“Here they come!” Racing toward us a huge pod of dolphins is eager to ride the bow waves, their dorsal fins slicing through the Sea of Cortez like hot knives through butter.
Propelled by the swell, they weave in and around each other with the deftness of a con man’s shell game. One cheeky dolphin performs a logroll then disappears beneath the waves. “Weeeeee!” I squeal to myself as he spins, imagining what he might be thinking.
I’m on the Safari Endeavor, a small ship of 88 passengers, cruising the Sea of Cortez, the sliver of ocean between the Baja California peninsula and Mexico’s mainland often called the Bay of California.
Renowned for its beauty, the Sea of Cortez is a stunning juxtaposition of blue-green water and arid volcanic landscapes. Cactus and coral, Sedona and sea.
Our dolphin friends are one of 32 marine mammal species in this fertile region along with 170 bird species and 3000 invertebrates. Jacques Cousteau, inspired by its remarkable biodiversity, dubbed it “The world’s aquarium.”
Small Boat Cruising on the Sea of Cortez
I have come for an UnCruise Adventure, a small boat cruise offering nature and marine life excursions, remote locations rather than bustling ports, and flexibility over a set schedule. According to J.P. the Expedition Team Leader, our itinerary is “subject to weather, whim, and whales.”
Every morning, I rise early to catch the sunrise, a ritual I share with other passengers and Jeremy, an UnCruise guide who’s been cruising the Sea of Cortez for seven years. I love the serenity of the dawn when the only sound you can hear is the gentle lapping of water against the hull and the faint cries of seabirds.
I swing by the forward lounge where the crew serves cereal and other light bites for early risers (breakfast is at 7:30 am) but most people b-line for the coffee. I grab a mug of hot chocolate and make my way to the 300-deck where there is a balcony and I wait for the spectacle to begin.
Jeremey and I usually see each other on the 300 deck near the stern. When I have a question, he like the rest of the crew is friendly, attentive, and enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge of the flora and fauna, even though he must repeat himself a million times a season.
After breakfast, I check the bulletin board to see what time my activities begin. Every evening, J.P. describes where we’ll be the next day and the excursions we’ll have to choose from. We hike, kayak, and snorkel in small guided groups, or depending on the location, something unique to the area.
Riding Burros on Agua Verde
Case in point, a burro ride around Bahia Agua Verde (the Bay of Green Water), 105 miles north of La Paz, where our journey began. In truth, our mounts are mules but as one person mused, “mule ride” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
The “burros” are owned by the Romero family, authentic rancheros from Rancho San Cosme, 12 miles north of the Agua Verde. Every Sunday, they leave their homes and ride all day to meet the Safari Endeavor and her passengers on Monday morning.
Historically, the family raised used to raise cattle, but years ago a prolonged drought devastated their livestock and they began to provide burro rides to travelers. The family and UnCruise have a strong relationship built over 15 years, and it’s evident by the warm greetings there is genuine affection.
Martine Romero pairs me with Bellasia, a mid-sized mule with large floppy ears (even for a mule). I settle comfortably into the handmade western saddle and not before long we’re underway. We begin by climbing an escarpment overlooking the ocean. Kayakers in the distance remind me of candy sprinkles floating on the water; the ship, a small toy I could cradle in my hand.
The ride is a little over an hour and a laid-back affair with beautiful rugged desert views. We amble along the water’s edge, through a tiny palm treed oasis, and negotiate a few steep hills (expertly maneuvered by my sure-footed steed). All in all, it’s a lovely way to start the day.
Kayaking Agua Verde
When the afternoon rolls around, I am one of the candy sprinkles on the water, sharing a double kayak with another solo traveler named Nancy.
Mark, our naturalist, and a former 5th and 6th-grade science teacher, asks us to stay within the safety of the bay due to strong winds. Neither of us being experienced kayakers, we are happy to paddle about enjoying the fresh air and listen to Mark wax poetic about the various seabirds flying overhead.
Fire in the Sky
Fresh from a shower, I head to cocktails. It’s a nightly 5:30 pm tradition held in the forward lounge but tonight we’re ushered to the top deck. As twilight nears we nibble on Mediterranean-style hors d’ oeuvres with fresh red-pepper hummus, chili-dusted baked pita slices, and chicken satay.
At first, the twilight is unremarkable. But Mother Nature determined to astonish us turns the world to fire with an epic mix of clouds, red rocks, and dazzling reflections.
One by one, we grab our phones and cameras. It’s funny, one minute, we’re chatty Cathies, but now we stare in relative silence, thoroughly mesmerized by the spectacular scene.
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Hiking Isla San Francisquito
It’s another beautiful day and I’m donning my hiking shoes for the “Ridge Walk” on the uninhabited Isla San Francisquito. We take a skiff and land on a glorious sickle-shaped beach. Another few hundred yards, the landscape changes to the dusty white carpet of a salt flat.
