With each paddle stroke, sea spray pelts my face like driving rain. In the past five minutes, I've barely moved along the limestone cliffs of the shore. My guide Terry Prichard - my partner in this two-man kayak - yells at the nearby boats, "Paddle back to shore!" We've taken too long a lunch break and the wind has picked up: we're fighting a strong headwind. But I don't mind; the sky above is a sharp blue, and this morning three bottlenose dolphins passed close by our beachfront camp.
We're heading for our campsite on a cactus-covered island in the Sea of Cortez, along the Baja California peninsula. I've come here to explore the Loreto Bay National Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park's 2,000 square kilometres of water and land are home to blue whales and 891 species of fish, including many that appear nowhere else on earth. With cloudless skies and temperate weather, it seemed the perfect escape from a still-cold Canadian winter.
Our trip began the day before in Loreto, a laid-back town of 15,000 on the east coast of Baja. After divvying up supplies for a week of kayaking, our group of five Canadians sets off with our guides to one of the five uninhabited Sea of Cortez Islands: Danzante Island, a narrow, rocky land mass peppered with soaring sea birds and cardon cactus.
Prichard, a lanky 54-year-old who started outfitter Sea Kayak Adventures in the early 1990s with his wife Nancy, offered tips on technique: If I was going to be able to paddle all week, I would have to break the beginner's habit of using my arms and work the larger muscles of my back and abdomen. Despite the coaching, my arms were soon aching, and I let Prichard do most of the work.
After a lunch stop on a bone-covered gravel beach, we made the three-kilometre crossing to Carmen Island, the largest island in the park and our base for the night. Boats were hauled up, tents erected and the group was soon devouring a dinner of fish Veracruz on rice, washed down with tequila sunrise. Then Prichard gave us the bad news. "Baja has one of the highest concentrations of scorpions in the world," he said. If we ventured out to pee at night, we'd best not be barefoot.
And as I was about to go to bed, I got a direct introduction to the local fauna. Manuel, one of the guides, held a saucer-sized tarantula in his hand. He didn't flinch as it crawled up his arm and across his chest before he placed it back on the ground. I knew I would be having nightmares. I retired to my tent, searched carefully with my headlamp for any intruders, and zipped it tight.
Today, we've been paddling south, with the wind mostly at our backs. Now, we struggle through the wind to the lee of the island, relax and hug the coast. Suddenly, my paddle strokes get me distance. Pelicans perch on guano-stained rocks and blue-footed boobies soar overhead. Sandy coves and turquoise bays line the squat wall of cliffs.
This idyllic landscape has caught the eye of developers. Long known for sport fishing and adventure travel - and as an escape from the tequila bars and tourist resorts of Cabo San Lucas, further south at the tip of Baja - Loreto is now in the sights of resort builders, including the Trust For Sustainable Development, a Canadian company that launched a $3-billion project here. (It has been stalled by the credit crunch.)
In Mexico, "All sun and sand development [sites have]been taken," Laura Escobosa, an articulate marine biologist who manages an environmental NGO in Loreto, tells me later.
So far, a lack of fresh water has prevented Loreto from becoming a major tourist destination. But the Mexican government has targeted the area for expansion, with 400-room resorts and at least two golf courses. While no building is permitted on the islands, coastal development will require massive amounts of fresh water and expensive desalination plants, with effluent that could damage the park.
Most people in Loreto want the jobs tourists will bring, but they worry about the future. Years of overfishing and lax environmental standards nearly destroyed fishing grounds in the 1990s. Locals campaigned for protection, and the marine park was formed in 1996. "It was the first time in Mexico that a marine protected area was made by local people," Escobosa says. "People want sustainable development."
Since then, tour operators have noticed a dramatic improvement. "We now see a lot more wildlife in the park," Prichard says. "Things are a lot better now." To keep it up, visitors must practice no-trace camping: Campfires are forbidden and everything that comes in must be brought out.
And as it turns out, our kayaking trip includes some trekking. On Carmen Island, the powerful norte keeps us from paddling very far. So instead, we hike into the rocky desert past organ-pipe cactus and creosote bush. In the afternoon, the group paddles to a sheltered cove north of the campsite, a spot Prichard says is great for snorkelling. The water is cool, but I am soon duck-diving down among king angelfish, pufferfish and small gorgonian fans. The rocky reefs here are too far north for coral, but the multitude of colourful fish makes up for it.
On the final day, I hike up a bluff on Danzante Island for sunrise. It's a short, steep climb, and my legs are burning by the time I reach the rocky lookout. I spot the strip of white coastline on Carmen Island that has been our home for the week. Looking west to the mainland, the 1,500-metre peaks of the Sierra Gigantas resemble crumbling pyramids.
On the paddle out, the norte has subsided and the sea is glassy calm. Frigate birds fly overhead. Then there's a splash, and a head pokes up to look at us. It's a California sea lion, out hunting for fish - a good sign that the park can support all those who depend on it. Our kayaks, no longer weighed down by our provisions, slice through the sea. And with each paddle stroke I feel my back and abdominal muscles, just like I should.
Alaska Airlines ( www.alaskaair.com) flies between Los Angeles and Loreto.
WHAT TO DO
Sea Kayak Adventures 1-800-616-1943; www.seakayakadventures.com. Offers several kayaking trips to the Sea of Cortez Islands. A seven-day trip costs $1,540 including food and all gear.
WHERE TO STAY
Hacienda Suites Salvatierra 152, Loreto; www.haciendasuites.com. From $98.
Hotel Oasis 52 (613) 135 0211; www.hoteloasis.com.
Tourism Mexico www.visitmexico.com