Cloud Ridge Naturalists
spacer Baja California and The Sea of Cortez

Blue-footed boobies (MH)


February 17-29, 2016
13 Days/12 Nights

Audrey Benedict, Dr. Geoff Hammerson, Wendy Shattil & Bob Rozinski, Carlos Gajon Bermúdez & the M/V Westward’s Crew

Standing on the Westward’s foredeck, we see a cloudless arc of sky and a jagged spine of cactus clad mountains towering above turquoise-hued water. Rising mirage-like out of the Pacific Ocean, Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula stretches south as a slender 800-mile-long cul-de- sac of the Sonoran Desert. Along its austere eastern shoreline, the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) separates the Baja peninsula from the rest of mainland Mexico. From Baja’s western coast, the Pacific Ocean stretches across one-third of the globe’s circumference before reaching the shores of another continent.

The sense that Baja California seems a world apart reflects its remarkable plate tectonic history and its biological setting. Baja California sits atop the oceanic Pacific Plate while mainland Mexico is situated on the continental North American Plate. Deep-seated plate movements along the southern trajectory of the great San Andreas Fault caused the peninsula to begin rifting northwest in relation to mainland Mexico about 25 million years ago.

Gray whale (MH)

By 5 million years ago, the Pacific Ocean had flowed into the gulf-like breach between the plates, ultimately creating the Sea of Cortez. Episodes of intense volcanism along the peninsula’s mountainous spine and the resulting uplift of its eastern flanks produced the spectacular scenery we see today and triggered the region’s climatic transformation.

Tethered to the North American mainland by a narrow land bridge and surrounded by Pacific waters on three sides, Baja California is a treasure trove of biodiversity. With the evolutionary stage set by a million years of virtual isolation, the Sea of Cortez’s 44 major islands and 900 smaller islands host the largest number of endemic plant and animal species in North America. Of the 695 species of island-dwelling vascular plants, 20 genera are endemic. These islands are also among the world’s richest in terms of reptile diversity, with at least 50 endemic species.

The late Jacques Cousteau, ocean explorer and renowned conservationist, described the Sea of Cortez as “the aquarium of the world.” Of the 891 species of fish that occur in these waters, 90 are endemics. The region also contains 39% of the world’s total number of marine mammal species and one-third of the world’s cetacean species. In fact, many biologists refer to the Sea of Cortez and its islands as the “Mexican Galapagos.” In 2005, with tourism pressures, overfishing, and other environmental threats taking a drastic toll, UNESCO and the Mexican government designated much of the Sea of Cortez and nearly 50% of Baja California Sur as a World Heritage Site.

Legendary marine biologist Ed Ricketts is known for his pioneering studies of marine ecology along the Pacific coastline of North America. His book Between Pacific Tides, first published in 1939 and now in its fifth edition, remains the classic reference for the Pacific intertidal zone for students and scientists alike. In the spring of 1940, Ed Ricketts and his ocean-loving friend, novelist John Steinbeck, embarked on a 4,000- mile expedition aboard the Western Flyer, a sturdy 76-foot purse seiner. The voyage would take them from California’s Monterey Bay south around Baja California to the Sea of Cortez. Both men shared a profound curiosity and passion for understanding the marine world. They also believed that their 6-week collecting trip in the Sea of Cortez would open a window as wide and horizonless as Charles Darwin had aboard the Beagle. Their expedition resulted in two books— Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941), which included Ricketts’ collection catalog, and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951), the shorter version Steinbeck published following Ricketts’ tragic death in 1948. Steinbeck often described their expedition as “bright with sun and wet with sea water.” We follow in their wake ...

