Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Birds of Baja, and then some...

While the focus of our Baja California Sur trip was whale watching, we also can't resist taking pictures of birds!  Many of our North American regulars winter in Mexico, though we didn't focus on them.  We did see an unexpected Oriole (I had no idea they flew that far south!) at Hotel Serenidad during our visit in Mulege, though I didn't take it's picture.  It wasn't until we were out in the coastal areas that we really started to take notice of the birds around us.

Much to our surprise we saw a few Great Blue Herons fishing in the surf.  They tend to be pretty shy, and loners, so it wasn't surprising that we would see a lone bird.  Dean mentioned in a previous post that we didn't know that they flew that far south - considering we enjoy taking their picture at our cottage in Illinois!  We also thought it was interesting that they equally enjoy salt water fish as well as fresh water fish.  All in all, it was like seeing an old friend in an unfamiliar place!

You always expect to see pelicans around the coast.  I developed a real liking for Brown Pelicans when we traveled to San Diego last year.  There we could get close enough to touch them (but didn't!), and see their beautiful colors.  We didn't get that close this trip, but we did see a sandbar just packed with them in Magdalena Bay.  I had never seen so many clustered together!  We passed them, in our little "panga" (over-sized Bass boat that we went whale watching in) going out to see the whales, and coming back to the docks.  As usual, click on the pictures to see a closer view of the subject!

We had never seen Frigatebirds, in person, before.  Again, while going out to the whale viewing area we were easily distracted by a large group of Frigatebirds perched in trees along the shoreline of the opposing dunes.  Since we didn't get very close to them (though were able to get some pictures) it's hard to say exactly what kind of Frigatebirds these are.  From the maps I've looked at they may be Magnificent Frigatebirds.  The males have the red gular pouches that they blow up like balloons during mating season, the females have black heads and white chests, and the immature birds have white heads.  Interestingly, they can't swim, can barely walk, and can't take off from flat surfaces!  In addition to the Frigatebirds, we also saw some of their relatives, Cormorants.  Unfortunately, we didn't get any Cormorant pictures.  Cormorants, Frigatebirds, and Pelicans are all somewhat related.

During our trip we were 'evacuees' to the east side of the Baja due to the tsunami warnings.  Arriving in Loreto without a hotel lined up we spent some time discussing our options.  While waiting for Joey and Gail to make inquiries at Posada de las Flores (where we stayed the night) we were sitting in our cab looking at the surrounding area.  I noticed a little hummingbird darting around at a nearby Ficus tree.  We see a lot of hummingbirds in Tucson, and they're always a delight!  I noticed that this little bird was very busy and returning to the same spot...when I realized she had a nest she was sitting on!  I have never seen a hummingbird's nest and immediately grabbed my camera and tumbled out of the cab to see if I could get a picture or two.  Hummingbirds tend to be very stalwart birds, big personalities, big egos, packed in little tiny bodies.  That was fortunate for me, as this little mama wasn't leaving her nest just because a camera was pointed her way!  I believe this is a Black Chinned Hummingbird - sitting on her little nest woven of spider-webs.

The last of the birds that we photographed were at Campo Rene, where we were supposed to stay on Friday night.  It's close proximity to the beach on the Pacific coast kept us from staying there during the evacuation.  While we were there 'checking out the place' we noticed that there were several Osprey nests on stands and on top of water towers!  We had seen Osprey's in Puerto Penasco before, and they are sometimes referred to "Mexican Eagles" - so we weren't surprised to see them.  They are quite beautiful and always picture worthy.

The last of the 'wild things' pictures I have was taken at Campo Rene also.  We had crossed the dunes and spent time on the beach, searching for sand dollars and shells.  Since the coast had already been evacuated we had miles and miles of beach to was an eerie but peaceful feeling.  When it came time to head back across the dunes to the airstrip we saw that we were not alone and spotted this Coyote trotting through the dunes.  He must have heard that it was time to move inland also.

While the Baja seems to be a desolate place, the desert and coast is teeming with life.  I think it would be well worth another trip in the future!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Maps! Got Your Baja Maps Here!

