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A whale of a time


Sue Bryant joins an expedition to Mexico's remote Sea of Cortez, dubbed the 'Galapagos of the Americas'

Bottlenosed dolphins were riding our bow wave at dawn. The sun was still below the horizon and the mountains of the distant Baja peninsula were etched in salmon pink. The light and the water glowed a soft grey as we gathered on deck to watch the shadowy figures, chasing us, surfing in front of us, arching gracefully out of the water, calling to one another.


Nature is at its purest in the Sea of Cortez, accurately and thrillingly described by underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau as 'the world's aquarium'. My dawn dolphin-watch quickly became a regular activity, clutching a steaming cup of tea on the foredeck, waiting for the first sighting of a dorsal fin breaking the water.


We'd slipped away from La Paz, at the southern end of the long finger of the 800-mile Baja peninsula, in darkness, kissing goodbye to civilisation and a mobile phone signal for a week-long adventure exploring a sea of metallic blue, the horizon studded with spiky green cacti against a backdrop of purple mountains. Un-Cruise Adventures' Safari Endeavour was our home, a comfortable little expedition ship carrying 86 (although there were only 50 on my voyage). Over the next seven days, we had only one another for company; apart from a couple of fishing boats and a handful of private yachts, the vast sea was ours alone.


There's only a very loose itinerary for this expedition; we simply dropped anchor every day in sheltered spots where the wildlife was known to be prolific, or the scenery spectacular. Each day was different, whether it brought snorkelling, kayaking or a hike, the latter made all the more exciting by the fact that it had rained recently – a rare event – and the whole desert was in bloom, the shrubs lush and dense, mauve flowers carpeting the rocky ground, yellow butterflies flitting between the towering cacti.


'The world's aquarium' quickly obliged with the wildlife sightings and highlights came thick and fast, from spotting a blue whale to sailing right through a pod of hundreds of dolphins. One day, we drove across the desert to Magdalena Bay on the Pacific coast, where we took a fishing boat across a mirror-calm lagoon to see grey whales and their calves at close-up range. The friendly mothers would push the calves, each one already the size of a small car, right up to the boat so we could reach out and tickle them, an experience that turned even the most sombre adults into delighted, enchanted kids.


There was an air of anticipation as Safari Endeavour arrived at Agua Verde, a beautiful bay with sheer cliffs falling into an aquamarine sea. There had been some debate as to whether Alejo would arrive with his burros; he's the local supplier of mules and donkeys but has no phone so may or may not turn up when the boat is in. But sure enough, a real ranchero, complete with leather chaps and silver spurs, came slowly down the cliff path, towing a clattering string of burros, which we rode over the saddle of a hill to a sweeping, wooded plain, fringed by jagged mountains, a wonderful chance to see the countryside beyond the coast.


taking the plunge


On another occasion, I took a solo kayak from the ship to the water's edge, paddling along the bottom of the cliff face, venturing into damp, green caves, spotting pelicans and kingfishers, scattering hundreds of scarlet crabs with my approach. The luxury of having a place to yourself is something you can get used to quickly.


There's an air of pampering about Safari Endeavour. Although Baja is a pretty adventurous choice of holiday destination, the expedition itself is not exactly hard core, what with the open bar, the excellent food (which often came with a Mexican twist) and the free massages that are offered to every guest. One day, after a particularly tough hike, we arrived back on board to find Jen, the ever-thoughtful bartender, serving iced raspberry vodkas on the aft deck. On another occasion, after dinner, the crew set up a bonfire on the beach, around which we sat, gazing at the Milky Way and sipping hot chocolate laced with rum and cinnamon.


Saving the best till last is always a good plan and at the rocky outcrop of Los Islotes, the sea was calm enough for us to swim with wild Californian sea lions. I felt more than a little nervous as we approached the vast colony, all barking and splashing around in the water, especially as about 20 juveniles dived in with glee and came to greet us. We slid gingerly into the water and they dashed at us, twisting and wheeling, nudging at our masks, nipping, jumping on our backs and begging us to play. It was like being assaulted by a pack of large, boisterous, naughty puppies. On the way back, we compared bite marks with pride, chattering like lunatics, giggly and high on adrenaline.


Later that day, I was lounging in the hot tub, gazing idly at the horizon as another fiery Baja sunset began to spread across the western sky, when a manta ray flipped out of the water like a pancake, landing with a resounding slap. I sipped my gin and tonic and reflected that this 'Galapagos of the Americas' really is one of the last paradises on Earth for its beauty, its solitude and the extraordinary abundance of life. It changes people who come here and it stills the soul. As John Steinbeck, another great explorer and writer, says in his classic The Log from the Sea of Cortez: "Whatever it is that makes one aware that men are about is not there. Thus, in spite of the noises of waves and fishes, one has a feeling of… quietness."


The author travelled with American-owned Un-Cruise Adventures on the expedition ship Safari Endeavour (next season, from December, the itinerary will be operated by Safari Voyager). In the UK, book flight-inclusive packages through Mundy Adventures, tel. 020 7399 7630 /


Wildlife specialist Naturetrek also offers fully-escorted small-ship holidays in the Sea of Cortez, travelling with a maximum of 26 and following a similar itinerary. Tel. 01962 733015 /

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