Baja California: Among the Great Whales Feb 21—28, 2009

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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The Baja region is strikingly beautiful and full of life, and on our 2009 cruise we had the added bonus of incredibly calm seas, which allowed us to find an unusually high diversity of marine mammals, including spectacularly close encounters with gray whales. Birding was also excellent this year, and we were able to find all three of the Baja endemic birds, along with a nice variety of seabirds and other species. As usual, the accomplished staff of Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic was a pleasure to work with and took care of our every need.

On our first morning we awoke in the Sea of Cortez off of Isla Carmen. There were numbers of interesting seabirds around, including Black-vented Shearwater, Red-billed Tropicbird, Magnificent Frigatebird, Yellow-footed Gull, and Craveri's Murrelet. But the whales were the main event of the morning. In this area, we found several blue and fin whales, some of the largest animals on earth. Both species were actively feeding on krill in this area. The blues were easily recognizable by their pale, mottled coloration, tiny dorsal fins, and habit of raising their flukes as they dive. Their blow is also taller than that of a fin whale, almost like a fire hose. The fins were darker and more uniform in color, with a larger dorsal fin, and an oddly asymmetric head pattern with white lips on the right side. This pattern is thought to be a form of counter-shading, as these animals tend to turn with their right side down when feeding. In the afternoon, we visited the pristine Isla Santa Catalina with its abundant Cardon cacti. We found a nice assortment of birds there such as White-winged Dove, Gila and Ladder-backed woodpeckers, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Common Raven, Verdin, and Black-throated Sparrow. There were also some other fascinating creatures including the island-endemic Santa Catalina Island side-blotched lizard and the Santa Catalina Island spiny lizard.

Those who rose early the next morning were treated to a stellar lineup in the pre-dawn sky with the crescent moon alongside Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter—a truly rare sight! After a spectacular Baja sunrise, we began our day by cruising south on glassy calm seas north of Los Islotes where we had some nice seabirds including Least and Black storm-petrels, and close views of a Red-billed Tropicbird. We also found five more blue whales and, the marine mammal highlight of the day, four dwarf sperm whales! These elusive and seldom-seen animals would have been nearly impossible to spot if it were not for such calm seas. As breakfast was being served, we arrived at 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, several of which playfully swirled around us! We also took Zodiac cruises here which offered us close-up views of the abundant Brown and Blue-footed boobies which were perched on the cliffs. We spent the afternoon on land exploring Isla de Espiritu Santo, another fascinating island full of interesting desert plants, as well as several typical desert bird species. But the real highlight of this outing was a beach barbecue under a glorious star-filled sky. Venus was in full view, so we got scope views of that as we sat by the bonfire, roasting marshmallows and enjoying a spectacular Baja evening.

Dawn on day three found us off the tip of the Baja peninsula, in the Gorda Bank area. Here we cruised across what continued to be calm seas and found Pink-footed and Sooty shearwaters, along with three more Red-billed Tropicbirds and several Black-legged Kittiwakes. We also enjoyed a wonderful display of humpback whales. Excellent viewing conditions allowed us to spot whales at a great distance, and we probably saw at least 40 humpbacks in this area! Many of these were in very active competitive groups and were exhibiting a wide variety of behaviors, including breaching and pectoral slapping. But the real highlight in this area was having prolonged views of a feeding sperm whale! It made several dives of 10–12 minutes each, and each time resurfaced at nearly the same spot. While it was under, we lowered a hydrophone in the water and could hear this animal's mechanical clicking calls, used to echo-locate squid. We also could hear the distant songs of a humpback whale. It was all quite a treat! The afternoon was equally exciting. We docked at San Jose del Cabo and took a short bus ride to Estero San Jose, a wonderful little wetland that serves as an oasis for birds migrating through the Baja peninsula. Here we found six species of waterfowl, eight species of herons, Merlin, Common Moorhen, Black-necked Stilt, Long-billed Dowitcher, Common Ground-Dove, Xantus's (a Baja endemic) and Costa's hummingbirds, Black Phoebe, Tropical (a local rarity) and Cassin's kingbirds, Cactus Wren, Gray Thrasher (another Baja endemic, and a particularly good find here!), eight species of warblers including Palm (a local rarity) and Belding's Yellowthroat (the third and final Baja endemic—we worked hard for this one!), White-collared Seedeater (introduced here), Black-headed and Blue grosbeaks, and Hooded Oriole. Without a doubt, this was our best bird outing of the trip! At the end of this birdy day we enjoyed margaritas on deck as we cruised past Friars Rocks at sunset, enjoying the beautiful scenery and hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds.

On our next day we awoke out in the Pacific off Isla Santa Margarita. This was another excellent stretch for seabirds and we saw hundreds of Black-vented Shearwaters, along with a distant Masked Booby. We were also surrounded by a huge pod of long-beaked common dolphins, which, at one point, were visible at almost every distance and direction. Some came in to ride our bow, as they so often do, and offered fine views. We reached Magdalena Bay shortly after breakfast and were greeted by staggering numbers of Brandt's Cormorants—perhaps 20,000 or more! There were also thousands of gulls there, mostly Californias, but also good numbers of Western and Heermann's gulls. Along with this mass of birds, we were not surprised to see several Parasitic Jaegers looking to steal a meal.

We would remain in Magdalena Bay for the remainder of the cruise. The reason why was clear. Magdalena Bay is one of only a few "calving" areas for gray whales, and we saw up to 15 individuals per day here. We made several rounds of Zodiac cruises to watch these whales. On several occasions we had cow-calf pairs approach very closely, and we also saw several individuals breech and spy-hop. As amazing as it is to see a whale from the deck of a ship, to see one of these gentle creatures up close from a Zodiac is a true privilege. Birding around Magdalena Bay was also excellent. The shallow waters here harbored numbers of wintering waterfowl including Brant, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, and Red-breasted Merganser. Eared Grebes and Pacific Loons were also numerous. The mangroves and tidal flats were alive with cormorants, pelicans, herons, egrets, and shorebirds. We particularly enjoyed nice studies of shorebirds on a walk at Sand Dollar Beach, with highlights including Semipalmated, Snowy, and Wilson's plovers, American Oystercatcher, Willet, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, Dunlin, and Short-billed Dowitcher. And a real treat was seeing the local subspecies of Western Scrub-Jay in the mangroves near where we anchored for two days at Boca de Soledad. Amidst the din of grunts and growls from the large Double-crested Cormorant colony there, the jays' noisy calls were often audible from our ship.