Discover One of the World's Richest Marine Realms from a Fully Equipped Expedition Ship
Day 1: San Jose del Cabo, Mexico / La Paz—Embark Ship
Fly into Los Cabos International Airport at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, then transfer by road to La Paz to embark the National Geographic Sea Bird
or National Geographic Sea Lion
. Set sail this evening on the Sea of Cortez, also called the Gulf of California, which separates the Baja Peninsula from mainland Mexico. The sea bears the name of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez, who was the first European to send expeditions to the gulf. When he landed on the Baja Peninsula in 1535, he believed he had found the mythical island of "California," a legendary quest among earlier Spanish explorers.
This long, narrow body of water came into being some 5 million years ago when tectonic forces wrenched the Baja Peninsula away from the North American plate. The Pacific Ocean filled the gap, creating one of the world's youngest and most biodiverse seas, a veritable "fish trap" due to its geographic confines. Volcanic islands rise from the blue-green waters, further evidence of the powerful geologic forces shaping this wild habitat. Within the still-evolving Sea of Cortez, we find coral reefs, estuaries, seagrass beds and rocky sea beds
providing habitat for a vibrant array of marine life.
Days 2–7: Exploring the Sea of Cortez
Biologically speaking, the Sea of Cortez is the richest body of water on the planet, and we have a full week to delve into its marine wonders. Jacques Cousteau called it "the world's aquarium," and it's easy to see why. More than 900 species of fish live here, with 10 percent of them found nowhere else. From schools of silvery snapper and skipjack to neon-colored angelfish, blue tangs and Cortez damselfish, snorkeling here offers a chance to swim among a kaleidoscope of dazzling sea life.
The Sea of Cortez is also home to five of the world's eight species of endangered sea turtles; 170 shark species, with hammerhead, mako
and sand sharks spotted most frequently; numerous rays including mantas and flying mobulas
that leap vertically out of the water; huge regattas of bottlenose dolphins; great colonies of seabirds that nest on island cliffs, including blue-footed and brown boobies and black storm petrels; and, of course, whales. While most of the gray and humpback whales will be migrating north to by the time we arrive, we anticipate seeing plenty of others such as resident sperm and fin whales, minke, Bryde's and maybe even the gigantic blue whale—the world's largest animal.
Our route is designed with flexibility in mind to maximize opportunities for wildlife sightings. If, for example, we see Bryde’s whales in the morning, our scheduled hike will be postponed so we can linger among them, shooting photos from the bow of the ship or from our expedition landing craft.
While our itinerary is not fixed, it will most likely include these islands and activities, though the order may vary:
Isla San Esteban
Walk up a dry wash to search for desert birds and the endemic pinto chuckwalla—a member of the iguana family found only on this island.
Isla San Pedro Martir
The most remote island in the Sea of Cortez, this thousand-foot-high guano-covered outpost is home to scores of seabirds including blue-footed boobies, red-billed tropicbirds, pelicans
and frigatebirds. Sea lion rookeries also ring the island.
Isla Santa Catalina
Snorkel within a kaleidoscope of marine life and hike among giant barrel cactus on one of most dramatic islands in the Sea of Cortez.
Isla San Marcos
One of few inhabited islands we visit, rugged San Marcos is home to about 500 people and offers plentiful opportunities to explore via kayak, swimming, snorkeling
and hikes ashore though partially forested environs.
Isla San Jose
One of the larger islands in the Sea of Cortez, San Jose offers several landing possibilities depending on conditions and the whim of the moment. Photograph the ochre cliffs on the island's eastern shore, hike up an arroyo, or visit the abandoned salt works on the west side.
Isla Espiritu Santo
Espiritu Santo, a large island near La Paz, was a pearl farming center for nearly four centuries, till the oyster beds in the region were exhausted due to over-fishing by the mid-20th century. Today the island's waters off some of Baja's best snorkeling. Other possibilities include rides in expedition landing craft, rare bird sightings, the possibility of spotting an endemic black jackrabbit,
or wandering the sandy beach in search of shells, which are abundant here (and left on the beach, of course).
This collection of rocky islets in the southern Sea of Cortez lies just off Espiritu Santo. It is the southernmost rookery of the California sea lion, and we find a colony of several hundred resident here. Curious youngsters often want to check us out as we swim and snorkel in the teal waters. Numerous seabirds nest in the vertical cliffs above the colony—watch out for dive-bombing pelicans!
Conditions permitting, we visit this island where about 90 percent of the world’s Heermann’s gulls and elegant terns come to breed. This small, flat-topped island provides critical nesting habitat for nearly half a million birds, including thousands of royal terns, eared grebes and Peregrine falcons among them.
Day 8: La Paz—Disembark / Los Cabos—Depart
Disembark in La Paz and transfer to the airport in Los Cabos for flights home.
Physical Rating: Easy