Baja California: Among the Great Whales Feb 22—Mar 01, 2014

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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In a winter with harsh weather throughout much of the country, many of us on this year’s Baja California: Among the Great Whales cruise were happy just to bask in the warmth for a change. But there was so much more to enjoy on this cruise aside from nice weather. From the extreme comfort of our home base, the 62-passenger National Geographic Sea Bird, we were able to explore this beautiful region in style. We had the privilege to visit some pristine and remote sites that are not accessible by land, and see some truly amazing wildlife along the way.

Gray Whales (Olivia and Victor)

Gray Whales (Olivia and Victor)— Photo: Michael O’Brien

The first phase of our cruise took place on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula around Bahia Magdalena and Boca de Soledad. The beaches are beautiful here, and tidal flats are full of wading birds such as Reddish Egret, Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, and Willet. We had particularly nice shorebird studies on our first walk and instructive comparisons of several gull species later on. A little poking around in the mangroves and dune scrub produced some interesting birds such as Western Scrub-Jay, “Magdalena” Horned Lark (an endemic subspecies), “Mangrove” Yellow Warbler, and “Large-billed” Savannah Sparrow. But all these wonderful sightings paled in comparison to the experience we had with Gray Whales in these quiet bays. Female Gray Whales gather here to bear young and raise them until they are strong enough to swim in the open ocean. The number of cow-calf pairs here was impressive, but even more impressive was how “friendly” they were. During our Zodiac cruises, we had numerous close encounters with these gentle animals, some of them just lounging alongside us, allowing each one of us to pet them! What an amazing experience!

We began the second phase of our cruise as we sailed past La Entrada and entered the Pacific Ocean. Almost immediately, the birdlife changed. We began seeing small groups of Black-vented Shearwaters and eventually kicked up a few alcids, including both Craveri’s Murrelet and Cassin’s Auklet. We soon ran into our first large pod of Long-beaked Common Dolphins, a deep-water species not found in Magdalena Bay. Good seabirding continued the next day at Gorda Banks near the mouth of the Sea of Cortez. Here, we found both Black-vented and Pink-footed shearwaters, and also Black Storm-Petrel, Red-billed Tropicbird, Red Phalarope, and Parasitic Jaeger. The big surprise was a Laysan Albatross, a species that nests far off the Baja coast, but is rarely detected in the Sea of Cortez. However, center stage at Gorda Banks was clearly taken by Humpback Whales. We saw several very active groups of rival males, many waving their huge pectoral fins, lobbing their tails, and some of them breaching. The close views we had of these majestic animals were just breathtaking.

Xantus's Hummingbird

Xantus’s Hummingbird— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Our premier bird walk was a visit to Estero San Jose, a small estuary that runs through San Jose del Cabo. Here, the primary focus was finding three Baja endemic birds: Xantus’s Hummingbird, Gray Thrasher, and Belding’s Yellowthroat. With a little work, we were able to get good views of all three! Along the way, we enjoyed a wonderful diversity of migrant and resident species, including Cinnamon Teal, White-faced Ibis, Clapper Rail, Common Gallinule, Long-billed Dowitcher, Common Ground-Dove, Gila Woodpecker, Cassin’s Kingbird, Bell’s Vireo, Lark Sparrow, and Hooded and Scott’s orioles. It was particularly entertaining to watch a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron attempt to swallow a fish that seemed way too big!

Our exploration of the Sea of Cortez brought us to several interesting islands. On Isla San Jose, we visited the pristine Kelley’s Beach. While some of us snorkeled, others took a nice walk up a dry wash where we found many interesting plants, lizards, and butterflies. Birds were plentiful too, with excellent views of Costa’s and Xantus’s hummingbirds, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and California and Blue-gray gnatcatchers. Another pair of tiny islands, Los Islotes, was teeming with life. Magnificent Frigatebirds, and both Brown and Blue-footed boobies were flying all around (the latter nesting there), as were Yellow-footed Gulls, a species that is nearly confined to the Sea of Cortez. Just as exciting to see was the large number of playful California Sea Lions, with which some participants were able to snorkel. But the real prize sighting was in San Jose Channel where we came upon a group of at least 27 Sperm Whales! We remained with these magnificent animals for over two hours, and listened to their odd clicking calls on the hydrophone as they swam at the surface, and then dove to feed. At times, some of these animals even breached—a rare sight indeed!

Our enjoyment of this cruise was made possible in large part by the highly accomplished and professional staff of National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions. Not only were they knowledgeable, friendly, and fun to sail with, but they also made sure that every detail of our cruise was handled with our safety and enjoyment in mind, while maintaining the highest respect for the wildlife we were observing. Their impeccable reputation is well-deserved, and we offer them our sincere thanks.