“Let us go,” we said, “into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eelgrass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too.”

— “The Log From the Sea of Cortez”

In the spring of 1940, author John Steinbeck found himself in circumstances both unfamiliar and uncomfortable. The wild success of his new novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” had left him flush with cash but struggling with celebrity’s cost.

His solution was to charter a vessel, the Western Flyer, and a small crew to explore the Sea of Cortez and catalogue its marine life over six weeks. At first blush, it seems an odd choice. But his friendship with marine biologist Ed Ricketts, the model for a succession of characters in Steinbeck’s later fiction, gave birth to this voyage of discovery between Mexico’s elongated Baja California Peninsula and its mainland.

We sought our own shorter Sea of Cortez escape last December, before a worldwide pandemic shuttered most cruise lines.

We wanted a week absent the clamor and fuss of texts and emails and replete with nature walks, snorkeling with sea life and beach exploration. We found it aboard the Safari Endeavour, a small-ship vessel (capacity: 84) operated by UnCruise Adventures.

Our family has sailed on more than a dozen big-ship cruises over the years. They’re fun, and they can be frenetic. (Yoga at 9. Bingo at 10. Wine tasting at 1 . . .) Sailing on a smaller vessel is more expensive, but the payoffs include vastly more personal attention, a variety of activities and access to places the big ships simply don’t go.

During these days of covid-19, the smaller lines hold another advantage: Vessels that carry fewer than 250 passengers are not subject to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s no-sail order (and are thus exempt from an industry-wide voluntary suspension of U.S. cruise operations scheduled through Oct. 31).

­UnCruise plans to return to the Sea of Cortez this winter with essentially the same itinerary we experienced, but with broad countermeasures to safeguard the health of passengers and crew.

Eight decades ago, Steinbeck’s voyage bolstered his ecological beliefs and shaped his writings. While collecting marine life, he filed away details and netted stories, such as one from La Paz that he polished into his novella “The Pearl.” He professed to be too busy gathering specimens to keep a journal, yet published a detailed account of the expedition, first jointly with Ricketts then solely under his name, as “The Log From the Sea of Cortez.”

We set sail on a Saturday night from La Paz, its waterfront lined with palm trees festively lit for Christmas, unsure what stories and photographs would accompany us home. Nor what brief impressions we might leave in the sand.

'Aquarium of the world'

The nature of the animal might parallel certain traits in ourselves — the outrageous boastfulness of porpoises, their love of play, their joy in speed. . . . Suddenly they seem to grow tired of playing; the bodies hump up, the incredible tails beat, and instantly they are gone.

— “The Log From the Sea of Cortez”

After a period of introductions, life aboard Safari Endeavour settled into a rhythm: early-morning breakfast; a morning excursion such as snorkeling or a nature hike (passengers pick their preferences); lunch back aboard the vessel; an afternoon beach exploration or kayaking; a couple of hours onboard to relax and maybe have a drink; dinner; and a short presentation by one of the staff (often on wildlife or ecology).

We learned that this narrow sea, also known as the Gulf of California, is so rich in marine life that parts of it have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Jacques Cousteau once famously labeled it the “aquarium of the world.” Yet pollution, climate change and especially overfishing — Steinbeck woefully described Japanese shrimp dredging there as a “true crime against nature” — have taken a toll, including the near-extinction of the vaquita porpoise.

Like humpback whales, the Safari Endeavour followed the Pacific Coast down from Alaska to winter in warmer waters. The vessel’s week-long inhabitants soon visited among ourselves and discovered, not surprisingly, a common interest in seeing how much the harsh desert and underwater world would reveal to us.

The wait was short: After our first breakfast, a half-dozen dolphins raced along the bow, effortlessly keeping pace toward our first stop, at Isla Danzante.

We moored off the island, a patchwork of cactus and green bushes interspersed with rust-red rock outcroppings. Across the channel, the Sierra de la Giganta mountains of Baja California stood as forbidding silhouettes, seemingly fortified by turrets and towers of reds and greens.

After we had a lunch of Cuban sandwiches and yucca fries, guide Mareth Griffith led us on a steep, rocky hike past burly cardon cactuses and delicate, deep-blue morning glory flowers. Later we snorkeled along the shoreline, spotting pencil urchins, neon-blue wrasse, Cortez angelfish and pushy hogfish chasing their neighbors.

Around a corner, bright sunlight struggled to penetrate water thick with plankton. A long silver curtain of sardines shimmered by, opening to let us pass.

Songs in the dark

And in our contacts with Mexican people we had been faced with a change in expediencies. . . . We suppose there must have been some kind of profit involved, but not the kind we are used to. . . . Perhaps these people are expedient in the unnamables. Maybe they bargain in feelings, in pleasures, even in simple contacts.

