This Travel Journal includes excerpts from Deborah Stone’s article Wild, Untamed Baja, originally published in the Woodinville Weekly. Read highlights from her AdventureSmith Baja cruise on the Westward Voyages in the Sea of Cortez Cruise.
I’ve seen many Oscar-worthy productions in my life, but perhaps the most memorable was performed by a pod of gray whales at Lopez Mateos in the Sea of Cortez. Our panga, or small boat, was surrounded by these magnificent creatures as they spy-hopped, spouted, rolled over and displayed their distinctive flutes to an audience of star struck onlookers. The dramatic show reached its climax when several of the moms proudly brought their seven week-old calves to the side of our craft and we reached out to touch them. It was pure magic and I like to believe that both whales and humans shared in the joy of this incredibly special moment together.
While whale watching is definitely one of the highlights of a trip to Baja California, there are so many other noteworthy experiences to be had in this unique region of Mexico. Located in the northwest section of the country, Baja California is an 800-mile narrow peninsula that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. Despite proximity to the U.S. and rapid growth in tourism, the vast majority of the area has remained a wild and untamed paradise with an air of isolation that sets it apart from the rest of Mexico.
The most optimum scenario is to ply the waters in a boat, allowing you to appreciate the beauty of the sea and its vibrant life, while also offering opportunities to enjoy adventures on shore. Aboard Pacific Catalyst II’s 8-guest Westward, passengers spend time discovering both milieus from the comfort of a treasured wooden vessel. And with only eight passengers and a crew of four, you are guaranteed to have an intimate experience with like-minded companions.
Designed by Northwest Naval architect, L.E. “Ted” Geary, the Westward is modeled after a salmon cannery tender and constructed around a 1923 Atlas engine. It was launched in 1924 as the flagship of the Alaska Hunting and Cruising Company and pioneered hunting, fishing and adventure travel in remote regions of Washington, Alaska and British Columbia. Over the years, the Westward served an esteemed clientele including such well-known personalities as Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, John Wayne, E.F. Hutton, George Eastman and Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Over the years, the Westward served an esteemed clientele including Bing Crosby, Walt Disney and John Wayne.
Today, the boat is owned by Bill and Shannon Bailey, who run Pacific Catalyst II, an adventure travel business that operates small ship cruises in the Pacific Northwest, Southeast Alaska and Baja. The couple also own the M/V Catalyst, another historical craft that had its beginnings as the University of Washington’s first oceanographic research vessel back in 1932. Captain Bill views himself as a “steward” of an important piece of history and believes he has a responsibility to preserve a legacy of the past. He says, “I want to keep the old boats going. Besides, I can’t think of another job I’d rather be doing. I have the best cubicle on the planet.”
The Westward is still powered by her original Atlas engine and is listed with the U.S. National Register of Historic Places for her contributions to maritime history. It has recently been completely upgraded and renovated with an eye to preserving the style and décor of its bygone roots. The vessel is very comfortable, with four staterooms, each containing a double and a single bunk, settee, sink, toilet, shower and closet. Though small, the cabins are cozy and contain the basic necessities. The rest of the boat consists of a salon, dining area, kitchen, outside deck, engine room, wheelhouse and crew quarters, which are located down below.
Trips either begin in La Paz and end in Loreto or go in the reverse direction, but the exact itinerary of specific stops along the way can fluctuate, depending on weather conditions, interests of the passengers, wildlife observation opportunities and other factors. The crew’s mantra regarding this aspect of flexibility is simply, “It’s the plan until it changes.” With that attitude, it’s easy to adapt to whatever situation arises. And with its small capacity, the boat can enter areas that larger crafts cannot, allowing passengers to explore hidden locales in great depth.
During the day, you’ll spend time viewing the many species of birds and sea creatures from the boat’s deck. It’s very common to see a pod of bottlenose dolphins racing alongside the vessel or soaring mobula rays jumping out of the water and putting on an astonishing aerobatic display, only to land with a loud bang as they belly-flop back into the sea. Frigatebirds, Great Blue Herons, Heermman’s Gulls, Grebes, Petrels, Hawks, and countless number of birds grace the skies and the water. My head was spinning from looking in every direction at the magnificent array of wildlife. It’s no wonder this region is known as the “aquarium of the world” and has often been compared to the Galapagos Islands.
You’ll also visit pristine beaches on deserted islands, hike in the otherworldly landscape, kayak along picturesque shorelines and snorkel in the crystal clear waters amid schools of multi-colored fish and playful California sea lions. Activities are led by onboard naturalist Carlos Gajon, a personable La Paz native whose grasp of the regions, people history and ecosystem is encyclopedic. Carlos was key to our group’s understanding of the region and its unique ecosystems, and he never ceased to amaze us with his wealth of knowledge and fascinating stories. In addition, he is an accomplished kayaker and diver, often supplying the boat with fresh fish, clams and scallops, which later found their way to our plates at mealtime.