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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Scouting Report: Mexico

Baja and the Sea of Cortez is a haven for photographers

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Photo Traveler - Mexico
Whale watching in Laguna San Ignacio, on the Pacific coast of the Baja peninsula in Mexico.

Because of its close proximity to heavily populated stretches of California and Mexico, you wouldn’t expect the Sea of Cortez and Baja peninsula to be one of the world’s most pristine natural paradises and a major breeding ground for marine mammals. Yet, that’s precisely what it is. When you factor in its beautiful uninhabited islands, whales and dolphins, amazing seabird colonies, countless acres of sand dunes and some of the world’s most beautiful sunsets, you can see why it has become a major draw for photographers as well.

You can do Baja by land, but since most of the attractions are on small islands and in the water itself, a cruise is usually the best way to go. The smaller the ship and the longer the trip, the more photo opportunities you’ll encounter. Some companies, like Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com) even offer departures specially tailored for photographers, featuring professional nature photographers on board who lead sunrise and sunset photo shoots, and afternoons devoted to “cruising for composition.”

When To Go, How To Prepare
The area is comfortable year-round, but spring is a great time to see whales and their calves. You’re not in the tropics, though, so be prepared with warm clothing. Although it seems counterintuitive to bring warm clothes to Mexico in the spring, a substantial windproof fleece jacket and a good Gore-Tex® rain suit (for the sea spray, not the rain), will come in handy.

Because you’ll be spending so much time aboard a ship and small Zodiac rafts, there are some precautions to take for your equipment as well. A waterproof photo backpack, such as the Lowepro DryZone series, is a good choice. But almost any shoulder or backpack combo will do, if you have a large plastic bag to protect the gear from sand and spray. I find that the XL Ziploc™ Big Bags are big enough to swallow my entire camera bag and heavyweight enough to carry by the handles with my gear inside.

But you do have to take the camera out of the bag, and when you’re bouncing around on a Zodiac in choppy seas or being sneezed on by a whale, you want added protection. Try a camera raincoat, such as the Shutter Hat (www.shutterhat.com) or Storm Jackets from Vortex Media (www.vortexmedia.com).

If you’ve got a compact digital camera that you take as a backup, check to see if it has an auxiliary underwater housing. Many manufacturers like Canon and Nikon offer UW housings for their point-and-shoots that are under $200 and superbly designed, and this makes it safe to take a camera along when snorkeling or kayaking without risking your main D-SLRs.

Finally, besides good sun protection, you’ll find a small beanbag to be useful to steady your longer lenses when shooting from on board the ship and bracing the camera on the rail. Experienced hands often use a Bucky Neck Pillow (www.bucky.com), a U-shaped pillow filled with buckwheat that’s sold as an item that supports your neck and head and makes it easier to sleep on airplanes, for a beanbag on board. Anything that can do double duty like this is prized by traveling photographers who value their sleep on airplanes, as well as sharp pictures.

Cruising For Composition And Photo Ops
For up-close and personal watching of gray whales and their calves, there’s no better place than Bahia de San Ignacio, one of three major calving lagoons for this species. Local fishermen from the area, keenly aware of the impact of humans on the whales, carefully regulate and run the whale-watching trips. Under the guidance of these local experts in their pangas, the local term for a small boat or Zodiac, it’s not unusual for 45-foot mothers and their calves to closely approach and nudge the boat, seemingly curious about the people in them.

At this point, the calves are growing by as much as 50 to 70 pounds a day in preparation for their long, 12,000-mile migrations, but they’re still playful. One of them gave our boat a shower by a combined tail-slap in the water, followed by what can only be described as a very messy sneeze. That’s why protection for your gear is a necessity.

You’ll want to be prepared with a wide-angle lens, should the whales get close, but also a telephoto, because sometimes the best shots are of whales sidling up to other boats in your flotilla.

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