Baja California: Among the Great Whales Feb 23—Mar 01, 2008

Posted by Michael O'Brien

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Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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This year's Baja cruise was a delightful experience for everyone. The Baja region is incredibly beautiful and full of life, and we had the added good fortune of spectacular weather. It was a privilege to travel with such a professional organization as Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic. Their staff was superb and took care of our every need. The ship, the rooms, the food, the service, and the captain were all excellent. Their incredible staff of naturalists provided expert interpretation about every aspect of the natural world, from geology and plants on up to fish, reptiles, birds, and of course, whales.

Our experiences with marine mammals on this cruise were just breathtaking: snorkeling with California sea lions, pods of bottlenose dolphins and long-beaked common dolphins riding our bow, a humpback whale exhibiting virtually every behavior imaginable, a blue whale literally playing with our ship, and those unforgettable gray whales approaching our zodiacs and allowing us to pet them!

Although everyone's primary interest in this cruise was whales, the birding was also excellent, and we were able to see all three Baja endemics along with a long list of other species. We owe a special thanks to Lindblad for organizing (and paying for!) our impromptu excursion to La Florida to look for Gray Thrasher. The outing was successful!

On our first morning we awoke in the Sea of Cortez just south of Isla Carmen. After watching our first Magnificent Frigatebirds and Yellow-footed Gulls, it wasn't long before we came upon our first whale of the trip, which just happened to be the largest animal ever to exist on earth—a blue whale! There turned out to be two there, and we stayed with them for more than half an hour. But soon we were distracted by another distant whale—this time a humpback. As we approached, we enjoyed watching this animal perform a wonderful array of behaviors: breaching, lobtailing, tail throws, pectoral slapping, and lunging. What a show!

In the afternoon, we had a nice hike on the pristine Isla Santa Catalina with its abundant cardon cacti. We found a nice assortment of birds there such as Peregrine Falcon, White-winged Dove, Gila and Ladder-backed woodpeckers, Gray and Ash-throated flycatchers, Loggerhead Shrike, Common Raven, Verdin, and Black-throated Sparrow. There were also some other fascinating creatures including the island-endemic emerald-tailed side-blotched lizard, the stunning silver-banded hairstreak, and the very local Hepburn’s metalmark.

We began our next day in San Jose Channel where, in the early morning light, we had nice views of several Craveri's Murrelets as we cruised through a relatively calm stretch of water. Our first whales of the day were four fin whales that allowed sufficiently close approach for us to see their oddly asymmetric coloration—white on the right lower jaw and dark on the left. This asymmetry is believed to be modified countershading, an adaptation for the species' tendency to roll on its right side while feeding.

After leaving the fin whales we headed south and came upon another blue whale. But unlike the ones on the previous day, this one wanted to play! For the next 25 minutes, this massive animal, which we estimated to be about 50–60 feet in length, swam right alongside our ship. It switched from one side to the other, sometimes at the bow, sometimes at the stern, and often straight underneath us! Every time it submerged it seemed to reappear on the other side of the ship as if it were toying with us. Well, we fell right into his game and found ourselves doing laps around the deck trying to get in position for his next surfacing! Nobody on board had ever had such an experience with a blue whale before, and none of us will ever forget this one.

Our next stop on this eventful day was Los Islotes, a tiny island that harbors a thriving colony of California sea lions. Some of us went snorkeling here and had the amazing experience of sharing a quiet cove with these inquisitive animals, many of which playfully swirled around us! The undersea life here was equally impressive. Highlights included tan sea star, brown urchin, blue-and-gold snapper, king angelfish, Cortez damselfish, and guineafowl puffer. Above the surface, those of us who didn't snorkel took a zodiac ride around the island and had wonderful views of the sea lions, as well as the abundant Brown and Blue-footed boobies which were perched on the cliffs.

We spent the afternoon on land exploring Isla de Espiritu Santo. Though breezy conditions kept bird activity down (and caused us to cancel our planned barbeque), we did see quite a few interesting butterflies including several Sonoran hairstreaks, a sleepy orange, and our first Howarth's white (a species we would see in numbers at Magdalena Bay).

