Powered by two outboard motors, the Zodiac has the speed and maneuverability to pursue the creatures wherever they surface. Compared with larger boats, small craft enable passengers not only to get closer to marine life, but also to experience the relentless motion and power of the sea.
My husband and I book a 10:30 a.m. reservation with Cabo Expeditions, a company that runs whale-watching excursions out of the modern marina at the port in Cabo San Lucas. The bright, sunny morning is perfect for boating or any outdoor activity. After removing our shoes and placing our belongings in a large storage locker on the boat's deck, we don bright-orange life vests and are ready for the hunt. We sit next to the other boaters, who all have digital cameras.
Looking tanned and seaworthy in a white pique shirt, navy Bermuda shorts, and mirrored sunglasses, our bilingual guide, Augusto, greets us and helps passengers onto the boat one by one. Twelve people are seated along the gunwales; three are on cushioned seats at the stern. A company photographer commandeers the prime seat at the bow.
"Any questions before we leave?" asks Augusto. Positioned at the helm, he tells us we'll see gray whales and humpbacks, mostly mothers with calves that migrate thousands of miles each year from Alaska to these warmer waters.
"Why are there so many whales in Los Cabos?" one young woman asks.
"This is where they are born, so they return here every year," he replies.
"How fast can they travel?" asks someone else.
"Usually six or seven miles an hour, but they can swim as fast as 20 if they have to - but only for short distances."
The eye-catching covers of most whale-watching-trip brochures invariably show close-ups of huge whales breaching head-first. In reality, whale watching is more akin to going fishing. You stare at the water patiently and come to accept you may not make a catch that day. The unpredictability makes it exciting.
We pass Lover's Beach, Land's End, and Los Arcos, where we stop briefly to take photos as we travel north on the Pacific. Bouncing on the waves, we take in the views of striking rock formations along the shore. Augusto instructs us to call out when we spot a whale, using the positions of a clock to pinpoint location. Like a schoolteacher, he orients us to 12 (straight ahead), 3, 6, and 9 o'clock. All 15 whale hunters crane their necks in every direction to see who will be first to spot the big one.
"Four o'clock," yells a passenger on the starboard side. By the time I click my camera's shutter, the whales are submerged again. I realize that getting a good view, let alone a photograph, is going to be tough.
Whales breathe through blowholes on the top of their heads; when they exhale, it pushes up an explosive spout of water vapor. Augusto explains that the spout offers a visual clue that the warm-blooded mammals are nearby. As promised, we see some spouts followed by glimpses of barnacle-covered gray whales.
"Let's go east," says Augusto as he changes course in an effort to find richer waters. We head to the Sea of Cortez and travel the equivalent of five land miles on a path that parallels the highway called "The Corridor," which links the anchoring cities of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Remarkably, desert vegetation meets the aquamarine waters almost at the shoreline.
At Augusto's beckoning, we sight a few more whales a distance away, but they are nothing to write home about. Then he slows the boat and turns off the engine. Everyone remains silent as he turns on a listening device that amplifies sounds underwater so we can hear the whales singing to one another. We know we're getting closer.
Then comes the grand finale. Two enormous whales breach toward the blue skies and slam down on their sides. I thought the boat might capsize when we all got up from our seats, angling to get unobstructed views. The whales "spy hop" seconds later, raising their heads out of the water. The action creates a huge splash that looks like a tidal wave. Cameras click, and we all ooh and aah as our lenses fog up with spray.
After two hours on the boat, everyone is disappointed when Augusto signals it is time to head back to the marina. He revs the motor, but we remain vigilant in case the whales perform again. No such luck.
It takes a few minutes to get used to walking on dry land again after we get off the boat and return to the expedition office on the marina. Before stopping at a nearby cantina for margaritas, we wait for the company photographer to download his shots from the voyage. They are projected onto a large overhead TV screen set up for viewing by customers. He was either more practiced at whale photography or had a far better telephoto lens than any of ours.
For an additional $35, we cave in and purchase a CD with copies of the several dozen whale shots he took, along with a print photograph. I'm still not sure whether the whales are the ones we saw or stock photography. It really doesn't matter.