Our expedition to Baja California begins in Loreto, a picturesque town located on Baja’s eastern shore. We’ll travel by van along this beautiful coastline and then across the peninsula’s jagged spine to Laguna San Ignacio, one of the three lagoons on Baja’s west coast where gray whales gather in large numbers to give birth and breed. From our safari-style tented camp, our guides will take us in small open pangas to spend an unforgettable morning and afternoon drifting quietly in the lagoon in the midst of gray whale mothers and their calves. The experience is truly magical because the whales seem to be as curious about us as we are of them and may bring their calves right up to the boats. Imagine what it will be like to fall asleep listening to the breath sounds of hundreds of sleeping whales echoing across the star-lit water.

With memories of gray whales tucked away in our hearts and minds, we return to Loreto and begin our voyage in the Sea of Cortez. Westward’s naturalist, kayak and snorkeling guide is Carlos Gajon, a La Paz native, whose knowledge of the region’s human history and its remarkable ecosystems is legendary! He joins our naturalist team at the helm for this spectacular adventure. After being welcomed aboard by Capt. Bill Bailey and the Westward’s crew we’ll get underway for Isla Danzante. From the bow, we’ll watch for red-billed tropicbirds and elegant terns swooping over the water and brown pelicans fishing the shallows. Traveling south, with The Log from the Sea of Cortez in hand, we’ll visit several of the island and peninsula collection sites made famous by the pioneering Ricketts- Steinbeck expedition 75 years ago. On trips ashore, we’ll explore the Sonoran desert world and search for some of the endemic plant and animal species that inhabit these islands. On some islands, giant cardón cacti tower over a prickly understory of shrubs, providing welcome shade for a giant chuckwalla or a delicate gecko. Desert birding should treat us to good looks at pyrrhuloxia, white-winged doves, Gila woodpeckers, or the endemic Xantu’s hummingbird.

Back aboard, drifting quietly through the nutrientrich waters of the blue triangle, we’ll hope to spot blue and sperm whales as they congregate to feed on the bounty of plankton and squid. We’ll learn how El Niño and La Niña cycles in the Pacific influence the abundance of marine life and drive the storm systems that deliver nurturing moisture to the Baja peninsula and to the islands. Continuing south toward Isla San Jose, we’ll have all eyes watching for black and least storm petrels skimming over the waves, foraging pairs of Craveri’s murrelet, the tiniest of all murrelets, both bluefooted and brown boobies, Heermann’s gulls, and magnificent frigatebirds. It is not uncommon to be treated to the aerial displays of mobula rays or, if we are lucky, the arrival of hundreds of longbeaked common dolphins riding our bow. We’ll use sea kayaks to explore the labyrinth of mangroves in San Jose’s expansive lagoon, everwatchful for yellow-crowned night herons, white ibis, and mangrove warblers.

From our anchorage offshore IslaSan Francisco, we’ll get an early start and cruise past the California sea lion haulout at Los Islotes and then head to Isla Partida and Caleta Cardonal. We’ll wander the island’s mangrove-fringed shore and then hike to its beautiful desert heart. Our voyage’s final anchorage will be at Bahia San Gabriel, along Isla Espiritu Santo’s west side, where a spectacular colony of frigatebirds awaits us. The crystalline waters of our final night’s anchorage mayinvite a sea kayak trip, a snorkel, or a sunset beach walk. Back aboard the Westward, we’ll celebrate and savor thehighlights of our trip over a fabulous dinner, raising our glasses to a final Baja sunset and the gift of our friends and crew.

Price: $6,950 (includes a $1,000 deposit)
Group Size: 12 Trip Rating: 2-3
Price includes:
3 nights’ hotel accommodations (including 2/17 at a hotel near theLA airport and 2/18 & 2/20 in Loreto), 1 night (2/19) in the safari-style tented camp at San Ignacio Lagoon, all van transportation ashore, all meals ashore, 8 nights aboard Westward, 5 naturalist leaders, Westward’s 4-person crew,sea kayak outfitting and instruction, gratuities throughout, and a copy of the photo book of our voyage.

The price quoted is per person based on double occupancy. Single accommodations are unavailable for this trip.

Does not include roundtrip airfare from your departure point to Loreto or your return home from Los Cabos.


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