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The Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, is an ocean lover's dream destination. Wedged between Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula and the mainland, its calm, nutrient-dense waters teem with 900-some species of fish and a third of the planet’s marine mammals. Here, in the pristine place Jacques Cousteau called the “world’s aquarium,” sea life is prone to performance—picture a ballet of leaping mobula rays, acrobatic pods of dolphins, and the aquatic pyrotechnics of spouting and breaching whales.
But exploring the Sea of Cortez by water alone would make for an incomplete trip. On land, an equally spectacular sort of enchantment awaits if one knows where to look. The gulf is dotted with islands and islets—244 in total—that shelter a surprising array of flora and fauna. When appearing on the horizon, these Sonoran desert outposts may seem bleak and inhospitable, interrupting the turquoise expanse with their stark, brown cliffs, like rock piles somehow stranded at sea.
However, as you begin to approach the shore, hints of life slowly reveal themselves. Brown gives way to a striated gradient of rusty reds, ochres, and olives, often topped by a snowlike frosting of guano. A distant cacophony of barking sea lions greets you as pockets of green poking out from gaps in the landscape turn to mini-skylines of massive cardón cacti, some stretching 80 feet into the clear, cerulean sky.
Undersea specialist Carlos Navarro, who's lived in Baja for a large part of his life, has seen nearly every major island in the Sea of Cortez. Many are uninhabited and federally owned as biosphere reserves or wildlife sanctuaries, which sets the stage for a high degree of endemism. "Each island has a different personality, a different feeling, even different smells,” he says. “You may see the same plants—for example, there are cardónes on pretty much every island we visit—but they’re all diverse in size and shape."
Hiking inland, the arroyos (dry river beds) make for ideal trails. These desert canyons may flood when the occasional tropical storm passes through, but more often, the only sign of water is the surprising amount of cacti, succulents, and other desert flora thriving around you. Dry does not mean barren; in fact, 665 vascular plant species have been identified here.
“For a desert,” Navarro explains, “it’s a very lush environment, with big mesquites and ironwood trees. Sometimes, we are in the middle of an arroyo hiking and you can barely see the sky because of the vegetation above our heads.” Also, cacti variations—giant barrel cacti, prickly pears, fuzz-topped “old man” cacti, and beyond—cluster to create their own forest of sorts.
Wildlife is abundant, as well. With few large predators, the islands’ reptiles and rodents have become quite charismatic. Isla San Esteban is home to two large endemic lizards: the pinto chuckwalla, stocky and patched; and the spiny-tailed iguana, usually seen scaling cacti to snack on their fruits. On Isla Santa Catalina, two variations of rattlesnake have evolved without rattles. And on Isla Espíritu Santo, searches for the black jackrabbit and antelope squirrel are, sometimes, delightfully rewarded.
Birding, too, is world-class as the islands comprise crucial breeding grounds for hundreds of thousands of seabirds. Isla Rasa annually hosts 95 percent of the world’s population of Heermann’s gulls and elegant terns to nest on its 140 acres. Year-round, thousands of brown pelicans, frigatebirds, cormorants, blue-footed boobies, and brown boobies make their homes on these shores.
Navarro believes Baja is at its best when the wildlife of both worlds—land and marine—collide. “I have been on hikes where I am talking about lizards and then a fin whale blows right offshore,” he recalls, “and now we are watching whales from the cliff.”
This is the magic of the Sea of Cortez, where desert, sea, and sky meet in captivating contrast—all characters in their own wild form of drama. And, of course, the excitement doesn't set with the sun. Especially on a new moon night, familiar constellations flood with myriad stars, and if you happen to be heading back to the ship on a Zodiac and dip your hand into the water, you just might leave a teal trail of bioluminescent plankton sparkling in your wake.
Discover these seldom-seen islands on the following Baja itineraries: Exploring the Sea of Cortez: A Living Sea & Desert Isles; Wild Baja Escape: Serenity & Sea Life in the Sea of Cortez & Baja California: A Remarkable Journey