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The Big Blue - Baja California

23RD FEBRUARY TO 10TH MARCH 2017

Mobirise

They say if you are going to go and watch whales only one time in your life then this is the trip to make. So it proved, but allow me to explain why.

The trip started at London Heathrow and flew out to San Diego (S D ) already dreading the thought of USA homeland security and revised plans after Mr Trumps election it proved to be unfounded .Spending some time in S D at either end of the trip proved to be the right decision with its wonderful climate , good transport and a host of things to see . With half of the USA pacific fleet based here and other auxillary attachments there is a strong military presence all around but there is some great birdwatching right on your doorstep , well the harbour to be precise.Surf Scoter , Western Grebe , Bufflehead, Double Crested Cormorant and Great Blue Heron with the omnipresent Ospreys nesting on a pole in central reservation on Shelter Island Drive . Throw in a few California and Ring Billed Gulls alongside the comical Brown Pelican and its bit of a mix.Another local site was mentioned so an exploratory trip to Famosa Slough was made wow ! what a place right in the middle of uptown SD but close enough to the coast to pull in some birds and Birders as there was a birders festival on for a few days . Waders in the form of Willet , Lesser Yellowlegs ,Whimbrel , American Avocet ,Black Necked Stilt ,Killdeer , Great and Snowy Egret , Belted Kingfisher , Little Blue Heron , American Wigeon , Cinnamon and Blue Winged Teal, Ruddy Duck plus a plethora of Passerines including Yellow Warbler , Lesser Goldfinch , Black Phoebe and Purple Finch .

So onto the Whale Watching if you are booked onto a trip with Mark Carwardine you know you are in the company of a renowned naturalist who has studied cetaceans all around the world . He describes himself as a frustrated conservationist due to the lack of respect governments and people give to the Natural World .Setting sail on the Spirit of Adventure from SD on the Friday evening we first cruised by the bait pens where local fishermen buy their fresh live bait from for their Big Game Charter Fishing Trips . 

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Here the California Sea Lions , Great Grey Cormorants , Black Crowned Night Herons and Brandts Cormorants had all developed their own strategy for a free meal .After a brief call into port in Mexican waters to collect the permit for the boat ,an early rise , breakfast and onto the deck gave us a great time interacting with a substantial pod of Long Beaked Common Dolphins as they took it in turn to bow ride the boat . Two small transient groups of Gray Whales were encountered one group rather curiously heading north when they should be going south to breed . One Humpback whale was seen as the forerunner of things to come . On a non cetacean note the highlights were a single of each of the Albatross species that breed on the Hawaiian Islands -Black Footed and Laysan which both spent some time in the vicinity of the boat. 
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Anchoring up overnight an early start saw us all transferred to San Benitos Island to observe some rather unique creatures . Northern Elephant Seals to be precise . Here many of the males had returned to sea but leaving large rookeries of juveniles which really just made you want to photograph them over and over again . 

In one of the rock pools a small group of very playful Guadalupe Fur Seals were seen , these were making a slow but sustained comeback after decades of hunting that saw them almost wiped out . Being here on San Benitos showed that their range was spreading eastwards from their ancestral home on Guadalupe Island further out to sea .Being here in late February gave no indication of how important this island was for birds with up to 2.5 million birds here in August . They were mainly species of Auklet and Murrelets , with Cassins Auklets already in their burrows it was important to stay on the defined paths so as not to collapse any already sitting on eggs . 
Ospreys nesting on sea cliffs , Ravens overhead Brant Goose at sea, Black Turnstone in the Kelp which direction should you be looking in . A few Western Gulls, Song/ Savannah and Lincoln Sparrows and the local endemic San Benito Side Blotched Lizard ( try fitting that one in a field guide) all added to the mix .Moving on ever southwards en route to San Ignacio lagoon we caught sight of a small group of Fin Whales which were actually lunge feeding at the surface . This gave us a chance to see the the light and dark side on either jaw and also the chevron marks on the body . These are only second in size to Blue whales but are the fastest in the sea .

