Yacht safari and a swim with sea lions

Special to The Times

The third day into an American Safari cruise in the Gulf of California, expedition leader and naturalist Heather Peterson said, "Tomorrow we will snorkel with the sea lions."

Many of us had learned how to snorkel only the day before, when we donned wetsuits, snorkeling masks and flippers. Even novices joined in. Capt. Rod Dufour encouraged us to hang onto a surf board to build confidence, but soon we were off on our own, trying not to open our mouths and say, "Wow!" as we floated with schools of blue, red and yellow fish among the coral.

A cruise with American Safari Cruises in the Gulf of California, between the Baja Peninsula and the Mexican mainland, is an unusual experience: part small-ship cruise, part sea safari and almost always an adventure.

My cruise last February began with a flight to Los Cabos. We joined our yacht in La Paz. Although the boat can accommodate 22 guests, we were 17.

There are four cabins on the upper deck ($5,795 per person, double occupancy), two on the main deck ($4,795) and five on the lower deck ($3,795). Those on the upper deck have large windows; those on the lower have "port lights," small windows near the ceiling that let in light but offer no views. The lower cabins are near the engine, but the boat anchors at night and is quiet.

Most on-board activities take place in the main lounge, which has banquettes and armchairs. It can get busy because drinks are included in the cruise price. The dining room, which has large windows, is forward of the bar and has three round tables seating six or seven.

Outside are a fore deck and a top deck with a hot tub.

After our first snorkeling lesson and an afternoon of beachcombing, we were ready for a hearty dinner, a choice of chicken Dijonnaise or red snapper in a pecan crust. Meals throughout the week were inventive and delicious.

A breakfast of hot cakes or eggs led off the second day, then two-person kayaks were lowered to the sea and moored to the aft loading platform. We clambered in and set off to explore a cove on Isla Partida, bound by tall sandstone cliffs, weather-worn into caves and caverns.

Peterson led us on a hike up the canyon pointing out cactuses -- cardon, galloping and pear -- as she explained the history and geology of the area.

Early the next morning, we anchored at a cove on the islet of Los Islotes, below its rocky, guano-covered cliffs.

The air was filled with the sound of barking sea lions, and we ran forward on deck and saw hundreds of them lounging on the rocks. As the snorkelers floated near the cliffs, the sea lions dived in and swam among them at times, nudging or coming up close to look into their face masks. This was the highlight of the cruise.

As we sailed north, someone spied dolphins, and we lined the rail for an hour, watching them dive under the bow, leap and play. Then we anchored off Isla San Jose for an afternoon of swimming, kayaking and hiking along a broad sandy beach filled with colorful shells.

In the afternoon, we cruised to Isla San Jose, where we hiked in a forest of cardon.

On our final morning we moved to Bahia Agua Verde, where we met Alejo Romero, who had burros for us to ride.

Usually the Safari Quest sails north to Loreto before returning to La Paz, but the weather and the chance to see some whales changed our plan.

We saw several humpback and fin whales, more dolphins and, most exciting of all, a giant blue whale, one of the largest mammals on Earth.

Gulf of California cruises are offered December through April. For more information, call American Safari Cruises, (888) 862-8881, www.amsafari.com.

Harry Basch travels as a guest of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears once a month.

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