by Nancy Mertz

Sea kayaking has exploded in popularity in recent years. Sea kayaks are stable, the skills are easily learned by anyone in good health, and it is a way to experience marine mammals quietly and closely.

Many of the sea kayak tour operators in the southern half of the Baja peninsula, in the state of Baja California Sur, Mexico, base out of Loreto or La Paz; both coastal communities on the Sea of Cortez (Mexicans call it the Gulf of California) side of the peninsula. Most of the tours visit uninhabited islands and coastlines near those two starting points. (The reason no multi-day tours go out of Cabo San Lucas is because there are no nearby islands to camp on and the sea is much more exposed there).

Loreto & La Paz comparison

Loreto is a sleepy Mexican fishing village about 8 hours by car north of Cabo San Lucas. It was the original capital of the peninsula 1697 until 1828 when a hurricane leveled the town and the capital was permanently moved to La Paz. La Paz, a city of about 300,000, is the main ferry terminus to mainland Mexico, and is located approximately half way between Loreto and Cabo San Lucas.

Loreto has limited flights arriving daily from Los Angeles or Houston on Alaska, Horizon, Delta, Aero Mexico and Continental airlines. La Paz has more options of flights in and out on those carriers and others. Loreto is a 2-day drive south from San Diego in California, USA. Some guests elect to fly into Cabo San Lucas to take advantage of cheap flights, and then take a short domestic flight or take an air-conditioned bus to either Loreto or La Paz for a fraction of the price.

Both Loreto and La Paz have several large uninhabited federally protected islands nearby that are exquisite for paddling and exploring. Loreto lies in the heart of Loreto Bay National Marine Park. Both Loreto and La Paz are within reach of Magdalena Bay, a large federally protected gray whale lagoon on the Pacific side of the peninsula. All the islands in the Sea of Cortez and all three gray whale lagoons on the Pacific Coast have federally protected status, and all outfitters and private parties must have the proper permits. Be sure to go with an outfitter than has the proper operating permits, or if you are in a private party do obtain the proper permits from the appropriate park office in both communities, as federal officers do regular site inspections in the park areas.

Private parties are not permitted at all in Magdalena Bay, although they are allowed with permits in the Sea of Cortez. Permitted outfitters are committed to preserving the laws and environment in which they operate and must pay all appropriate use fees and taxes to Mexico, must hire and train locals to be sea kayak guides and logistics managers, and have proper liability insurance and safety procedures/training.

Self-supported vs. motorboat supported tours

Most sea kayak tour operators fall into either of these two camps, so be sure you inquire about what kind of tour the company runs, and what they include in the tour price (such as sleeping gear, hotel, airport transfers). Most tour outfitters mostly use double kayaks due to their greater stability, carrying capacity and suitability to a wider range of participant ability levels, but some outfitters will have single kayaks along, too, for folks to rotate into. So this is another issue to explore with outfitters in advance.

Weather in Baja California Sur

Daytime temperatures late December through February range from the 70's to 80's degrees F (22-27 C), and night temperatures can dip to the 40's F (8 C), requiring a warm sweater and hat. March through early May they range from the mid-80's to mid-90's F (27-32) during the day, 55-60 F (16 C) at night. While rain is infrequent on the Baja peninsula, it does occur December – February. Bring synthetic and cotton clothes, in layers to provide for weather extremes (your outfitter will provide an equipment list).

Water temperatures range from 68 to 72 degrees F (21 C) so most find a wet suit a good idea December through March for snorkeling. SPF clothing, light-colored, long-sleeved shirt and long pants & hats are rapidly gaining in popularity and are great for outdoor travel in sunny climes. Periods of strong winds for up to 2-3 days at a time can occur in this part of the world from November through March, although the winds start tapering off in February and March. Hurricane season is August through September, rarely in October. Temperatures soar above 110 degrees F (43 C) in June, July and August, thus most outfitters don't operate tours then.

Whales in Baja California Sur

The rare blue whale, which is the largest living creature in the world today, and the fin whale frequent the Sea of Cortez February through mid-April, as well as the occasional humpback. The once endangered California gray whale, whose population now numbers about 28,000, migrate 5000 miles each fall and winter down the Pacific coast from Alaska to spend the month of February and first couple weeks of March in the three large lagoon/inner waterways of Baja California peninsula’s Pacific coast. There they rest, give birth and mate before heading back toward Alaska in late March.

Mexico strictly protects the three California gray whale lagoons (Scammon’s Lagoon (Guerro Negro), San Ignacio and Magdalena Bay), thus one can only go into the lagoons with a licensed kayak tour operator or motorized tour operator. No one is allowed to kayak directly with the whales, so kayak outfitters use government-licensed skiff operators to visit the areas of greatest whale congregation. Common dolphins, bottle nose dolphins and California sea lions are commonly seen throughout the waters of Baja California. A common myth is that one can pet a whale from a kayak – this has never been known to happen. Whales move much faster than a kayak can paddle, and have never shown curiosity in kayaks.

However, it is becoming more and more common for gray whales in the lagoons of the Pacific coast to approach motorized skiffs (called "pangas") and even occasionally be petted by humans, and are referred to as “friendlies”. The skiff operators licensed by the Mexican government are quite expert at knowing how read the whales’ behavior and operate by federal rules so as to avoid stressing the whales.

Want to drive down to Baja with the family? Read about planning a family kayak trip to Baja.

Why go with an outfitter

The seas and winds of the Sea of Cortez can be quite challenging at times, and destinations remote, thus seasoned guides are an invaluable asset unless you are very experienced doing self-supported tours in this kind of environment – and even then, there are weather patterns unique to the Sea of Cortez. A permitted outfitter will have the knowledge, experience, sound equipment, and the commitment to safety and service that can allow you to relax and enjoy your vacation in Baja California. Also, due to the remoteness of the southern part of the Baja peninsula, the weather, and liability issues, finding expedition kayaks to rent in Loreto or La Paz is a challenge (outfitters often don’t want to rent out their touring boats since they need them to run their peak season tours and due to liability issues). At this writing, we know of a couple outfitters in La Paz that will rent out touring sea kayaks and none in Loreto.

Why Sea Kayaking

It is a magical, quiet sport quickly and easily learned; fun for all ages; the craft are stable and seaworthy. Wildlife is less threatened by a person quietly drifting by in a kayak than by any other approach. It is a great way to spend time with new friends in a wilderness setting. Kayaks can carry more gear than backpacks so many former hikers are turning to sea kayaking. Come see why sea kayaking is exploding in popularity, by going on a guided sea kayak tour in a warm and sunny pristine wilderness setting.

Nancy Mertz is the co-founder of Sea Kayak Adventures.