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Far out in the Indian Ocean, nearly600 kilometres to the south-west ofIndia, lie the beautiful coral atolls ofthe Maldives. These really are the desertislands of our dreams - warm turquoisewaters lapping against white sandybeaches edged with gently swaying palmtrees! Many of the 1,192 islands that makeup the archipelago (only 300 are inhabited)are also ringed by pristine coral reefs,famed for their marine-life which attractsdivers and snorkellers from around theworld. For many people these exquisiteislands and encircling coral reefs requirelittle introduction, but the waterssurrounding the Maldives hold a lesswidely known, but equally exciting naturalattraction, cetaceans. In the past twoyears, 18 species of whale and dolphinhave been recorded in these waters.Spinner, Bottlenose and Risso's Dolphinsare all common, as are Short-finned PilotWhales, Sperm and Dwarf Sperm Whales.Even the Blue Whale, the largest animalthought to have ever inhabited the Earth, isseen regularly; and in recent years therehave been increasing sightings of severalof the beaked whale species, that group of rarely observed, deep ocean cetaceansthat we still know very little about. With such an abundance of marine-life onoffer, the best way to explore thisarchipelago is by boat. We have thereforetaken the exclusive charter of the 32-metreMV Ari Queen - a comfortable cruisevessel that accommodates just 16 guestsin en suite, air-conditioned cabins - forthis voyage. This will be our home forseven nights as we explore the many bays,atolls and reefs in search of cetaceans,huge Manta Rays, graceful White-tailedTropicbirds and an abundance of othermarine-life. Our holiday begins with a flight to Malé,the capital of the Maldives. After a night toenjoy our first taste of this tropicalparadise, we will board the MV Ari Queenand head out to explore the multitude ofislands and atolls that dot these turquoiseseas. Our exact itinerary will be keptflexible and in the hands of our guide, Dr.Chas Anderson, a professional marinebiologist who has lived and worked in theMaldives since 1983. Each night we willanchor in a sheltered lagoon within one ofthe many atolls and start each day with theopportunity to snorkel on the reef. We willthen head out to sea in search ofcetaceans and other wildlife, returning toshelter once again in the evening, tosnorkel, eat and sleep. The great attraction of whale and dolphin-watching in the Maldives is the diversity ofspecies that can be seen here. On this tripwe can expect to see about a dozenspecies, the calm clear waters oftenallowing unrivalled views. Large pods ofSpinner Dolphins are a common sightleaping out of the water and twirling in theair as their name suggests. Risso's andStriped Dolphins are also regularly seen,together with Cuvier's Beaked Whale andShort-finned Pilot Whale. Dwarf SpermWhale, the smallest 'whale', is common inthe Maldives, but rarely seen elsewhere.Indeed, this cruise probably offers the bestopportunity to see this elusive speciesanywhere in the world! Other species tolook out for include Bryde's and SpermWhales, pods of False Killer Whales and afew rarities such as Rough-toothed Dolphinand Blainville's Beaked Whale. For the veryfortunate there is the ultimate goal of aLongman's Beaked Whale, one of therarest species in the world, but one that Dr.Anderson has seen, and photographed,several times in these waters!Birdlife on the Maldives is not prolific, butthere are some interesting and beautifulspecies to look out for. The graceful White-tailed Tropicbird is likely, along withAudubon's Shearwaters and the menacingoutlines of Lesser Frigatebirds. Of all thebird families, however, it is the terns thatdominate here and we could see 10 or sospecies including Saunder's Little Tern,Lesser Crested Tern, Black-naped Tern andLesser Noddy. The Maldives are rightly famous for theirsea-life and, in addition to the cetaceans,our cruise will introduce you to a wealth ofmarine creatures from the diminutive clownfish to the mighty