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Watching whales up close and personal in Baja California on a small-ship cruise

BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR, Mexico

About to board an open boat for a whale-watching trip, a well-traveled businesswoman says she is a little disappointed in our weeklong voyage through the Sea of Cortez: She prefers a more definite schedule of events, announced well in advance.

About an hour later, she and the seven other passengers in her boat experienced a thrill that could not be scheduled: A mother gray whale lifted the boat from the water and almost dumped them in a chilly inlet of the Pacific Ocean.

The whale was one of the pregnant females who had migrated here from Alaska to give birth. Both adults and calves can be curious about the tourist-filled boats idling in their nursery, the passengers slapping the water to draw attention. The creatures come to the boats and the humans touch the whales' rubbery hides.

And so it was that when another calf came toward our boat, we leaned over, waiting for the calf to poke its big head out of the water.

Instead, the mother went under the boat and raised it from the water, at a frightening angle.

Just as quickly, she moved from underneath it, followed by our whoops of joy. Thanks for the once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

Unscheduled, unforgettable

From points as diverse as England and Florida, 30 of us had boarded the Safari Endeavour for the chance to observe not just whales but dozens of other creatures in the water and in the air, and to marvel at the plant life in the arid Baja California Sur peninsula.

The Baja extends southward hundreds of miles from the U.S. border and is separated from mainland Mexico by the 109,000 square miles of the Sea of Cortez.

It was Jacques Cousteau who termed this "the world's aquarium'' due to its astonishing variety of life. Safari Endeavour passengers on my trip tallied more than 60 species of fish, birds, mammals and reptiles.

And one afternoon became a marathon of unexpected delights:

Our ship motored upon a pod of eight orcas — killer whales. For 20 minutes they brought cheers and giddy laughter as they crossed under our bow, gliding on both sides of the vessel.

Later, we encountered dozens of dolphins, rapidly leaping from the water during a feeding frenzy. Overhead, a cloud of seabirds waited to dive in.

Not two hours after that, a mighty blue whale repeatedly spouted water before finally submerging, well ahead of the ship.

None of the day's events could have been scheduled. None can be forgotten.

Safari Endeavour departs from La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. The ship heads north, sometimes stopping more than once a day at coves and islands where we often had a wide beach to ourselves.

The daily agenda was usually posted the night before on the closed-circuit TVs in each of the 43 cabins. This schedule varied little: Options were kayaking, snorkeling, standup paddle-boarding, beachcombing or low-impact hikes. Passengers opt to do as much or as little as they want.

Before the first port of call, everyone was outfitted with a wet suit, fins and snorkeling mask.

In the kayaks, in the water and on the hikes, we were always accompanied by naturalist-guides.

Beyond the landings, life on board centered around conversation, reading and meals. All beverages, from soft drinks to cocktails, were included in the ticket.

Also included in the price: the bartender offering hot chocolate spiked with creme de cacao while we relaxed in one of the two hot tubs, after off-ship activities. Another unscheduled, but welcome, event.

Robert N. Jenkins, former travel editor of the Tampa Bay Times, is the author of "End Bag," an anthology of his work. "End Bag" is available for $2.99 at the Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBookstore, Smashwords and Sony sites.

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Getting to Baja

Safari Endeavour is operated by American Safari Cruises, whose small-ship fleet itineraries boast first-name informality and a lack of casinos, nightclubs and multiple dining venues. The whale-watching trips, which run from November to January, launch from La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. Rates for oceanview suites are $2,995 for seven-night cruises. For more information on the cruise, contact a travel agent or go to un-cruise.com.

Getting to La Paz isn't the easiest from Tampa International. In November, flights on Delta stop in Atlanta and Mexico City before getting to La Paz. Round-trip airfare is about $830. Some travelers find it easier to fly in and out of Cabo San Lucas and the cruise line will help Cabo passengers to and from the ship. It's about $100 less to fly there but you'll still have to make two stops. The towns are about 75 miles apart.

Watching whales up close and personal in Baja California on a small-ship cruise 07/03/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 3:29pm]

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