Cloud Ridge Naturalists


January 24-February 2, 2015
(10 Days/9 Nights)

Audrey Benedict, Dr. Geoff Hammerson, Wendy Shattil & Bob Rozinski, Marilyn Hailbronner and the M/V Westward Crew

Standing on the Westward’s foredeck, we see a cloudless arc of sky and a jagged spine of cactus- clad mountains towering above turquoise-hued water fringed by a beach of white sand. Rising miragelike out of the Pacific Ocean, Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula stretches south as a slender, 800-mile-long cul-de-sac of the Sonoran Desert. Along Baja California’s austere eastern shoreline, the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), a marine mirror-image of the peninsula, separates it from the rest of the Mexican mainland. From the peninsula’s western shores, the Pacific stretches across one third of the globe’s circumference before reaching the shores of another continent.

The sense that Baja California seems a world apart reflects its remarkable plate tectonic history and its biological setting. Baja California sits atop the oceanic Pacific Plate while mainland Mexico is part of the North American Plate. Deep-seated plate movements along the southern trajectory of the great San Andreas Fault caused the peninsula to begin rifting northwest in relation to mainland Mexico about 25 million years ago. By at least 5 million years ago, the Pacific Ocean had begun flowing into the gulflike breach between the plates, ultimately creating the Sea of Cortez. Episodes of intense volcanism along the peninsula’s mountainous spine and the resulting uplift of its eastern flanks produced the spectacular scenery we see today and triggered the region’s climatic transformation.

Baja California defies the popular perception that deserts are lifeless places. Tethered to the North American mainland by a relatively narrow land bridge and surrounded by Pacific waters on three sides, Baja California is a remarkable treasure trove of biodiversity. With the evolutionary stage set by a million years of virtual isolation, the Sea of Cortez’s 44 major islands and 900 smaller islands host the largest number of endemic plant and animal species in North America. Of the 695 species of island-dwelling vascular plants, 20 genera are endemic. These islands are also among the world’s richest in terms of reptile diversity, with at least 50 endemic species. Of the 891 species of fish that occur in these waters, 90 are endemic species. Equally exceptional is the fact that the region contains 39% of the world’s total number of marine mammal species and one-third of the world’s cetacean species. In fact, many biologists refer to the Sea of Cortez and its islands as the “Mexican Galapagos.” Ocean explorer and renowned conservationist Jacques Cousteau described the Sea of Cortez as “the aquarium of the world.” In 2005, with tourist developments, overfishing, and other environmental threats taking a drastic toll, UNESCO and the Mexican government designated much of the Sea of Cortez and nearly 50% of Baja California Sur, one of Mexico’s 31 states, as a World Heritage Site.

Legendary marine biologist Dr. Ed Ricketts is best known for his pioneering studies of marine ecology along the Pacific coastline of North America. His book Between Pacific Tides first published in 1939 and now in its fifth edition, remains the classic introduction to the Pacific intertidal zone for students and scientists alike. In the spring of 1940, Ed Ricketts and his ocean loving friend, novelist John Steinbeck, embarked on a 4,000-mile expedition aboard the WesternFlyer, a sturdy 76-foot purse seiner, that took them from California’s Monterey Bay south around Baja California to the Sea of Cortez. Both men shared a profound curiosity and passion for understanding the marine world. They also believed that their 6-week collecting trip in the Sea of Cortez would open a window as wide and horizonless as that of Charles Darwin. Their expedition resulted in two books—Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941), the original coauthored version which included Ricketts’ annotated collection catalog, and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951), the shorter narrative version that Steinbeck published following Ricketts’ tragic death in 1948. To explain their mutual fascination with the infinite complexity of the marine world, Steinbeck often described the visionary philosophy that guided their expedition as “bright with sun and wet with sea water.” We follow in their wake...

