Prizing ourselves out of San Ignacio was a whale-induced wrench. Comforted only by the fact that we were headed towards more azure bays, boojum-laden landscape—cactuses that twist and turn skyward, like inverted hairy carrots—scarred by rocky landslips amid a jumble of giant boulders. And foremost, we hoped, another helping of marine magic. The ride to get there invited the mountains to drop away, revealing a ribbon-like highway seemingly tossed into the rocks and salt lakes sparkling in the sun—flecking an otherwise dry and dusty desert.
Stopping in Santa Rosalía for supplies, I was too darn hot the last time to absorb anything but its oppressive heat. But riding in again, I had one of those ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’ moments; any consistency found on the Baja is totally lost in this buzzing port town falling over itself with rustic charm and colonial character. What was a ghost town before—so quiet a coma seemed to have settled over it—numbers of people had since risen and filled the place. Tin roofs, bougainvillea-covered verandas and a prefab iron church—were the first features to hit my radar, testament to the town’s divergent origins.
Extraordinarily though, not just any church. Iglesia de Santa Bárbara was a prototype displayed in 1889 at the Paris World Fair. Designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel himself (same chap behind the Eiffel Tower), he’d hoped to sell his Parisian houses of worship like hot cakes to the colonial powers of Africa and Southeast Asia. Not in the market for buying missionaries, the church was packed down and boxed up. Eventually bought by a Boleo mining executive—having heard about the sale of the century—he shipped it all the way across the Atlantic for his workers in Santa Rosalía. Amazing what you see when you just look.
Greeted at Playa Posada in Bahía Concepción by Kurt and Martha Forgét, owners of Black Dog Cycle Works—as thriving businesses go, think kitting out your BMW / KTM motorcycle in adventure-proof armour. They’d invited us to their protected little cove along the Sea of Cortez. A beachy outpost of no more than 50 people, I’d say there’s probably no better place to sample the peninsula’s kayaking, snorkelling and fresh-catch riches than on this 12-mile stretch of idyllic coastline and alluring turquoise waters. As postage stamp-sized places go, the view was pretty—fairy-light twinkling sanctuaries, no one the same, its lights hugging the bay and the neighbouring islands.
On the proviso that we would swing by to say hello, sleep in the hammock between a couple of palms or beneath a palapa, imagine our stunned surprise when Kurt deposited us into his beachside apartment, ‘the blue house’. “Well suck my pants and call me Noreen!” as Stephen Fry would put it. Riding a tidal wave of luck to have landed here, I couldn’t help wonder what we’d done to deserve it. It was that sort of place. Kaleidoscopically colourful, beach-chic elegant and fabulously luxurious. There was a joy and softness in the structure that I’d seen in Martha too.
Kurt was a fount of local knowledge that comes with years of spending myriad winters down here, with a no-nonsense manner. “So, you’ve come to a pretty nice part on the Baja” Kurt said, always with a subtle humour in his eyes. That got a chorus of agreement from us. Martha was just as amiable and unpretentious but what I saw beyond a woman with chestnut brown hair, was the owner of a sly grace and a steadfast, unapologetic way of filling her skin. Not easily rattled either, I liked her immediately.
Overlooking the clear waters inside the bay, lived a friendly ex-pat community whose houses abutted the cliff, recessed into the rock and those that weren’t clinging to the cliff, were dotted close-ish together on the sand. Their lives were unhurried: Mondays were earmarked as movie night; another day for Mexican Train, a mindless game of dominoes, kept purposely undemanding so you can continue sipping drinks so strong, your toes curl; and you’d find many an art / craft fair being held locally. The latter being where I met a circle of Martha’s friends: all down to earth, educated women sophisticated in both their image and outlook on life—one of whom reminded me of Penelope Keith from The Good Life with an uncanny resemblance.
A committee had even formed to sponsor the local Mexican children through their schooling, which was wonderful to hear about while watching twin boys splashing each other where the water met the sand. The whole world seemed to slow: the glittering water from some other kid’s bucket hung suspended in the air, a mother’s laughing face barely seemed to move.
Happy hour began no later than 4.30pm: in a circle on the beach although seeing a drink in someone’s hand from 9am wasn’t exactly uncommon. Crikey, something was agreeing with this lively bunch if they could keep that up. In fact, it didn’t take long before I became smitten in a sea of silver foxes. Requests, offers, calls and summons to join people for food and drink, use their paddle boards, snorkeling gear or kayaks, were in abundance.