We had worked to get a couple maps together to show our journey down to and across Baja for the whale trip, but in fighting the editor in getting photos in, the maps got omitted. So here is the trip we made out of some collected Google maps. Click the maps to load full-size views.

In the wide view here, the entire route is shown, day one going down in green, day 2 across Baja and back in pink, day 3 in yellow and the return to the Tucson area on day 4 in light blue. So you can see we got a lot of exploring of Baja California Sur (the Mexican state we spent nearly all our time, Sonora the rest).

Again, this map and others were put together from Google maps, combined and annotated in Photoshop Elements. Most all of Baja we saw is very sparsely populated and extremely desolate. Like much of the Sonoran Desert, there is little rainfall or vegetation. The only major cities tend to be on the coast and on river drainages. There is some agriculture, but requires irrigation. Fishing seems a primary food source, though there were some cattle running in the irrigated area we saw west of Mulege.

The next map shows the primary whale watching areas in south central Baja. Of course, the Pacific is off to the west, Sea of Cortez to the east. Laguna San Ignacio (LSI) is the primary goal of most whale trips, but because of the tsunami warnings, was shut down (along with our lodging plans at Campo Rene) on Friday the 11th . Clinic was Saturday at Lopez Mateos, and fortunately, a very active eco-tour economy was flourishing, and we had a great time for our couple hours out in the boat. As I noted in the blog post, Lopez Mateos has the exact longitude as Tucson, but is nearly exactly 5 degrees south (about 350 air miles)! Quite a difference in scenery!

The whales winter in the protected lagoon areas of LSI and behind the shelter islands of Lopez Mateos. While you wouldn't think much protection is afforded, our whale tour entered the mouth entrance and the change from the calm harbor seas to the 3 foot chop near the pacific made the ride much more exciting. While I did look, the resolution of the Google maps pics is good enough to resolve whales, but they were evidently not taken during the few months that the grays occupy the area. At full resolution, the boats we rode are indeed resolved in the pictures, but no whales (which are considerably larger) are seen.

We've already been asked about how to arrange such a trip. We were extremely fortunate to have friends associated with the medical clinics in Baja, and are intimately familiar with the area. Short of those contacts, we did meet people in Loreto and Mulege that had been on several-day eco-tours to see the whales. Loreto, especially, has a modern airport and is served by small commercial airlines. But it is still many hours of driving from the west coast of Baja. So such a trip is possible, but without friends with private planes, is likely several thousands of dollars per person trip. But as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it is worth it!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Our Excellent Baja Adventure - Day 1! "The adventure begins..."

Mention a whale-watching trip and the bulk of experiences most people have is a boat excursion from San Diego or other port town (I've been on one of those), where you might see a distant spout or shape of the whale as they migrate up the coast. Don't see anything and they may give you a discount or even a free trip on a subsequent trip. This is NOT the adventure we were expecting on our trip to Baja last weekend! Our ER doctor buddy, Chuck, has organized many small plane groups going south to Baja's Pacific coast to visit the gray whales in the lagoons where they spend the winter. My first wife Vicki and our recently deceased friend Valerie took the trip in 2003, and I was able to join the group in 2005. In these trips, you generally get right next to them, get to "scratch 'em behind the ears", and get covered in whale spit - well, whatever you call the misty spray that soaks you when they "exhale"!

This trip was triggered by our friend Carolyn. After Melinda had been in Tucson a few months, Carolyn started an annual February/March visit to escape the cold of the Chicago area. The first time we went to the Canyon, last year to the beaches of San Diego and Los Angeles. This year, joined by Melinda's sister Maj, we aimed to make it a little more memorable, and enlisted Chuck to try organizing the whale trip. I think he had 5 planes organized at one time, but ended up with 3 planes and 9 people total, combining whales with a medical clinic trip for some of the fliers. There are a number of clinics in the remote villages of Baja where the "Flying Samaritans" provide medical and dental care, and these doctors, nurses and translators are intimately familiar with Baja and the groups that run the whale tours.

We decided on 2 days of whale watching, going against the normally-scheduled single day. "Just in case" was our reason - bad weather, who knows... It turns out it was a great idea! But it required a Thursday-thru-Sunday trip, and 4 days of Maj and Carolyn's week in town.