Further on, we cross a valley laden with scrub brush and cactus, an amalgam of harsh textures softened by the occasional hot pink “Adams Tree” blossoms. We follow a trail leading to the midsection of a narrow ridge running north to south. To the west is the land we just traversed, on the east steep, serrated cliffs lead down to a shore more boulders than beach.
The south tip is the highest overlooking the valley. I see ants wearing shorts and t-shirts walking in our direction and I’m thrown by the perspective. Everything here is so much larger than I realized.
Their appearance means it’s time to head back to the boat for lunch. I’ve worked up an appetite. Yesterday, the kitchen made me a yummy grilled cheese sandwich on freshly baked bread when I didn’t fancy anything on the menu. I’ve been thinking about it all morning and I’m going to indulge in another. I worked out, right?
Snorkeling While Cruising the Sea of Cortez
I’ve learned after many African safaris when it comes to nature, nothing is guaranteed. And frankly, that’s half the fun because when something does happen, it’s that much more special.
I’m not having the best luck snorkeling. The water is murky a lot of the time and marine life is scarce. But it’s ok, half the fun is the search and what I do see is different than what I’ve discovered on previous trips.
Minutes into my first go, a fellow snorkeler points out an octopus clinging to the underside of a large rock. Just as I move into position to take a good long look, a wave pushes me too close for comfort and the annoyed cephalopod squirts ink in my face and disappears.
Later, I am dazzled by a school of sparkling silverfish, and near Isla Coronado, I find my first scorpionfish, my first guinea fowl pufferfish, and my first chocolate chip starfish.
I didn’t even know there were chocolate chip starfish.
Swimming with Sea Lions
It’s 5:00 am. I woke up early, unable to sleep so I wait in the pre-dawn light transfixed by the ominous, jagged silhouette of Isla Espiritu Santo.
With the first hint of light comes the deep donkey barks and car squeals of sea lions that live at the base of Los Islotes—an enormous guano-covered rock east of the island. Unfortunately, they are too far away to see but their calls echoing off the stone are unmistakable.
This morning, we are paying them a skiff visit with Sarah, our husky-voiced, energetic guide.
When the skiff stops and anchors, little whiskered faces with big Annie eyes spy on us from the water not far from the boat. It seems they are as excited as we are.
Once I’m in the ocean, nothing happens for a few seconds then ZOOOOMMMM….a woosh of brown whizzes by and then another and another. The sea lions dive, twist, and spin, then shoot off at high speed only to return seconds later. They are so cute I can hardly stand it. A few, swim straight toward me then at the last second roll on their backs and change direction. Another one circles me slowly, looking me over as if I’m a museum exhibit.
Their energy and joy are infectious, and I giggle like an idiot. This is one of my favorite experiences of the last couple of years. It’s right up there with my polar bear safari in Manitoba.
When Sarah calls, I am the last to get into the boat. I do my best to stretch every second until I have to leave the water.
(I had so much fun swimming with the baby sea lions, I wrote a separate post about it. Above is a teaser video of the experience but if you’d like to see the whole thing, check it out.)
Swimming with Whale Sharks
We’re docked in La Paz, our final destination, though we still have an exciting swim with whale sharks scheduled, the world’s largest species of fish.
Until now, everything except the burro ride has been handled by UnCruise, but in La Paz Bay the whale sharks are protected, only a small number of specially licensed captains are able to enter. So, along with Sarah and a few fellow passengers, we board a small Fun Baja boat (a local partner) and off we go.
Whale sharks despite their ominous size are filter feeders, eating only plankton and small invertebrates. They swim close to the surface with their huge mouths open, sucking in water, internally straining out the desired nutrients then flushing out what’s left through their gills.
In the distance, I see the signature white spots of the whale shark beneath the rolling waves. For an instant, its tail breaks the water and a bolt of excitement runs through me.
Alex, Fun Baja’s guide, tells us to swim on our sides, breaststroke-style for the best view. The whale shark will not be below us but at eye level.
She gives us a little briefing on what to expect, in short: they keep swimming and we have to keep up. The captain positions the boat slightly ahead of the whale to put us in the right position but once we’re in the water and it passes, we have to kick hard to keep up.
We put on our gear and sit at the back of the boat. Alex is in front ready to give the high sign as soon as she thinks we’re in the right position. A few more seconds and she beckons us forward like a commando unit and we hit the water.
All I can see are bubbles and then it’s there in front of me, closer than I expected and big. Really big; at least 20 feet. It doesn’t react in the slightest, continuing on its way as if four rubber-coated humans hadn’t dropped in beside it.
We can’t get too close or touch the giant, and we’ve been warned to stay away from the tail for obvious reasons. Surprisingly, it stays with us, turning in our direction so often it’s hard to move out of its way. Slow and steady it moves, not threatening. I can’t tell if it’s coincidence or actually curious.
Yesterday, swimming with the sea lions was a delightful, whimsical circus. The sheer size and majesty of these whale sharks evoke reverence and awe.
