Tuesday, July 3, 2018

BAJA Reflections

(To read the entire story of our first Baja Adventure, please start at the BOTTOM, from Day One!)

I lost my notes for other anchorages we visited several times: Amortajada @ San Jose / Puerto El Gato / Santa Catalina / Isla Danzante.  We didn’t stop on the repositioning trip north, but did stop at subsequent trips with guests aboard, and they are indeed all beautiful, unique places.  Now, I just can’t remember what happened where; it all flows together.  As I close my eyes and try to remember, I immediately feel overwhelmed with the images, colors, textures, and simply the Life that enters and surges with each breath.  It is sad that the exact memories fade, but I savor the impressions that remain.

My first impression of this world of the Sea of Cortez was a terrain of bare, red hills interrupting the sky.  Blue sea, red hills, and they all looked the same.  Not a very exciting place to be, really.  The desert seemed dead, harsh, and forbidding.  I was comparing it to the lush, majestic fiords of SouthEast Alaska, with its boreal rain forests, inviting waterfalls, towering mossy hemlocks, and the overpowering grandness of the animals and living glaciers.

But as I watch these bare red hills, these islands we pass day after day, I begin to see that they are not alike – not at all.  Each meets the sea in its unique way, with an uncountable variety of texture and color – not just red, but green, purple, gray, orange, yellow, pink.  The shapes and textures of the layers – craggy, smooth, broken, strong, banded, eroded, crumling, pinnacled.  And how the blue of the sea changes color!  From darkest, deepest midnight blue where the big whales can dive deep, to the turquoise green that laps the white sand beaches that are tucked into surprising nooks and crannies along the island shores.  Truly one could spend many, many weeks exploring all the shelters, bays and harbors these islands offer.  

The life here isn’t large and mighty like the crashing glaciers, great eagles and lumbering grizzlies of Alaska.  Here, in Baja, is a languidness that is evident in the pace, the peaceful landscape and the gentle fishermen who go about their business with the fruits of the sea, quietly loving what they do.  Here, the graceful frigate birds soar and swoop, blue-footed boobies glide on the soft winds, fun-loving mobulas leap and play, and the dolphins splash and somersault at the bow.  Day after day the sea stretches on, the beaches beckon, and the sun sets ablaze in a soft western sky.

The days stay warm and tropically bright, and the breeze delightfully cool.  Night after night the brilliant flame of sunset – blinding tangerine melting into lavender – silhouettes the cliffs and headlands.  Mooring late one night, traveling to our anchorage after the sun had gone down and the stars were already out, we saw the phosphorescence of the bow wave against the dark water -- like someone had turned on a neon light below the surface.  Where the waves broke, the curl glowed with a soft luminous green, and out beyond the bow leapt green sparkles in the water to match the brilliance of the million vivid stars glittering overhead.


Here I am.  What I mean is:  I am HERE.  I puzzle that it takes so long to sink in – so many days of unconsciousness before I wake up and realize I. Am. Here.

We are off the boat, kayaking in to one of so many brilliant coral and shell beaches splayed at the foot of one of oh so many arroyos that cleave through the lumpy desert islands, creating small bahias and harbors sheltered from the seasonal northeast winds.  Behind this short, white beach is a patch of red mangrove, rooting in a brackish pool.  Two snowy egrets are wading at the far end.

Beyond the mangroves, the arroyo opens ahead of us, a narrow valley leading up to the low ridge of the island.  We are walking through an old-growth Sonoran desert.  Along the valley floor, the massive caldones (cacti of the saguaro family) are hundreds of years old, their giant arms make me think of a welcoming, sheltering grandfather.  This red-rock valley is rich with flowering ochatillo, chollas, agave and rambling pickleweed.  Higher on the exposed slopes we can see prickly-pear cactus.

There are the scattered remains of a black jack-rabbit, indigenous to this island, maybe prey of a small gray fox whose tracks we noticed earlier.  And I see a very alive jack rabbit dart ahead of us up the slope, and a trio of vultures overhead.  A small, delicate rock squirrel, like a finely chiseled chipmunk with one black stripe down its back, scampers across the rocks and stops to examine us before disappearing behind an outcrop.

Our half-mile long trail climbs gently among the cacti and rocks.  Suddenly I emerge at the top, at the edge of the bluff, and the Sea of Cortez is crashing hundreds of feet below me; midnight blue water curling into brilliant white fists, slamming against the huge boulders along the water’s edge.  Standing high on the headland, the powerful wind barreling down from the northeast nearly knocks me off my feet.  I am facing the vigorous Sea of Cortez, sparkling blue on blue in the warm liquid air, with all of the life of the desert at my back, and I realize – I am Here.  I am alive.  And I am glad. 

I am learning to feel very at home on this small, moving island, this boat, where the floor rolls and falls away, and one sways and absorbs the movement without even thinking about it.

I remember traveling by train back and forth to college, changing stations in Chicago, where I could board the aerodome and sit in the upper level, high above the traveling car, with vistas all around.  At dusk, the porter would come through with gray wool blankets and I would scrunch my bag up for a pillow and curl up in my seat and look at the stars until I fell asleep.  But always, the first hours aboard the train, maneuvering the aisles to the dining car and back, or to the restrooms, I would knock against the seats and falter back and forth trying to make my way from one end of the swaying car to the other.

It didn’t take me long, though, before I could travel the entire length of the train without needing to steady myself at all.  I’m beginning to feel that way now, as one with the boat, the constant puttapah-puttapah-puttapah of the engine becomes my rhythm too.  And when we turn out of the sheltered lee of an island and head into the smooth north breeze, I love to stand at the bow and take in the warm wind and sun; I become part of this sparkling blue world, and maybe I’ll see the spout of a whale misting up on the horizon.