Thursday,Day One - Tucson-to-Mulege. The schedule had us leaving Ryan Field, a small airport west of Tucson serving small planes, in late morning. We would go through Mexican Customs in Guaymas, 300 miles (475km) to the south. We would then overfly the Sea of Cortez to the Baja Peninsula to Mulege (another 105m, 175km), where we would stay overnight at Hotel Serenidad, adjacent (literally!) to the airstrip.

It was an uneventful trip to Guaymas. It is always interesting to fly in small planes. There is always a search to find the optimum altitude to fly, not only for less drag (a minor effect), but rather, to minimize headwinds (or maximize tailwinds). For the couple-hour flight, a difference of 10 or 20 knots can save significant gas when you are going through 10 gallons of expensive aviation fuel per hour. And with forecasts available on GPS units, there is a geeky joy in wringing out optimum performance.

And while the first leg was uneventful, there was an abundance of sightseeing from small planes. Flying at 6,000 to 8,000 feet provided excellent views of scenery. Minutes out of Ryan we passed the huge copper mines 25 miles south of Tucson. Right at the Mexican border west of Nogales was a restricted flight area due to a range/forest fire being fought from the air. We needed to vary our flightpath slightly to avoid it. And there was an interesting-looking canyon SW of Nogales that might be worth checking out from ground level - it resembled the rocky structures of Chiricahua National Monument some 120 miles to Tucson's SE. Otherwise there were ordinary views of Sonoran Desert intermingled with mountain ranges. It was exciting and, of course, always a little incongruous when the Sea of Cortez is first sighted while over Hermosillo, desolate desert right up to the edge of the water...

We landed at Guaymas to top up fuel tanks (gas is scarce in Baja) and go through customs. Complications arose when the airport was closed shortly after our landing for a fire drill, which included a smoky fire with fire engines at the south end of the strip! Most everyone had other duties to perform during the drill, so a stop that normally would have taken 30 minutes went on for nearly 2 hours. Finally, passports were presented, stamped and visas granted. While luggage was carried into the terminal, "The Button" which when pushed randomly picks out passenger luggage for hand inspection, all showed green for our group. Finally it was time to continue.

The flight to Mulege was completely over water, so the life preservers were worn for this leg. Shortly after departure from Guaymas we flew adjacent to the tourist stop San Carlos, where I visited several times by car a couple decades ago. I was a little dismayed to see "Catch-22 Beach", where the movie was filmed back in 1969, almost completely filled with development. When I last saw it in 1992, there was a Club Med at the NW edge of the beach, but it was still mostly empty sand dunes. Not anymore...

The trip across the Sea included a flyby of Isla Tortuga (Turtle Island). It is a volcanic island, about 20 miles from the Baja shore, complete with a central caldera. It sits on the western edge of the North American Plate. While pretty desolate-looking and undeveloped, there was a fishing boat and a couple small boats perhaps on a day trip from nearby Santa Rosalia. From there, it was a short hop south down the shore to Mulege.

The strip where we land is adjacent to Hotel Serenidad. The thing I never quite got used to was that nearly every landing we made, we were surrounded by army or federal officers with M-16s or machine guns verifying we had legal paperwork. We were also surrounded by kids eager to haul luggage the few yards to the hotel office for tips. I can imagine this was a lucrative job for most of them!

The group scattered - after check-in, some walked the mile or so downtown, we took a short walk over to a beach for shell collection. The plan was for our group and another plane from Phoenix to meet for a taxi ride to Ray's, a restaurant that was to be a highlight of day 1.

