If we had just seen the two blue whales, it would’ve been enough. If we had just seen the pod of 200 dolphins, it would’ve been enough. If we had just seen the superpod of up to 2,000 dolphins, it would’ve been enough. The fact that we saw them all in the same afternoon cruising was way more than I was expecting. Welcome to an UnCruise Sea of Cortez cruise out of Baja, Mexico.
I have previously written about UnCruise, a small ship cruise line focusing on active adventure travel. This is a cruise ship with less than 100 passengers, where there are no formal dress nights and no napkin folding demonstrations. Instead, there is kayaking, snorkeling, stand-up paddleboarding, and hiking. We so enjoyed our cruise in southern Alaska so much that we put down money on another cruise out of Baja, Mexico to the Sea of Cortez.
Jack Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez the aquarium of the world because of its rich and abundant sea life. Others have called it the Galapagos of the north.
Sea of Cortez
Set against the stark desert landscape of the Baja are the dark blue deep and cold waters of the Sea of Cortez. Because these waters are colder than you would expect (because of the depth), they are teaming with life. This attracts not just fish but dolphins, sea lions, and whales. We took this cruise in February because we wanted to see whales. Specifically, we wanted to see mother and baby whales.
The cruise starts out of San Jose Del Cabo at the tip of the Baja Peninsula. We boarded a bus for a 3 Hour Dr. to La Paz. The ship used to sail from San Jose Del Cabo to La Paz, but those can be rougher waters than the protected waters of the Sea of Cortez. The bus ride was much more enjoyable. Even on the bus ride to La Paz, we were able to spot the spouts of gray whales off the coast of Baja in the Pacific.
We arrived at our boat, the Safari Endeavor, in time to stow our luggage and go to dinner. The Safari Endeavor has just one dining room and usually around three options for any given meal. One option was typically fish, and one was always vegetarian. Before the evening meal, there is usually a cocktail hour where information is disseminated about the next day’s activities. The cocktail hour happens in the lounge, with its bar, which is not only included but always staffed during waking hours.
The rhythm of the week was that the ship would find some secluded island or cove, and the crew would set up a beach camp with kayaks, standup paddleboards, and refreshments. The night before, guests would sign up for activities such as an open kayak time, a guided kayak, a walk, a hike, a guided snorkel, or a skiff ride.
On Sunday, we were issued our wet suits in the morning. We did some snorkeling in the afternoon from the beach at Playa Bonanza and were glad for the wet suits. The water is quite cold, and submerging for the first time took your breath away, but after swimming for a bit, I found that I warmed up.
Bahía Agua Verde
Monday, we stopped at Bahía Agua Verde, where one of the local ranchers met us with a pack of mules. He had traveled a day’s ride from his ranch to rendezvous with the ship. We hopped on a mule and took a ride up and over the hills on the coast into the interior. Our mules seemed to have a pecking order known only to them. My mule immediately decided that it would be right behind our guide, so it took off at the start and kept that position for the duration of the ride.
In the afternoon, we took a guided kayak paddle with Merrith to explore the bay. It was not a large bay, but the same bay that feels small when you are on an inflatable raft with an outboard motor feels larger when you are doing the paddling.
At Los Gatos, in addition to the beach time, there was an opportunity to do an exploratory desert hike. “Exploratory” in the sense that there was no specific trail nor specific destination. We followed Mark from the ship’s excursion crew out into the desert. We were dropped off at one beach in the ships in an inflatable Seneca raft. Our plan was to eventually make it to the beach where the bar was set up. We followed a dirt road up from the inlet where we landed and then cut cross-country into the desert and up to one of the nearby mesas with a view of the surrounding countryside. We hiked down one of the arroyos and up over a sand dune until we found our way back to the beach. The less adventurous took a beach walk.
The itinerary of the ship is not the same from week to week because as the wind changes, the ship may anchor in one bay vs. another or on the mainland vs. out on an island. The plans can even change hour by hour as the wind picks up or dies down.
Cruising for Critters
That afternoon we went cruising, looking for wildlife which is the other factor that is unpredictable. Certainly, no one would have predicted the unusual day we had. First, it was spotting two blue whales. Blue whales are not uncommon in these waters, but the crew told us they usually see them for a couple of minutes, and then they are gone. These two whales fed along the surface of the water for about half an hour as we sailed nearby. They swam on one side, which meant that it looked like they were waving at the boat with one fin out of the water.
When our new blue whale friends finally dove for deep waters, the spotters on the bridge saw a lot of bird activity on the surface of the water and had the captain steer towards it. A big flock of birds can be a sign of a bait ball, a big bunch of fish that have been herded together by a pod of dolphins. Sure enough, we soon found ourselves in a pod of 200 dolphins. There were dolphins jumping everywhere and numerous dolphins riding in our wake, as we could see on the bow cameras shown on one of the ship’s TV channels.
200 dolphins are a lot of dolphins, but it was not until later when we found ourselves in a superpod of 2,000 dolphins spread out to the horizon, that the crew kept saying what an unusually special day we were having. Just to make things more perfect, the sun was setting, so we had a beautiful sunset silhouetting dolphins frolicking in the waters around the boat. It was amazing.
On Wednesday, we went to see the baby whales and their mothers at Magdalena Bay which is over on the Pacific side of the peninsula. This was the excursion that justified the whole trip. We rode a couple of hours across to the Pacific, stopping for one potty stop, which was also the only taste of wi-fi and internet that I had the entire trip. At Magdalena Bay, we got in small boats called pongas with local drivers and set out in search of whales. The bay is very long and narrow, so really it seems like it would be impossible to miss the whales.
About half of the boats had a close encounter with one particular mother and calf that came right up to their boat to be petted. The rest of us had to be content with being 10 feet away from grey whales. I was content.
The next day at Los Islotes, our wildlife encounter was in the water. Many of us chose the snorkel excursion near a rock where sea lions hang out. You keep your distance from the sea lions, but they don’t have to follow the same rules. Especially for the first group of the day, they had a number of snout to mask encounters with sea lion pups. Before we got in the water, we had some safety instructions.
We had to keep an eye on the male adult sea lions. Should they get territorial, we would need to back off in a hurry. They also told us that sea lion pups like to chew on things like a puppy, so try and keep your hands closer to your body, so they don’t look like chew toys. We managed to come back with the same number of fingers that we started our swim which I counted as a success.
Isle San Francisco
In the afternoon, I went on one of the most ambitious exploratory hikes of the trip at Isle San Francisco. We hiked to the top of the island with great views of the crescent-shaped beaches below. It was a workout but gave you a great sense of accomplishment.
And then, before we knew it, our week-long adventure was over. We loved our trip on the Safari Endeavor in Baja as much or more as we did our week in Alaska. The crew was still amazing. The cabins are spartan, and there is no waterslide or spa on the boat (although they did offer everyone an included massage). The food was great, but it is really the wildlife and the scenery that will make this trip one to remember for years to come.
- Hear more about the trip Travel to Baja Sur and the Sea of Cortez in Mexico – Episode 560
- More stories, videos, and podcasts about UnCruise
- Photos of our cruise taken by me
- Photos of our cruise taken by our guides
Cabo San Lucas
This Uncruise cruise starts and ends in Cabo San Lucas, where you will board a bus for the ship. You should consider adding a few days to your trip to enjoy the city and the area before or after your trip. Cabo has easy connections via air.