• William Gray

Sea Kayaking in Baja California

Updated: Mar 2

By William Gray


White water erupted from the lagoon ahead of our small flotilla of sea kayaks. I glimpsed dark shapes surging through the foam, straight and lethal as torpedoes. A fluked tail rose and fell, cracking the surface with the sound of gunshot. Then terns arrived at the scene, folding their wings like paper darts as they dived into the churning mêlée.


“Dolphins often herd fish against the mangroves,” Morgan Davies, our kayaking guide, told me. “And seabirds are never far behind.”


Such a plethora of life had been hard to imagine when, a few days earlier, I flew south from Los Angeles to Baja California. A gnarled peninsula of desert mountains and cactus-stubbled plains, Baja probes the Pacific like a skeletal finger. But where barren land meets cobalt sea, the 1,250-km-long Mexican frontier teems with life.


Each winter and spring, grey whales visit the sheltered Pacific lagoons of Magdalena Bay to give birth and mate before resuming their epic 8,000km migration to the Bering Sea. Travelling through a mosaic of waterways and camping on uninhabited islands, I had joined a five-day kayaking expedition to explore the whales’ wilderness nursery grounds and, if I was lucky, to paddle alongside them.


Our ‘put-in’ was deep in a mangrove swamp at the northern end of Magdalena Bay. Gradually, we cajoled a mountain of expedition paraphernalia (tents, cooking equipment, firewood, water containers) into the kayaks’ storage compartments.


“Don’t forget about intertidaling,” Morgan told us. “You get two toilet flushes a day here,” he explained. “One for each time the tide comes in.” It was crucial to find somewhere below high-tide mark before scooping a pit, using biodegradable toilet paper and then burying everything. “There are plenty of crabs, worms and other critters in the mangroves that will gratefully receive your donation.”


And so with a strange sense of satisfaction that our passing would actually benefit the local wildlife, we set off with nothing but Morgan’s emergency radio between us and the wilderness. After an initial period of knuckle scraping mis-strokes, the paddling was straightforward and I soon relaxed into an easy rhythm, lulled by the chuckle of water running beneath the kayak’s hull.


Bahía Magdalena hasn’t always been so tranquil. In the mid-1800s, Captain Charles Scammon was sailing off the coast when he spotted whale spouts rising from behind the low barrier islands which protect the bay. The cheers from his shipmates sounded the death knell for Baja’s grey whales. Scammon was an American whaler and, in the ten years that followed his fortuitous sighting, the whale population was decimated.


Scammon’s initial efforts to reap this valuable marine harvest met little resistance. On one occasion, two of his small whaleboats were crushed by whales, but the 15m-long cetaceans were no match for Scammon’s bomb lances. In 1857, he sailed into San Francisco harbour laden with 740 barrels of oil – the product of a single year’s whaling.


Today, the main draw for visitors to Magdalena Bay is still the grey whale. Following protection in 1946 its numbers have risen from just a few hundred to over 25,000 and Mag Bay, for all its remoteness, has become a leading whale-watching destination.


Daylight was fading as we paddled towards our first campsite. The lagoon, mirror-calm, had revealed no sign of whales. Flights of cormorants made for their roost as we beached the kayaks on a barrier island – one of a chain of sandy islets, each several kilometres long but only a few hundred metres wide, sandwiched between lagoon and ocean. Although hidden by a line of dunes, I could hear the distant surf, a gentle whisper, like wind in long grass.


A knotted shoulder muscle, stiff from paddling and a night on compacted sand, eased me awake sometime before dawn. Or, at least, that’s what I thought had woken me. Suddenly I was aware of something licking the outside of the tent. I held my breath and shifted slightly into a better position, but whatever it was must have heard me. There was a muffled whimper, a soft scratching of retreating footsteps, then silence.


Over breakfast, I mentioned my mysterious visitor to Morgan. “Oh yeah – that’ll be a coyote,” he said. “They lick the kayaks too. Out here, the morning dew is a good source of fresh water.”


I found a set of neat paw prints in the cold ashes of our campfire and, while we dismantled the tents and packed the kayaks, I felt an acute sense of being watched. But, like the whales, the coyotes were elusive.


We paddled all morning in the lee of the barrier island, pausing to glide silently towards herons, taut with concentration as they stalked fish. Every hour seemed to herald a different species. From the brazen snowy egret to the skulking green-backed heron, Magdalena Bay was festooned with birds. Pacific loons, eared grebes and surf scoters bobbed in our wake, while turkey vultures, frigate birds and ospreys pirouetted overhead.


