Baja Seakayaking 101
By Ted Olinger
first appeared in Issue 31
Baja (lower) California is a desert peninsula with nearly 2,000 miles of coastline and a jagged mountainous spine running most of its 800-mile length. The peninsula separated from the Mexican mainland along the San Andreas fault 12 million years ago, creating the Gulf of California, also called the Sea of Cortez and the Vermilion Sea, because of its wintertime red tides. The gulf is shallow in the north, where it was filled by sediment from the Colorado River, but is more than 10,000 feet deep in other places. Nutrient-rich currents fill these great depths, attracting great whales, giant manta rays, whale sharks, and many other fish and birds more common to the tropics.
Baja’s Pacific coast is cool and rainy from December to March, while the gulf is mild and warm. Summer temperatures soar into the 100s, tempered by occasional hurricanes between July and September. The most popular times for kayaking are spring and fall. The Pacific coast has excellent surf spots, sea cave kayaking for the properly padded, and the famous lagoons where gray whales congregate in winter, although kayaking is not allowed there.
This rugged and isolated coastline has numerous islands, spectacular wildlife and scenery, and just enough civilization to keep you from starving to death.
The most interesting and remote paddling is found on the Sea of Cortez, anywhere between the majestic Bahia de Los Angeles in the north and tranquil La Paz, some 475 miles farther south. This rugged and isolated coastline has numerous islands, spectacular wildlife and scenery, and just enough civilization to keep you from starving to death.
Ah, but there’s a catch—the wind. The smart move on the Sea of Cortez is to paddle early and stop early. Strong afternoon winds are common, but this also keeps you on good terms with the sun. The real danger is El Norte, a wind from the north that comes from high-pressure systems in the southwestern United States that are funneled down into the gulf. El Norte can blow up to 40 knots for days at a time, so take a good book.
Read Tom Bol’s tale of a sea kayak adventure in Baja, Baja by Sea Kayak.
This would not be much of a problem except that weather prediction is a bit sketchy once you leave Loreto or La Paz, or the nearest Internet caf where you can download a long-range forecast. VHF marine radios may pick up U.S. broadcasts that give you notice of what’s brewing up north, but they work reliably only if conditions are right, and usually only offshore where there is a clear line of sight for receiving signals.
Keep an eye on the sky. Thin, elongated clouds shaped like elephant trunks over the mountains or pouring through gaps between them signal the approach of strong localized westerlies called elefantes. And don’t be shy about asking fishermen and other boaters what they know. A fleet of pangas (flat-bottomed skiffs) speeding back to shore is a good indication that wind is on the way.