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Come Aboard My Cruise to the Sea of Cortez on Sea Lion

Editor's note: This story is from the Cruise Critic Archives. Content was up to date at time of publication.

Ever since reading John Steinbeck's "The Log from the Sea of Cortez," I've wanted to visit the rugged area that's been called Mexico's Galapagos. Though Lindblad Expeditions' Sea Lion is hardly a sardine boat like Steinbeck's Western Flyer, the intimate ship with its focus on wildlife strongly appealed to my sense of adventure.

But I had some concerns about my family. Could two teenagers survive an entire week without Dodger games, MTV and instant messages? In anticipation of trouble, I advised my 18- and 15-year-old to pack iPods, books and sudoku puzzles. "What exactly are we going to do?" the kids asked repeatedly.

By the end of the week, Jon and Clara could tell a seal from a sea lion and a bottlenose from a common dolphin. I didn't recognize my golf-loving husband Doug, who morphed into an avid whale watcher, hanging out on the observation deck yelling, "Thar she blows!" Best of all, the slow pace and spectacular surroundings left the four of us relaxed and happy.

Finding the Sea Lion at Guaymas' busy port proved to be our first adventure. As our driver from the Hermosillo airport circled his van around the port with my family and another couple from Little Rock, I wondered if the ship had left without us. After a frantic cell phone call, our driver finally located the Sea Lion. The friendly crew seemed enormously relieved to finally see us and we quickly got underway.

At first, my husband and I kept bumping into each other in our quarters -- small even for a cruise ship -- our 94-square-ft. upper deck cabin and the twin bed configuration felt awkward. Next door, our 6'7" son was handling the situation good-humoredly, his head grazing the ceiling and feet hanging off the bed. I began storing bags and snorkel gear underneath our beds, unpacking clothes in large drawers built into the beds, and hanging hats, backpacks and binoculars on multiple hooks. With our belongings organized, things started to look up.

My hungry clan made a beeline to the main deck lounge for appetizers and an orientation. The personable husband and wife captain and expedition leader, Mark and Michelle Graves, introduced the crew, which included a ship doctor, videographer, undersea specialist and four naturalists.

Among our fellow passengers was a large group from the San Diego Natural History Museum. Lucky for us, they'd brought along their curator of herpetology, Dr. Brad Hollingsworth, who's spent years studying Baja's endemic reptiles. I was surprised there weren't more kids onboard since it was spring break. Besides my kids, a 9-year-old boy and his 14-year-old sister were traveling with their grandparents.

After our orientation, we had a look around. The comfortable nautical theme lounge featured a computer terminal, library and gift shop. There were two monitors for slide shows and underwater footage from a bow cam. Passengers could help themselves to coffee, tea, water and soda.

Upstairs on the bridge deck, a sun deck sported inviting cushioned lounge chairs, teak tables and chairs, and an alfresco gym with three exercise machines. Nearby was the spa treatment room. A fleet of colorful kayaks and four Zodiacs are stored above the bridge deck. A large observation area on the upper deck had a raised platform for watching whales and dolphins.

Back in our cabin, I noticed a few surprising touches -- ultra-plush bath towels, a pair of wonderful nature photographs and a handsome National Geographic world atlas. Before retiring, I consulted the atlas and detailed map of Baja. The captain set a northerly course for Isla Rasa where last week, strong winds prevented the Sea Lion from landing. I took a seasickness pill and kept my fingers crossed.

Isla Rasa
Happily, the sea was calm. Doug, an early riser, grabbed a cup of coffee and muffin in the lounge and joined a daily morning stretch class led by the massage therapist on the sun deck. Isla Rasa awaited, but so did the breakfast buffet -- a wholesome assortment of eggs, bacon and sausage, fresh fruit, cereal, and juice.

By the height of the breeding season, an astounding half a million birds will return to their natal island. Small, flat Isla Rasa is the nesting ground for 95 percent of the world's populations of Heermann's gulls and elegant terns, as well as a smaller group of royal terns. Another annual visitor is Enriqueta Vilarde, a scientist who's been conducting research here for the past 27 years.

After breakfast, Enriqueta came onboard to give a slide show presentation in the lounge, describing the nesting densities, migration patterns and adaptations to predators. "I cannot stop coming back," Enriqueta said. "Superficially, it seems the same, but it's different -- and beautiful."

Along with naturalist Bryan Gates, we boarded a Zodiac to explore the guano-covered shoreline. We were admiring the elegant and royal terns with their shiny white bodies, black crests and orange bills when suddenly dolphins begin leaping out of the water, so close we could hear them breathing. Nearby, a pair of sea lions popped their heads up. "This is the exciting thing about Baja," said Bryan. "You can see anything at any time."

After a healthy lunch of carrot ginger soup, green salad and teriyaki tuna, we were ready to return to the island. Walking single file, careful to avoid nests, we reached an enormous valley named central station. It was a remarkable sight and cacophony of sound: thousands of royal terns and Heermann's gulls preening and posturing over their nests.

