in this bustling resort. Bird watchers and snorkelers took a shuttle bus a few miles to Playa Chileno. The snorkeling was good, and photographers got great photos of iguanas perched on top of cacti. In the afternoon, we left port and sailed slowly by Los Arcos, the famous arches that mark the tip of Baja. We thought it was good time to take a nap, but as soon as we dozed off, an announcement came from our cabin speaker, urging us to come up to the Observation Deck and see whales breaching off the bow. (We soon learned that if you wanted a snooze, turn off the speakers–seemed like there was something to come up and see every few minutes.) At this point, the sight of whales whetted our appetite for what we would see at Magadalena Bay next day.

While we were on deck to get the clearest view of these whales, it was getting chilly. One by one, the passengers opted to head inside to the Observation Lounge where the large picture windows provided an unobstructed view as well as protection from the wind. It also offered another way to warm up–the ship’s only bar was here at the aft end of the room.
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This large lounge was comfortable, too, your home away from cabin. Lined with sofas and small tables and chairs, it was a place you could begin your day with the early-risers continental breakfast, have a buffet lunch, enjoy the evening’s appetizers and attend background presentations on next day’s activities.

While many guests opted for the lounge’s comfort, we sometimes read and relaxed in our own cabin. While not large, it was plenty roomy with two twin beds, generous closet space and large picture window. Our desk/dresser held everything we brought, as well as the “stuff” we collected along the way.
The Yorktown may not be as elegant as large cruisers, but it was “first class” all the way, from before breakfast until bedtime. Meals were served in the dining room, down one deck. With picture windows open to the sea, we didn’t miss the nature show outside while enjoying our eggs benedict or blueberry pancakes for breakfast.

After our morning excursions, we were hungry again and had a choice of making a sandwich with soup at the lounge buffet or going down to lunch to choose from such as poached salmon or barbecued ribs one day to fish and chips or blackened chicken Cesar salad another.

For dinner, guests could choose from three items, one always vegetarian. Our favorite entrees were the macadamia nut encrusted rack of lamb and the four-cheese lasagna, followed by a Gran Marnier souffle. (Another thing—at 4:30 each day I had to get out of my wife’s way as she rushed to lounge to get a couple of yummy freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.) So that all of these treats didn’t turn us into “whales,” we often did laps around the Promenade Deck–18 to the mile. And, since we were so close to shore, we were never bored, always gazing at the changing panorama.

Gray whales are the most “streamlined” of Cetaceans with their long, narrow tapered head. The name comes from the gray patches and white mottling on its dark skin, caused by scratches, scattered patches of white barnacles and orange whale lice. The newborn calves are black by comparison. Adults average 46 feet long, weighing up to 40 tons. The calves weigh “only” around 1,500 lbs.
Grays are in the baleen class, mainly eating small crustaceans found in bottom sediments. This type has a series of fringed overlapping plates hanging from each side of the upper jaw, forming a sifting mechanism. They dive to the bottom, roll on their sides, drawing bottom sediments into their mouth. As they rise, water and debris are expelled through the baleen plates.

Much of the year Grays congregate in the north Pacific, but, beginning in October, they leave their feeding ground to make one of the longest migrations of all mammals, traveling some 14,000 miles south to Baja. Their journey takes about three months, and they remain in Mexico until February or March, nursing their calves in order for the babies to build up a thick layer of blubber to sustain them on their arduous journey north. All along the Pacific Coast whale-watching is a popular activity as the groups head home.

On our first morning out in Magadalena Bay, a lineup of pangas (small outboard motor boats) pulled up alongside our ship. Local boatmen would take six to eight of us in each out to the area where whales congregate. Reaching our destination, we saw a boat next to a pair. We were in luck and had encountered “friendlies.” The phenomenon of “friendlies,” as explained by our naturalist, entails a mother and calf who closely approach a small boat and allow themselves to be touched by humans. The two, mother and calf wanted to socialize a bit.
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When we rubbed their backs, they reacted like cats, rolling over to have their stomachs scratched. The mother, further, nudged the boat, as if to show off her sleek youngster at her side. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Other whales we encountered our two days out weren’t quite so friendly. They tolerated us as we followed them along, watching them dive down and re-emerge. Technically, whales aren’t feeding here but are living on blubber stored during summer feasting. Occasionally, however, they would go under water in the shallow bay, roll over on their side showing their flukes, finally coming up with a trail of mud sifting through their baleen. As the naturalist put it, “They were snacking.”