Manta. Over 1,000species of fish have been recorded hereand you can expect to see over 200 ofthese whilst snorkelling. Hawksbill andGreen Turtles are another treat to look outfor on the reefs, whilst flying fish areabundant in the open water and regularlyflushed into the air as we cruise from oneatoll to the next. Even a Whale Shark ortwo is possible! There will also be theopportunity to snorkel with Manta Rays,one of the ultimate marine experiences.The sight of one, or more, of thesemagnificent creatures (which have awingspan of over two metres) effortlesslygliding past beneath will not only fill yourthoughts on the long journey home but besure to remain in the memory for life. Mantas, Dolphins & Coral Reefs - A Maldives CruiseA 10-day holiday, including a 7-night whale-watching cruise through the warm, turquoise waters surrounding the Maldives.Friday 15th February - Sunday 24th February Cost: £3,395272Call now or visit www.naturetrek.co.ukfor your free Trip ItineraryMALDIVEISLANDSSUVADIVAINDIANOCEANEQUATORMALÉOutline itineraryDay 1Depart London.Day 2Malé.Day 3/9Maldives cruise.Day 10Fly London.AccommodationFor this voyage Naturetrek hasexclusively charteredtheMV AriQueen (see page 280). Cabins aretwin-bedded and air-conditionedwith en suite facilities. In Malé weuse a comfortable tourist resort onone of the palm-fringed islandsnear the airport. Food All included in the price, except formain meals in Malé. Grading Grade A. Easy and optional daywalks only. FocusCetaceans, birds, Manta Rays andother marine-life. LeadersDr. Chas Anderson and Naturetreknaturalist.Single room supplementNot available.Web quick search: MDV01Friday 23rd September -Sunday 2nd OctoberCost: £3,295EXCLUSIVENATURETREK CHARTERManta RaySpinner DolphinThe Maldives

Baja California has long beendescribed as the 'Galápagos ofMexico'. From the Pacific-poundedshores of its western coastline round tothe sheltered blue waters of the Sea ofCortez, this 1,285-kilometre peninsula, oneof the world's longest, is home to adiversity of wildlife that could easily rivalDarwin's more famous islands over 1,600kilometres to the south. Flocks ofMagnificent Frigatebirds soar ominouslyoverhead, whilst lines of Brown Pelicansand Brant's Cormorants file over the sea'ssurface and hundreds of Sea Lions rest onisolated rocky islands. Inland, CrestedCaracaras sit atop the huge Cardon Cactiwhich cover much of the desert interiorand tiny hummingbirds sip nectar from avariety of colourful desert plants. Baja is, without doubt, a naturalist'sparadise. Yet there is one family of animalsabove all others in which it excels - thecetaceans. The rich feeding grounds ofthe Sea of Cortez and the sheltered baysalong the Pacific coastline combine toproduce one of the best whale-watchingexperiences anywhere in the world. Thisexciting holiday will take you down thewestern coastline of the Baja Peninsulaand then round into the deep blue watersof the Sea of Cortez. It will offer suchunforgettable experiences as eye-to-eyecontact with the Grey Whales of SanIgnacio, the chance to be surrounded bythousands of dolphins, and theopportunity to look for the mighty BlueWhale, the largest animal on Earth. Our tour begins with a flight to San Diego in California. Here we board the'Spirit of Adventure' or 'Searcher',American registered vessels thatcomfortably accommodate 25/26passengers. We cruise south from SanDiego, stopping en route to explore themany seabird colonies and Elephant Sealrookeries, and some of the isolatedislands such as Todos Santos and SanBenitos. On our third day we will arrive atthe world famous San Ignacio Lagoon,home to Baja's 'friendly' Grey Whales. Every year between 17,000 and 24,000Pacific Grey Whales make the 8,000-kilometre journey south from the cold,invertebrate-rich waters of the Bering andChukchi Seas to the lagoons and baysalong Baja's Pacific coastline. Here, in thewarm sheltered waters, they assemble tomate and give birth. Grey Whales arenaturally inquisitive creatures, especiallythe mothers and small calves, but at SanIgnacio they seem