When it finally decides to move on, I watch its massive tail disappear into the blue leaving me feeling thoroughly blessed to have spent my morning with such an extraordinary creature.
( I also wrote more about swimming with the whale shark, plus why, initially, I was very hesitant to try it. You’ll find it here. There’s a fun video too! )
UnCruising at Night
“Here you go,” Julie says handing me my after dinner Sambuca without my having to ask. Julie deserves a bartender award, she learned everyone’s name and their drinks seemingly overnight.
I settle in a chair in the front.
Previous nights have all ended this way. Dinner then an educational program in the lounge. Wallace J. Nichols a marine biologist and the author of The Blue Mind spoke on two nights, one about his love for sea turtles and his research, the other based on his book about the power of water on our health and wellbeing.
The book’s subtitle describes his premise the best: ” The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do”
On other nights, Sarah talked about aquatic resonance, and Mareth, a naturalist and kayak leader, discussed her passion for birds, their unique attributes, and the necessary contribution they make to our eco-system. I enjoyed them all.
Tonight is our last night and the crew has put together a slideshow of our week together. All the fun, foibles and humorous tidbits they’ve collected through pictures over the last six days. (I’ve pulled a few photos from this presentation above). We share 45-minutes of hooting and clapping as we walk down our collective memory lanes.
At the end, a tinge of melancholy washes over me. My journey is officially in the past.
It’s always the best trips that make me sad.
I was a guest of UnCruise Adventures however words and sentiment are my own. UnCruise did not see or approve this post before publishing.
The Nitty Gritty of What’s It’s Like to Cruise Sea of Cortez with UnCruise Adventures (FAQ)
Sea of Cortez Map and trip route
The map below is a reference only since weather and sea conditions will affect which islands are visited and what activities will be offered. (Click the arrow in the upper left-hand corner for descriptions.)
The cruise is 7 nights with the last night docked in La Paz.
35-37 crew members
232 feet long
37 feet wide
Cruising speed of 10 knots
(Source: Uncruise website)
Guests fly into San José del Cabo. Until all passengers arrive, guests are given a day pass at a local hotel where they can enjoy the beach, hang out and have lunch. An UnCruise office with crew members is set up near the lobby to help with any questions.
Once everyone has arrived, UnCruise chartered buses will drive you three hours to La Paz where the boat is docked. Snacks and drinks are provided during the journey.
My room was unpretentious and comfortable with a large window (some rooms have portholes). There were two twin beds that can be converted to a single queen, however, I preferred to lay out my clothes and other items on the second twin. I had a desk, TV/DVD player, hairdryer, binoculars, reusable drinking bottle, plenty of closet space, and a small ensuite bathroom.
FYI: The 300 deck staterooms share the balcony all the passengers use. No matter when I walked by, everyone had their drapes closed, I assume the guests didn’t want people to look in. For me, that defeated the purpose of investing in a higher deck.
For more information on the Safari Endeavor staterooms available go here.
Yes. Every morning at 6:45 am there is a yoga class on the top deck.
Each passenger was also given a free half-hour massage. However, it is rumored that UnCruise will be stopping this special treat in lieu of adding more staterooms.
The crew was delightful. Not just knowledgable, polite and helpful as one would expect, but good at engendering a community spirit as well as being very positive and upbeat with great sense of humor.
Note: The Safari Endeavor sails in Alaska during the summer and many of the crewmembers from my trip also work during the Alaska season.
In-Room video – There is a looping in-room video with pictures of the crew, their first name, and title for easy reference. It was very helpful.
In addition, on the first full day, the expedition and wellness teams introduced themselves and provided a little personal history. I really liked having a better understanding of who we were sailing with. Great touch.
Lounge, Library, Dining Room, Wine Bar, Two outdoor hot tubs,
Fitness equipment on the top deck, Yoga mats, Kayaks, Skiffs, paddleboards, hiking poles.
Yes. I was given a wetsuit, snorkel and flippers to use during the trip.
The cruise is all-inclusive including all excursions, related gear, and alcoholic beverages. Some additional gear available for purchase.
While tips are not mandatory, it is customary for guests to tip the crew $250.00 per person which can be charged to a credit card.
Every morning during breakfast, Chef Mark would tell us what was on the menu for lunch and dinner to get a preliminary headcount. Priority is put on using ingredients bought from local vendors. Obtaining a headcount beforehand helps to reduce waste.
For lunch, there are two options: one vegetarian, one non-vegetarian and dessert. For dinner options always include meat, fish, and vegetarian dishes, followed by dessert.
Chilled avocado soup and a Baja Corvina Sandwich served on a ship made agave Mexican sweet roll, topped with a little bit of slaw. The vegetarian option was a grilled vegetable sandwich on the same sweet roll.
A choice of seared mahi-mahi, tamarind braised short ribs or a ratatouille tart, with zucchini squash and tomatoes, topped with a lemon sauce.
No, but should you wish to wash a few things in your sink, there is a clothesline available in the shower.