The view from Camp Cecil
Photo: Courtesy of Camp Cecil/Keenan Shoal Werner

Baja California’s wild Sea of Cortez plays host to a magical encounter.

By Steele Thomas Marcoux

Isla Espíritu Santo, Baja California Sur
It's impossible to say no to a sea lion pup. Especially when he gazes right at you with his big brown eyes and a half-pitiful, half-hopeful tilt of his soft, sweet face. This is what I think to myself as I sit on the royal blue edge of our idling panga, a 22-foot outboard chariot that has skirted myself and my sister up the coastline of Mexico's Isla Espíritu Santo to a protected sea lion colony. Dangling my flipper-clad feet in the chilly Sea of Cortez, I wait for the rest of our crew to suit up in neoprene. The pup makes a dozen half-moon passes around my flippers, popping his face up every 20 seconds or so and begging me to join him for an underwater playdate with those eyes. Those irresistible eyes.

Steele (right) and her sister, Katherine
Photo: Steele Thomas Marcoux

This is our second journey to the colony during our stay at Camp Cecil, a luxury tent resort on one of the island's tiny, unspoiled crescents of sand. We made our first attempt the day before, only to call off the swim at the last minute due to unusually strong winds and currents. Alan and Yovani have generously brought us back for another go and are patiently waiting for us to hop in, but Katherine, arms folded tightly across her chest and lower lip poking out like I haven't seen from my little sister since we were kids, remains rigidly glued to her seat inside the boat. I'm beginning to worry that swimming with the sea lions, the fundamental reason why we're in Baja in the first place, might not happen. Will temporary discomfort—the water feels awfully cold even on my wetsuit-covered ankles—stand in our way?

Not for me. "It's now or never," I say as I shove off the side of the boat and sink into the quiet world under the surface.

I'd been planning my return to the Sea of Cortez for nearly 20 years, ever since I fell in love with the contrast of its teal-turquoise waves lapping at the base of rose-gold desert cliffs—and with how simple the world becomes when you set your schedule by the rhythm of the sun—during a monthlong National Outdoor Leadership School course. The only question was when to make the trip, and with whom. Because I'd first been romanced by the region while traveling with strangers, I was determined this time to share its seductive magic with someone I love.

So when my sister told me she'd been wanting to travel to a place where she could dust off her snorkel from her marine-biology-student days and swim with sea life, I knew I'd found my Baja traveling partner. The Sea of Cortez, a narrow finger of blue that separates mainland Mexico from its Baja peninsula, contains more than 900 species of fish and roughly one-third of the world's marine mammals, making it one of the most biologically diverse seas on the planet. Most of its 37 islands are uninhabited by people and are instead home to some of the largest seabird rookeries in the world. The promise of several days together, completely unplugged from our devices while plugged into this wild cradle of life, almost seemed too good to be true.

Camp Cecil, Baja California Sur
Photo: Courtesy of Camp Cecil/Keenan Shoal Werner

But Camp Cecil—a "glamping" resort staffed by expert guides who slip in and out of their roles as naturalist instructors and attentive hosts with nimble ease—makes good on that promise. In just two days, we've communed with a great blue heron holding court on our beach, tracked a sea turtle and a school of king angelfish across the cove on standup paddleboards, spied on a black-tailed jackrabbit rummaging through desert shrubbery for breakfast, and marveled at manta rays' gravity-defying leaps, their silhouettes dancing like choreographed shadows on the horizon.

This deep connection to our surroundings has come at no cost to our comfort. We've feasted on fresh fish, produce, and other deliciousness four times a day (happy hour is considered a meal here), and slept like kings in quite possibly the world's most stylishly comfortable safari-style tents. We've even had time for lazing about with a book, a board game, or simply the sound of waves strumming the beach in a heartbeat-like rhythm.

So here we are on our third and final morning, and I'm once again smitten by the area's beauty and simplicity, grateful to discover it's as alluring as the Baja of my memories. The one missing piece is the spark between Baja and Katherine. Drifting into the silent underwater world, I wonder if her panga intransigence has less to do with the place and more to do with a sisterly opposition to my unbridled enthusiasm? Then again, maybe she's just cold.

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Suddenly, a flurry of pink catches my eye. It's Katherine's flippers, propelling her down toward a sea lion pup about 10 feet below the surface. I watch as she slows to a graceful glide, arms behind her back, until she's nose to nose with the pup. For a few seconds they hover, eyes locked on one another like teenage lovers, until they start to dance. He twirls over her back and under her feet; she mimics the move right back, spiraling around him. He dives; she dives. He surfaces; she surfaces. When she stops for a breather, he nuzzles up to her and tugs gently on the edge of her fin, coaxing her back under the water for another joyful spin.

Back on the beach, hours later, we recount our adventure over shrimp-stuffed peppers topped with avocado slices. "Did you see him nibble on my wetsuit?" Katherine asks, her smile bigger than I've seen all week. "He had a crush on you, KT," Alan says, calling her by her familial nickname. She's finally let her guard down, and she's euphoric. And while her enthusiasm is infectious, my own quiet happiness is not a perfect mirror of hers. Nor should, or even could, it be, I realize. I'm content knowing we've each found our places here, and discovered something about one another along the way.

Sea lion sunning on Isla Los Islotes
Photo: Steele Thomas Marcoux
Frigate bird rookery
Photo: Steele Thomas Marcoux
The softest of landings at Camp Cecil
Photo: Steele Thomas Marcoux
Triggerfish ceviche with fresh avocado
Photo: Steele Thomas Marcoux

Get Here: From Los Cabos International Airport, travel about an hour and a half to Todos Santos, where Todos Santos Eco Adventures (which operates Camp Cecil) is based. Plan to spend at least one night on either end of your journey to Isla Espíritu Santo in this magical Baja town.

Stay Here: Sleep (and eat) like royalty at the all-inclusive Camp Cecil, a safari-style luxury camp on Isla Espíritu Santo. Rates start at $275 per person per night; tosea.net. In Todos Santos, Los Colibris Casitas serves up delicious breakfasts and million-dollar views of the town's palm tree grove and the Pacific Ocean from its hillside perch. Rates start at $95 per night; loscolibris.com.