"I've guided 50 trips to the Baja," says naturalist Allan Morgan, "and I've never seen anything to approach it."
Just minutes after seeing a whale feeding off a school of pelagic crabs so dense that the water burned vermilion, Morgan called out another sighting as five dolphins swam near the boat's bow.
Without warning, hundreds of dolphins appeared. The sea churned with their hurtling forms as they crisscrossed the ship's path as if in a precision drill.
The captain cut the motors and headed into the low sun. We drifted among the dolphins, watching some perform midair twirls directly below the rail. Finally, they lost interest in our inert hull and turned north.
sh Day Turns to Dusk
That was the sighting of a lifetime, but the finale was yet to come. Before our goose bumps had disappeared, the sun edged toward the horizon and vanished into the fabled green flash--a fireworks ending to the afternoon.
Not every day along Baja California's coast is as eventful; some, in fact, border on boring.
The Special Expeditions voyage I took last January was weeks before the migration of the gray whales. As a result, hours that ideally would have been filled watching spoutings and breachings were spent with books and cards.
Lagoons that should have seethed with the antics of newborn whales were placid; despite hours of patient scanning by our naturalists, we saw only a few whales in 11 days.
Migrating grays follow the continent's western shore 6,000 miles to birthing lagoons.
Close views are possible on day trips that leave from many Southern California piers (two hours of whale watching for about $10) and on full-fledged, naturalist-led voyages, including those offered by H&M; Landing, San Diego Natural History Museum and Special Expeditions.
As we worked our way south from San Diego, the disappointment that most felt at missing the whales mellowed along with the weather. Frequent shore excursions fine-tuned our exploratory senses.
We began to learn the names of the shells on the beaches and of the sea birds dive-bombing into the surf. Even dunes told a story, as we discovered the snake and coyote tracks outlined in fine sand.
sh Sky and Coast
Imperceptibly, our interest broadened to include not just whales but the world of the sea, sky and coast, and we became open to the wilderness experiences of this time-forgotten peninsula.
The subtle transformation in our attitude can be credited to the botanists, birders and other naturalists on board as part of every Special Expeditions voyage.
Our six specialists gave instant identifications, watched for sea mammals, led shore expeditions and piloted the inflatables that took us to land. Optional predawn sightings of the Southern Cross and night seas radiant from bioluminescence called for overtime.
The relatively small craft (largest is Special Expeditions' 80-passenger Polaris) used for whale-watching excursions prove ideal for this rugged peninsula, only 5% of which is accessible by road.
While ocean liners warily skirt narrow channels and rocky islets, more nimble vessels nose within yards of Friar's Rocks at Land's End and close enough to deserted Los Islotes to count whiskers on 9-month-old seal pups. Once anchored, passengers ferry ashore in Zodiacs. In the birthing lagoons, the inflatables provide eyeball-to-eyeball encounters with newborns.
Special Expeditions voyages this winter will be aboard the Polaris, a 238-foot ocean-sailing vessel with a lounge, library, shop, sauna, hair salon and a dining room that accommodates passengers in unassigned seating.
If the cook performs as he did last year, expect outstanding food, including platters of fresh abalone and shrimp from Baja fishing camps. While the Polaris is far more luxurious than other ships searching out the whales, its larger size also keeps it a little farther offshore.
sh Seasoned Travelers
Passengers choosing Special Expeditions have a median age near 60 and are inveterate travelers armed with binoculars, camera and T-shirts from previous trips.
For most, the unparalleled natural aquarium of Baja represents one of the final frontiers, and the sight of a 40-ton whale breaking water like a salmon meets their expectations.
Our first stop, after sailing about 24 hours south from San Diego, was Isla Guadalupe, home to fur seals and northern elephant seals. From that point the only constant in the daily routine was the wildlife focus.
Often, such as when we pulled lawn chairs around a bonfire for a starlit steak barbecue that topped off an afternoon of hiking, we felt more like campers than cruise passengers.
The third day, frisky sea lions escorted our landing party to a rocky beach of San Benitos, shared with a ramshackle fishing camp. A two-minute walk led to a promontory where we looked down on half a dozen sunbathing elephant seals. Considering that early whalers had reduced their numbers to fewer than a dozen, we were witnessing the outcome of a tremendous conservation victory.
Botanist Dennis Cornejo led us across the island, keeping an eye out for ospreys perched on the six-foot agave stems.
"Watch out for the jumping cholla," Cornejo called. "It attacks wayward ankles."
Sure enough, it did. We learned to pry the ferocious spiny balls from tennis shoes and jeans. A deserted lighthouse marked the end of the trail; below it, another beach with dozens of the several-ton seals.
When we left San Benitos later that afternoon we carried a crate of fresh abalone, traded by the grizzled fishermen for a few dozen sodas and beer.
sh Different Birds
Along the Hull Canal, hummocks of barren dunes gave way to tangles of mangrove pressing close on each side; birders held guidebooks in one hand, binoculars in the other, chalking up 45 positive identifications, not including two coyotes.
Ospreys watched us from perches, pelicans fished, and caracaras brooded from stalks of towering cactus.
The name Bahia de Ballenas (Bay of Whales) says it all. Baja's warm, shallow lagoons are where 15,000 grays gather to calve and mate, returning to the lagoon of their birth. First to arrive, usually in mid-January, are the pregnant females.
By April, calves are strong enough to swim north alongside their moms to the Bering and Chukchi seas.
Naturalist Peter Puleston says: "If the whales are here in good numbers, they're the most incredible wildlife experience a person can have." Passengers tell of petting the babies and of lagoons seething with the spoutings and churnings of mating pairs.
San Diego's Natural History Museum trip schedules three days in the lagoons. H&M; Landing, with its smaller boats, has also secured permission to enter these wildlife sanctuaries with its boats.
"We like to take you to places where no one else goes," says Special Expeditions' Capt. Ralph Lutz. The uninhabited islands and bays that appeared on the daily log were indeed remote: Cedros Island, with its thousands of sea lions; San Ignacio Lagoon, where sea shells abound; Isla Magdalena, with its netherworldly dunes; Santa Catalina, with cactus forests climbing its steep arroyos.
Baja California, despite the growing glitz of Cabo, still drowses in its own golden world. For a few days, that world was ours.
Three itineraries are available on Special Expeditions' Baja voyages, Dec. 28 through a final March 5 departure. All prices include one-way air fare between Los Angeles and La Paz or Cabo San Lucas.
The eight-day voyages explore Baja's Pacific coast with five stops; trips begin at $2,100. Eleven-day voyages sail the Pacific Coast and the Sea of Cortez; fares start at $2,500. The 15-day trips offer more calls and emphasize the Sea of Cortez's northern islands. Fares start at $3,850. Special Expeditions, 720 Fifth Ave., New York 10019; (800) 762-0003.
H&M; Landing, phone (619) 222-1144, offers 7-, 8-, 9- and 11-day trips from San Diego, costing $890 to $1,650. The 11-day voyages are aboard an 88-foot vessel carrying 30 passengers, one naturalist and an assistant. Information: (619) 222-1144.
The San Diego Natural History Museum, (619) 232-3821, offers a nine-day excursion March 4 to 12 for 28 people. The $1,025 fare includes three days in San Ignacio lagoon observing the birth of gray whales.
Mid-January through mid-March are prime for whale watching. The passage is far smoother for those traveling south from San Diego; heading north, as every other Special Expeditions trip does, can be choppy.
You won't need many changes of clothing. You'll need sturdy walking shoes, sandals, long pants, shorts, shirts and sweat shirts, a swimsuit, hat and a windbreaker. A couple of casual dinner outfits, sun screen and film completes the list.