The manœuvrable kayaks allowed us to nose about in narrow backwaters, skim across shallow sand banks and haul out on pristine, untrodden shores. At midday, we walked across the interior of a barrier island, crossing dunes carpeted in pungent wild sage and scattered with vicious devil’s claw seeds. On the ocean side of the island, wind scuffed row upon row of Pacific breakers, misting the air with spray and driving sea spume across a beach littered with sand dollars and shells. This wild coast was a desolate contrast to the island’s lagoon shore. Half-digested by sand lay the twisted wreck of a small fishing boat, bearded with seaweed. Along the strandline, polystyrene floats, light bulbs and plastic bottles were piled against the carcass of a large green turtle, an incongruous still-life of flotsam.


After two days of kayaking we reached the first boca, a natural deep water channel breaching the chain of barrier islands and connecting Magdalena Bay to the Pacific. Bocas are a favoured haunt of grey whales, but looking ahead all I could see was a boiling pot of leaping waves as vicious currents and rip tides seethed through the cutting.


“Looks a bit choppy up here.” Morgan’s voice was whipped away on the wind. The six kayaks coalesced into a tight pod and we dug our paddles hard against the current. But Morgan had no intention of taking us across. The tide was wrong and there was a real risk of capsizing. It was ‘right on the edge’ as he put it.


Instead we turned towards shore to look for a suitable campsite. We pitched the tents a few hundred metres from a sea lion colony. There was little shelter from the ocean wind and fine sand hissed against the flysheets. It crunched between my teeth and stuck fast to my face, now smeared with two days of sunblock and salt grime.


The following dawn, I walked stiffly out of camp, probing sand from my ears, and made for a piece of driftwood. A pair of curlews scattered at my approach, piping with indignation as they flew low across the lagoon. I stopped to watch them go, unaware that I, too, was being observed. When I looked round, the coyote couldn’t have stood more than a dozen yards away. His grizzled fur was speckled with sand and his eyes were pale yellow and flecked, like a wolf’s. In seconds the encounter was over, the coyote slipping into the early morning mist like a fleeting shadow.


We set off to cross the boca at low tide when waves would be less threatening. Paddling furiously for thirty minutes we emerged in calmer waters beyond the boca, wet and exhausted, but otherwise unscathed. Morgan decided it was time to sit back, stow the paddles and enjoy a spot of relaxed sailing. Stashed away in each kayak was a small sail and a collapsible mast and it wasn’t long before we were cruising at four knots before a brisk wind. As always, our eyes roved the lagoon for tell-tale signs of grey whales surfacing: a spurt of haze or a barrel-shaped back cleaving the sea. But for the third consecutive day, the leviathans eluded us.


News of the whales’ whereabouts reached us the following day. We were setting up camp by another boca when local fishermen informed us that whales were being sighted daily in the nearby channel. But our hopes of kayaking with them were still to be thwarted. The weather was deteriorating. By the following morning the wind had whipped the boca into a filigree of foam. To kayak in such seas would be madness. Clearly, the only chance we would have of seeing whales was to brave the boca in the fishermen’s more substantial motor-boats, or pangas.


The defiant scream of outboard engines as the pangas fought the heavy swell was shocking after the tranquillity of kayaking. Over the past few days we had travelled in tune with the natural pulse of Magdalena Bay, respecting its tides, currents and winds; never challenging them. But like any wildlife safari, the anticipation of our first whale sighting was intense.


A cry went up as the first blow was sighted. For a fraction of a second I saw a miniature rainbow perfectly framed in the column of spray before the wind tore it to shreds. Then, in defiance of the agitated sea, the broad back of a grey whale parted the waves. Gripping the gunwale of our wildly pitching panga, I watched its barnacle-scarred body ride the swell with ease, a great tail fluke suddenly curling above the surface, streaming water from its serrated edge, as the ceteacean slipped from view.


For several hours we searched for grey whales, other pangas ferrying tourists from a nearby fishing village on the mainland. There’s no doubt that whale watching has helped to secure the future of Baja’s grey whales by raising income and awareness. But sometimes it’s the wider view, not the close encounter, that can leave the most lasting impression.


On our last evening, I climbed wind-rippled sand dunes high above camp to gaze across the lagoon we had kayaked through over the past few days. To the west, the Pacific beat its steady thunder, bursting white along endless beaches. And there, beyond the rows of breakers, spouts of haze, tinted gold by the sunset, plumed repeatedly from a grey whale and its calf as they rested off Baja’s wilderness coast.


Game Plan


Kayaking specialists Ecosummer Expeditions offers Baja trips combining five days of paddling in the Sea of Cortez with two days of grey whale watching at a Magdalena Bay base camp. Also try Sea Kayak Adventures.


Several airlines serve La Paz and Los Cabos, while ferries link the Mexican mainland to Santa Rosalia and La Paz.


Sea Kayak Adventures has a Grey Whale Base Camp overlooking Magdalena Bay.


GMT-8


January to April.


Tourist Information: visitmexico.com

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Wildlife Wishlist was founded by zoologist, conservationist and award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray. Sharing his passion for wildlife and recommendations for responsible travel, Will has spent around 30 years tracking down the world's best wildlife holiday experiences.

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