Our third day was spent right around the tip of Baja. We began offshore not far from Los Frailes and worked our way toward Gorda Bank. This area was productive for seabirds and we had good views of Pink-footed and Black-vented shearwaters, as well as Black and Least storm-petrels. It was also productive for marine mammals. We saw at least ten humpback whales here, our first gray whales, and we were visited by a huge pod of bottlenose dolphins, probably numbering between 500 and 1,000 animals! Some of them rode our bow for a few minutes before moving on. In this area we also saw quite a few Mobula rays and a couple of marlin leaping high out of the water.

In the afternoon, we (along with four huge cruise ships!) docked at the bustling tourist town of Cabo San Lucas. From there we drove to Estero San Jose, which was no doubt our single best outing for birds on the trip. This estuary serves as an oasis in a parched landscape and also as a "migrant trap" due to its location near the tip of the Baja peninsula. Highlights at the estuary included a Cackling Goose (a real rarity here), three species of teal, four species of herons, three species of falcons, Common Moorhen, Black-necked Stilt, Long-billed Dowitcher, Common Ground-Dove, Xantus's Hummingbird (a Baja endemic), Black Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird (a local rarity), seven species of warblers including Belding's Yellowthroat (another Baja endemic), Western Tanager, Orchard (another local rarity), Scott's, and Hooded Orioles, and Blue Grosbeak. And we were there for only a little over two hours in the heat of the day! At the end of this birdy day we enjoyed margaritas on deck as we cruised past Friars Rocks at sunset. Along the way, we saw hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds and a single Masked Booby gathering to roost. The sunset itself was spectacular, complete with green flash!

On our next day we awoke out in the Pacific south of Isla Santa Margarita. This was another excellent stretch for seabirds and we saw many Black-vented and a few Pink-footed shearwaters, one Sooty Shearwater, one Least Storm-Petrel, at least 70 Craveri's Murrelets, and a couple of large rafts of Red Phalaropes. We were also visited for a good ten minutes by a large pod of long-beaked common dolphins, many of which rode our bow. They were fun to watch, not only from deck, but also from the lounge on the ship's "bow cam"! We reached Magdalena Bay by about 11 a.m. and would spend the remaining two-and-a-half days of the cruise there. The reason why was clear. Magdalena Bay is one of only a few "calving" areas for gray whales, and we saw up to 20 individuals per day here. We spent a good deal of time watching these whales and also had the privilege of having mother and calf approach our zodiacs and allow us to pet them! This incredible experience was clearly the highlight of the trip for most of us!

Birding was also excellent around Magdalena Bay. The shallow waters here harbored good numbers of waterfowl including Brant, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, Surf Scoter, and Red-breasted Merganser. Eared Grebes and Pacific Loons were also numerous. The tidal flats were teeming with shorebirds including Black-bellied, Semipalmated, and Wilson's Plovers, American Oystercatcher, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Sanderling, Western and Least sandpipers, Dunlin, and Short-billed Dowitcher. We had remarkably close views of many of these birds during our zodiac or kayak explorations of the mangrove channels around the northern part of the bay. These outings also produced a variety of other interesting species such as Reddish Egret, both Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned night-herons, Zone-tailed Hawk, Western Scrub-Jay, and "Mangrove" Yellow Warbler.

We made one special outing to the desert habitat of La Florida to look for Gray Thrasher, a Baja endemic. We were successful at finding the thrasher and also saw Eurasian Collared-Dove (a new outpost for the species); Costa's Hummingbird; Verdin; Cactus Wren; Lark, White-crowned, and Brewer's Sparrows; Western Meadowlark; and Scott's Oriole.

To cap off an already wonderful trip, on our next-to-last morning we saw a Red-footed Booby (a rarity here) cruising over the mangroves where our ship was anchored. All in all, it was an incredible trip!