The other California

Sunday Times
Published: 15th May 2016

Within half an hour of our leaving the marina at La Paz, sea turtles are swimming alongside our little boat. They’re followed shortly afterwards by dolphins, arcing over our wake, and frigate birds wheeling overhead. Then it’s the turn of a mobula ray — nicknamed the “flying ray” — which leaps into the air near our bow and performs an elegant spin.

It appears to be a mini Galapagos — yet we’re just a couple of hours’ flight from Los Angeles. This is Baja California, the spindly leg of land that traces a path down the Mexican mainland for 760 miles . It’s a peninsula, but it feels like an island, with the balmy Sea of Cortez on one side and the Pacific on the other.

As I’m discovering, the Sea of Cortez is one of the biologically richest bodies of water on the planet. Jacques Cousteau called it “the aquarium of the world”. Dolphins, whales, sea turtles, whale sharks and sea lions converge off its spectacular shores to party and breed — and it’s almost too dazzling.

As we continue our ride to Espiritu Santo Island, I spot what looks like a row of black sticks in the ocean. “Ah,” says my all-knowing guide, “those are the flippers of sea lions. If the animals are too cold after swimming a long way, they turn upside down in a huddle and stick their flippers up in order to warm themselves up.”

Later, when we’re given the opportunity to snorkel off the island, one of the creatures swims with me. It swirls in the water, its movements mirroring my own, the tawny face curious. We dry off while feasting on ceviche in tacos on a deserted beach, then pootle back to La Paz.

I’d arrived in Baja a couple of days earlier, flying into San Jose del Cabo, on the tip of the peninsula. I’d hung out at the cool El Ganzo hotel, which has a glass Jacuzzi and a rooftop pool, looking out at the blazing-blue ocean (next stop Antarctica), and in the evening explored the silver shops and dined al fresco on the town’s square.

The strip south of here — known as Los Cabos — has a glamorous air and an A-list following, helped by top-end hotels such as the sublime One&Only Palmilla . It’s a favourite with stars such as Jennifer Aniston and John Travolta (he celebrated his 50th here), and nothing is too much trouble at this luxury retreat. The pool attendants even polish your sunglasses.

Baja is less well known for its desert landscape and 20ft cacti, its empty, billboard-free roads, its rosy mountains tumbling down into the desert, its cave paintings and its remote Jesuit missions . It’s a land apart, wild yet safe. We see something of this as we leave early the following morning to drive from La Paz to Magdalena Bay, on the Pacific side.

Baja’s west coast proves no less wildlife-rich. As we embark on a boat ride across a saltwater lagoon, a trio of pelicans flies in convoy with our small vessel, while egrets and blue herons pose in the sun on the sandy barrier islands that shelter the bay from the Pacific rollers.

Grey whales are found here, too, between December and April. The animals travel 6,000 miles from Alaska every year to these warm waters, where they meet their mates, then return the following year to give birth. This is their nursery. It’s also their pick-up joint.

A few other boats have arrived, and suddenly I hear gasps as one of these beasts, slate grey and some 20ft long, rears up like Moby-Dick beside one of the vessels. A little girl stretches out and touches it. It dips down, then rises up again, clearly relishing the contact.

“They approach us,” the guide explains. “Each year, they are more relaxed. It’s as if they want a relationship with us. The mothers actually push their calves to come close.”

Right on cue, a calf — no more than three or four weeks old — pokes its head up by our boat, so its eye can see me. I lean over and place my hand on its soft but firm skin. It looks at me, and suddenly the chasm between our species doesn’t seem so huge. I want to defend the whales. I’m on their side for ever.

Maybe they are right to want to look us in the eye. It’s a horrible irony that in the days of whaling, these placid creatures were labelled “devil fish” because they fought back so fiercely.

Returning to shore, we continue our adventure. We head to off-the-beaten-track corners of Baja, staying in basic but welcoming posadas and simple boutique hotels in somnolent old towns such as Todos Santos and Loreto, once the capital of all of California.

The seafood is exquisite, and rarely more than a few dollars. One feast of lobster and garlic shrimp at a roadside fisherman’s cafe would more than measure up in the finest of London restaurants.

From Loreto, we take the steep and twisting road through the Giganta Mountains and forests of cardon cacti to the hamlet of San Javier. It’s the site of the Mission of San Francisco Javier de Vigge-Biaundo, founded in 1699. One of the best-preserved Jesuit missions in Mexico, the grey-stone building radiates a soul-calming peace.

I return to San Jose del Cabo for my flight home — and everything, including the ocean, has looked different to me ever since. Better, more jubilant, even a touch benevolent. I blame the exuberant dolphins, the spinning rays and those magnificent, curious grey whales.

Need to Know

Sally Emerson was a guest of Scott Dunn, which has a seven-night land and sea expedition to Baja California from £4,200pp, full-board, including private transfers, guiding, drinks and flights with Aero Mexico via Mexico City (020 8682