By guest contributor, Roderick Eime, editor of Adventure Cruise Guide
I’ll bet if you ask most cruisers “where in the world is the Sea of Cortés?” you’d get more blank looks than correct answers.
Also known as the Gulf of California, it is bordered to the west by the peninsula that is the Mexican state of Baja California and to the east, the mainland states of Sonora and Sinaloa. With a coastline of approximately 4,000 kilometers, it encloses 160,000 square kilometers of gorgeous ocean.
Yes, and it was the Spanish who were the first Europeans to explore these waters in the 1530s. After their predictable catastrophic encounters with the local Pericu and Guayacura people (who cease to exist today) Hernán Cortés and his marauders claimed what they believed to be a land of riches, calling it the Island of California. This misnomer and cartographic aberration continued for 200 years until eventually corrected by an Italian missionary.
The name, California, by the way, is credited to the 15th century Spanish novelist, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo whose warrior queen, Califia, was the prominent character in his fanciful tale, ‘The Adventures of Esplandián’.
Today, conventional, big ship cruise lines like Royal Caribbean head south from the US to the very tip of the peninsula and the flourishing resort region of Cabo San Lucas, but a few smaller expedition cruise lines like Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic turn the corner and head north into the Gulf proper. This is really a body of water best suited to the small (okay, tiny) expedition vessels that can travel within such delicate eco-systems with little or no impact.
Since 2005, the coastal region and the 244 islands and islets have been inscribed by UNESCO on their World Heritage list.
“Almost all major oceanographic processes occurring in the planet’s oceans are present in the property, giving it extraordinary importance for the study of marine and coastal processes. These processes are indeed supporting the high marine productivity and biodiversity richness that characterize the Gulf of California.” [see full entry ]
They’re not kidding. The Gulf of California is teeming with marine life or all kinds. It seems every day we are seeing whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions and a multitude of seabirds. Had I been here a few weeks earlier, I might have seen the majestic California Gray or Humpback whales before they left for northern waters. But others like the mighty sperm and fin whales have resident populations that just hang here year round feeding on the abundance of food delivered by the favourable currents and submarine terrain working in happy unison.
I’m told it was a young Sven Lindblad who came here in the late ’70s and immediately recognized the value of the region and its suitability for expedition style travel which his family were already famous for. Now, more than 30 years on, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic set the benchmark for small ship exploration here with the twin, 62-guest, 1981-built vessels, Sea Bird and Sea Lion.
Guests are immersed in a daily ritual of wildlife spotting, Zodiac cruising, shore excursions, snorkeling, kayaking and, in between times, shipboard lectures and enrichment. It’s a non-stop naturalist’s cavalcade.
The sun deck is ample for the size of the ship and most wildlife viewing like whales and dolphins is done from the bow. A massage therapist/wellness instructor is also now a regular inclusion on expedition voyages along with expert guides and National Geographic photo instructors.
But keep in mind expedition cruisers traditionally put the destination experience ahead of any shipboard offerings and while Sea Bird and Sea Lion have developed a loyal following, it’s unlikely because of their luxurious accoutrements. Cabins are small compared to the big ship counterparts and other public spaces like dining and lounge are modest. Berlitz rates the two a lowly 1.5 stars (743 points) but the Douglas Ward formula does not work well with expedition vessels generally and does not take into account the exceptional naturalist staff, enrichment or the stunning environments the pair sail in.
The season runs from December to April annually, but guests need to be mindful of the migrating species like Blue, Humpback and Gray whales if this is what they hope to see. The Grays, for example, are all but gone by mid-April and on their way north to places like Puget Sound in Canada.
For details of Lindblad’s Sea of Cortés explorations, visit www.expeditions.com.