Every morning a group of old timers—battling it out with intense, almost religious concentration trained on the tennis ball (or sun ball)—looked like they were glowing, rather than grey. “Hit it, George! Hit it!” “Good job!” and “Oh nice one, Shelia!” were consistently belted out. Fit but a far cry from hard-bodied, or ripped, Martha only wished that the chaps were made to keep their shirts on. An empathetic smile and spreading my hands wide in a silent apology, was all I could offer her.
These guys in the autumn of their days, might have been old dogs but something in the way they straightened their backs told me they were in the prime of their life. It was like being in the movie Cocoon where a group of frail elderly friends are given a second chance with a new lease of life. “Hi, how are you?” I’d always ask one of them on my way past. “Well, I woke up breathing this morning and I’m on the Baja!” I loved their zest for life, and it paved the way to remembering that you absolutely are as old as you feel.
Coupled with the could-be cast from Cocoon, I’d wake up to a parrot regaling everyone with various pieces from his repertoire. Vocalising: a long stream of wolf whistles, haunting bursts from that of a mocking jay or the Spanish for “Pretty boy”—any of which were intermingled with warbling an infectiously uplifting song, akin to the seven dwarf’s whistling on their way to work, or your granddad when he’s pottering. It made for a surreal experience in how the older half live.
I liked it here. It was a placid place, easy to fit in and get along at a leisurely pace. The setting sun melting into the sea washed the turquoise water with shades of pink each night. Generators flipped off around ten, where illumination thereafter comes largely from the moon and stars.
Posada and its surrounding necklace of islands was home to: huge numbers of seabirds, indigenous Xantus’ hummingbirds, small sting rays that move like crépes in a hurry along the shallows, sea lions, pods of dolphin, oh and whale sharks. Randy, our other neighbour who was 6-foot something, loved his Tequilia (both the dog and drink), and peered out of his weathered cap—his skinny legs in a pair of shorts and deeply tanned arms hanging down from his muscle top. Taking us out on his pontoon boat to swim with the two temporary resident whale sharks at Playa Coyote was a seriously unexpected surprise. How kind, I thought.
Barrelling south two-up, headlights stabbing into a new dawn, we set off early on a chilly and sharp-edged morning thinking we’d try our luck one more time. Swinging down to Loreto, we hugged the coastline and ran with the throttle open. Hoping it hadn’t run dry and Lady Luck was still shining down on us, having booked a seven hour voyage with Loreto Sea and Land Tours online.
But precisely seven miles before reaching the town, Jason swiftly hit the brakes, marginally missing a sandy-coloured cow—oblivious to both man and motorcycle—concealed in the shade. That’s the trouble with luck, I thought again, it can run out at any hairy moment. Heart in my throat for a few terrible heartbeats at 50-miles per hour, my life flashed before me. “Well spotted, just in time,” I congratulated Jase as I hunkered into the back of him and grappled with the sudden lows of a life on the road: another life used in the cat’s 99.
Taken by surprise with my stomach still knotted, strands of light crept over the eastern horizon and twined through the transparent gleam of lavender that stretched over the Sea of Cortez. Lilac light drained the grey from the world so I could see well again, as I watched a sliver of sun rise above the water, the cacti standing like silent guardians. It ring-fenced the panic in the pit of my stomach and that was enough to shrug it off.
Enter an even more extraordinary world: off the the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), lies a pretty well-kept secret—largely unknown to the legions of tourists—which is probably over-shadowed by the game and friendly whales off San Ignacio. The blue whales: the biggest animal on the planet. Sadly, like the greys, numbers were almost depleted to extinction by whalers. That is, until their safety was guaranteed in the mid-60s although the estimated population today at around 10,000 to 25,000 has still not recovered to anywhere near healthy (there were once at least a quarter of a million).
Seeing a blue whale would be one of my uppermost personal dreams and let’s face it, every naturalist’s too. I’d just met a guy from up north in England who had managed to sight them, which was wonderful for him although all I could think about was his accent. It was so thick you could have served a Yorkshire pudding with it. But with only five blue whales seen now and again in the area, it might be more a case of trying to find a needle in a haystack.