Ray is quite the character - a flamboyant Cuban ex patriot that seems out of place in a sleepy cow town like Mulege. The story is that he used to run a restaurant in town, which burned down under mysterious circumstances. He rebuilt the business some distance out in the country, about 1o miles of bad roads that doesn't seem to hinder much of his business. It is THE place to go, certainly for the likes of those who fly into town in their private planes. Mike Collier, one of our pilots, told me beforehand that some consider Ray's the best seafood IN THE WORLD! Well, I'm not a big fan of seafood (Iowa farm boy, you know), so will not criticize... Piling out of the taxi, in seemingly the middle of nowhere, it was a little oasis in the desert, well actually, it is in the middle of a hayfield, but with green lawn and fountains in front of the restaurant - the second floor of a farmhouse. Table for 16? We had to wait a couple minutes... Time to get a $2 Mexican beer (Pacifico was the standard in Baja). After seating, Ray says that with our crowd, he was just going to ply us with his specials for the night rather than 16 orders off the menu. Well, I guess I'm having seafood! There were about 4 big platters each of 3 or 4 appetizers, including stuffed clams, oyster Rockefeller, and others I've forgotten... Our dinner came as a combo platter - coconut shrimp, a fish fillet, steamed veggies in sauce and more. Dessert came, and though everyone claims they were stuffed, the pistachio cream pie all disappeared. The grand total (without drinks) was $18 a head as I recall! Again, I'm no seafood expert, but for a meat eater, it was pretty darn good! Our taxi drivers waited the 90 minutes while we ate - no ill effects from the 10 more miles of bad road to our rooms where we crashed.

Baja Day 2! "A Tsunami Warning and the Posada de las Flores"

Friday, Day Two - Mulege-to-Campo Rene. The plans had us scheduled for an early morning flight to the west side of Baja to Laguna San Ignacio, one of the primary bodies of water where the gray whales give birth and spend the winter. After the boat trip and lunch the tour group provides, we were to head to Campo Rene, about 40 miles to the west, where we were to "rough it" in some primitive cabins in a tiny settlement on a pacific beach.

An early breakfast at the Serenidad restaurant. One of our Baja experts (and clinic translator as well as my personal lawyer!) Joey (the one with cell service in Baja) had news - a magnitude 9 earthquake in Japan. Bad enough news in itself, but how it affected us is that Tsunami warnings for the Mexican coast might affect our whale tour. We continued on, taking off for points west. Climbing out of Mulege, we actually found that little oasis Ray's in the middle of that field. The clear morning air accentuated the view of the mountains, and the sparkling water of both Baja coasts were visible through much of the 40 minute crossing.

We landed on the dirt strip (more a combination of salt, dirt, sand and shells) and taxied to the ramp where a half dozen other planes were parked. It seemed amazing that some of the expensive planes were brought into these remote little strips. There were a number of 2-engine planes, but mostly single engine 4-seaters like ours. And yes, our fears were confirmed, the Tsunami warnings had closed whale watching operations. Ruby (whom everyone seemed to know), seemed to think all operations were closed down for the next 14 hours, and, in fact, she was the only one there - everyone else had evacuated! The Phoenix folk that had joined us at Rays the night before - 6 people in a 2 engine turboprop, had come down for the one chance at a whale trip and had to be back in Phoenix that night. With the operations shut down, they were out of luck...

After discussions, our group of 9 decided to press on to Campo Rene. Fortunately, the hop to the west brought us right over Laguna San Ignacio (LSI). And while generally planes were not allowed over the lagoon, since it was on our flight path, we got to see whales! True, we were a few hundred feet up and going 120 knots, but we saw a good dozen or two in the 2 mile wide mouth of the lagoon! Pretty amazing for our first view of them!

Campo Rene was a similar story - dirt strip, this time no other planes, no people. The little sleeping shacks we were to stay in were there, but it was a ghost town - one fellow left behind to watch over the restaurant and inform passers by. Everyone else evacuated. More discussions... With an active tsunami warning, we were in the danger zone, though with a SSE facing beach, I wasn't too concerned. Still, the consensus was that we had 45 minutes to explore, then back to the east coast of Baja - either back to Mulege or a different site - Loreto. Gail, a nurse travelling with us had been there once before and highly recommended it, so the plan was amended!

