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Published: Sunday, 2/22/2009

Cruising Baja on a small vessel

BY DAVID BEAR
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

IN THE SEA OF CORTEZ, Mexico - Like living torpedoes, a dozen bottlenose dolphins scrambled into the pressure wave streaming off the bow of the American Safari Quest as the 120-foot-long vessel charged across these azure waters at 12 miles per hour.

The sleek, gray, 1,000-pound mammals bulleted along with us, jostling each other for position, dipping in and out of the artificial surf, breaching and blowing with pure exhilaration.

Leaning over the bow's gunwale, I was less than 10 feet above them, so near I could see the gleam in their eyes and grins on their elongated snouts.

When the captain finally slowed the Quest and brought it about for a second pass, more dolphins quickly gathered to get in on the fun. For maybe 20 minutes, we entertained a pod of wild creatures. How very cool is that?

The recent week my wife, Sari, and I spent exploring the stupendously sparse and scenic shoreline and rocky islands along the southeast edge of Baja California were unlike any cruise we've ever taken. I've always favored smaller ships over the ever more mammoth mega-liners that have come on line in recent years, but the Quest proved something else entirely.

Carrying just 22 passengers and a crew of nine, the four-deck motor vessel provides an intimate experience that expanded my notion of luxury at sea. Stated simply, it's like being a guest on a private yacht instead of a passenger on a cruise ship.

But it didn't mesh with more usual definitions of luxury.

Rather than plush staterooms and endlessly opulent dining, this ship offers 12 small but comfortable cabins, each with its own bathroom and shower.

Three simple but creatively prepared meals are served each day. Throughout the week, the crew provided excellent, affable attention with a comfortable casualness that contributed mightily to the ship's laid-back ambience.

As far as public spaces, the Quest offers one lounge and bar area, a small dining room, and various deck spaces. The captain's bridge was always open for curious visitors, but other than that there was no place else to wander. Yet surprisingly and contrary to my first impression, I never felt confined and came to appreciate the ship's intimacy.

Obviously, spending seven days in close quarters with so small a complement of strangers requires a kind of interpersonal chemistry seldom found on larger vessels.

Instead of a dizzying slate of onboard activities and high-energy entertainments, Quest guests tended to focus on the remarkable surroundings and amused ourselves with conversation and card games.

Each cabin is equipped with a small flat-screen TV, but with no broadcast channels, we relied on the ship's small library of DVDs. On three evenings, in fact, most of us gathered around the big-screen monitor in the ship's lounge to watch movies together. Having all spent much of the afternoon scanning the horizon for whale "blows " brought a different perspective to Moby-Dick. It also created a kind of camaraderie among the viewers, who came together in common appreciation and enjoyment of place and time.

Well beyond range of cell phones or Internet connections, even the several Type-A-plus executives among us powered down and relaxed into the rhythm of the sun and rolling of the sea.

Instead of port calls, our days could be spent kayaking calm inlets among mangroves, snorkeling with sea lions, or hiking on dry islands. One afternoon the expedition was through a forest of cactus; a second scrambling up a boulder-strewn arroyo; a third along a ridge of sun-blasted basalt to a perfect, unpeopled panorama; a fourth a four-mile-round traipse completely across a desert island isthmus.

When on ship, rather than lolling lazily by a pool, we dived into the salty sea from the Quest's aft deck. The younger of us at heart (the passenger list included a family with three kids, 16, 13, and 10) swung off the rope hanging from the ship's hoist or tubed across the waves towed by the ship's motor skiff. All of these were low-glitz entertainment, to be sure, but were highly enjoyable experiences nonetheless.

And rather than a cruise itinerary visiting a succession of busy ports, we'd drop anchor late each afternoon in a different empty cove on another uninhabited island where we'd have a magnificent sunset to ourselves. With generally clear skies, our nights were black and starry. On one of those nights, even Venus cast her long, planetary reflection across the dark waters.

On the Sunday of the NFL's AFC Championship game, we flew from Pittsburgh, via Los Angeles, to the town of Loreto, about two-thirds down the east coast of Baja California, the 700-mile-long peninsula that dangles from North America's Pacific edge. Our voyage began nearby at the tiny marina of Puerto Escondido. From there, we meandered slowly southward, first exploring Mexico's Loreto Bay National Park, a huge marine preserve encompassing half a dozen uninhabited islands and hundreds of miles of open sea.

A listing of our week's other anchorages include Arroyo Blanco off Isla Carmen; Bahia Elefanta off Isla Catalina; the village of Agua Verde on the peninsula; Graceteros and Amortajadada bays off Isla San Jose; the small fishing settlement on Isla Coyote; the stupendous semi-circular inlet of Isla San Francisco; Ensenada Grande off Isla Partida; Los Islotes (sea lion island), and Bonanza Beach on Isla Espiritu Santo. Although all part of the same sea, each of these pristine places had its own different ambience and geology, along with various options for recreation, exploration and personal education.

When we debarked from the Quest the following Sunday morning at the bustling port of La Paz, we had gathered a great store of impressions and absorbed much information about southern Baja's remarkable marine ecosystems.

Also known as the Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortez was created 5 million years ago, when the same tectonic forces of today's San Andreas fault line slowly peeled the long Baja peninsula away from what is now mainland Mexico's western edge.

That separation, coupled with a tilting of the peninsula as its western edge was pushed below the Pacific plate, created an eastern coastline of steep and sharply stratified cliffs reminiscent in many places of the Grand Canyon, except that these cliffs are best beheld from a boat at sea.

As the ancient land mass opened up, cold Pacific waters filled the growing gap, lapping around tiny volcanic islands that rose up along the fault line. The cold waters led to reduced rainfall, which made for desert-dry conditions on land but gave rise to abundant sea life.

This relatively narrow aquarium has become home to a vast array of sea life, from sardines and anchovies to giant manta rays, leatherback turtles, billfish and sharks of every description. It also hosts abundant resident marine mammals, dolphins, porpoises, and sea lions, as well as migrant species, including a variety of cetaceans, orcas, humpback whales, blue whale,s and even sperm whales.

Baja's estuaries and islands provide nesting sites for hundreds of avian species, gulls, frigate birds, sea eagles, even blue-footed boobies. Many of these we saw during our week at sea.

More than any cruise I've ever taken, our voyage became a group experience, shared and enjoyed by passengers and crew alike.

That reality was evidenced in a 20-minute slide show of images captured that week. Each of us received a CD copy of our mutual memory to take home. I'm confident it's a gift that will keep on providing pleasure.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. David Bear is the Post-Gazette's travel editor emeritus.

Contact him at: traveler@travelersjournal.com.



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