Saturday, February 26, 2011

Baja, More Than Just Whales

(Warning: this post is long and rambling with no focused direction; kind of like our road-trip.)

Although our whale adventure was the reason we came to Baja, we have thoroughly enjoyed many other aspects of this part of Mexico. We've spent a total of 2 weeks exploring this peninsula, and it's been so nice to use the Spanish that we learned in Costa Rica. Everyone here has been very friendly, and we've made several new friends.

Even though everyone said to avoid border-towns such as Tijuana, we crossed the border there on I-5 and (besides a little construction traffic) made it to Ensenada safely and quickly for our first night in Mexico. Here's George watching our first sunset in Mexico.

We met a nice couple, Don and Kim, who have been traveling in their rig all over the world. Among other adventures, they have driven to the tip of South America and written a book about it. They gave us lots of tips about Baja, and inspired me to do more traveling in Central and South America. They also used to own a laundromat in Arizona, and even though they sent their computer boards to our major competitor, we still had a great time talking to them.

They also recommended that we hit the Ensenada Fish Market, which we did the next morning.

We decided to get breakfast at a nearby taco stand, and there were many to choose from. This one had a beautiful display of hot sauces, and we were sold.

You know you're in Mexico when you're having fish tacos with a selection of 4 different hot sauces at 9 in the morning! Yum!

Besides whale-watching, we had several other adventures while visiting Heather and Michael in Loreto, Baja Sur. We would stop at beautiful beaches like these to have lunch when we were on the water.

Here's George snorkeling in the cold, clear water that's so rich with life. There was so much krill in the water, that I felt like I was swimming through a cloud of tiny shrimp. No wonder the whales love it here.

Loreto is also the home of the first Catholic Mission on the Baja peninsula. It marks the beginning of the historic El Camino Real, the path of Catholic expansion and missions which extended into California as far north as San Francisco in the 1700's.

Throughout our travels in California, we kept crossing the El Camino Real and had visited the Mission of Santa Barbara, so it was interesting to come to the beginning of this historical route of religious conquest.

"The Head and Mother of the Missions" was built in Loreto in 1697, and still stands strong as the center of this beautiful Mexican town.

Heather and Michael took us up into the mountains to the small isolated village of San Javier, where the 2nd mission in Baja was built.

San Javier is located along an oasis, and there are fields and fruit trees growing around the mission.

There is a magical, twisted, old olive tree which grows behind the mission. It was planted here originally when the missionaries first came to this area, over 300 years ago. Gaelan loved playing in it's limbs!

We took a beautiful hike which followed the oasis and meandered through an old orchard of citrus trees and grape vines. Here's a perfectly ripe bergamot orange.

This is a species of fig tree that is endemic to Baja. These trees cling to the rocks with their entangled roots.

Here's a few other photos from that hike.

We visited another oasis-mission town on our journey back north. We camped beside this beautiful oasis in San Ignacio for one night and enjoyed the water-birds during the day and the frogs at night. An oasis is such a gem in the middle of the desert.

Here is the San Ignacio Mission. The missions get more ornate as the missionaries moved north.

Baja has a salt factory around Guerro Negro, and we drove through the saltworks on the way to the lagoon where we watched the gray whales. Here's a few of the "salt fields".

We came upon this tarantula nearby, as well.

Our adventures continued as we headed north. We cut across the width of the peninsula via a very long and rough sand road.

We passed by "Coco's Corner", home of Coco who was unfortunately in the hospital when we passed by. It is a favorite stop for the Baja 1000 racers. We signed the guest book and were offered our choice of either Coca-cola or a can of beer. George got a beer, which seems to be the best seller, judging by the decor of hundreds of beer cans which surround this place and make up the "Coco's Corner" sign.

Our next destination was Gonzaga Bay, on the Sea of Cortez in Northern Baja.

Two weeks earlier, a woman named Jane had flagged us down at a stop-light in California to compliment us on our van. It turns out that she and her husband, Sam, were heading to their house in Baja on the Gonzaga Bay the next day, and she invited us to come stay a night with them.

