Cruising with small ship in Baja Califoria Sur
The Westward at sunset. Photo by Lauren Buchholz

The Romantics would have loved the place. The night skies are flooded with stars. The planet’s largest living creature dives and feeds in the cerulean waters.

Desert peaks covered in the humanoid forms of cacti graze the sky, while hermit crabs scuttle past the entrance to mysterious sea caves.

Baja California Sur is a traveler’s paradise, and a trip along the Sea of Cortez with the M.V. Westward showcases the peninsula at its best.

Bienvenidos a Baja California

I was a guest aboard the Westward during a February voyage between La Paz and Loreto.

Although the ship has spent nearly a century operating along the shores of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, this was her inaugural season cruising the Sea of Cortez.

I joined my small group of fellow voyagers at the Los Cabos airport, where we were greeted warmly by Westward Captain Bill Bailey.

From Los Cabos we had a two-hour drive north to La Paz, the port of departure for our six-day cruise.

The Isla Danzante. Photo by Lauren Buchholz

Bill was our tour guide as well as our driver. On the way to La Paz, we scanned the desert landscape as he pointed out cardón cacti (a larger cousin of the saguaro) and a plethora of birds, including a blue-beaked crested caracara.

We passed several small towns north of Los Cabos where tourism development projects appeared to have been abandoned.

Bill told us these communities were slowly recovering from Hurricane Odile, a Class 4 hurricane that had swept across the peninsula the previous fall.

By the time we reached La Paz, our brief acquaintance with the peninsula had left us eager to discover more. We stepped aboard the Westward and into our journey.

Aventuras en el Mar de Cortés

Bill sailed the Westward leisurely between ports, letting weather, prevailing winds, and the whims of the group dictate what our schedule would be for the day.

The crew were equipped with a wealth of local knowledge and experience that ensured every stop had something new in store.

Pablo is a fisherman from Pardito. Photo by Lauren Buchholz

On our first day out to sea, we kayaked to a frigatebird colony near Isla Espíritu Santo.

The colony had been established some years ago atop a man-made barrier near a pearl oyster farm.

The barrier was now completely covered in nets of white droppings and a disorderly array of nests, upon which were perched hundreds of the black-bodied birds and their ruffled white chicks.

The members of the colony took little notice of us, soaring above our heads and calling to one another in an unceasing clamor.

At times they passed so close to us we could have reached out and touched them.

Exploring the Fishing Village 

Halfway through our journey to Loreto, the Westward stopped at a fishing village on the isolated island of Pardito.

This tiny island offers little protection from the elements and no source of fresh water. Its residents have to travel several hours to sell their fish and purchase necessary supplies in town, and accessing or leaving the island is impossible during storms.

Despite the challenges of living on Pardito, the locals cannot imagine calling any other place home. Their dedication to their way of life is equaled by their kindheartedness.

They were happy to take time away from processing the day’s catch to meet with us and let us tour their village. We left with fresh fish for dinner – and another set of stories to share.

Las Ballenas: The Whales in Baja

By the time we docked at the Loreto port, the Westward voyage had already earned its status as a life-list trip for any avid cetacean fan.

We saw a large pod of common dolphins and several whales on our trip north, including an adult blue that we followed for close to an hour.

Yet the most phenomenal wildlife experience was yet to come.

Passenger petting a wild grey whale. Photo by Lauren Buchholz

The final excursion took us by road to San Ignacio Lagoon, located on the Pacific side of the peninsula.

Our route cut across the peninsula in the shadow of towering volcanoes and through a number of historic towns before culminating near the mouth of the lagoon.

In the calm waters, grey whales have established an annual haven in which to raise their calves before migrating north.

Small boats are allowed to travel through part of the lagoon, where passengers have the chance to see – and possibly touch – the friendly, curious whales.


The Boat Ride 

The boat ride to the lagoon was a rainy one, but this hardly dampened the spirits of the group.

All around us, adult grey whales were rising and diving effortlessly through the water, occasionally breaching or spyhopping to get a better view of their elated audience.

Ten-foot-long calves frolicked next to their mothers.

We were met by a single adult female, nicknamed La C for a prominent mark on her dorsal fin. La C proceeded to spend most of our trip surfacing alongside the skiff so we could pet and photograph her.

For those aboard the panga, it was an experience bordering on transcendent. Nearly an hour passed unheeded as passengers and whale reached across the barriers of their respective species to connect with one another.

We rode back to the shore for the final time, filled with a mixture of wonder and disbelief. After ten brief days in Baja California, our small group had come to know and love the peninsula in ways we never could have foreseen.

Captain Bill would be proud.

If you go:

Visit Pacific Catalyst’s website for information on upcoming cruises:

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Author bio: Lauren Buchholz is an American freelance writer and photographer who recently traded the mountains of Colorado for New Zealand’s North Island. Her work has appeared in Orion, Wilderness Magazine, Landscape Photography Magazine, Legacy, and The Interpreter.

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