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Frolics in Mexico's marine playground

Press AssociationPress Association 19/05/2016 Sarah Marshall

Like most women in their late 30s, I've kissed a lot of frogs, but to date, I've never planted my lips on a marine mammal.

Nor do I want to.

"I've just snogged a whale!" squeals Lynn, an excited British tourist who clearly thinks differently.

To look at, grey whales aren't the most attractive creatures; covered in barnacles and sea lice they host more external parasites than any other cetacean.

But here, in Mexico's San Ignacio Lagoon, the desire to touch, pat or even cuddle these 30-tonne animals is compulsive.

Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of "petting" wildlife, but on this rare occasion, the invited interaction does feel consensual - although perhaps a snog is a touch too far.

"Maybe it's wrong to anthropomorphise, but I like to think they enjoy the contact," says Ian Rowlands, conservation campaigner and co-founder of WhaleFest, the world's biggest celebration of cetaceans.

Next month, on June 8, World Oceans Day aims to raise awareness about the importance of our blue planet, so I've joined Ian on an 11-night trip to one of the world's best-protected marine wildlife havens.

Described by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau as "the world's aquarium" and popularised by author John Steinbeck in his 1951 seafaring travelogue, the Sea of Cortez - which separates the narrow Baja Peninsula from Mexico's mainland - is a playground for fluking blue whales, breaching humpbacks and 43 other types of cetacean.

The Searcher, a 29-metre tourist vessel built in 1970 and sleeping 24 passengers, is one of only two boats with permits to visit marine reserves along both coastlines of the peninsula.

Owner Art Taylor recalls being part of the '70s movement towards saving whales.

Around the same time fishermen working in lagoons along the Baja Peninsula were whispering stories of curious, friendly grey whales. A new era in whale watching tourism dawned with tours run exclusively by local communities.

Disembarking The Searcher, we board one of 16 Pangas licensed to operate in San Ignacio Lagoon.

Inquisitive grey whales spy hop centimetres away from us, their barnacles glinting in the sunshine like diamond-encrusted tiaras.

Amid sociable tail flukes and less-than-sociable blows, the watery shadows of six mammals merge below the boat. Pushy mothers propel their timid young calves into the spotlight.

Every year, from December to April, greys gather here to breed and train their young, before migrating more than 8000km north to the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

We're visiting at the end of the season, when only a few playful mothers and calves remain. Arguably, though, interactions are much more intense.

Touching the slippery sea monsters feels oddly like stroking a plump, tender aubergine, but the sensation of connecting with these deep-sea denizens leaves me choked and speechless.

The Unesco World Heritage Site is part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest protected areas in Latin America.

But grey whales are not the only beneficiaries.

On the first day of our trip along the Pacific coast, after setting sail from San Diego, we spot an impressive 10 blue whales, hundreds of bow-riding bottlenose dolphins and mobula rays flipping like hot pancakes.

The peninsula is rich with stories of animals brought back from the brink of extinction, including the rare Guadalupe fur seal. In 1954 only 14 individuals remained on Guadalupe island, but now a second colony is thriving on San Benito island, where we embark on a morning hike.

Sidestepping seabird burrows and prickly balls of chollo cacti, we climb a dusty, sun-parched ravine, flanked by thirsty agave plants. From a plateau we look down at a haul-out of honking elephant seals and spy Guadalupe fur seals frolicking in the clear bottle-green water.

Only a few fishermen temporarily set up shacks here - a contrast to busy city La Paz, one of our next stops.

Dealing with crowds now would be harrowing, but fortunately, there's no need to go ashore. Our quarry lies in the sheltered bay.

Whale shark swimming tours have been responsibly run here for the past decade, and luckily, we manage to catch the tail end of the season. With enough of the world's largest fish to go around, we're privileged to snorkel in a small group of eight.

Our co-operative superstar whale shark glides steadily alongside us for 40 minutes, trailing a "fan base" of clingy remora fish. His A-star aura literally bowls me over when 1.5m of filter-feeding jaw switches in my direction.

It's the first of many remarkable underwater encounters: I watch guineafowl puffers ruffle their gills in a Mexican wave as garden eels waft like blades of grass in the underwater breeze. I'm immersed in a thousand-strong shoal of silvery jacks; and in the protected waters of Los Islotes, I perform aquatic somersaults with sea lions.

Our land excursions reward us with equally impressive sights.

Shortly after sunrise, when the wind-chiselled sandstone rocks are still glowing red, we land at Santa Catalina island, an arid, cactus-strewn landscape providing the perfect cover for snakes, lizards and outlaws.

The sense of solitude is almost suffocating. But, as I similarly discover during hours spent fruitlessly whale watching, it's a welcome emptiness rarely experienced in our busy, everyday lives.

Due possibly to El Nino and partly bad luck, we see very few whales in the Sea of Cortez. But those we do encounter put on a memorable show. One humpback floats remarkably close to the surface, his gleaming white pectorals fanned out as if in flight, leading Captain Aaron to dub him a Sea Angel.

Marine mammals have frequented these waters for centuries, so I've no doubt they'll soon return.

* Sarah Marshall was a guest of Wildlife Worldwide

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