Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Dreaming of Baja California

Stuck in a cube all day often times looking at fabulous travel images, I often find myself daydreaming of past journeys that I have been on. Two years ago, I joined Smithsonian travelers in balmy, dry Baja for one week in February. From the moment I stepped aboard our expedition ship, the National Geographic Sea Lion, I instantly forgot freezing  Washington.

For the first few days of the journey, we devoted our mornings to observing gray whales. Every year, thousands of gray whales migrate to the protective waters of Bahia Magdalena to breed, give birth, and nurture their vulnerable offspring. So each day, we boarded zodiacs (small inflatable motorized boats that can hold up to 15 people) in search of these fascinating mammals.

For three days, we followed the gray whales and watched as they nursed, played, and interacted with each other. The time spent among these majestic animals was truly memorable, but it was our final day of whale watching that I most cherish. That morning we departed as usual with a local driver, a naturalist, and approximately 10 eager passengers, including myself. We cruised for 30 minutes before we sighted a mother and calf pair and slowly approached for a better view. Our driver, well versed in the practice of keeping a non-threatening distance, maneuvered us to a slow idle.

The two kept their distance at first—circling our zodiac cautiously and surfacing together. But finally curiosity triumphed and the mother boldly began to swim underneath our zodiac. Then the entire group collectively held our breath as she swam directly underneath the zodiac, pushing us out of the water every so slightly with her body! After this friendly “bump,” the mother and baby pair continued to get ever closer. Practically hanging over the edges of the zodiac in our efforts to get a better look, we eagerly rushed from one side of the tiny craft to the other. As they surfaced, I observed the mother’s dark gray skin liberally speckled with rough barnacles and felt the warm spray from their blowholes. It was apparent that she and her month-old calf seemed to have almost as much interest in us as we did in them! After a few moments, we reluctantly moved away to give a nearby group of fellow travelers a better chance for up-close viewing.

Back on the ship, we gathered in the lounge to eagerly compare notes. When I recounted our experience to Larry Hobbs, our Smithsonian Study Leader, he congratulated me on my good karma. In response to my puzzled look, he explained that in thirty years of observing gray whales, he had formulated the theory that whales are attracted to individuals with good karma. Whether or not it was a case of good karma or just plain good luck, I will forever remember that once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The following days brought fascinating new discoveries as we explored the rich desert landscape and ocean ecosystem of the Sea of Cortez. Bow-riding dolphins, noisy sea lions, breaching humpbacks, and rude pelicans all vied for our attention. For the sheer variety of flora and fauna, few places that I’ve visited can compare to Baja California’s pristine sandy beaches, labyrinthine mangroves, and crystal-clear waters. And as the days spent in my indoors cubicle while beautiful weather beckons stretch long ahead, I’ll have plenty of opportunity to daydream about those magical landscapes.

Click here to learn more about our natural history cruises.

Click here to learn more about more small ship adventures.