Safari at Sea

American Safari Cruises provides a whale of a good time in the Sea of Cortez

By: By Anne Burke

The Details

American Safari Cruises 
The Safari Quest sails the Sea of Cortez November through April, with two itineraries: seven nights between Loreto and La Paz and a nine-night sea crossing between Loreto and San Carlos (Guaymas) on the mainland. In May, the Safari Quest repositions to Alaska for seven-night sailings between Juneau and Sitka, including a visit to Glacier Bay National Park.

Sailings are all-inclusive except for tips. Full yacht charters are available.

Commission: 10 percent

A Little Extra Aloha

American Safari Cruises offers pre- and post-cruise itineraries in Hawaii
By Skye Mayring

Cruisers can kick back at the five-diamond The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua (Maui) or the 29-acre Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows (Big Island) before or after an American Safari cruise around the islands. The packages include baggage handling, a private airport transfer and tax. For the most up-to-date pricing, agents can call 888-862-8881.

The company is also adding a new Hawaii honeymoon package for newlyweds who plan to sail on the latest edition to its fleet, the Safari Explorer. A top-deck balcony suite with a flat-screen television, living room, a refrigerator stocked with the couple’s beverages of choice and a Jacuzzi tub will set the mood for a romantic escape, as will the welcome amenities — a chilled bottle of Dom Perignon, chocolate-covered strawberries and a rose-petal-strewn bed. The couple will also enjoy shore excursions, complimentary cocktails and private transfers. The package begins at $7,395. 

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I was curled up with a novel in the comfy salon on the Safari Quest, a 120-foot yacht, when I sensed commotion topside. If it’s winter in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, it usually means one thing: Thar she blows!

Like a sailor reporting to muster, I raced to the foredeck just in time to see the wide flukes of a blue whale disappear into the sea, leaving behind a "footprint"— the patch of calm, glassy sea created by the upward beat of the tail. Leaning against the railing, alongside half a dozen of my yacht mates, I scanned the cobalt-blue water around the footprint until the mighty cetacean resurfaced, announcing itself with a tower of spray that was every bit as fun to watch as an Old Faithful eruption.

Safari Quest sails to Mexico in the late fall through April. // (c)  Kevin Martin/American Safari Cruises
Safari Quest sails to Mexico in the late fall through April. 

"Today you saw the largest animal on earth — ever," explained Kevin Martin, the Safari Quest’s expedition leader.

I was incredulous of such statements, but Martin was right. The blue whale can reach lengths of 100 feet, outsizing even the biggest, baddest dinosaur to thunder across the plains.

Few cruise destinations offer the eye-popping adventure of the Sea of Cortez, the biologically rich body of water that separates mainland Mexico and the Baja California peninsula.

From January to April, whales that have migrated down from chilly arctic regions to mate in warm lagoons on the Pacific side of Baja often swim around the tip of the peninsula to hang out in the Sea of Cortez. Joining these blowhole-breathing behemoths for a raucous, Mexican pool party are lots of other large marine animals: bottlenose dolphins that leap about in a beautifully choreographed ballet; sea lions and manta rays that glide and loop among scuba divers and snorkelers. When dive-bombing pelicans, boobies and frigate birds join the fun, the scene is a crazy cacophony of squawking, snorting and splashing.

My base of operations for a weeklong exploration of this diverse ecosystem was the 22-passenger Safari Quest, which is part of Seattle, Wash.-based American Safari Cruises’ four-yacht fleet. One of the smaller and nimbler passenger vessels plying the Sea of Cortez, the Safari Quest carried us in fine and unhurried fashion from Loreto, the historic mission city located about two-thirds of the way down the Baja peninsula, to La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur, about 150 miles to the south.

Along the way, the Safari Quest anchored at remote coves and bays. Among the most beautiful — here or anywhere else that I’ve seen — is Ensenada Grande on Isla Partida, one among the hundreds of islands that stud the Sea of Cortez.

The setting is striking as rugged cliffs, carved into otherworldly shapes by wind and rain, embrace a bay of turquoise water and a crescent of soft, white sand. We walked among the ubiquitous cardon cacti, their green-grey arms shooting skyward, as tall as a three-story building, and took care to avoid the quills of the cholla cactus. A knowledgeable naturalist onboard pointed out the small signs of life that we might otherwise have missed, such as a pretty desert verbena, a tiny lizard, the drops of condensation on a cactus.

We got to know the beauty of the Baja backcountry through an entirely different mode of transport — mule. Our mounts clambered up rocky hills and across dry arroyos while the cowboy holding up the rear sang softly in Spanish. This part of Baja is largely roadless and sparsely populated. Apart from the local rancheros who led our mule ride and the senoras who sold us inexpensive jewelry fashioned out of polished seashells, we saw no one outside our small group.

The Safari Quest has little in common with traditional cruise ships. Imagine a wealthy friend has invited you to spend a week on a private yacht and you’ll get the idea. The service goes above and beyond what clients get on a larger boat. One afternoon, for instance, we were sunbathing on Ensenada Grande at about that time of the afternoon when one wonders if it isn’t cocktail hour somewhere in the world. As if she had read our minds, firstmate Megan Pearia arrived in a skiff laden with chilled wines and gourmet cheeses.

Staterooms are not big but big enough. Mine, below deck, had a queen-size bed, big bathroom and a small window above eye level. The nicest rooms, on the bridge deck, have sliding-glass doors with step-out balconies.

Toward the end of the trip, while the Safari Quest was at anchor, we took turns on the rope swing, dropping into the sea with a great shriek, arms flailing and legs akimbo. Even the captain joined in the fun.