Mysteries and wonder hover over Baja's Sea of Cortez

The Sea of Cortez is something of a well-kept secret among seasoned travelers -- not undiscovered, yet a bit unwelcoming to the casual, unprepared sailor. ``The very air here is miraculous, and outlines of reality change with the moment,'' wrote author John Steinbeck. ``A dream hangs over the whole region, a brooding kind of hallucination.''

Formed a mere 20 million years ago when the San Andreas fault separated the Baja Peninsula from Mexico, the Sea of Cortez is moody, lonely -- somber despite strong sunlight, and rich in wildlife. Settlements are rare as well, for the sea (also known as the Gulf of California) can still be forbidding to man.

Few ships ply the sea's deep (as much as two miles) and sometimes dangerous waters, although this writer sailed it successfully with 60 other passengers in a trip arranged by Special Expeditions, a company which has been conducting cruises in the sea for the past five years.

In 1941 Steinbeck sailed around the Baja Peninsula with his friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist. He remarked in his book, ``The Log From the Sea of Cortez,'' that this sea exerts on man a ``positive drive to go back again. If it were lush and rich, one could understand the pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen.''

The pull is strong indeed. The bay of Cabo San Lucas, where I began my voyage, is a ruggedly dramatic site of overwhelming beauty, located at the tip of the peninsula. Land's end is a panorama: long, languid desert landscapes of terra-cotta tones and sculptured pink sandstone fading into blues and purples. Rocks that rival Gibraltar come suddenly into view, startling promontories standing guard.

Sun-drenched Cabo San Lucas is generally populated with pleasure craft at anchor, and a wide and fine sand beach -- Lover's Beach -- spans both the Gulf and Pacific waters. At sunset, lights in the hills provide a backdrop for a pod of dolphin leaping from the water.

The Friar Rocks, named for the shape they've assumed after centuries of relentless Pacific pounding, are populated by barking sea lions, playing in and out of water where it laps over low rocks. Pelicans preen themselves atop a lone rock.

From a ship, the Sea of Cortez takes on a combination of shapes and colors that tease the eye and bend the mind. Landscapes change continuously as a boat glides past, now long and stretched-out, now broken by jutting promontories. Islands are spread throughout the sea; Isla Espiritu Santo reveals rugged, rocky turf, dotted with cardon cactuses, and is home to the rare black jack rabbit.

Snorkeling off a stark, weathered rock brings close encounters with royal angelfish, sergeant majors, and a multitude of starfish. A wide, isolated lagoon nearby is alive with Louisiana heron, osprey, and frigate birds. A large group of stingrays flapping out of the water like pancakes entertains the boats traveling by.

La Paz is capital of Baja California Sur (southern Baja) and its most important port. Known for pearl fishing since the early, unsuccessful attempts of Hernando Cortez to conquer local Indians, it remains a sleepy place, despite the invasion of duty-free electronic gadgetry that makes the city a mecca for shoppers and bargain-hunters from mainland Mexico.

La Paz is sort of time-warp town where a small boy plays with a Rubik's Cube on a curb in front of an Indian herbal remedy store called La Azteca.

La Paz is also home to Estrella del Mar, a fine seafood restaurant under a thatched roof, open to the sea, where waiters serve a bountiful buffet lunch and where a vendor of fine wood carvings offers sea lions for sale, bargaining in spirited Spanish.

But commerce and city life pale before the wildlife wonders of the sea. Isla Santa Catalina looms to the north, where giant barrel cactuses easily dwarf six-foot visitors. The finback whale, a year-round resident here, feasts on rich plankton which flourishes in the cold waters, delivered by the California current.

Ahead lies Isla San Pedro Martir, inhabited by flocks of blue- and brown-footed boobies, cormorants, grebes, and gulls. On one of its flat landing spots, Sally lightfoot crabs dart in and out of tidal pools. But its real landlords are sea lions of every size and hue, barking loudly to protest the human invasion. They see few people, now that Mexico no longer exiles its convicts here, where they were once forced to scrape off the guano for the fertilizer industry.

San Pedro Martir offers the sea's best romp -- a chance to snorkel among the sea lions. In a wetsuit against the icy, 60-degree F. waters, I quickly came upon a dozen lions swimming together -- diving deep, coming up in a series of fancy turns and flourishes. No matter how close they came -- close enough to bat their eyelashes, it seems -- they weren't to be touched, so fast and elusive were their turns, leaving behind only mushroom-clouds of bubbles.

Morning on the deck brings mirages that seem to hover over the horizon, and pagodas appear to dot the distant shore. A deceptively large tidal pool dominates the sizable island of Angel de la Guarda, where a whale skeleton has come to rest. Angel de la Guarda is a beachcomber's heaven, a mother-of-pearl junkyard, framed by the brown, blue, and violet peaks of Baja's mountains.

Under a piercing blue sky sits Bahia de Los Angeles, a port of 800 inhabitants where anything of import is owned or administered by the Diaz family. Antero Diaz, now 72, arrived over 40 years ago as a prospector, married Cruz, daughter of local gentry, and prospered. He furnishes vehicles for an inland excursions: a dune buggy with exposed motor, two station wagons, and an open-back truck with wooden chairs.

The Diaz family even transports a fine Mexican meal of lobster to hungry sailors aboard their craft.

The northernmost position of the sea, the Canal de Ballenas, is still full of enormous spouting finbacks and blue whales breaching slowly out of the water. But the landscape has altered near San Felipe, where an arid, industrial port has replaced the earlier kaleidoscopes of color. This scene makes it somewhat easier to leave the wonderous sea of mirages and hallucinatory hazes, where, it is hoped, the whales and sea lions will swim for centuries to come.

Bumpy winding roads and chill winds that belie the intense sun must be braved to reach one great curiosity of the Baja Peninsula: the Daliesque boojum forest, a bizarre and fantastic grouping of cactuses that resemble upside down carrots covered with pineapple skin, terminating at the top in crazy curlicues. Here also is a series of caves whose outer walls were covered with abstract pictographs by Cochimi Indians some 200 years ago.

The California current has much to do with the peace and snail's pace of the Sea of Cortez. Without its chilling effect on these waters, these idyllic sites might be cluttered with condominiums or resort complexes; tourists might be invading what are still unpopulated, wide white beaches, magnificent isolated landscapes, glorious blue bays, and natural lagoons. The frigid waters have successfully conspired to keep the sea in its pristine state, a felicitous environment for wildlife. And, as Steinbeck wr ote, it is ``the abundance of life here [that] gives one an exuberance, a feeling of fullness and richness.''

Reentering the real world after sailing the Sea of Cortez is a jolt -- which even Steinbeck felt: ``We had been drifting in some kind of dual world -- a parallel realistic world . . . trying to recreate the Gulf is like trying to recreate a dream.'' Practical information

While most ships that venture into the Sea of Cortez are private pleasure craft, travelers may join cruises on the 143-foot Pacific Northwest Explorer. These are conducted each January through April by Special Expeditions, a division of Lindblad Travel (133 East 55 Street, New York, N.Y. 10022).

Fourteen-day cruises depart from San Diego, and Bahia de Los Angeles in Baja California, starting Jan. 10, 1986, and continuing through March; the Sea of Cortez portion of the cruise is approximately eight days, with the other days devoted to observation of whale migration on Baja's Pacific coast. Costs range from (US) $3,150 to (US) $4,790 per person.

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