Kayaking in "the world's aquarium" reveals beauty above and below the surface.

By Susan Hall Mahon

My sky blue kayak bobs in the Sea of Cortez. I stop paddling and stare across the surface of the water to the tawny peaks of Isla Carmen, which don't seem to be getting any closer. I look behind me at the Baja California Sur mainland, which looks equally distant. Here, in the middle of this great body of water, called "the world's aquarium" by that equally great adventurer, Jacques Cousteau, I feel outmatched. Like a fish with not much power in its tail.

I chose this trip with Row Sea Kayak Adventures to explore the uninhabited islands of Loreto Bay National Park because I dreamed of getting close to the creatures that call this place home—fish, dolphins, and whales. Using my own power to get far from shore and truly into their world was my goal. But I'm finding that I might have underestimated how hard it would be to get there from here.

I feel a poke in my back, the ridge of a paddle. There, behind me, is my husband, egging me on. He grins, gamely. "OK," I think. "Let's do this."

And I'm so happy that we do.

Is it because our guides, Axel and Tuku, come to meet our small flotilla of paddlers with homemade quesadillas and guacamole as we push the noses of our boats ashore? Or that once on terra firma, I take in a strange and beautiful stretch of sand framed by a wild tangle of cacti—a type of beach I never imagined would exist? Or am I just glad to be done with two and a half hours of strenuous paddling?

Coronado Island, Baja, beachIt's all of the above. Now officially luxury castaways, we sleep in white tents pitched by our guides along the shore and spend two more days paddling in the protected waters surrounding the islands. Dolphins announce themselves in a watery shimmer, and then playfully swim away. A pilot whale breaks the surface, and we spot a pod of dolphins nearby it like a marine entourage. They're glimpses of the swirling world below the surface.

Every day, we don masks and snorkels to watch the undersea show. Neon yellow sergeant majors, electric blue damselfish, and brilliant parrotfish flutter by. A puffer fish inflates into a perfect, spiny sphere. I count more than 10 species of starfish, each one bigger and more colorful—with fiery oranges, deep reds, bright blues, and royal purples—than the last.

On our final day, that long paddle to the mainland is still arduous, but this time the return feels too fast. Now, I look back with longing at those wild and distant islands that demand work to reach, but reward the quiet approach in a slender boat with uncountable riches.

Row Sea Kayak Adventures 3 × 3 Kayak & Whale Watching Combo rates start at $1,615; 800-616-1943 or seakayakadventures.com.

Photos: Top: Justin Bailie; Bottom: Michael Mahon