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Photography by Jonathan Kingston

Exploring Baja California with Photographer Jonathan Kingston

Photographer, climber, and diver Jonathan Kingston uses his camera to capture life on the edge. In 2018, as part of a National Geographic grant, Jonathan and an international team of marine archaeologists began searching for the remains of Hernán Cortés' fleet scuttled in the Gulf of Mexico, using underwater and aerial photogrammetry. We caught up with Jonathan to chat about his adventures in Mexico, his experiences as a National Geographic photographer, and his latest assignment: accompanying one of our expedition cruises to Baja.

What, for you, are some of the highlights of the expedition you’re joining, Baja California: A Remarkable Journey?

Stark, rugged, remote, and vast are all words that describe the beautiful desert landscapes of Baja California. On the night of a new moon there is so little light pollution that I feel like I can reach out and brush my fingers through the stars. But without a doubt, the highlight of the trip is the friendly gray whales of Laguna San Ignacio. It is a remarkable experience—photographically speaking and otherwise—to be inches away from these marine mammals.

Tell us about your first visit to Baja.

John Steinbeck set his novel The Pearl in Baja, and I went there many years ago in search of my own "pearl"—the perfect moment to depress my shutter.

I had heard rumors of whale sharks in a remote bay at the end of an unmarked road. After some searching, I found the path and came upon a small fishing village, where a local man nodded when I showed him a magazine clipping of a whale shark. For a few dollars, he agreed to take me into the neighboring bay.

Did you end up spotting any whale sharks?

Yes, we saw two, and they were among the most magnificent creatures I have ever seen. Their bodies extended 30 feet and the openings of their mouths almost matched my height. My mind was numb with awe.

Moments after jumping in, my friend and I realized that the larger of the two sharks had battled with a fishing net, and I wanted to try to cut the net off its fin. We eventually succeeded and spent the afternoon swimming with and photographing these creatures in the warm waters of the bay. We had found our pearls. Since that time, my career as a photographer has taken me all over the world, but I always feel privileged to return to Baja.

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Photography by Jonathan Kingston

Tell us about some of the work you’ve done in the region.

I recently worked with a team on a National Geographic Society grant to explore an early part of Hernán Cortés’ history in Mexico. In 1519, after establishing the town of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, and prior to his conquest of the Aztec Empire, Cortés scuttled his fleet of ships to quell a potential mutiny of men who wished to return to Cuba. So I set out with an international team of marine archaeologists to search for Cortés’ lost fleet—an event that bookmarks the beginning of a chapter in human history and globalization that we are still living through today.

How have you been changed by your experiences in Baja?

In one word: hope. Baja has changed me by giving me great hope for the world’s oceans. Laguna San Ignacio is a wonderful success story of conservation in action, along with many of the marine reserves we are privileged to travel through on the trip I’m joining. Baja has taught me that if the will to protect our oceanic resources is there, the ocean is able to heal itself.

How would you encourage travelers to approach photography during this trip?

While there are some cultural stops during our journey, this trip is all about the wildlife and the landscapes of Baja. I would encourage travelers to approach photography with a prepared mindset—to expect the unexpected and be ready for a breaching whale or mobula ray flying from the water. Consider bringing a GoPro for the incredible experiences we have in the water. Be ready to explore the vast and rugged landscape and see the beauty in the repeating patterns of the geology and plant life. Don’t ignore the details of the desert.

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Photography by Jonathan Kingston

Why is it important to travel?

Traveling to new places is so absorbing that it requires all the senses. It doesn’t leave room for anything else. It forces me to be in the present moment. It gives me new eyes and new perspectives, both for what I am experiencing on the road and at home.

What is your favorite travel memory?

That’s like asking what is your favorite breath of air! There are so many great memories it is difficult to pick one. I think the most consistent and recurring memory I have from nearly every journey I have ever taken is the kindness and humanity of strangers. Again and again, my experience has been that the vast majority of people on this planet are kind and generous. At the core, we are one big human family.

Explore Baja California and the Sea of Cortez with Jonathan on a National Geographic expedition cruise to Mexico.