Less than an hour, a virgin beach to ourselves. Tide appeared to be out and creeping in. Joey claimed that on a previous visit the sand dollars were so thick you couldn't avoid stepping on them. Well, they must be out of season, as we saw none on the beach - just sand, but above the high tide line in the small dunes were the sand dollars the Johnson girls sought. I found what appeared to be the rib and partial plate of the shell of a sea turtle, and I also found the jawbone of a gray whale partially buried in the sand - pretty old and well beaten up... There was some nice surf - our first view of the Pacific. The beach stretched for miles in each direction. A lone great blue heron fished in the surf. I'd only observed them fishing in the Fox River back in Illinois, and had a hard time thinking they would brave 2 foot surf for salt water fishing, but there it was!

Back to the planes, load the new shell booty. We had noticed crossing the landing strip to the beach that the strip numbers were marked in shells! Runway 24 (240 degree azimuth) number shown in picture at left. We took off, crossing LSI again. This time I was a little more prepared for pictures of whales, and pilot Chuck even circled a pod of 5 a time or two. Unfortunately, I made a beginner's mistake and had set the ISO too low and the slower shutter speed and vibrations from the plane resulted in slightly fuzzed images. With the mouth of LSI crossed again, we climbed, mostly staying parallel to the pacific coast. A spectacular view of blue pacific, alternating with marshes, wetlands, desert and mountains. Setting the course for Loreto, we had to cross the Sierra de la Giganta (Mountains of the Giants), maxing out at about 6,000 feet elevation. Crossing them, Loreto came into view, a little green jewel of a town nestled between the mountains we just crossed and the Sea of Cortez. And miraculously, an asphalt runway! 
Our little Maule seemed happy landing on the smooth surface. After the obligatory army unit inspection, the pilots went to file paperwork, the tourists headed towards the banos.

Of course, we arrived without hotel reservations. Gail, who had been here before, had some ideas. With all 9 loaded into a van/taxi, we headed in the 2 miles to town. After chatting with the driver, we pulled into the fancy hotel Posada de las Flores. While we waited in the Taxi, Gail and Joey went to negotiate for rooms. Even though the place was empty, they talked them into lowering the price a bit, and with the central location, it was decided to stay. It was a beautiful place - 3 floors of rooms with a pool on the top floor. From the lobby atrium, you could look up through beams to see people in the pool! Quite different - spectacular architecture, arches, spiral staircases. The room was cozy, nicely decorated, and the bathroom all Talavera tile - our favorite!

We all gathered in the sidewalk bar down on the ground floor. After beers and nachos, we scattered in all directions. Our group walked the block to the old mission in the center of town. The Loretto Mission was established in 1697 by colleagues of Father Kino ( a household name in Tucson), who established missions through southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. It always seems amazing it's over 300 years old! We found shopping across the street in a building nearly as old - built in 1744! I returned to the room and relaxed for a bit. Melinda joined the girls in their room. Everyone met at Mita Gourmet, a local restaurant at 6:30, located across the street on the town square. The owner/chef Juan Carlos took our orders, telling us we can get whatever we want, whether it was on the menu or not. Finally I was able to skip the seafood, and got a very nice rib eye steak. Another great dining experience, no disappointed diners among us! We stopped at the hotel's sidewalk bar for a final beer. Facing the town square, it was taken over by the town's youth. There were some juggling and one performing with a flaming "hula hoop of death" as I called it. After a few tall tales, it was time to turn in - another adventurous day.

Baja Day 3! - "Ballena Gris" or "Yeah, we got your whales here ..."

Saturday, Day Three - Loreto-to-Adolfo Lopez Mateos-to-Mulege. Today was the scheduled clinic day - everyone was to work there save the 4 of us going whale watching. By late afternoon, we were to return to Mulege, relax by the pool and take part in the 30-year traditional Saturday pig roast at La Serenidad.

We needed an early start to get back to the west coast by mid morning. The continental breakfast didn't start till 8am, so the 4 of us went down the street for a Mex flavored breakfast. I had a ham and cheese omelet. All the dishes served an interesting carb equivalent of hash browns, except they were tortilla chips in some sort of mild chili sauce. It was different, but good! We returned to check out - the remainder of the crew were up near the pool at the continental breakfast. Some nice early-morning lighting to shoot from the top floor, then it was time to pile in the taxi again for the airport. Another trip over the mountains to our most southerly site - 25 degrees north latitude, and interestingly, the same longitude as Tucson, so about 350 miles due south of home (rule of thumb is about 70 miles per degree of latitude).

