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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Baja California

South of the border, where the rugged windswept desert meets an emerald sea, James Kay shows us some of the hidden splendors that await an adventurous photographer

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Sandstone patterns along Puerto Gato Bay.
With scores of offshore islands and 1,200 miles of desert coastline, the Sea of Cortez along the Baja Peninsula is a sea-kayaker’s paradise. Although vastly depleted by decades of commercial overfishing, these waters support a huge ecosystem and more species of marine animals than any other body of water of its size on the planet. You’ll find humpback whales, blue whales, marlin, sailfish, sea lions, manta rays, dolphins, leatherback sea turtles and tropical reef fish. The skies are filled with pelicans, cormorants, frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, blue herons, gulls, oystercatchers, osprey and grebes, all of them dependent on the sea for their existence.

If you’ve ever photographed saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert region of southwestern Arizona, you’ll feel right at home in Baja. Often mistaken for the saguaro, the peninsula is home to the cardon cactus, the world’s largest species, with some specimens reaching nearly 70 feet into the dry desert air. Huge forests of these cacti share wide valleys along the coast with ocotillo, manzanita, cholla cactus, palm trees, elephant trees, agave and the exotic-looking boojum tree. With their bizarre architecture, these plants all provide excellent subject matter for photography, especially during spring when many produce brilliant flower clusters.

What makes Baja photographically unique, however, is this Sonoran Desert environment juxtaposed beside the white sand beaches and turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez, an oxymoronic tropical desert. Outside of the Middle East, there aren’t many tropical desert coastlines and certainly none with cardon cactus towering above warm green waters.

It was this unique desert-by-the-sea environment that attracted me to the photographic possibilities of Baja in the first place, and what better way to explore it than by sea kayak? With all the gear for a two-week trip fitted snugly into the hulls of our boats, Susie and I could explore miles of empty coastline at our own pace, stopping whenever I saw a photographic opportunity. We could poke into every nook and cranny along the way and camp on secluded beaches impossible to reach on foot or by large boats with deeper drafts. We could gaze at colorful tropical fish circling more than 30 feet below us and haul out nearby for some snorkeling.

Our first kayaking excursion to Baja took us to the island of Espíritu Santo located four miles off the coast north of La Paz, the capital city of the state of Baja California Sur. With its 200,000 inhabitants, La Paz fronts a protected bay on the Sea of Cortez and serves as the stepping-off point for kayaking trips along the southern half of the peninsula. Recently anointed with national-park status and surrounded by scalloped, white-sand-fringed coves, the island hosts the most ecologically diverse ecosystem in the Sea of Cortez. We kayaked on turquoise bays surrounded by cardon cactus forests as hundreds of brown pelicans dive-bombed the waters around us and blue-footed boobies jostled for position along the cliffs.

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