Unplugged from the world aboard a luxury cruise through the dazzling waters of the Sea of Cortez, Keph Senett snorkels with sea lions and watches grey whales frolic in the real-life ‘aquarium’ made famous by Jacques Cousteau.
The sun is beaming, the waves are lapping and my stomach is churning; the unhappy result of a night spent acclimating to the shimmy of my cruise ship – the Safari Endeavour – as she punched her way out of the Bay of La Paz, at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula.
Our first morning at sea had been spent performing the tasks necessary for a week of island-hopping in the Sea of Cortez. There was the morning wetsuit workshop, where reality spectacularly failed to live up to the optimistic claim in the brochure that I’d be able to ‘slip into’ the thing. Next, we learned how to strap on three different types of personal flotation devices (and, finally, we passed muster), as well as a mandatory ship-sinking drill – a lot less entertaining than it sounds.
By the time my small group had been shuttled by skiff to the sands of Playa Ayla for an hour or so of beachcombing, my tendencies as an introvert were tipping into isolationism, if not full-on misanthropy. From the sand, a pufferfish carcase bared its sharp dental plate. I could relate to that.
On the occasion of my 40th birthday, my bestie, Kim, had taken me on a Mediterranean cruise – a bacchanal on a super-sized ship where, eventually, it became impossible to distinguish which was more dazzling: David’s exquisite musculature in its original marble or the never-ending strobe of casino lights. Now, to mark the 35th anniversary of our friendship, I’d decided to return us to the water, but this time it was to be on a much smaller and far more luxurious scale.
The Safari Endeavour is an expedition vessel operating with the company UnCruise Adventures. Spending her summers in Alaska and winters in Baja California, the ship lives the dream of naturalists and explorers the world over, including, famously, Jacques Cousteau, who called the Sea of Cortez ‘the world’s aquarium’, and now Kim, who’s splashing her way through Snorkelling 101, and me, commiserating with a dead fish.
“This is in-cred-ible!” Sarah gushes, holding up the body of a desiccated triggerfish. Our guide is just one of the company’s many highly qualified nature nerds; she’s into marine biology, if my memory from the previous night’s orientation holds.
“The cool thing about this part of the world,” she continues, “is the sheer number of endemic species. They exist here and nowhere else on the planet.”
It was this very thing – the existence of life unique to Baja – that drew marine biologist Ed Ricketts to the region in 1940, along with his dear friend, the novelist John Steinbeck. Their six-week expedition resulted in a research text/travelogue hybrid called The Log from the Sea of Cortez. If dinner conversation was any indication, I was far from the only person aboard to review the book prior to embarkation.
Food on the Endeavour is plentiful, gorgeously prepared and as local as possible. Indeed, the cook caps off each sitting with a presentation on what we might expect at the next meal, delivered in language so loving as to border on poetic. Meat and fish (and, yes, vegetarian options) are wrapped in an alchemy of indigenous ingredients, massaged perhaps and garnished with colour and fragrance.
“What was that herb he mentioned?” asks a tablemate. “Is it endemic to Baja?”
Steinbeck would have been prepared to encounter unique flora and fauna, but Baja also inspired him to meditate on the pace of life and work. ‘[T]he speed and tempo and tone of modern writing might be built on the nervous clacking of a typewriter,’ he wrote back in 1940. I wonder what he would make of the endless neurotic scrolling brought on by the internet. The Endeavour’s itinerary is dynamic (“we change for wind, wildlife and whimsy,” the expedition leader tells us), but the region is remote – there is no WiFi.