An April, 2009, guided trip with Sea Kayak Adventures around Isla Carmen in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, with cactus and agave blooming, birds nesting, and the water refreshingly cool for snorkeling (sans wetsuit).
April, 2009. Isla Carmen, Sea of Cortez, Baja, MX. (revised 6/14/09)
”Whale Shark!” A huge maw, a white-spotted gray body, a length maybe 25 feet—a Whale Shark slides silently by beneath us. Ten minutes into a Baja sea kayak trip with Sea Kayak Adventures, and we’re looking down at the world’s largest fish.
This is my fourth trip to Baja’s Sea of Cortez, and my second here with Sea Kayak Adventures. Our goal is a circumnavigation of Isla Carmen. We’ll cover 60+ nautical miles in 10 days. The night before we begin, guides and guests gather at a Loreto hotel, and lead guide Charo has us introduce ourselves to the group. When it’s my turn, I launch in to my “I’m a photographer” routine, and explain to the guests I’ll have images available from them to download after the trip. But here’s the thing. As I finish I sort of shoot for the moon and say “I’d like to see a Whale Shark”. Charo reacts encouragingly, but I fear he’s thinking, ‘fat chance of that’. I might as well be asking to see angels dance on the head of a pin. Whale Sharks are in the Sea of Cortez, but many guides have been here for years without seeing one. So we put in at Puerto Escondido the next morning. We’re barely settled into our kayaks, and a dark fin appears, wallowing on the surface in front of us. It’s baffling to look at—nothing quite registers. Even Charo’s not sure what it is. But the beast turns towards us, the fin disappears, and then suddenly there it is between me and the rest of the fleet. I’m the first to see it whole and scream,” Whale Shark!” as its huge maw emerges beneath me, like a vision. We back up and turn to parallel the animal. I anxiously snap a few pictures. I’m thrilled to see a Whale Shark, but I’m also aware that the glare off the water will make ‘keepers’ a longshot.
For the circumnavigation of Carmen we move camp every day but one, but it’s no burden tearing down and setting up camp. Sea Kayak Adventures supplies our tent, sleeping bag and pad. The guides handle the food, cooking gear and other essentials like the portable toilet. It’s an unsupported trip, with a re-supply by panga on day six. Each morning we slip into a routine of tear down and pack. The gear stuffs easily into spacious double kayaks, though after we pack our personal kit, and the guides pack the shared gear, the kayaks are full. The routine is also efficient. I have plenty of time for photography in the sweet morning and evening desert light.
Our late April trip is perfect for the weather—dry air and generally light wind, morning temperature about 60F, rising to the low 80’s by late afternoon. The cool sea is refreshing, 72F to 77F, and we do daily, mid-day snorkels to view tropical fish and other sea critters like sponges, sea urchins, nudibranchs and sea stars. I was worried about getting fried by the sun, but I cover up while paddling, and apply sunscreen several times a day. While snorkeling, I wear a skull cap, a long-sleeve rash guard, leotard bottoms, and socks so I don’t burn my ankles.
Occasionally we see a sea turtle or a distant whale. More often while kayaking we spot a feeding frenzy. Unseen tuna and dolphin drive bait balls of sardines to the surface, where they’re dive bombed from above by Brown Pelican, Booby, and Heermann’s and Yellow-footed Gull. Calm mornings find us meandering along, spotting Sting Ray or King Angelfish or schools of the ubiquitous Sergeant Major as we peer beneath the surface from our kayaks. We move along aside a splendid geology laid bare: volcanic plug remnants and crests in reds and browns, sometimes yellows and greens; or uplifted chalk-white sediment that in places erodes into stunning white sand beaches, or hollows out to form sweet-smelling caves. Huge Cardon Cactus dot the landscape like ghosts.
At mid-morning on our rest day, I sit on a prickly hillside near a blooming Ocotillo, telephoto lens in hand. In an hour, I score nice images of a Costa’s Hummingbird, Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow, Ash-throated Flycatcher and Turkey Vulture. Returning to my tent, I switch to wide-angle, put my 5D in an Ewa-Marine housing and snorkel out to capture a Balloon Fish and Scorpion Fish, and the image of me handing a sea star to a guest.
The Whale Shark proves to be a trip highlight, but every day offers new sights, new flora and fauna, new adventures. And the photo-ops here, they never quit.