This morning half of us had the opportunity to go ashore to the dunes while the other half boarded the zodiacs to get up close with the gray whales. Rob and some others stayed on the ship and had some pretty up close whales themselves. The mothers and calves swim up and back in this bay, against the tide, to exercise their calves in preparation for the swim to their summer grounds in the Bering Sea of Alaska.  This nearly 6000-mile migration is the longest mammal migration on Earth.  During the slack tide however, they loll about, rub on the zodiacs and interact with the people.

I went ashore and was so glad that I did. I had never seen dunes like this.  After the winds last night, all of the footprints from the people had been erased, blown away.  Being the first ones here today, only the animal tracks remained. The waves and patterns in the sand from the wind, shells and plants was more and more amazing with every step I took.  This was only surpassed by the animal tracks; coyote prints everywhere, perfect little prints from wood rats, ghost crab tracks radiating from their holes, even the beetles left discernible footprints. It was amazing. I tried to keep an eye on other people across the dunes as I had not brought my watch and I was supposed to be back at the beach in 2 hours. I was absorbed by the beauty of it all.  I decided, rather arbitrarily, that I had time to make it to the Pacific side and back. I could have spend all day here. The softer morning light made for some great shadows and pictures. You would be shocked at how many pictures of sand I have. No, really. Shocked.  I just loved this place.

I did make it back to the beach in time to catch the zodiac back to the boat, quickly change camera gear, and get back in the zodiac for the whales.

The cow/calf pairs come right up to the zodiacs and, for whatever reason, like to rub on the boats and people’s outstretched hands. They exhale with a malodorous, salty spray that showers us in mist. One mother dove directly under our boat and bumped us pretty good from underneath, knocking one person down who was standing. Moby Dick! We were thrilled.  The barnacles, coupled with the speckled skin of the gray whales, make them prettier than the others by far. The barnacles create distinct patterns, like a fingerprint, on each whale. Interestingly, each barnacle species is unique to each whale species, and only a few species of slower swimming whales host barnacles.  It’s hard to hang on and filter-feed on whales that swim faster than 5 miles/hour or so. We spent two hours floating with a mother and her calf, there were pairs in every direction from our zodiac, each of the 5 zodiacs had their “own” whales and there were so many more around. It was amazing. A lot of my pictures are of parts of whales, as I didn’t bring my wide angle lens onto the zodiac. They were so close. This is a good problem to have!

In the afternoon we spent another 2 hours in the zodiacs, but the tide was running and so, too, were the whales. We saw quite a few whales, and some dolphins and sea lions, too. But no close encounters like the morning outing. No “friendly whales”, they say. There was one cow/calf pair near the ship for a while while the other half of our group were in the zodiacs, which we enjoyed. There were also some shrimp boats and lots of seabirds around to watch.

The last morning each group again spent 1-2 hours in the zodiacs. There were some whales around but they were all on the move. If I were in charge, I would position our zodiac ahead of the whales so we could watch them come toward us and then pass us. The channel is narrow and the whales don’t seem to care about coming right past us. However, nobody asked me and we spent half of the time “chasing” the whales. It was uncomfortable in that it felt a bit like we were harassing the whales.

After lunch we pulled anchor and turned back the way we came, through the shallow Hull Canal. It was high tide now, so we had more than 1-2 feet clearance under the ship. The landscape was completely different at high water.  It didn’t feel like we were retracing our steps at all. While the rest of the guests were down below in the lounge watching a preview of our trip DVD (courtesy of the ship videographer), Rob and I realized that we were still on the vacation. We stayed on the bow, in the warm sun, with the naturalists watching a cow/calf swimming along side us. They leave “footprints” in the water even when they don’t break the surface from the powerful thrust of their tail.

We anchored in a bay off across from Puerto San Carlos where we would disembark before dawn next morning. This afternoon the zodiacs carried us ashore to another barrier island to climb the dunes and visit Sand Dollar Beach on the Pacific Ocean. Our expedition leader, who has been all over the world, said that this is “the most beautiful beach in the Western hemisphere”.  There were not so many animal tracks here, but we did find a lizard by following its footprints. Its hard to hide when you leave a trail!

The beach on the Pacific shore gives this area its namesake.  There are more beautiful sand dollars strewn about the beach here in varying degrees of exposure than you could ever imagine. I tried to take a picture of every one.  Rob was amazingly patient. It helped that he found his own curiosities, like this dolphin skeleton. It was another great afternoon.

The next day, we had an early breakfast, boarded buses and rode across the desert peninsula back to LaPaz to catch our plane home.IMG_2818 On the tarmac at the small airport, we walked up a roll-away staircase to board the jet plane. Once we were loaded and ready to go, the whole ground crew came out of the terminal building to wave goodbye!  A lovely end to such a spectacular trip.