Fellow Travelers (Part I)

ImageTraveling is a joy. Not just for the places you see, but for the people you meet.

On my recent Baja vacation, I greatly enjoyed the company of several other guests on board the National Geographic Sea Lion, many of whom are photography buffs and even fellow bloggers.

I’d like to take this week to introduce you to retired school teachers Grace Pitzer and her husband Paul, with whom I shared several delightful meals and shore excursions.

They’ve traveled to well over 100 countries and can regale you with many more tales than I.

Please visit their website:

http://pitzertravels.com/travel/Welcome.html

and travel blog:

http://pitzertravels.blogspot.com/

where you can see additional photos from our Baja journey. Image

 

 

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It was a dark and stormy night….

Oh, wait…. It was a dark and starlit evening on the beach of Isla San José in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

ImageNaturalist Jack Swenson strums his guitar, singing tunes from John Denver, Roger Miller, and Jimmy Buffett. Arrayed around the bonfire are the passengers and crew of the National Geographic Sea Lion. The ship floats just off shore, its deck lights no competition for the embers blowing off the fire or the watchful gaze of Orion from overhead.

It’d been a long day of snorkeling with sea creatures and hiking desert arroyos. One in a stream of days filled with playful gray whale calves cavorting around our zodiacs, breaching humpback whales, bow riding orcas, and hundreds of dolphins. Yet our journey is only halfway done. There was much more to come for all of us: the retired teachers, the “Michigan Mafia” (really just a group of IT workers from the University of Michigan), the Washington State University couple who have brought along their stuffed cougar mascot (for photo ops of course), the older gentleman who plays solitaire every afternoon while his wife watches (quite a hiker he turned out to be!), the father and daughter from Singapore, the ship’s doctor and his wife, the two sisters – one of whom still bears black eyes from a trip and fall in the Cabo airport, the fellow Pepsi lovers, and the veterinarian.

And it had been a trying day, for me anyway. But I refused to let the migraine trying to establish itself behind my right eye prevent me from enjoying the company of my fellow travelers. And enjoyable they were. Sharing photography tips, keeping a watchful eye out for those of us more timid snorkelers, laughing over beers and stories of travels, and suggesting future trips (as if my dream destination list isn’t already long enough!)

For now, our barbecue over, marshmallows being roasted over the fire, and Jack’s smooth voice floating across the sand and water, we relax and settle quietly in each other’s company far from home. Image

A Humpback Whale Swims into a Bar….

Image ….can you believe I couldn’t find a single decent humpback whale joke on the internet?

But who needs jokes when you’ve got the real thing surrounding your ship. Unlike the gray whales on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula a few days before, the humpbacks in the Sea of Cortez had no interest in us. They were too busy feeding, playing, and – perhaps – vying to impress potential mates.

Most of their show was, of course, hidden from us below water, but no one seemed to mind. Every slap of a pectoral fin was greeted by an ooh or an ahh…and plenty of cameras clicking away. Believed to be a courting behavior, “pec slapping” as it’s called, can be quite impressive as the whale brings that 15 foot fin down upon the water for an explosive report and splash. And “lob tailing” (when the whale slaps its flukes against the water) was equally appreciated. But many of us seemed more impressed when the whales simply raised their flukes and, instead of slapping down, slid gracefully below the surface. That makes quite a photo op.

And what can I say about breaching? We all want to see it, right? And not just the side breaching, where they only come up just far enough to fall over on their sides. It still creates quite a splash and there are plenty of us who have pictures…of the splashes. Sound familiar? Try was we might, with our newfound knowledge of how to spot “whale footprints”Image (those momentarily still ovals on the ocean’s surface where the whale has just been), it was difficult to predict where the whales might next appear. I’m the only one who got a shot of this whale doing a side breach and, because I’m only shooting with a 200mm lens, it’s not that fantastic of a photo. Image (Anyone wanna start “Janet’s 400mm lens fund”?) Still, I happened to have my camera pointed in the right direction at the right time, and got a lucky shot.

The best shot, however, no one got. It was our last morning aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion as we headed back toward La Paz for our airplane rides home. I was late getting to the upper deck for morning yoga with Darcy, our wellness coordinator. Just as I was sliding open the door, I heard a “girly scream” (self-described by Jeff, the man it came from) and rushed out to see a humongous splash just off our stern. There was Jeff, standing upright in mid-stretch, staring out at the water, while the other yoga practitioners were all scrambling to their feet to see what they had missed.

It was a humpback, of course, the only humpback during the entire two week trip that did a full breach, pirouetting through the air before falling back into the water. No one had known the whale was there. Only one person happened to be looking in the right direction. Jeff was delighted, naturally. The rest of us, a bit jealous. Next time, however, may be my turn, or one of theirs, to witness that one special moment found in every trip.Image

Dancing with Sea Lions

ImageIt wasn’t much of a dance on my part, more like a comical floundering. But the juvenile California Sea Lions were graceful acrobats, gliding and somersaulting through the water around me.

We were at Los Islotes, Sea of Cortez, where the National Geographic Sea Lion had dropped anchor for the chance to snorkel with its namesakes. It was mostly the youngsters who slipped into the water to check out their new playmates while the females and a few big bulls stayed on the rocks. (Los Islotes is a rookery, and thus protected, so no landfall is permitted.)

Like dogs, sea lions explore with their mouths, so there were plenty of nips on flippers and underwater cameras. Several snorkelers got “up close and personal” shots of the inside of the sea lions’ mouths with their Go Pros. I wasn’t one of those because all though I was armed with a Go Pro, I was still learning to use it and, admittedly, I wasn’t doing a good job at conquering my fear of the water. Putting my face in the water freaks me out, so it took several minutes for me to let go of the zodiac and only then because Jack Swenson (naturalist and photographer), who was manning the safety boat, distracted me with “Look, there’s a sea lion right there!”

That’s definitely what I needed. Plunge the face in, and be rewarded with a playful creature twisting its body around the rope which anchored the zodiac to a buoy, as he (or she?) alternated between chewing on the rope and poking its inquisitive nose toward my cabin mate Judy. (How appropriate is it that me, crazy cat lady, get assigned a cabin mate who’s a veterinarian?)

I spent several minutes, floating there, watching, marveling at this creature’s ease in the water, wishing that I was the same. After the sea lion grew bored with its game and swam away, I followed and found myself in the middle of a circus. Snorkelers and sea lions diving and twisting around one another in an underwater dance…or maybe an underwater fashion show where the sea lions are the models and the snorkelers the paparazzi.

Unfortunately, the Sea of Cortez is not as warm as you think it might be. Even with a shortie wetsuit on, I couldn’t spend much more time in the water before I was freezing, and had to retreat to a hot shower on board ship. (Thank you to Mary and Grace who made a “Janet sandwich” on the zodiac upon seeing how violently I was shivering during the ride back to the Sea Lion.)

We had many more encounters with playful sea lions during our two weeks in Baja – they loved to chase and dive under our zodiacs. I hope to play…to really dance…with them again in the future. ImageI just hope I won’t see many more of them with fishing line tangled around their necks.