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.
For sand dunes, nothing beats the vast stretches of nearby Isla Magdalena, known as Sand Dollar Beach. The ideal time to photograph these graceful formations is at sunrise or sunset, when the warm, low-hanging sun highlights the graceful wind-carved ridges and furrows of sand. Wind and sand are enemies to cameras, so take care not to change lenses at all in these environments. If you do have to switch optics, try making a wind shelter for yourself with your jacket and do the changing as quickly as possible. Wide-angle lenses are usually best for these situations.
When on board, keep your cameras ever at the ready because you never know when you’ll see scores of bow-riding dolphins, blue-whale blows, mobula rays leaping out of the water, plunging pelicans or a pod of feeding fin whales. Amazing displays of sea and bird life can happen at any time, and sometimes for just a few fleeting moments, so keep the batteries charged and the cameras at hand whenever the ship is underway.
The sand dunes of Isla Magdalena, on the Pacific coast of the Baja peninsula in Mexico, in the first light of sunrise.
Another island, Isla Partida in Ensenada Grande Bay, is a wonderful place for a short desert hike and great kayaking among rose-colored cliff formations. I opted to stay on land and shoot the bright red kayaks poking along the cliffs in beautiful blue green water. Even though I was using my 70-200mm VR Nikkor, I kept it fitted with a Singh-Ray LB Color Combo Polarizer. This filter not only provides the usual benefits of a polarizer, like cutting reflections from water and foliage, but also warms and intensifies the colors, all with less light loss than an ordinary polarizer.
As much as I enjoy shooting landscapes and wildlife, I’m also always on the lookout for good people pictures. On Isla del Carmen, I came across some local fishermen getting ready to go back out to set their nets and I got a few nice frames of their departure. Later that night, guests from the ship were enjoying a beach barbecue and bonfire. I made sure to set up with my wide-angle lens and tripod right around twilight, before it got totally dark, and made sure to meter off the faces of the people around the fire so the bright flames wouldn’t fool the meter into underexposing. A quick check of the histogram and a request for my subjects to try to hold still for a few frames, and I had my campfire shot.
It was back to wildlife, primarily birds, when we sailed for Isla Rasa, an island with huge nesting colonies of Heermann’s gulls and elegant terns wheeling around the Zodiacs by the thousands. At first I was using faster shutter speeds on my D200 to freeze the birds in mid-flight with a 70-200mm VR lens. But once I got those “safety” shots, I started panning with the flying birds, using slower shutter speeds (like 1⁄125-, 1⁄60-, 1⁄30-sec.). These produced some impressionistic results that I actually like better than the sharper, stop-motion frames.
Isla Santa Catalina is one of the most picturesque in the Sea of Cortez, and sunset is a great time to be there. It was late afternoon when we put in, and I had plenty of time to hike up the cactus-covered hillside to find my spot for a sunset shot of the half-moon bay.
It was kind of cloudy, and it didn’t look like it was going to be much of a sunset. I put a Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer on the 12-24mm Nikkor in the hopes of punching up the lackluster color, but even then, I thought maybe I’d just head back to the ship and skip it.
But I hung in there, and as Old Sol sank below the horizon, it lit the bottom of the clouds in a fantastic range of reds and pinks. It was a gorgeous sight, but I knew that if I didn’t do something to lessen that contrast, I’d either lose the color in the sky to get the detail in the island or have a colorful sky with a black, featureless blob beneath it.
So I stuck a three-stop Singh-Ray graduated neutral-density filter over the Gold-N-Blue polarizer, and that brought the sky and sand within a contrast range that the chip could record, and I was rewarded for my patience with a beautiful twilight shot. It was a perfect way to cap off a Sea of Cortez cruise full of great photo opportunities.
Scouting Report is an occasional series to appear in Photo Traveler, covering popular destinations for outdoor and travel photographers and how to plan and photograph a trip. Visit Bob Krist’s website at www.bobkrist.com.