Another dirt strip this time adjacent to a clinic building on the beach. It was next to a cannery which I heard works everything from veggies to seafood depending on time of the year. The whale watchers needed to walk downwind of it to get to the public boat ramps and the smell just about brought tears to your eyes! We got past it and found our way the 3/4 mile to the seasonal whale festival. Besides the choice of several excursion companies, there were souvenirs (from shirts to jewelry), and food too. We pretty much stopped at the first tour company (Union de Launcheros Turisticos de Lopez Mateos S.C. de R.L.)and got prices. It was $70 per hour for a boat carrying up to 6 people. Melinda went for the final negotiations and laid down the law - "we want to pet whales or no money!" was her demand. The company man backed down a bit, saying it depended on luck if we could get up to them. We settled on a 2 hour excursion, which was a good idea with travel time to where the whales were located. After distribution of life preservers and the purchase of a couple liters of water, we were introduced to our boatman Aaron and off we went!

It was a little over 5 miles up the inside of the shelter islands to the mouth of the estuary where the whales hung out. Just a mile or two out of the dock we saw our first whale. Spouts of exhaled air and water, as well as some breaching the surface were seen from quite a distance. And of course, any whale activity attracted boatloads of watchers. Particularly in the narrow channel between the mainland and the shelter island (less than .5 mile), the whales were mobbed - I saw up to 8 boats around them, bordering on harassment!

We continued up to the mouth up near the Pacific waters. I think we were smart to schedule 2 hours - more time allowed further away from the masses, increasing our chances of interaction. Sure enough, there was lots of gray whale traffic and no other boats, though as we neared the Pacific, the water moved from calm to 2 to 3 foot swells.

And finally we got our own personal whales! The same mom and baby kept returning to us - we named them Polly and Boo! Aaron (who didn't speak English) somehow got across to us that they (or at least the babies and yearlings) are attracted by our splashing off the sides of the boat. Eventually a couple other boats joined us and it actually provided a few photo-ops with a little different perspective. The moms mostly tolerated us, but the lil' ones came by for petting. One or two of the moms came under the boat and might have rubbed against us, and at least once exhaled heavily surrounding us in a swarm of bubbles. Joey told me later that the barnacles are itchy and they like being rubbed, either by hands or against boat bottoms. The little ones we were able to pet all had barnacles, so were likely not newborns. The grays have about a 1 year gestation period, and alternate years for breeding, so the little ones can be up to a year old. We did spot one newborn that was a smooth gray - no barnacles, but mom kept her a safe distance from us. We spent a good hour "In The Zone", spending time with them, tracking some till they dove deeply, finding others. Aaron did a great job going where we wanted, following or intercepting whale pairs. We also found a pod of Bottle Nose dolphins that followed us for a while. About 100 minutes into the excursion, we knew it was time to return, but we were all overjoyed with the experience. We tipped well, bringing the cost up to $45 each - still a good deal.

We stopped for t-shirts and on the walk back stopped at a restaurant for a late lunch. Of course, as soon as we sat down, about 50 people from 2 buses also stopped and there suddenly wasn't an empty seat in the place! 3 of us got shrimp tacos, I had the carne asada, and despite the crowd, the food came pretty promptly. Unfortunately, as we walked back, the wind had changed, and we had to walk through the cannery fumes for a good 200 yards - the toughest thing we had to do this trip! Back at clinic, former Nurse Carolyn, and Melinda got a tour of the facility. We hung out for about 30 minutes, before Chuck declared he was ready to go. We had heard there was a seal colony up the coast, and it was on our way back to Mulege. Sure enough, a few miles past the same mouth we hung with the Grays, we saw 2 different seal colonys. Took some snapshots, which provide a better view than the visual appearance (finally learned to set to sports mode to freeze plane motion!). We flew at low altitude following the coast for about 40 miles before heading inland to cross the mountains of Baja one more time. As we approached Mulege, Chuck brought us down into Bahia Concepcion - a beautiful bay 20 miles long, Mulege near the mouth. There were numerous islands in the bay, Chuck flew us over one tiny rocky chunk that had a beautiful white-sand 200 yard long beach. I think he'd like to be marooned there for an afternoon sometime... We landed shortly afterwards and checked into our rooms again. Now that it was the weekend, the place was hopping and there were few rooms left. The 4 of us ended up sharing a "house" that had 2 bedrooms and bathrooms, though it was in much poorer repair than the room we had on Thursday. The sink in our bathroom was tilted so much (falling off the wall) that nothing could be set above the sink. And for the second night, we had cold showers - apparently Maj had the last of the warm water - an advantage of rising early!

