Playful sea lions engage with humans. // © 2015 La Paz Tourism
Feature image (above): Hammerhead sharks roam the waters from June through November. // © 2015 iStock
When it comes to Mexico, it’s easy for a destination such as La Paz to be overshadowed by Los Cabos, its glitzy Baja neighbor to the south. But that’s a big mistake, especially for those looking to have an eco-adventure.
Between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, the state of Baja California Sur offers approximately 1,300 miles of coastline. And La Paz’s prime location on the Sea of Cortez — the “world’s aquarium,” as conservationist Jacques Cousteau once called it — makes it an ideal gateway for travelers who want an interactive underwater experience.
“Baja is home to 39 percent of all the marine mammals in the world, which means that in a single day, you can experience a very wide variety of sea life,” said Sandra Felix, general director for La Paz Tourism Board. “There is always something to spot, but each season offers its own unique marine encounters as well.”
From December to April, the Sea of Cortez is the winter home for gray whales, which migrate about 13,000 miles from the Bering Sea down to Baja to mate and give birth. Excursions out of La Paz take visitors right up to these giants as they feed and socialize in the lagoons just offshore. In particular, whale calves tend to be especially curious about the boats — often leading to unique interactions with onlookers.
“Here you don’t just see a tail or a fin off in the distance — the whales get so close they practically touch you,” Felix said. “As the season advances and mother whales get more used to humans, they will actually go under the babies and push them up to the surface so you can interact with them.”
In addition, humpback whales can be observed from February to June, and pilot whales call the area home October through February. And if visitors are interested in combining a few other destinations during their Mexican vacation, Loreto, about 200 miles north of La Paz, offers the opportunity to spot the largest mammals on the planet: blue whales.
One of the most unique experiences to be had in the Sea of Cortez takes place at Espiritu Santo Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just offshore from La Paz. The island, which is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in the region, is home to a large year-round sea lion colony that is especially friendly to humans. The playful pups often come right up to snorkelers and divers, giving them a one-of-a-kind encounter they won’t soon forget.
“The sea lions are like puppies,” Felix said. “They enjoy playing with your hair and fins. It’s the kind of wild experience you can’t find anywhere else.”
There are many local tour operators that operate day trips to Espiritu Santo, sometimes combining snorkeling, kayaking, hiking and more.
From October to March, whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, come to the Sea of Cortez, giving visitors the thrill of being able to swim alongside these gentle 30-ton giants.
“People never believe it until they experience it, but the whale sharks really love to be around people,” Felix said. “It’s an amazing experience.”
One eco-adventure that is a bucket-list experience for a lot of divers is swimming with sharks. From June through November, divers can find themselves sharing the depths near Espiritu Santo Island with large numbers of hammerhead sharks.
“Last time I was there, we saw around 35 hammerheads,” Felix said. “It was awesome.”