The whale: Guaranteed amazing

A male sea lion emerges from the water, sparking objection from the master of the harem at Los Islotes in the Sea of Cortez. Such are the sights on a Baja cruise.

"There is nothing so evil-smelling as a whale . . . and a whale's breath

is frightfully sickening." - John Steinbeck, The Log From the Sea of Cortez

CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico - Can't speak to the aroma. Maybe we were upwind.

The sound a whale makes when she blows right thar, on the other hand, is just like the one made by those high-pressure fire extinguishers: an assertive whoosh.

Then she eases herself back beneath the surface of the water and glides along while, no doubt, considering whether to put on a real show for the people by leaping like an insurance company ad or by merely flashing a little tail.

It's always an amazing thing to see a whale in person, which in part explains the appeal of what the marketing wizards at CruiseWest call its Baja Whales & Wildlife Cruise.

The other part is Baja, which, except in the ridiculous heat of midsummer, is an intriguing destination for a variety of reasons. But back to the cruise.

Whales, Steinbeck's gripes aside, are irresistible, whether at SeaWorld or when they're just a dot and a little vapor-puff on the oceanic horizon. Viewing one of these things from a boat smaller than a New Bedford harpooner's and so close that she's almost pettable - that's a privilege, and that's what we did on this little voyage.

Calling it "a cruise" is obligatory, because it has all the symptoms: You board the 217-foot Spirit of Endeavour, unpack only once, sleep in moderately snug quarters, dine on schedule with strangers, and don't stay in any port longer than a few hours. There is some pampering - at $6,000 to $7,000 a couple for the week, there had better be.

And there are differences. Anyone expecting bingo, conga lines, belly-flop contests, blackjack, baked-Alaska parades, Rockin' With the '60s revues, or 4,000 fellow passengers (we were 72 on our run) will be disappointed.

But this isn't a climb-the-rigging, bare-bones expedition either. It certainly isn't a seven-day science lecture. When not cozying up to seagoing mammals, cold beer is there to be consumed, sometimes on white sand beaches. People are offered kayaks and enough instruction to make them fun, even for novices. They snorkel. They laugh.

There is silliness, even during the obligatory science lectures. Allan Morgan, distinguished shipboard naturalist, on how to deal with scorpions in the desert:

"Don't find any scorpions."

So is this finally the cruise for people who have vowed never, ever, ever to take a cruise?

Well, here's what it was for sure:

For seven days in late January and early February, the Spirit of Endeavour sailed from Cabo San Lucas up Mexico's Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) and back, communing with whatever swam or flew her way.

In those seven days, we identified 39 species of birds, including two varieties of woodpecker, two shades of pelican, and a pair of boobies - the blue-footed and the brown.

One morning, a herd of bottlenose dolphins danced in our wake. Another afternoon, a maverick guest scratching his way up a hillside flushed out a black jackrabbit on Isla Partida. That's impressive, because black jackrabbits exist nowhere else in the world except on a couple of these islands, and because when left alone, they're nocturnal.

On Day 2, snorkelers off Isla Espiritu Santo identified Mexican goatfish, coronet fish and puffer fish. I personally identified a fish with stripes.

Three days later, we were anchored off Los Islotes, not far from La Paz. This would be the morning that those who dared would don their snorkel gear and wet suits and swim with California sea lions.

Marine biologist Deborah Purse was our exploration guide. She had already briefed everyone on sea lion protocol.

"Avoid wearing anything shiny," she had warned. "They might come up and nip at it.

"And just be aware - these are wild animals. They are curious. They like to explore you. . . . "

Giggles. For some reason, even adults giggle during nature discussions.

"They might come up and try to give you a little nip, especially on your fins," Purse had said. "For the most part, it's not going to hurt. . . . "

Now, this is not an experience limited to cruise-ship passengers. Private boats based in La Paz haul people out most days during winter tourist season.

But the Endeavour crew got passengers in the water before 9, and long before anyone else. There would be 16 in all. The sea lions evidently were happy to see them.

"Someone got in - I don't know who it was - and three of them came up," said Joey Terriquez of Dillon, Colo. "God, they were fun."

The rest of us waited until the swimmers left and had to be satisfied gawking from the dry safety of our inflatable boats, gawking at huge males that ruled harems of as many as 15 females.

Every day, we landed somewhere, did something, in an atmosphere of minimal intensity and human scale.

That's a key. Rob Earle, captain of the vessel and a 12-year CruiseWest veteran, knows it.

"I've had people, when we're in a port with large cruise ships - Skagway [Alaska] or someplace like that - they'll come up and say, 'What is this?' " Earle said.

"We'll tell them, and they'll say, 'Oh, I wish I had known there was something like this.' "

The two towns we visited were refreshing in their own way.

Loreto, at least the older part of town, is a charmer. Home of the first of upper and lower California's Spanish missions, the restored "mother mission" remains a draw.

We also took our only extra-cost excursion of the cruise (of the four available): "Seviche by the Sea." Before it was over, about 10 of us took tortilla dough and, using only our hands and a technique perfected over centuries, shaped them into what could only charitably be described as "tortillas."

Later, we assembled our own seviche - a dish combining raw fish "cooked" in citrus juice with various condiments. That was easier than the tortillas.

Still later, along the walls of the old mission, we were treated to wine, cheese, bolillo (a local bread), and a concert by two singers.

The other town, La Paz, once was a major (if sleepy) sportfishing destination. Today, this state capital of 190,000 is less sleepy but pleasant to poke around.

We saw three kinds of whale.

The first, a humpback, was spotted just off Cabo, on the evening we sailed. We saw the spout and a sliver of body, but it was at a distance - a tease.

