Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Aboard the Searcher – Nature Cruise of a Lifetime

What we’d hoped for was to touch a whale in Baja California Sur’s Laguna San Ignacio. What happened was that whales touched us. In the wild, of their own accord, 50-foot Pacific gray whale cows swam under their 20-foot calves, gently lifted them and nudged them toward our little ten-person boats and our outstretched hands.

We were on the Searcher, a 25-passenger boat that’s been sailing from San Diego, into the Sea of Cortez and back to Cabo San Lucas every spring for 25 years offering wide-ranging natural history cruises with an emphasis on whale watching. The signature activity of the cruises is the incredible, inexplicable encounters with gray whales in San Ignacio, where the Searcher has one of a handful of licenses issued by the Mexican government to enter the protected lagoon.

Once we’d witnessed the wonder of San Ignacio, we allowed ourselves to hope for even more. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see a blue whale—the biggest creature ever to live on earth! Well, as we continued down the Baja coast, we would see 20-some blue whales. Sometimes they were close enough for us to see their entire awesome length—nearly that of the 95-foot Searcher. Some even rolled onto their sides, their immense, pleated mouths agape to feed on krill.

Then it was the humpbacks. Was it possible we’d see one of their spectacular full-body breaches? We saw at least 50, including an incredible double within spitting distance of Searcher.

And dolphin? What would be more fun than a few of them catching a draft in our bow wave? How about running for 15 minutes in the midst of a raucous herd of 2,000 as they ripped and sewed the water’s surface on their way to feeding on a massive school of herring.


I suppose we could have imagined touching a whale, or even seeing 2,000 dolphin. What we couldn’t have conjured in our wildest dreams was the night we cruised in the Sea of Cortez with lights out and seeing dolphins, shrouded in bioluminescence, streaking in to our bow out of total darkness, like so many comets. Then, after playing with our imaginations for a few minutes, launching back out into space.

While indeed our Searcher tour lavished experiences on us that were more and bigger than we’d expected, that certainly wasn’t the only measure of our enjoyment. It was also about the quality of the experience. We’d shown up at Fisherman’s Pier that first Saturday night and walked into a strange place—and a room full of strangers from all over the world—where we were to spend 11 days in close quarters. But we didn’t feel like strangers. That’s because Celia Condit, the wife of co-owner and captain Art Taylor, had lent such a warm, personal touch to the process of choosing and booking our trip. (I especially appreciated Celia’s being my partner in crime in springing a few birthday surprises on my wife, Sally.)

Once we were aboard, Captain Art and his very personable, multi-talented crew made us feel comfortable from the start. Even though they’d done this several times a year for 25 years, we felt as if we were Searcher’s first and only passengers. The crew quickly got to know each of us by name and genuinely cared about everyone’s comfort and the quality of our experience.

Besides just making the itinerary and all the various events run smoothly and safely, Captain Art kept the whole Baja/Cortez experience in perspective for us, starting from the first day when he explained that we were to be among a few thousand human visitors ever to witness what we were to see in San Ignacio. He stressed that it would be on nature’s terms, not ours nor the Searcher’s. He, the crew and the two naturalists who accompanied us showed us, by their example as well as in their words, the spirit of wonder, reverence…and gratitude we all now share for these creatures and this precious corner of the world.

As further proof that this spirit goes beyond words, we could see what a good neighbor Art, Celia and their business have been by the reaction of the locals we met along the way. The San Ignacio pangueros (local guides), residents of villages where we stopped—even the crews of Los Cabos fishing boats—know and respect El Capitan Arturo, who brings them precious fresh water and provisions, honors their land and traditions, and talks with them in their own language.

We continue to tell our friends, relatives—anyone who’ll listen—about our trip. Of course, we’re excited to share our experience, but we also hope this will, in some small way, express our thanks and help Celia and Captain Art keep doing what they’re doing so well until we can join them for another unforgettable cruise.