We took her up on her sweet offer, and had a great time exploring their unique "campo" on the beach. Most of the "beach shacks" were old trailers with new additions. Except for the desert and the sea, this place reminded me of home!

This village is many hours away from a paved road, and most of the folks here have dune buggies. Sam and Jane used to drive down here in their early 1970's VW van, back in the day when it was a LONG 12 hour drive from the nearest paved road to the north. They are still Volkswagen enthusiasts, and Sam took George for a ride in his VW Thing through the dunes and on the beach. Now George is hooked and wants to trade in the van for a Thing!

The next day we continued our bumpy ride heading north through "back Baja".

At the northern edge of the Sea of Cortez, where the once wide delta of the Colorado River meets the Gulf of California, we came upon this extremely barren landscape.

I can only imagine that this was once a fertile river delta which was teeming with life. Now it's the most lifeless landscape I've ever seen, except for this monkey.

As we continued northward beyond the nearly dry river bed of the Colorado, the landscape changed dramatically. The Colorado was an actual river once again, and we had entered the verdant "sponge" of the Colorado.

What a difference water can make!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Whale Tales Part 3: Friendly Gray Whales

One would think that we would have had our fill of whales after a week in the Sea of Cortez. This was not the case, however, and we could not pass up the opportunity to see the gray whales when we arrived at the west side of the Baja peninsula. There are 2 major lagoons on the Pacific side of Baja where the gray whales spend the winters, mate, and give birth. In the spring, the whales migrate north to their feeding grounds in the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea around Alaska. As a species, the gray whales have the longest migration route of any mammal.

Gray whales are also unique because they are bottom-feeding baleen whales; they scrape the sea floor searching for small crustaceans. They are covered in barnacles, and have an interesting habit of bringing their heads straight out of the water until their eyes are exposed, and looking around above the surface.

When we first went out into the lagoon this morning, we saw many whales looking around like this. We also saw tons of spouts and a few breaching whales in the distance. George described the lagoon as "whale soup" because there were so many whales in the lagoon. Our guide said that there are around 1600 whales in this lagoon. We could see many pairs of mamas and calves swimming nearby. Gray whales are considered "friendly whales", and the mama whales will often bring their babies up to the boats. We did not have this experience, but we did find 2 very friendly adult whales who took a shine to our boat. They frolicked and wallowed under and around us for about 40 minutes, until it was time to go. Click here to see the video I took of the whales when they first joined our boat.

Here's a few other short videos of our experience.

We even got to touch these whales. They brought their heads up right by the boat, and would stay still for us to "pet" them for several seconds. They seemed to love the attention.

Here are some good shots of the whale's eye as they would look right at us.

These whales are so friendly that it's hard to imagine that they were once called "devil-fish". However, these amazing animals were hunted to near extinction. In the late 1850's, an American whaler named Charles Scammon found this lagoon and the one just south of here, which were the last refuges of the gray whales. In just a few short seasons, he killed nearly all the whales here, and they named this lagoon "Scammon's Lagoon". (I call it it's Spanish name: Ojo de Liebre: Eye of the Jack-Rabbit.) When hunted, these whales become very aggressive and have been known to attack whaling boats; the only other species of whale known to do this is the sperm whale.

The gray whales have made an amazing come-back now that most countries, besides Japan and Iceland, have ceased commercial whaling. Their increase in numbers is obvious in this "whale soup", but this Pacific population of gray whales is still considered "critically endangered". I'm hoping that these endearing mammals continue to be fertile and well fed until they regain their proper numbers. Let's wish them well!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Whale Tales Part 2: Fins and Blues

This week in Loreto (Baja, Mexico) was a major highlight of our trip. We spent 6 full and exciting days out on the Sea of Cortez where we were awed by the largest animals on earth. Heather and Michael Fishbach, our friends from Celo, have been our hosts and tour-guides for the week, and we have had unforgettable experiences with them. Thank you so much, Michael and Heather, for showing us such an incredible time, preparing such delicious meals, and teaching us about the whales - I am enchanted by these amazing creatures! I also want to thank Michael for sharing with me his amazing photos that he took throughout the week. His camera and timing are much better than mine, and I was able to fully enjoy my experience without always having a camera between me and the whales. Many of the photos below were taken by Michael.