By late afternoon, Doug hit the stationary bike on the sun deck with his science fiction book (there was also a treadmill and an elliptical machine). As I headed to the lounge for a desert plant talk, I flipped on the kids' PA so they could learn about cacti while playing cards. When the bar opened at 5 p.m., passengers moseyed down to the lounge for drinks and hors d'oeuvres like cheese, fruit and quesadillas.

Though the Sea Lion's dining room was set with white linen and silver, meals were casual with open seating. Over dinner, we chatted with Alberto Montaudon Ferrer, the ship's undersea specialist. Mexico has good conservation laws, he explained, but enforcement is more of a problem. The fisheries use trawlers that drag the sea floor for shrimp, killing everything else in the way.

Doug and I sampled a local merlot from the Santo Thomas Valley, one of the nightly wine selections. There was also an appealing wine list. The meal started with tortilla soup, followed by a choice of grouper, pork roast or vegetable burritos, plus cheesecake. Chicken, steak and chicken Caesar salad are always available. These islands might be rugged, but we were certainly not roughing it aboard the Sea Lion.

Isla San Esteban and Isla San Pedro Martir
It was 5:45 a.m. I couldn't believe I was joining Doug and 20 other passengers for a hike on Isla San Esteban. Why would any sane person get up this early on vacation? The answer was waiting for us at San Esteban, where Brad Hollingsworth held a fat gold and gray speckled pinto chuckwalla. I'm not a big reptile fan, but I have to admit that this was one cute iguana. All iguanas inflate to make themselves look bigger, but this endangered species has perfected the skill. Using its throat muscles like a bicycle pump, the chuckwalla wedges itself tightly into crevices, preventing hawks from picking it up for dinner. Thousands live in the rust-colored volcanic hillside flanking the arroyo along with its neighbor, the less adorable spiny-tailed iguana.

We joined an interpretive hike through the arroyo. Botany expert William Lopez-Forment stopped frequently to point out unusual plants like the giant cardon, agaves, and mesquite trees with super-long root systems. After breakfast, Jon and Clara joined the "civilized" walk.

As we hoisted anchor and headed south to San Pedro Martir, lunch had to wait. A large pod of bottlenose dolphins was riding the ship's bow and putting on a spectacular show. We grabbed binoculars and scurried to the observation deck. It was spellbinding to watch these graceful animals glide through the water. "This never gets old," Clara said. "I can watch them forever."

While the captain turned the ship toward a distant whale, naturalist Michael Nolan shared details about the Gulf's marine mammals. These deep, productive waters attract over 30 cetacean species. Our patience was finally rewarded when we got a great look at a magnificent whale cutting the water's surface. From its sickle-shaped dorsal fin and distinctive lower jaw colorations, Michael concluded that it was a fin whale, dubbed the "greyhound of the sea" because of its speed.

At San Pedro Martir, we circled the island, mesmerized by the beautiful scene. Dozens of sea lions cavorted in the water and hauled out on the rocky shore. While blue-footed and brown boobies and dramatic red-billed tropicbirds soared overhead, brown pelicans dove for fish. I felt a pang of regret when we left. That afternoon, we met in the lounge to hear Michael's fascinating lecture on marine mammals.

I realized that an unusual bond was developing among the 50 passengers. It was definitely an older crowd, but guests shared a common interest in birding, whale watching and the outdoors. On our hike, I met a woman who could identify a silky flycatcher by its song; another knew the Latin names of many desert plants. More than a third of the guests had sailed previously with Lindblad.

After dinner, we all moved to the lounge to watch underwater footage taken by Alberto at San Pedro Martir. His tape was wonderful: colorful gorgonians and striped nudibranches, delightful sea lions, a moray eel, a Mexican horned shark and enormous jellyfish complete with trailing tentacles. On the way back to our cabin, we enjoyed a star-studded finale -- the spectacular night sky.

At Sea and Isla del Carmen
Our morning at sea began auspiciously. About the time our stretch class was ending, an alert passenger spotted a trio of pilot whales, members of the dolphin family. After a few minutes, a pod of bottlenose dolphins arrived and began riding the ship's bow.

After breakfast, I returned to my cabin to find a robe and slippers for my massage appointment. I wasalready feeling relaxed, and after a half-hour treatment, I had difficulty moving. In addition to massages, the therapist offers facials and body treatments.

Next on the morning agenda was a slide program in the lounge on the geology of Baja California. Naturalist David Stephens explained how about six million years ago, the peninsula ripped from the mainland. Before our buffet lunch, I sent an e-mail by an awkward batched process (this system is fortunately being replaced by more affordable satellite Internet access).

In the afternoon, we filled our water bottles and landed at Isla del Carmen. One of the largest islands in the Sea of Cortez, Carmen's composed of volcanic rocks overlain by an ancient sea floor. The result is a beautiful contrast between red volcanic rock and chalky white marine sediment. The island is home to desert bighorn sheep and jackrabbits. It was too hot for my liking, so I opted for kayaking over hiking. Jon agreed to be my partner, and happily he did most of the paddling.

