The Gulf of California (aka Sea of Cortez), between Baja and the Mexican mainland, is one of the world’s marine marvels. Baja’s 1,000 km (650 mi) spine of mountainous cactus scrub and sea pine forest guards a milk-warm oceanic playground from the violence of the Pacific.
It’s the southern nursery of fin, blue, sperm and orca whales, and home to countless family pods of bottlenose and common dolphins, sea lions, manta rays, and rainbow shoals of angelfish, guitarfish, redtail tigerfish and some 600 other species.
Red-billed tropicbirds, blue-footed boobies, pelicans, frigate birds and rare Heerman’s gulls nesting by the thousand help to emphasize the great wildlife spectacle. And half way down the Gulf, where the temperate merges with the tropic zone, bringing together all kinds of species at their seasonal ranges in a cacophony of seabirds and harmony of underwater song, is Isla Carmen, the biggest island in Loreto Bay National Marine Park.
Carmen used to be famous for the purity of its salt deposits, discovered in the early 16th century. Now, Salinas, its only settlement, is a ghost town among the 60 m (100 ft) cliffs, sand dunes and white beaches. Shale and gravel slope sharply to high ridges veined with dry arroyos.
From any of Carmen’s isolated coves, you lose sight of the sea in minutes, and walk in a windswept desert of giant cacti and hummingbirds. Nobody lives here, and there are no amenities. You can camp for a few days but you need prior permission (from the park authority at Loreto on the mainland) even to be there.
Since commercial and big game sport fishing were banned in 1996, the ecological chain has been fully restored both on the island and in the sea: Isla Carmen’s natural wealth has never been greater than in its present, splendid isolation.
When to go: October to May; but you’ll see whales by the score between January and March.
How to get there: By air from San Diego or Los Angeles to Loreto on the Baja side of the Gulf; then by private yacht or boat charter (hiring a zodiac or skiff is recommended – anchoring is forbidden to prevent reef damage, and they are easier to beach and to swim from).
Highlights: Getting close-up and personal to the big, barking sea lion community at Punta Lobos, a dome-shaped islet at the northern tip, connected to Carmen by a sand causeway. Sitting low in the water in a dinghy in the company of dozens of dolphins and whales who bring their young to inspect and possibly play with you. You just laugh with happiness. Star-gazing by the embers of your campfire; and waking to a fiery sunrise of molten bronze and gold – here, at least, nature is as it should be.
Kayaking in the caves, and between the rock formations and reefs below the cliffs.
The view of Carmen – like an offshore stegosaurus – from Loreto, itself a historical delight dating back to 1697. Loreto was the first Spanish mission in the Californias.
You should know: in ‘The Log from the Sea of Cortez’ (1951), John Steinbeck delivers a close study of marine life around Isla Carmen. He also describes breaching swordfish and 4 m (12 ft) manta rays.