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Sampling Baja

Roughing it on the Sea of Cortez, like a naturist, an explorer, an admirer

The author's room on the Sea Bird was about 6 feet above the water. On this day, the view was of Isla Santa Catalina.
The author's room on the Sea Bird was about 6 feet above the water. On this day, the view was of Isla Santa Catalina. (Jonathan Levitt for the Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / January 20, 2008

LA PAZ - Just after sunset we board the ship in this sleepy southeastern Baja port town, a mecca for pearling in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries until an unknown disease wiped out the wild oysters.

The plan is to sail on the 60-passenger Sea Bird for six days and seven nights through the Sea of Cortez, the long, narrow, dangerous, island-studded piece of water between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico.

We cast off immediately, drink free margaritas in the lounge, and then sit down to halibut and lots of white wine in the dining room. After dinner I lie in bed craving fish tacos and watching out the window as we sail north through the night to Isla Santa Catalina.

In his 1951 classic, "The Log From the Sea of Cortez," John Steinbeck noted that "one thing had impressed us deeply on this lit- tle voyage: the great world dropped away very quickly." Not much has changed since Steinbeck was here. This place is remote. Lindblad Expeditions has been leading trips around the world since 1979 and in Baja for more than 20 years. In 2004 they joined forces with National Geographic. This is the first Baja trip of the season - before the migration of the friendly gray whales and after the storms of summer.

Lindblad does not offer the opulent ocean-liner experience. It's less like the Love Boat and more like "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." There are no hot tubs or on-deck swimming pools, no ice sculptures on the buffet table, and no extravagant after-dinner entertainment. It is luxury enough just to be in this place.

On the boat

The Sea Bird is a 154-foot steel-hulled monster built on Whidbey Island, Wash., in the early 1980s. The crew sleeps in the windowless hull, the guests on three levels, with the larger and more expensive rooms higher up.

My tiny room is on the starboard side of the boat with a large picture window about 6 feet off the surface of the water. In front of the window are two very small beds with pilly but soft white sheets and wool comforters. There is a brass bedside lamp to read by and two photos on the wall, one of a sea turtle swimming, the other of frigate birds swooping around at dusk. The head has a brown toilet, a sink, and a hand-held shower with plenty of pressure and endless hot water. The floor is drained and has a bamboo platform to stand on. Biodegradable products from Kiss My Face and Tom's of Maine are provided. Seawater is filtered through the pipes and spooky green phosphorescence shines when you flush the toilet.

Although the purpose of the trip is to sightsee and perhaps raise awareness for the sea's fragile marine ecosystem, Lindblad treats the guests as though they were serious scientists and approaches the itinerary as if it were an important expedition. The goal is simple. We are here to see as much of this place as possible: plants, animals, rock formations. We are made to feel like brave explorers risking our lives to see Baja and bring back stories of its beauty and riches.

Day 1

The sea is wild and black with nothing but whitecaps all the way to the far horizon. After breakfast we anchor near Isla Santa Catalina, its layered volcanic tooth-shaped mountains gone green from the rain.

The sun comes up and there are rainbows everywhere. Fishermen in yellow raincoats appear from out of nowhere and head toward the shore bouncing up and over the waves in their long open skiff.

Lindblad maintains a fleet of chic 17-foot-long Mark V black Zodiacs, each with a four-stroke 50-horsepower Yamaha outboard, to ferry from the boat to shore. They are lowered by a crane from the top deck, packed with passengers from the stern of the ship, and are able to land anywhere, all the while providing a cushy, bouncy ball of a ride.

We load up and bob along the surf to the rocky beach. At the high tide line there are pelican skulls, porcupine fish, and shark teeth. In the air are red-tailed hawks, ravens, and blue-footed boobies. On the blossoms and stumps are hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and mockingbirds. Mice and bats and ring-tailed cats are the only mammals on the island.

Day 2

In late November I booked my trip on short notice knowing that I had to be back before New Year's. I knew that we would be eating on the boat (no fish tacos on the beach), and I knew that rough seas were to be expected and that it would probably be too early to see the charismatic whales and whale sharks of the later season. Sitting in my house in Maine, looking out at the cold and snow, Baja sounded good, no matter what. Now I'm nervous. No whales? No fish tacos?

We land on Isla San Marcos in the calm and sunny early morning and walk up a narrow arroyo past jojoba trees and Cardon cacti, the largest cactus in Baja. The Seri, the indigenous people of the northern part of the Sea of Cortez, harvested the fruit for pulp in the early summer and buried the placentas of newborns at the base of the plants.