Our expedition to Baja California begins in Loreto, a picturesque town located on Baja’s eastern shore. We’ll travel by van along this stark but beautiful coastline and then across the peninsula’s jagged spine to Laguna San Ignacio, one of the three lagoons on Baja’s west coast where gray whales gather in large numbers to give birth and breed. From our shoreside tented camp, our Mexican guides will take us in small open pangas to spend an unforgettable morning and afternoon drifting quietly in the lagoon in the midst of gray whale mothers and their calves. The experience is truly magical because the whales seem to be as curious about us as we are of them and may bring their calves right up to the panga. As night falls, you will go to sleep listening to the breath sounds of hundreds of sleeping whales echoing across the star-lit water.

With memories of these whales tucked away in our hearts, we’ll return to Loreto to begin our voyage in the Sea of Cortez. Pacific Catalyst’s vintage 8-passenger cruising yacht, the 86-foot long-M/V Westward, built in 1924 and a world traveler in her own right, sets the stage for this spectacular adventure. We’ll be welcomed aboard by Capt. Bill Bailey and the Westward’s crew. Our elegant and supremely seaworthy vessel is equipped with a full complement of sea kayaks, a motorized skiff, and snorkeling gear for exploring near and far. Getting underway for Isla Danzante, we’ll watch for red-billed tropicbirds and elegant terns swooping over the water and brown pelicans fishing the shallows. Traveling south, with The Log from the Sea of Cortez in hand, we’ll visit several of the island and peninsula collection sites made famous by the pioneering Ricketts-Steinbeck expedition 75 years ago. On trips ashore, we’ll explore the Sonoran desert world and search for some of the endemic plant and animal species that inhabit these islands. On some islands, giant cardón cacti tower over a prickly understory of shrubs, providing welcome shade for a giant chuckwalla or a delicate gecko. Desert birding should treat us to good looks at pyrrhuloxia, white-winged doves, Gila woodpeckers, or the endemic Xantu’s hummingbird. Back aboard, drifting quietly through the nutrient-rich waters of the “Blue Triangle,” we’ll hope to spot blue and sperm whales as they congregate to feed on the bounty of plankton and squid. We’ll learn how El Niño and La Niña cycles in the Pacific influence the abundance of marine life as well as the storm systems that deliver nurturing moisture to the peninsula and to the islands. Continuing south toward Isla San Jose, we’ll watch for black and least storm-petrels skimming over the waves, foraging pairs of Craveri’s murrelet, the tiniest of all murrelets, and noisy colonies of both blue-footed and brown boobies, Heermann’s gulls, and magnificent frigatebirds. We’ll use sea kayaks to explore the labyrinth of mangroves in San Jose’s expansive lagoon, ever-watchful for yellow-crowned night herons, white ibis, and mangrove warblers. From our anchorage just offshore from Isla San Francisco, we’ll get an early start for the national park islands of Isla Partida and Espiritu Santo, located about 20 miles north of La Paz. With luck, our ocean passages will have provided opportunities to see both Bryde’s and humpback whales, dolphin species such as the long-beaked, Pacific white-sided, spotted, or bottlenose, giant manta rays, and both hammerhead and whale sharks. The crystalline waters of our final night’s anchorage may invite a sea kayak trip or a sunset beach walk. We return to the Westwardfor a fabulous dinner and an evening spent savoring highlights of our trip.

Price: $5,600. (includes a $500 deposit)
Group Size: 8  Trip Rating: 2-3
Price Includes: 3 nights hotel accommodations (including the night of the 24th at a hotel near the LA airport) and 1 night in a tented camp, all van transportation ashore, all meals ashore, 6 nights and 6 days aboard Westward, 5 naturalist leaders, the services of Westward’s 4-person crew, sea kayak outfitting and instruction, gratuities to the crew, and a copy of the photo book of the voyage. The price quoted is per person based on double occupancy. No single accommodations are available. Does not include roundtrip airfare from your departure point to Loreto or return from Los Cabos. This trip requires an overnight in LA (on the 24th) before we travel to Loreto (25th).

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