— “The Log From the Sea of Cortez”

The following day found Safari Endeavour anchored in the Bahía Agua Verde, a bay aptly named for its green water. We paddled kayaks along the shoreline, led by guide Dan Niebler. He majored in marine biology with an emphasis on invertebrates, but he proved to be a fount of knowledge not just on spineless sea creatures but also on the violent volcanic action and shifting tectonic plates that created the land masses around us.

Sally Lightfoot crabs, whose nimble exploits Steinbeck described in his log, clambered on the rocks. Pelicans dove, magnificent frigate birds glided overhead, and a great blue heron took flight from the water.

At the beach, one of the local families had set up a small stand with bracelets and necklaces for sale, mostly $5 and $10. We chatted with them in Spanish, promising to buy a shell or shark’s-tooth bracelet or two after an afternoon guided burro ride.

“What you buy helps a lot of families,” Martin Rodriguez told me as he bagged our selections.

Later, the patriarch of the family that brings the burros in from miles away sat on a truck tailgate and visited with us, tentatively first in English and then smoothly in Spanish as we made our understanding clear. Painfully thin, Julio Romero wore a wistful look under his cowboy hat. He spoke of a recent neck injury that had cost him the partial use of his right arm.

Such was our surprise that evening as we sat on the ship’s top deck, sipping tropical drinks, when Romero walked in, guitar in hand. He took a chair, strummed his guitar and sang plaintive songs in Spanish in a high, nasal voice.

They were sad songs about lost loves, tearful goodbyes and hopeful reunions. As the darkness closed in around us, he sang of the need for a good horse and a good woman.

A careful search

“Then what do you search for?” And this is an embarrassing question. We search for something that will seem like truth to us; we search for understanding; we search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life.

— “The Log From the Sea of Cortez”

As the days passed, we learned to respect the potential threats underwater and on land. On one challenging 3½-mile hike, as we examined a chain cholla cactus and discussed its penchant for sticking to clothing, one of the hikers spotted a deadly nightshade plant with its tempting, poisonous berries.

While snorkeling, we were warned to steer clear of the pretty but pointed crown-of-thorns starfish, and more than once we spotted a venomous scorpionfish lurking along the bottom.

Even on the most memorable snorkeling outing, to a sea lion colony at Los Islotes, guides cautioned us to be watchful for aggressive adult males. We were, but our worries gave way to peals of laughter when the sea lion pups closed in, snuggling and nibbling and cavorting like undersea acrobats.

One afternoon we waded into tide pools, lifting small rocks to spot eels and tube worms and sponges and brightly colored nudibranchs.

On Isla Espíritu Santo, we dodged jellyfish on a morning snorkel and spent the afternoon walking the long, curving beach, eyes on the ground. The island’s Bonanza Beach is littered with shells, some still vibrantly orange and purple, but most of them bleached white and worn smooth like Roman coins.

The bleached coral bits create odd shapes, some like letters of the alphabet. Look long enough, as we did, and you can spell your children’s names in the sand — a memorial waiting for the next wave or wanderer to whisk them away.

Finding a stowaway

They considered that we might get very rich. Thank heaven they do not know that when at last we came back to San Diego the customs fixed a value on our thousands of pickled animals of five dollars. We hope these Indians never find it out; we would go down steeply in their estimations.

— “The Log From the Sea of Cortez”

In Los Cabos International Airport, I detected a small lump in a back pocket: a stowaway, from our hunt for shells and coral on Isla Espíritu Santo. Its conical shape ends in a sharp point, and the Internet has since informed me it is called a common American auger.

I stuck it back in its hiding place and forgot about it until our plane neared home and the time arrived to complete a customs declaration.

We didn’t have much to interest an inspector. A handful of shell necklaces. The auger in my back pocket. Worried that I would miss something, I conducted a mental inventory of a week’s exploration: a plaintive song in the dark, curious sea lions slicing through the water, a hidden world under a muddy rock.

Steinbeck called the Sea of Cortez “fierce and hostile and sullen” and said trying to remember it “is like trying to re-create a dream.”

With a smile and a nod to the Western Flyer’s crew and collection from 1940, I penned in the estimated material value of my hoard on the customs form: five dollars.

Yet I treasure the memories, picking through them and holding them up to the light, like time-polished shells upon a sandy beach.

Pulaski is a writer based in Portland, Ore.

If you go

What to do

Baja’s Bounty excursion
UnCruise Adventures

This is a small-ship, casual adventure for active individuals, couples and families. Expect small, spare cabins and no onboard WiFi; exceptional, friendly customer service; daily outings with knowledgeable, patient guides; and heavenly food, artistically presented. Provided gear includes kayaks, wet suits, snorkeling equipment and stand-up paddleboards. All activities, meals and drinks included (except premium alcoholic choices). New covid-19 protocols include a required negative testing certificate from passengers before embarkation, daily temperature checks for passengers and crew, sanitation rounds conducted four times daily, elimination of buffets and use of masks when in direct contact with others. Trips January to April 2021 and January 2022 to March 2022. Seven nights. From $4,495 per person.


— A.P.