It’s nigh on impossible to prepare someone for their first encounter. An average-sized blue whale is astoundingly gargantuan. Almost as long as a Boeing 737 and matching the weight of 2,000 humans, it’s heart is as big as a small car and you could swim down its arteries. A blue whale’s tongue can weigh as much as an elephant! Quite simply, it takes your breath, blows your mind and leaves you trembling from awe, or something else just as human. People say that intuition is just our emotion and intellect working in tandem. Implacably, I hoped beyond hope that they were right and we were wending our way towards the animal kingdom’s most magnificent species known to man.
Clambering aboard the Barbara Suzanna, I greeted Marcos—our captain and guide—in a sleep-addled voice. Setting sail at 7am sharp meant we’d increased our chances of eyeballing the blues feeding. The nutrient-rich waters off Loreto at this time of year were brimming with red krill, a small shrimplike planktonic crustacean, which in their masses, looked like a thick burgundy inky dye blotting beneath the surface. It was the magnet to the gun metal grey coloured creatures—gulping down 3,600 kilograms of them per day—and by a quirk of fate, we were in the right place at the right time. Five minutes into our blue oydssey, we glimpsed the tail-end of a humpback breaching, or so Marcos thought. “What’s that spurt of activity on the water at 11 o’clock?” I asked, squinting in the sun. A pod of around 100 common dolphin, cute darn things.
Just shy of two hours from untying the ropes in the marina, off a headland we reached ‘Sealion Little Island’. “Can you see them blowing? There are five of them,” Marcos remarked, as though he was counting whale watching boats. “What?!” I gasped. “You mean, those massive puffs I can see blowing towards the sky on the horizon? Are they blue whales?” “They’re the ones.” Well colour me happy, I’ve just seen at least 0.05 per cent of the world’s blue whale population.
Not within hailing distance from where we were, they were all tip and no iceberg. I soon realised that blue whales don’t respond to women waving like a mother flagging down her kids for dinner. Between one heartbeat and the next, I have to admit, I was amped. And took a moment to think: it was going to be a roll of the dice to get a really good look, that was for sure. Stupendously huge as they were, they were shy old things. But they were here!
Then nothing. For a good while, the glassy sea was my only companion. In the morning’s swelling silence, the repository of all my hopes slowly diminished only to give way to defeat steadily colonising my body. Admittedly, it was a trip of a thousand farewells. And so, the day went: I alternated between port and starboard and from the bow to the stern but with no better results. Spirits beginning to sag a little, patience isn’t my strongest point. But one of the hallmarks of every successful mission—perhaps of life itself—is a determination never to give up.
Under a blazing hot sun bouncing off the water, the ocean had yielded everything but the blues (although I was getting close to harbouring the melancholic feelings), including spooked mobula rays leaping out of the water for safety and throw me overboard, a fin whale mother with her calf. Fin whales are almost as big as blues, I learned.
One thing I liked about Marcos—born and bred on the Baja—was his attitude. “I always enjoy my job in alternative tourism. For ten years, I was a grey whale guide and every day, I like my job. No day is the same. And I love the blue whales. If you enjoy it, I enjoy it. If you’re not happy, I’m still happy,” he confessed without a hint of arrogance or apathy, just an upfront honesty and a wry sense of humour.
“Oh my goodness,” I verbalised to no in particular, my hope spiking and unable to keep the smile out of my voice. The blue whale 50-metres away stopped me in my tracks and I forgot to breathe. I stood motionless and tried to find a pocket of calm. As she fluidly glided on the surface, revealed a constant moving mass of metallic grey on the smoothest skin I’ve ever seen. So effortless, so streamlined, down to three neat pleats on her supersized surfboard-shaped head, she bearly seemed to move a muscle, yet cut through the water like a torpedo.
The iceberg had emerged, all 30-metres of her. Flawless, implausibly long and quite possibly Mother Nature’s finest creation. The noise from her breaths was like the sound of vapour erupting from a geyser—touching the belly of the sky—it was powerful as it travelled across the water. I ran the sight through my mind once more to ensure my longing for blue whales hadn’t coloured my vision. Satisified, only then did I surrender to a flurry of emotion, unchained my feelings and let my heart soar. Surprised little groans erupted and my feet engaged in a happy dance. Hard-wired with energy, every sense was supercharged.