At dusk, we returned to the beach for a barbecue dinner of grilled tuna, ribs, coleslaw and mashed potatoes. As the sun set dramatically over the Sierra de la Giganta mountains, we listened to William tell folk tales around a bonfire and admired Saturn through a telescope. After roasting s'mores, we motored back to the Sea Lion, with the lights of nearby Loreto sparkling in the distance.

Isla Danzante, Puerto Escondido and Loreto
We got underway early and headed toward Bahia Loreto Marine Park, a decade-old marine mammal preserve. As we sat down to breakfast, common dolphins appeared out the dining room window.

Leaving pancakes behind, we ran outside with our cameras and binoculars. For the next half-hour, we were surrounded by an enchanting pod of babies, sub-adults and adult dolphins. The water was so clear we could actually see the dolphins' beautiful markings, couples mating, even remoras attached to their flanks. Before long, we discovered another treat: a mother fin whale and her young calf.

Later that morning, we arrived at Isla Danzante. Donning ship wetsuits and snorkeling gear, the four of us rolled into the water from the Zodiac. Having recently snorkeled in the clear reefs of the Caribbean, I was disappointed with the visibility. Just as I started to wonder if we'd be able to see much, we started noticing some extraordinary marine life, including perfectly camouflaged pufferfish, striking Cortez angelfish and long reef coronet fish.

That afternoon, we moored at Puerto Escondido and drove north by van to Loreto, which Steinbeck describes as "asleep in the sunshine, a lovely town, with gardens in every yard...." The first permanent Spanish settlement in the area, Loreto has one main landmark -- its mission church, the oldest in California. Browsing the numerous jewelry and crafts stores, Clara found a woven leather bracelet and I picked out a painted soap dish. Before returning to the Sea Lion, we stopped at a popular ice cream shop for melon and lemon sherbet.

As we gathered on the sun deck for happy hour and a brilliant sunset, mobula rays splashed near the ship. Over dinner, a deep orange moon rose over mainland Mexico.

Isla Santa Catalina
We spent the morning hiking at Isla Santa Catalina, home to giant barrel cactus and the giant cardon, largest of the cactus species. Upon landing on the island, Brad wasted no time in finding endemic reptiles, like a rattle-less rattlesnake and an emerald-green tailed side-blotched lizard. Clara was the first to volunteer to hold a "harmless" snake, a good photo op. Elephant Rock turned out to be another excellent spot. Though the water was chillier than yesterday, we were intrigued by the fascinating fish in this rocky reef.

After lunch, Clara and Jon played chess and Doug read on the sun deck. Meanwhile, I browsed through the gift shop's eclectic assortment of souvenirs, including jewelry, note cards and scarves designed by Lindblad crewmembers. A couple we'd befriended showed me their larger upper-deck cabin with double bed and two windows. Removing the desk made room for a pull-out bed for a third person.

In the late afternoon, Brad presented a reptile wrap-up followed by a slide presentation by Alberto on Mexico's biological and cultural diversity. As we headed south, Alberto's audience disappeared to watch a pair of fin whales and pod of bottlenose dolphins. About half an hour later, he resumed his lecture. We also watched a clip from a video chronicle of the expedition (the $50 tape is for sale at the end of the cruise).

Los Islotes and Isla Espiritu Santo
This morning, we awoke to find a humpback mother and calf breaching in the distance. After watching the charming pair surface and dive together, we headed for Los Islotes, small rocky islets at the north tip of Espiritu Santo. The productive waters attract an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 California sea lions.

David Stephens maneuvered our Zodiac near the islets, pointing out male sea lions with the bumps on their heads and blonde females. As we motor by, two large males barked heatedly at one another and began to spar. "They're getting reading for breeding season," said David. "The guy with best waterfront property attracts the ladies."

Without warning, we were suddenly surrounded by blankets of red water. In an unusual daytime event, swarms of tiny krill had come to the water's surface. The rich food supply sent schools of silver herring into a feeding frenzy. Soon, the table was turned. Squadrons of pelicans arrived and began dive-bombing for the fish.

When the frenzy subsided, we jumped in the water and snorkeled alongside the curious and playful sea lions. Clara and I watched a mischievous young sea lion tug at a ship's anchor rope. Another blew bubbles in our faces. It was wonderful until a grouchy 500-pound male appeared and splashed at Doug. At nearby Ensenada Grande, the white sand sea floor has turned the sea into liquid turquoise. We kayaked around the lovely bay and swam in the warm, shallow water.

It was our last night in the Sea of Cortez and I found myself packing reluctantly. Though my family was relaxed and well rested, I didn't feel ready to disembark in La Paz the next morning. I was still smitten by the sea lion that blew the perfect bubble in my face.

--by Susan Jaques. Jaques is a Los Angeles-based writer whose favorite travel adventures are with her husband and teenage son and daughter. In addition to Cruise Critic, Jaques' articlse have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine.

All photos appear courtesy of Susan Jaques.

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