The Galapagos of the North
By Lindsey Nielsen, Expedition Guide on the Safari Endeavour
One of my favorite things about Baja is that you never exactly know what to expect. Winds can shift, swell can build, and we have to change plans. Or the weather calms, making a normally inaccessible place available to explore - and the unexpected wildlife!
Baja is known to be the tromping grounds of an extraordinary variety of species. There are an estimated 32 species of marine mammals, 3,000 invertebrate species, 875 fish species, and 170 species of birds. Even after four years of guiding in Baja, every week I see at least one species I have never seen before.
I recently experienced a week that was particularly special for seeing rare sights. After a rather windy stretch, the weather had calmed from a rolling sea and whipping wind into a flat, glassy calm. We had a spectacular morning swimming with curious California sea lions before raising the anchor and traveling out into the Sea of Cortes in search of more marine mammals.
We didn’t have to wait long. The calm sea allowed us to scan for blows and fins at a huge distance. Just as guests were finishing up lunch, we spotted a blow, then another, and another! As we slowly approached, we noticed that there was something a little off about these blows – they were angled. The telltale sign of a sperm whale! I had never seen a sperm whale in the Sea of Cortes, and I was ecstatic.
Peering across our bow, we could easily see at least 10 blows spread over a mile or so. They were exhibiting typical foraging behavior; resting at the surface for about 10 minutes to re-oxygenate their systems before descending back into the depths. Sperm whales are some of the diving champions of the animal kingdom, capable of descending over a mile and holding their breath for up to two hours!
We were looking at a group of females and possibly a few juvenile males. Sperm whales live in a matriarchal society – a group of related females staying together for most of their lives, raising calves together, feeding, and traveling together. Males leave the female groups at around the age of 17 where they travel to colder waters only to return to the tropics when they are sexually mature (around 40 years old).
We stuck with the group for quite a while before turning our eyes elsewhere. It didn’t take long before we spotted another group of blows in the distance. This time, short-finned pilot whales! Another rare sighting. Quick black bodies, bulbous heads, and distinctive dorsal fins make them a striking animal to watch. The group moved close beside us, regularly crossing in front of our bow. A sea lion and a pair of dolphins joined them swimming amongst the dark shadows of the pilot whales.
It is days like this that are a constant reminder of why this place is so special. So-called the Galapagos of the North, the Sea of Cortes holds many secrets and surprises.