On Day 3, the Endeavour sailed into Puerto Escondido and emptied us into comfortable motor coaches for a twisting two-hour drive across the peninsula to the Pacific Ocean shoreline at Puerto Lopez Mateos, a fishing village on Bahia Magdalena. By late January, gray whales that left Alaskan waters in October have arrived here.

"They come down here to breed and to calve," Morgan said. "This is one of the three calving areas in the Baja area."

During the 21/2-month whale season on Bahia Magdalena, fishermen use their 22-foot pangas to take visitors like us out among the whales.

A boatman would spot a spout, and off we'd go in a loose cluster as the whale submerged. Then, whoosh, up she'd come again.

From a small boat, it is something to see.

The typical adult gray whale is 39 feet long, and they can reach 50 feet - in either case dwarfing our pangas. Sometimes the whale by our side would be alone; sometimes there would be a calf.

"The babies sometimes approach you," Morgan said.

None did. Mother and calf would merely surface in tandem alongside our boats, check us out, then move along, leaving us in an eerie silence. The episode never lasted long. Neither did the silence.

Question: Is it harassment? Do we bother the whales? Not really, Morgan said.

"If the whales didn't want to be here, they would lose you," he said. "They have a choice."

Moments later, a monster gray whale bulled directly toward the starboard side of our panga - we didn't spot it until the last second - ducked underneath, and surfaced on the other side, rising so close that some passengers screamed in terror-delight while others scrambled as best they could to focus their cameras.

"I figured we'd see whales, but I never thought we'd be that up close and personal," said David Logan, a passenger from outside Tampa.

Bettye Porter of Houston was still aglow long after the panga flotilla returned to shore.

"I don't care if I don't see anything else on this trip," she said. "That's the reason I came."

And it wasn't over.

On Day 4, back in the Sea of Cortez, we spotted a blue whale off our bow. We followed this whale for an hour.

"I wasn't expecting to see blue whales yet," Morgan said, as surprised and thrilled as the rest of us. It was twice the size of the grays we saw.

After the whale surfaced, spouted and submerged several times, there was a wait until it finally surfaced again, let out a whoosh, and arched its back for one great dive - its massive flukes lifting out of the water, then sliding down as if making a gesture of farewell.

In every way, it was an inspiring, relaxing, fun cruise in a special place.

But long after we've almost forgotten the oblong tortillas, and the Wisconsin couple who somehow flipped their kayak in three feet of calm water, and the sea lions, and even the Spirit of Endeavour, we'll think about those whales and get goose bumps.

The rest will come back to us when it can.

"Trying to remember the Gulf," Steinbeck wrote lovingly, "is like trying to re-create a dream."

Even with whales in need of a breath mint.

Baja Whales & Wildlife

CruiseWest's eight-day, seven-night round trip from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, up the Sea of Cortes (also known as the Gulf of California) along the Baja Peninsula. Stops in La Paz, Loreto and at several islands, plus a motor-coach drive across the peninsula to the Pacific side for whale-watching.

Offered late December through early March.

The passengers. On my cruise, probably 80 percent were 60 or older, most of them active participants in such water sports as kayaking and snorkeling. This is not a cruise for the passive or sedate. Also not recommended for children or people with mobility issues (many steps, no elevator, multiple transfers to and from bobbing boats). Assistance is plentiful for the slightly wobbly.

The ship. The Spirit of Endeavour is 217 feet long with a capacity of 102 passengers. It is being replaced next season by the similar but slightly longer Spirit of Yorktown: 257 feet long, 138 passengers.

Standard staterooms are well-appointed and comfortable, smallish but not claustrophobic. All have a window or porthole; there are no inside cabins. Bathrooms are acceptably snug. No verandas, spa, running/walking track or exercise room; limited deck seating but plenty of room to stroll, gaze at the moon, or watch for porpoises. In-cabin TV (closed-circuit movies) with built-in VCR (free movie library onboard, or BYO). Convivial all-American crew. During my week, a calm one weather-wise, the ship experienced virtually no rocking at sea and little engine noise.

Handsome, roomy lounge for cocktails, midday reading and relaxing, predinner "social hour," and evening briefings.

A welcome extra. Each stateroom is equipped with two sets of full-size binoculars. If you have compact binocs, bring them.

Activities and excursions. Included were:

Two days each of kayaking and snorkeling, with instruction and equipment.

Guided desert nature walks.

"Swimming with sea lions" or observing the sea lions from small inflatable boats.

One dedicated whale-watching day.

Escorted cultural experiences (food, music) in Loreto and La Paz, and ample independent time in both towns.

Extra-cost excursions:

"Seviche by the Sea" (making tortillas and seviche), $16, including lunch, in Loreto.

San Javier Tour (daylong motor-coach drive to observe villages, desert and mountain scenery, rock paintings, and the namesake 1758 mission), from Loreto, $95.

La Paz shopping tour, $40.

Visit to a reptile center, also in La Paz, $45.

Entertainment. Aside from a "To Tell the Truth" contest featuring crew members (which was hilarious), evenings are reserved for briefings on the next day's activities, followed by casual socializing; the bar is open as long as there are customers. No shows, no casino, no discos, no midnight buffet.

Dining. All meals included. One seating for each meal; no assigned seats or tables, and most everyone changed dining companions nightly for the fun of it. Casual dress; no formal nights.

Cost. From $2,399 per person, shared cabin; most in the range of $3,049 to $3,549. Prices vary by room choice and timing. Alcoholic beverages extra, but not much else. There is a no-tipping policy; many guests tipped anyway.

More information. CruiseWest, 1-888-851-8133,

- Alan Solomon