to genuinely revel inhuman contact; there is no need to lookfor the whales here, they will quickly findyou! There can be few more memorablewildlife experiences than being able tolook one of these gentle creatures straightin the eye as it raises its head out of thewater next to the boat; a truly movingmoment in a highlight-packed tour! Leaving San Ignacio behind, we continueour journey south. Off the coastline ofMagdalena Bay we hope to find suchcetaceans as Bryde's, Humpback and FinWhales, together with huge pods ofCommon Dolphins. The birdlife is equallydiverse, with Brown and Blue-footedBoobies, Black-vented Shearwaters, RoyalTerns and Pomarine Skuas feeding overthe sea, whilst areas of coastal mangroveshold Reddish Egrets, Tri-coloured Herons,White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills and Long-billed Curlews. Rounding Baja's southern cape we enterthe deep blue waters of the Sea of Cortez,home to one of the world's greatestconcentrations of cetaceans. Here a mazeof submarine canyons and sea mountsdeflect nutrient-rich water to the surface tofeed blooms of plankton and other seacreatures. It is this rich food supply that attracts the cetaceans and we will spend the remainder of our holidayexploring this narrow sea in search ofwhales and other marine-life. In particular we will be on the look-out for the huge, 12-metre tall 'blow' of watervapour that marks the surfacing of themagnificent Blue Whale, an animal thatcan grow to over 27 metres (90 feet) inlength! A wide variety of other whalespecies share the Blue Whale's domainand, during our five days here, we willsearch for Humpback, Fin, Minke, Spermand Bryde's Whales, plus more elusivespecies such as Orca, Dwarf Sperm Whaleand Pygmy Killer Whale. Once againBottlenose and Common Dolphins aboundin these waters, pods of the lattersometimes numbering in the thousands!In addition to the whale-watching, therewill be daily excursions onto remoteislands and into coastal habitats in searchof Guadalupe Fur Seals and birds such asGila Woodpecker, Black-throated Sparrow,Crested Caracara, the endemic Xantu'sHummingbird and perhaps even the rareand exquisitely beautiful Red-billedTropicbird. There will also be plenty ofopportunities for snorkelling in search of turtles, rays and some of the other 650 species of fish that inhabit the Sea of Cortez. At the end of our journey we must sadlydisembark at Cabo San Lucas, Baja'ssouthernmost community and, withmemories of whales and other wildlife thatwill last a lifetime, we begin our longjourney home. Baja California & Sea of CortezA 14-day whale-watching and wildlife holiday, including an 11-night cruise down the western coast of Mexico's Baja Peninsula and round into the Sea of Cortez. Thursday 21st February - Wednesday 6th March (Searcher) Cost: £3,895Saturday 23rd February - Friday 8th March (Spirit of Adventure) Cost: £3,695Saturday 23rd March - Friday 5th April (Searcher) Cost: £3,995Book direct on 01962 733051or see page 284 for Booking InformationCALIFORNIAARIZONAUNITED STATESMEXICOBAJA CALIFORNIAGULF OF CALIFORNIASEA OF CORTEZPACIFICOCEANPACIFICOCEANSAN DIEGOTODOS SANTOSISLANDSAN MARTINISLANDSAN BENITOSISLANDSAN IGNACIOLAGOONMAGDALENABAYTODOSSANTOSLOS FRAILESCABO SAN LUCASLA PAZSANFELIPECOLORADO RIVEROutline itineraryDay 1Fly San Diego. Day 2Board 'Searcher'/'Spirit ofAdventure'.Day 3Todos Santos Island.Day 4San Benitos Island. Day 5/6San Ignacio Lagoon.Day 7Magdalena Bay.Day 8/12Sea of Cortez.Day 13Depart Baja California. Day 14Arrive London.AccommodationFor these voyages we have charteredthe 'Searcher' and 'Spirit of Adventure' (see page 278for additionalinformation). In San Diego we use acomfortable tourist motel.FoodAll included in the price, except forlunches and dinners in San Diego.GradingA. Optional, and generally easy, day walks. FocusWhales, dolphins, other mammals andmarine-life, plus birds.LeaderTim Melling or Lee Morgan, plus localguide.Single room supplementNot available.Web quick search: MEX01273EXCLUSIVENATURETREK CHARTERGrey Whale Humpback-watchingBlue Whale