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Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, Part 1: Passage to La Paz, a family visit, and snorkeling with whale sharks (February 2018)


Several sailors we had met in Alaska had highly recommended the Sea of Cortez, saying it was one of their all-time favorite cruising grounds, so that was our goal in Mexico. So when we left San Jose del Cabo, we pointed the bow north again. At first – when our course was really more northeast along the coast – we had beautiful sailing on a close reach, once again flying along under clear skies. Sailing fast upwind

But as the land curved more north and we altered course, the wind was right on the nose. With relatively little chop, we nonetheless made good progress, despite sailing lots of miles out of our way, as you do when you beat to windward. By evening we had reached Cabo Pulmo, a national park that was recommended in our cruising guide for having the best protected anchorage south of La Paz. 

Unfortunately, our cruising guide was a bit outdated… (5 years old… it was free…) and as soon as we got the anchor down a park official hailed us over VHF radio to tell us that anchoring was prohibited there. So, back we went, coasting downwind to the permitted anchorage at Los Frailes. It was a little painful to watch all those hard-won miles that we’d sailed (it had taken us 2 hours to beat up to Cabo Pulmo from Los Frailes) slip away and to know we’d have to do them over again when we set sail for La Paz.

2017 route_Baja

Our route down Baja and up into the Sea of Cortez to La Paz

Of course we could have just kept going and made a passage to La Paz, but we just didn’t want to. The north wind was strong and had kicked up a chop that was killing our VMG (velocity made good), which was in turn hurting our morale…. We hoped it would die down a bit in a few days.

Los Frailes turned out to be a nice anchorage, full of beautiful phosphorescence at night and lovely scenery during the day. We had it all to ourselves for the three days we spent there, waiting in vain for the wind and chop to lay down a little.

Los Frailes

Lovely Los Frailes anchorage

By February 18th, though, our time to wait around had run out. Seth’s parents were coming to meet us in La Paz on the 20th and we didn’t want to be late for them, of course. So we weighed anchor and headed out into the same strong northerly. With all sail set, we were making 4 knots through the water against the chop, though only about half that as progress towards our destination. Around 2AM, though, the wind and chop finally lay down a lot and we made good time under power. As if to make up for a not-so-pleasant night, the sunrise was spectacular!

Sunrise approaching La Paz

Sunrise on passage to La Paz

By midday on the 19th the wind had filled in again, but by then we had turned the corner and were headed west through San Lorenzo channel and then south to La Paz, so we made good time under sail! We reached La Paz by evening of the 19th.

Seth’s parents arrived in the afternoon of the 20th (phew, we just made it…) and spent a week in La Paz. For the first couple of days, we went sight-seeing in La Paz itself, checking out the Whale Museum, an interesting look at the many different species of cetaceans that inhabit the Sea of Cortez, and the Anthropology Museum, which gave us an overview of the history of the area, from prehistoric times to Mexican independence and finally Baja’s statehood. We also enjoyed walking around the city and visiting the market and cathedral in the central square.

La Paz cathedral

La Paz cathedral

We also explored further afield, renting a car and driving through the desert to the oasis town of Todos Santos with its colonial architecture and miles of golden sand beaches lining the Pacific coast.

Desert outside La Paz

Desert outside of La Paz

Todos Santos church

Church in Todos Santos

The two highlights of our time with Seth’s parents, though, were our sail on CELESTE, and a tour we did with On Board Baja to snorkel with whale sharks and sea lions.

The area around La Paz is home to a number of whale sharks that feed on the abundance of krill there every winter. I had always wanted to see these beautiful, shy creatures, so to have the opportunity to snorkel with them was very exciting. The tour operators seem to do a good job respecting the animals and making sure that only 3-4 people are in the water with one at a time. As we understood it, private boats are not allowed in the area, and it would be too shallow for most sailboats anyway. Plus, the tour was a lot more relaxed than bringing our own boat would have been – we met some fun people (not least our enthusiastic and energetic guide!) and we could enjoy the snorkeling without having to worry about maneuvering CELESTE or the dinghy amid the animals, snorkelers, and other boats.

On Board Baja tour boat

The On Board Baja tour boat

The whale sharks are huge – 15-25 feet – and swim fast, so the tour boat’s skipper first got into a good position a few yards in front and to one side of a whale shark. The first group of four people and the guide jumped in and snorkeled towards the whale shark. Once they reached him, they swam alongside for a couple of minutes, kicking hard to keep up with his smooth, graceful, but fast, pace. Then they returned to the boat and the next group of 4 people got to go. We rotated like this throughout the morning so that each group got to snorkel three times. The animals didn’t seem to mind – they dive if they want to get rid of you and as far as I could tell that only happened to one group once.

Whale shark snorkel

Whale Shark

After dropping off about half the passengers, who had signed up for the morning only, our tour continued out to a rocky islet where sea lions congregate. There we got in the water again to snorkel with these playful marine mammals! There were a lot of them, including a young one that swam circles around us!

snorkeling with sea lions

Snorkeling with sea lions

sea lion under-over

Sea Lions below and above the water

Then it was lunchtime, for which we were taken to a lovely white sand beach. After some good ceviche, fruit, and sandwiches, we went paddleboarding around the bay for an hour or two before returning to La Paz.

On our sail on CELESTE a few days later, we had a light but pleasant wind for tacking out from La Paz to San Lorenzo Channel and then running downwind back. As we got closer to La Paz and closer to sundown, the breeze started to die so that we were only ghosting along.

Sailing with Seth's parents

Seth’s parents sailing CELESTE

The only unfortunate moment in the whole visit was one day when all of us came down with food poisoning…. But I suppose that’s to be expected when traveling… And fortunately it wasn’t so bad as to require antibiotics – we all managed to recover simply by resting and not returning to the restaurant where we think we got it!

8 thoughts on “Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, Part 1: Passage to La Paz, a family visit, and snorkeling with whale sharks (February 2018)

  1. Pingback: Sea of Cortez Part 3: Return Passage to Cabo (May 2018) | Gone Floatabout

  2. Pingback: Sea of Cortez, Part 2: Sailing, diving, and hiking (May 2018) | Gone Floatabout

  3. Hi folks, going great as usual with all the wonderful scenery and magnificent sun rising. Terrific to have good weather for mum and dad visit, I wish you all well cheers, Terry

    • Hi Terry,
      Just reconnected to Wifi for the first time in months… and saw your nice comments from this summer – thank you – we always appreciate hearing from you! Hope to write more on the blog soon and bring it up to speed!
      All the best,

  4. How lucky to swim with whale sharks… on our to do list! And doing this with family is even more precious.

    • It was such a treat – if you ever do have the opportunity, it’s an amazing experience to get in the water with these placid giants 🙂

  5. Great adventure snorkeling with whale sharks and sea lions. Was the water that cold that you needed wet suits? I’m glad you had a good time with Seth’s parents. Our kids open up adventures for us too!

    • Hi Don,
      Yes, the water really was that cold! I know – you wouldn’t think Mexico would be like that, but Baja is quite affected by the California Current, bringing cold water down from the Pacific NW. The sea temperature on the outside (west) coast of Baja was around 55*F in February when we were there and it was probably about 60-65*F in the Sea of Cortez – definitely wetsuit water if you want to stay in any length of time! (It does get warmer – in May we were happily swimming without wetsuits!)