From the Baja: whale tales and other wonders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baja California, Mexico -- Ididn't get to touch a whale and a sea lion didn't jump into the back of my kayak -- as happened to a fellow traveler -- but a coyote did steal my sandals, and I was visited at my campsite by a flock of pelicans fighting over a still-flopping fish.

Not bad for a city girl.

Here among towering dunes, mangrove stands and endless blue waters is Mexico at its most pristine. No bustling cities, no tour-group-trampled ruins, no giant resorts with pool-side mariachi shows, no souvenir stands with cheap crafts and paintings on velvet; just miles of white beaches, bountiful bird life and -- if you time your visit right -- whales, whales, whales.

It is to these sheltered waters on the Pacific side of southwestern Mexico's arid 800-mile-long Baja California Peninsula that the California gray whales migrate each January through March to mate, bear their young and gorge through the winter months. Then, babies in tow, they turn around and head 5,000 miles north to Alaska's arctic waters to pass the spring and summer before repeating the process the following year.

The peninsula juts down from California like a dagger, its eastern shore separated from the rest of Mexico by the Gulf of California, its western side flanked by the Pacific Ocean. Magdalena Bay, meanwhile, is tranquilly sandwiched between the peninsula mainland and the 50-mile-long barrier island of Magdalena. While the not-so-pacific ocean rages on one side of the island, the bay remains calm, except when the winds kick up periodically.

We were among the nature lovers who had come to Magdalena Bay to see the whales.

Several companies send small whale-watching ships into the region, but we chose a more intimate approach. Intrigued by the idea of meeting the animals more or less on their own "sea level," we paddled after them in sea kayaks. These sturdy, 20-foot vessels glided quietly through the water, allowing us to hear every bird call, every splash of a sea lion, porpoise or whale, and to savor the animal and plant life around us with only the plop of our paddles intruding on nature's own sounds.

We were an eclectic group -- 11 Japanese conservationists, a 60-something North Carolina doctor-nurse couple, two young lovers from Florida, a Brooklyn businessman. We had signed on with San Diego-based Baja Expeditions, which operates whale-watching trips out of La Paz, southern Baja's peaceful coastal capital.

After spending the night in a pleasant hotel in town, we were bused four hours north across the desert to the tiny Magdalena-Bay-side village of Lopez Mateos. From there, kayakers, gear and food were shuttled the 15 minutes to Magdalena Island in two pangas -- 26-foot motorboats that carried provisions and served as expedition vehicles for pursuing the whalesat a faster-than-paddling clip.

Our five-day kayaking-and-camping trip required an affinity for outdoor living, but I wouldn't call it really roughing it. Baja Expeditions provided two guides -- in this case, Robin and Peter, both Americans. A four-man Mexican camp crew helped us set up our company-issued two-person tents each day and prepared meals that were a far cry from your typical camping fare. No freeze-dried entrees here.

We awoke each morning to strong coffee, fresh-squeezed fruit juice and either eggs and bacon or pancakes with blueberry jam. Our picnic lunch along the route was a variety of salads, tropical fruits and vegetables. Dinner was a feast. One night we had a spicy sea bass stew with green chilies, salsa and soft corn tortillas; another night we ate spaghetti with scallops we'd helped catch off a mangrove island near the evening's base camp.

The kayaking, meanwhile, was a cinch.

Before you turn the page at the mere mention of kayaks -- with visions of raging rapids and violent underwater rolls -- relax. Sea kayaks are a sturdier breed of boat, and Magdalena Bay is steadier surf than most river routes. Seldom did we encounter more than a ripple, and some simple instruction about leaning into the waves and paddling cross-wave got our group of mostly novices quickly into the swing of the sport. Our dexterity improved with each day's on-the-tour training; while most of us chose to navigate rock-steady, two-person kayaks, the gutsier took a turn at the more rickety -- but more fun -- single-person kayaks our guides used.

Before we could embark in our kayaks, however, we had to pass the dreaded dunk test -- a safety precaution designed to show us how to behave in the highly unlikely event our kayak capsized. With our guides at either end of the kayak, each kayak twosome had to rock once, twice, three times, then purposely tip over, quickly release the waterproof skirts that kept water from slashing into the boat, then float to the surface.