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SAN IGNACIO LAGOON

Just an incredible place , the entry for whales and boats is very precarious with a sand bar constantly whipped up by the winds this does however prevent Orcas from entering . So this is both a mating and calving area for Pacific Gray Whales. 

Having spent their summer feeding up in the Bering, Chucki sea and beyond, they return here every year arriving in early February and departing in late April . Current numbers were 106 individuals , plus 66 mothers with calves. It is here that some have gained the reputation of being friendly Grays coming to the small boats (pangas) and mothers allowing you to touch their babies all 16 foot of them . It really is staggering to be able to say I’ve touched / stroked / kissed a whale they just really seem to love being centre of attention with no force being exerted to make it happen . This is made even more staggering by the fact that these whales were almost hunted to extinction with only 300 remaining at one point . Many memorable encounters followed along with a wide selection of birds being seen during a trip into the Mangroves such as Mangrove Warbler , Marbled Godwit , Longbilled Curlew plus many species of Terns and a few Skuas .So onwards with memories and thoughts of how these young grays and their mothers would be running the gauntlet of Orcas particularly in Monterey Bay as they head northwards ,only one in three calves will survive. Cruising southwards brought our first Blue Whale encounter a mere 60 footer shortly after which a Female Frigate Bird landed on the mast above the boat . The star performer of this day was yet to show – but when it did !It was a breaching Humpback whale which went through its entire repertoire – breaching , fin slapping . tail slapping the lot . It was an incredible show and made us all wonder if Mark was working it from the deck . It was obviously trying to communicate with its fellows wherever they were.


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CABO SAN LUCAS / GORDA BANK

couple of days spent watching and listening to Humpbacks at this location gave you a greater insight into their unique world. We had courtship, mating , songs and high speed sea pursuits . After a couple of days we came to rest at Bahia Los Frailes which is a great spot for snorkelling although a close up view of a scorpion stone fish ( extremely poisonous ) soon changed my point of view . 

There is also protected beach here which is used by turtles in the breeding season . A short walk produced some interesting birds Verduin , Cactus Wren , Hooded Oriole , Gila Woodpecker and Xantus Hummingbird .

SEA OF CORTEZ

Whale watching in this location was altogether a lot calmer after the frenetic activity of the previous location . We did however connect up with many more Blues and were extremely lucky to see one lunge feeding at the surface in the evening . There were many traces of their pink poo floating on the surface which was a result of feeding on Krill a tiny shrimp like crustacean. The real stars of the show were the super pods of long Beaked Common Dolphins containing up to 9000 individuals a real sight to behold with the seabirds at the surface giving tell tale signs of what was lurking beneath the waters surface . A landing was made at Santa Catalina Island to observe the Cacti in their various forms with Barrel , Organ pipe and Scrambling being the three commonest. Backlit with odd birds on top such as the stunning Red Cardinal made for some great pictures . At night we managed to see the bio luminescence which shines as a bright bluey/ green in the water as the single celled algae are agitated by the boat cutting through the water .With the trip coming to a close there surely could not be any more surprises or could there ! Well La Paz bay certainly supplied the first one in the form of a swim with Whale Sharks which frequent this part of Mexico for February and March. It was a case of getting in the water quietly without disturbing them and swimming with them without disturbance . Truly Magical . Then even to surpass this an afternoon snorkel with California Sea Lion pups was incredible with my inquisitiveness matched by their playfulness in their watery world all captured on a Go Pro camera ,truly the most interactive wildlife experience I have ever experienced .So was it worth it ! you bet it was every penny paid out for every second spent there. I would recommend this trip whole heartedly and go with Mark and his PA Rachel surely the best guides you could wish for . Footnote I will be thinking of those Gray Whales and their perilous journey northwards every fluke of their way .day.