Throughout the week, we were blessed with good weather, still waters, a breathtaking full moon, and many close encounters with whales. Always eager to get an early start, we were out on the water before sunrise, where we were able to behold the magical transition of night into day.

Here's the oasis town of Loreto in the early-morning sun.

We would pause in the middle of the bay, turn the motor off, and enjoy the sunrise as we looked and listened for the breathing of the whales.

When the light was just right, their spouts would glow.

To the west, we could see the full moon set over the mountains. Michael arranged the boat perfectly for this shot of a fin whale with this amazing backdrop.

We saw a total of 4 kinds of baylene whales while we were on the Sea of Cortez: blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, and bryde's whales (pronounced "brude-ess"). By far, we saw more blues and fins than any other kind, and Michael taught us how to tell the difference between these whales.

The finbacks are the fastest whales, and they are a dark, nearly black color with a relatively large dorsal fin. They also never "fluke", or bring their tails out of the water. Here's a few photos of fin whales.

Blue whales are the Earth's largest creatures. The individuals are identifiable by the pigmentation on their backs, which can vary greatly as you can see in the following photos.

Blue whales will occasionally fluke, and we were lucky enough to follow a very mellow "fluker" blue whale the last day we were on the water. She was actually quite a ham; twice she surfaced right beside our boat, took a few breaths, dove, fluked, and pooped right in front of us. (She was a logger, fluker, pooper!) Here she is surfacing right by our boat.

And look at this amazing fluke sequence that Michael captured.

Even though blue whales and fin whales are different species, they have been known to mate and produce young. Michael told us that there are 4 known individuals which are genetic crosses of blue and fin whales. There may be a 5th individual this time next year in the Sea of Cortez. We came upon a finback, presumably a male, who was following a blue whale who we assumed to be female. At one point, the leading blue whale got excited and "head-lunged" out of the water and started speed-swimming. The finback was right on her tail, and he would dive only after she dove. We came upon these lovebirds three times, on three different days. It was the week of Valentine's Day, and love was in the air (or shall we say, the water).

Here's the frisky finback who likes big blues. He has a very unique dorsal fin.

And here's the blue whale, reflecting the early morning light off her back and dorsal fin.

I was able to get a little video of this pair. The leading whale is the blue whale, and the fin whale is following her. Notice that you can only hear the exhalation of the blue whale, but when the finback breathes, you can hear his exhalation and a wheezing inhalation. This is another way to differentiate the two species. This also gives you an idea of how incredibly peaceful our time on the water was.

Because the water was so clear and still, when the sun was over-head and a whale was just under the surface of the water, we were able to see its entire massive form. It was a staggering experience, and I nearly fell over every time I saw how huge these whales actually are. Blue whales are not only the biggest animals alive today, they are the biggest animals ever known to exist - way bigger than dinosaurs! Michael put it in perspective when he compared the size of a blue whale to 4 school buses parked 2 behind 2. Here's the head of a blue whale; we estimate this part of the whale to be about 20 feet of it's total length, which averages about 80 -100 feet long.

Whales are not the only sea mammals we enjoyed seeing this week. We had several opportunities to see both common dolphins and bottle-nosed dolphins as they would join us to "bough-ride" our boat.

We even saw a couple of dolphins "bough-ride" this blue whale. What fun!

Here are some common dolphins with a spouting blue whale in the distance.

And let's not forget the California Sea Lions.

All this amazing wildlife, beautiful scenery, time with friends, and lots of delicious food made for some very happy gringos.