Among the guests there is a young ear, nose, and throat resident who looks like Jimmy Kimmel and a rock 'n' roll blonde from Reno. Most of the passengers are older, and sweet, and as hardy as they come. If you were guessing, you would say the men are retired lawyers and doctors and academics and the women former teachers and nurses and children's book illustrators and you would be right. Everyone wears plenty of sunscreen.

The naturalists, wonderful science nerds with bright eyes and weathered faces, are armed with walkie-talkies, binoculars, and cameras to capture every blossom, every butterfly, every bird. The men have short beards and the women long hair with bangs. The joke about naturalists is that you can spot them because their binoculars cost more than their cars.

A nap after lunch and I wake up to a giant pod of long-beaked common dolphins swimming alongside the boat and surfing on the bow wake. Their perfectly round blowholes open and close as if winking and they swim swiftly.

We all go ashore to the town of Santa Rosalia, an old French copper mining town, now a place for squid fishing and itchy dogs. An old man in a cowboy hat sells crispy cinnamon and sugar churros. There are bad cars, seabirds perched on fishing boats, vultures in the palm trees, potted plants, and noisy parakeets.

As we leave town the word that squid are running fills the streets.

At dark the fishermen board their battered wooden pongas to hurry out of the harbor. After dinner we stand on the boat deck watching as thousands of 5-foot-long Humboldt squid dart about feeding in the Sea Bird's bow lights.

And off in the distance the fishermen with their lighted hand-lines and rubber raincoats silently fish, pulling the squid, flashing red and white, ink and all, from the depths. I fall asleep to the twinkling of squid lanterns and city lights.

Day 3

On glassy water we cruise in Zodiacs along the shore of Isla Ildefonso where the cormorants, blue-footed boobies, brown boobies, oystercatchers, and pelicans with their belly-flop dives and yellow wigs let loose on the rocks until the whole island appears to be dusted with snow.

The Seri used pelican hides for kilts (feathers inside) and robes (feathers outside). In the afternoon a pod of bottlenose dolphins play in the wake of the bow. They are rubbery gray and smiling and much bigger than the common dolphins.

On Bahia San Basilio there is a dome of stars. The crew makes a campfire of mesquite and driftwood. The cooks grill tuna and serve up cold Tecate beer, which everyone guzzles, and s'mores, but nobody wants any.

Riding back to the ship in the dark is like being ferried to Hades.

Day 4

The morning is very calm and sunny - perfect for sunburning on the top deck.

In the 17th century salt pans were discovered on the northeast corner of Isla Carmen and the pure sea salt was shipped as far as Alaska to preserve sea otter pelts. The pans were abandoned in the early 1980s. A ghost church and ghost sheds remain and a glass-windowed, big-screen-televisioned, generator-powered hacienda is rented out to hunters of the desert bighorn sheep. The sheep were introduced to the island in the mid 1990s and are now one of the most expensive trophy animals in the world: about $100,000 for a hunting permit. The island's caretakers are old and crusty, and they have a big shaggy dog and a big smooth dog. They catch grouper in the cove for dinner and cook it over driftwood in a rusty oil drum.

Day 5

We anchor in a half moon bay on the southern coast of Isla San Francisco. On the rocks sally lightfoot crabs are the brightest red and startlingly fast. The residents of nearby Isla Coyote, three generations of subsistence fishermen, travel to Isla San Francisco to harvest salt from the deep beds and bring it home to cure the dorado and grouper they catch.

Day 6

We attempt to anchor near Los Islotes for snorkeling with California sea lions, but it's too rough so we hike instead, then park in the most sheltered cove around for our last night on the ship.

Off the boat

In the morning we pull into La Paz, say our goodbyes to the crew, and board the slick Lindblad Scania bus for the harrowing three-hour ride over the mountains and along the coast down to the airport in Cabo San Lucas.

Seven days in Baja and my only taste of local food had been a few bites of crispy churros in Santa Rosalia. So, with eight hours to kill before my flight back to Los Angeles I hop in a cab to get fish tacos at Taqueria Rossy, a roadside place just outside of San Jose del Cabo, a distinguished old uncle to the wild child niece that is Cabo San Lucas. The fish was battered and fried crispy golden brown. The soft tortillas were handmade of corn flour and the fixings bar was loaded with fresh guacamole, crema, pico de gallo, roasted chiles, shredded cabbage, and local salsas.

Fish tacos, but no whales.

Jonathan Levitt, a freelance writer in Maine, can be reached at jon.levitt@gmail.com.

If You Go

Lindblad Expeditions
expeditions.com
1-800-EXPEDITION (1-800-397-3348)
The season for Baja California cruises is December through July. Rates start at about $2,500 per person and go up to about $5,000 per person, depending on the length and dates of the trip.

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