Each day we paddled a few hours at our own pace southward through the usually placid bay, coming ashore in early afternoon to set up our tents before devouring a picnic lunch. We were then free to paddle around on our own offshore or hike across the island to the Pacific side -- about a 20-minute jaunt over undulating dunes and around deep sand bowls. Peter and Robin came along on these walks to identify whale bones, pelican skulls and other beach finds.

Late each afternoon we sped deep into the bay in our two pangas, with our camp crew doing double duty as whale scouts. With a lookout at the front of each boat guiding the motorman, we chased after green streaks in the water and distant spurts of spray. We learned to call out "fluke" (whale lingo for a tail flipped into the air), "spy hop" (a head bobbing up for a look at us) and "breach" (an entire leaping body -- whale-watching's top treat).

One showoff came within 20 feet of us, then stood on its head for a full three minutes, its tail sticking straight up into the air.

Once -- just once, but what a thrill it was -- a curious baby came so close to one of the boats that one of the Japanese men was able to reach out and pat its head. Whales that behave in such a sociable manner are called friendlies, and though ecological etiquette strictly forbids touching the animals, we understood the irresistible temptation and found ourselves applauding instead of scolding our comrade.

As we scanned the water, Robin and Peter gave us lessons in cetology (the study of whales). They explained how the whales come south each winter to avoid suffocation under the frozen arctic waters. In addition, the shorter daylight hours in winter mean less sun to nourish krill -- the animal plankton on which the whales feed. We learned that it takes two males to get a female into position to mate and that babies gain as much as 200 pounds a day during their first few months of life. Our guides pointed out whale "footprints" in the water -- giant flat areas left on the surface by displacement after a whale has submerged.

As the afternoon wore on, the cooling air combined with sea spray made us shiver in our pangas, and we were happy to get back to camp for happy hour.

This was a joyous affair. The crew laid out a tropical spread of spicy guacamole, tortilla chips and seviche (chunks of raw fish marinated in lemon juice, hot sauce, onions and green chilies).

At sunset each night my kayaking partner, Harvey, and I took a long walk along the water's edge, watching the sand and sea go purplish gray. Pelicans glided gracefully overhead and, out in the bay, whales spouted soft puffs of spray.

We returned to camp in time for dinner, and then sat around a giant bonfire, sipping steaming Kahlua-spiked coffee and talking about the day's whale sightings -- and ourselves. Though daytime temperatures were in the 80s, evenings were quite cold, and I was glad I had brought along my down jacket.

Later, snug in my sleeping bag, I could hear the Pacific roaring, whales blowing and coyotes howling among the dunes. Sometimes the coyotes were much closer -- like the night a coyote stole my sandals from the front of my tent, where I had negligently left them, forgetting the guides' warning to leave nothing portable in the open.

Five days on Magdalena Bay were just about enough. We'd seen more whales than we'd ever dreamed of -- and there was sand in every nook and cranny of our sleeping bags. We arrived in La Paz as the annual carnival was kicking off and celebrated our last night in Mexico amid an entire town of revelers.

IF YOU GO

Eight-day Magdalena Bay kayaking and camping trips with Baja Expeditions cost $1,150, including accommodations in La Paz the last night. Air fare is additional.

For those who don't want to kayak, the company also runs whale-watching tours on passenger yachts. Contact Baja Expeditions, 2625 Garnet Ave., San Diego, Calif. 92109; (800) 843-6967.

When to go: The heaviest concentration of whales in Magdalena Bay is from mid-January to mid-March. If you want to get a sense of La Paz at its most festive, time your trip to coincide with the annual Carnival celebration (Feb. 8-15).

Entry documents: U.S. citizens need a current passport or an original birth certificate. If you are using a birth certificate, you must also show a photo ID.

Other outfitters: The following companies also run whale-watching tours in southern Baja, though not all are kayak trips.

* Nichols Expeditions, 497 N. Main St., Moab, Utah 84532; (800) 635-1792. Kayak-and- camping trips.

* Baja Discovery Tours, P.O. Box 152527, San Diego, Calif. 92115; (800) 829-2252. Base camp with whale-watching via motorboat.

* Special Expeditions, 720 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10019; (800) 762-0003. Cruise ship is 152 feet; carries 74 live-aboard passengers.

* Biological Journeys, 1696 Ocean Drive, McKinleyville, Calif. 95521; (800) 548-7555. Expedition cruise ships are 80 to 100 feet, accommodating 14 to 26 live-aboard people.

* Baja information: Mexican Government Tourism Office, (800) 262-8900.

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