Whales Surprise Baja Paddlers

The Baja Peninsula is home to daunting ocean currents, harsh desert landscapes, and narrow mountains that jut into perilous cliffs. But Baja’s undeveloped and untouched beauty is exactly what attracts adventurer and National Geographic grantee, Justin DeShields, to its inhospitable environment. “In the last hundred years there were about five people that have attempted to walk [the Baja Peninsula]. That’s what spurred me: ‘wow, this really is something that isn’t done often,’” DeShields says.

Along with fellow explorer Bryan Morales, DeShields hiked 600 miles and paddleboarded 400 miles of the peninsula’s unforgiving terrain. Before long, the dangers began to present themselves.

“We’re spending [the night] on the fringes of society, of this little pueblo. And I lay down in my sleeping bag, exhausted from the day … I feel a tugging at the bottom of my sleeping bag and I look down, and there’s a coyote with his teeth in my sleeping bag, tearing at it.”

When the expedition continued off land and into the water, the journey didn’t get any easier. At the mercy of the weather, DeShields and Morales ended up stuck on an island for three days with freshwater supplies dwindling. The two relied on one another to keep their spirits up. “If you have the right partner, you balance each other out. So when [Bryan’s] low, I’m trying to stay positive. And when I was low, he was always staying positive … For me that was essential. I couldn’t fathom doing it on my own.”

When the two men were finally able to leave the island, they expected more demoralizing obstacles. So neither of them was prepared for what happened next.

“Brian sees off in the distance these two humpbacks, kind of like coming exactly in his trajectory … I mean they’re within a body’s length [of the tip of his board] … They were close enough to where they could definitely cause damage. They’re massive beings, and they’re breaching right next to you, ” DeShields recounted.

But unlike the tiny coyote and perilous weather, the intimidating ocean giants didn’t phase DeShields in the least. “I’m just like high off the experience of ‘oh my god there’s humpbacks just hanging out with us.’ So I actually wasn’t really concerned or scared too much. I was more thrilled … The humpback whale encounter was the most magical thing I think I’ve ever experienced.”

Find out more about the magic and perils of DeShields’ journey at What Is West.

Human Journey

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Nora Rappaport is a producer and editor on National Geographic's Science and Exploration Media team. She produces content that highlights the awe-inspiring work of National Geographic explorers around the globe. When not working with her colleagues to inspire people to care about the planet, Nora can be found hanging out with any number of dogs.