The Tucson Nine ended up bypassing the pig roast, heading instead to Sènor Grekos a mile down the road. Another taxi ride got us there just in time for a pass of the International Space Station right overhead. Just as we entered a Beatles tribute band started and we couldn't hear ourselves think. About the time we were thinking of paying them to not play, some of the crowd started dancing, so someone got the idea to move out to a cement slab on the north side of the building. With the windows closed to keep out the band and moderate temperatures it was quite pleasant. And the owner came out to take our picture for being first to use his "patio"! it was also nice because 30 minutes later, a -8 Iridium flare occurred to the north, outshining even the crescent moon! Even among my learned compatriots, seeing the ISS and the flare was amazing to them. They claimed that I could get free beers with that sort of information! Chuck pointed out that long ago, people with that sort of information would either be considered gods or demons, to be glorified or attacked... After another pleasant dinner, we retired to Serenidad and the leftover partiers from the pig roast. There were more Flying Sams from other weekend clinics, as well as locals and gringos that spend the winters there, so a good mixed crowd. I turned in early, the girls continued drinking with the doctor types. So ended another good day! WE SAW WHALES!

Baja Day 4! - "The return trip to Tucson"

Sunday, Day Four - Mulege-to-Tucson. The return stretch - check out through Mexican Customs at Guaymas, enter the US at Nogales, continue on to Ryan Field. Return to our normal lives...

It all seemed downhill from here. The gang-of-nine met at the weekend breakfast buffet at the hotel. After a long weekend of food and Mexican beers, I couldn't bring myself to eat anything, though I had a breakfast bar on the next leg of the flight. It was a beautiful (of course) morning flying over the Sea of Cortez towards Guaymas. This time there were no fire drills and we all surrendered the Mexican visas we'd been carrying the last 3 days.   

Thirty minutes later after gassing up (Chuck hadn't fueled since the first trip through Guaymas - had about 30 minutes of gas left) we were headed north first to Hermosillo, which we were ordered to pass directly over again(per the airport there for air traffic control), then on to Nogales, just over the US border. We had slight problems because you are supposed to contact them an hour before landing, but we couldn't raise them on the radio. Finally about 25 miles out, contact was made.

I was on the lookout for the Guillermo Haro Observatory near Cananea, that is about 50 miles SE of Nogales. I've had the dome of it's 2.1 meter telescope pointed out to me from Kitt peak with binoculars, so I was thinking it should be an easy naked eye sight as we flew north, but it was not to be... It was easy to pick out the mountain ranges - first Baboquivari's distinctive shape to the west, the Chiricahuas to the far east, the Santa Ritas straight ahead, and eventually the Catalinas to the north of Tucson came into view well before we crossed the border fence and descended into the Nogales Airport.  Entry through Nogales was uneventful and before we knew it we were landing at Ryan Field/Tucson where luggage and hugs were dispersed.  This seems like the logical place to say "Thanks!" to our more than able pilots and their ever trusty Maules: Chuck Schroll, Michael Collier, and Mike Clifton.  We enjoyed flying with you!  Also thanks to Joey Flynn and Gail Brown for their over the top organization of the trip!  Without their input we would have been sleeping on the beach at Campo Rene, or missing our flights in the morning!

Polly and Boo
For us, however, this trip was truly about the whales.  What a rare occasion to see these majestic mammals in their own environment, and having the opportunity to have a "friendly encounter" with some of them is a dream of a lifetime.  "Bucket Lists" and birthday wishes were definitely filled on this trip!