So far, I’ve met three local fishermen, and dearly wish I were able to converse with them in their language.   You’ve heard of Pablo at El Pardito, his tiny fishing village clinging to the side of the rock island, when he came out to get water.

One evening, several of us were beach-combing at sunset along the sandy shore of a narrow cove where we’d been forced to lay over for a day due to high winds.  The cove was otherwise deserted, but out of nowhere we were approached by a sturdy, barefooted individual in shorts and a tee-shirt, walking up the beach toward us.  Earlier, we had noticed a small fishing camp rigged further up around the bend, a white dory pulled up above the tide-line and a blue tarp held up with rope tied to a piece of driftwood – or maybe the boat’s oar – stuck in the sand.  At any rate, Sarah, our naturalist-guide, knows enough Spanish to learn that he had been out fishing with his two compadres the day before, and had been forced into harbor by the strong winds, as had we.  They were expecting to make their way out in the morning, as the winds were beginning to lay down with the fading sun.  Sarah learned that they had enough water, and plenty of fish to eat, and introduced us as neighbors, lying at anchor in this quiet place.  With a broad smile flashing his white teeth, he introduced himself as Antonio, and made a friendly effort to shake everyone’s hand and repeat our names with his heavy accent.  Soy Tony!” he declared with apparent pride to each of us in turn. 

Muy frio, muy frio,” he went on to tell Sarah, rubbing his upper arms and shivering in his tee shirt as the sun finally dipped down below the western hills.  This is cold winter weather for him, who lives and fishes during the 120-degree summers in the gulf.  Tiene usted las mantas?  Estamos muy frio…”  “Si, si amigo!” Sarah replied, after understanding that he was asking if we had any extra sleeping bags they could borrow for the night.  They had spent the previous night trying to stay warm by sharing one old flannel shirt between them. “Por quanto persones?”  “Tres, tres, muchas gracias!” Tony responded.  It was arranged that we would all return to the boat in our skiff, (it was dinner time!) and that Bill would return to deliver three wool blankets ashore; they would drop them off at the boat on their way out in the morning, before dawn.  That was how I met Antonio.

We spent one long, lovely afternoon anchored at Puerto Gato, a colorful broad harbor on the eastern side of the Baja peninsula.  Some of the guests went snorkeling along a coral reef, some exploring the caves and ancient tool middens of pre-historic Pericu people who had camped along this area thousands of years ago.  Randy and I hiked the far cliff-edged beach, where the towering rock face was studded with geodes.   Later in the day, the rest of the group went out kayaking – I elected to stay on the boat, and that’s when I met Manuel. 

I had watched him approach from around the tip of the point, standing in the stern of his wooden panga with his hand on the tiller of the small 10 horsepower outboard motor.  Bill said he was coming to deliver lobster for dinner, which had been bargained and paid for the week before.  He was another tee-shirt clad fisherman, nimbly leaping across the thwarts in bare feet as his boat bobbed and dipped with each roll of the sea, deftly tossing Bill his bowline as he cut his throttle.  After the line was secure and the panga alongside, Bill lowered a big, black bailing bucket on a rope.  From under a tarp in the bottom of the boat, Manuel pulled out three monstrous, wriggling, spiny lobsters, blue and orange and speckled with brown, and piled them in the bucket.  Tracie-the-chef drew them aboard, and disappeared into the galley to go to work.

Manuel followed up the ladder, clutching a small zippered bag.  He looked at me hopefully, and held out his satchel.  I could understand his words “Mi espousa” but nothing else.  Lo siento, yo no hablo espanol,” I was able to muster.  He shrugged, and smiled. Bill had gone to the pilot house, Tracie was in the galley dealing with lobsters, Sarah was out kayaking with the guests and Randy was down in the engine room.  I realized I was on my own with Manuel.

At the table, he opened his bag, and began to lay out colorfully crocheted and embroidered cloths, bright with flowers in greens, reds and yellows.  He seemed most eager that I should buy some of the cloths his wife had embroidered.  My mind went blank and I couldn’t drum up anything but “No, gracias.  Muy bonito!  No, gracias.”  I wished that I were in need of more linens, or that I could think of someone who would enjoy them, but as much as I scrambled, nothing came to mind.  He just kept nodding and smiling, not looking at me, really, but seeming sort of like a shy peddlar, with big earnest brown eyes in a wrinkled face.  Bill said later, that he was 79 years old, and, besides fishing, had been peddling everything he could find, for most of his life.

Standing there on the aft deck in the glow of the lowering afternoon sun, I realized he had only his dirty tee shirt for covering, and was facing a bumpy, windy 30 minute ride home in the cooling dusk .  Finally, I thought to offer him something to drink.  Gusta usted café?  I asked.  Si!  Si!” he replied. Con leche?”  Si!  azucar?”  Si!”  “Uno?  Dos?”  “Dos!” he said with great enthusiasm, nodding and smiling the whole time.  I fixed him a coffee with cream and 2 spoons of sugar, and he hugged the mug with both hands and sat down in one of the wicker chairs, his broad bare feet planted firm and far apart on the deck.

About this time the kayakers returned, and while Bill and Randy appeared from below to load the kayaks aboard, the guests were introduced to Manuel and gathered around to inspect the needlework laid out for sale on the table.  Nobody bought anything, Manuel finished his coffee, he and Bill concluded their arrangement for more lobsters next week, and then he dropped back down into his panga, bobbing in the waves, and was off for home, a small fishing village several miles up the coast.

Meanwhile, after yet another glorious sunset, we gathered in the warm twilight around the gleaming mahogany table on the aft deck, sharing wine, laughter and stories of our various adventures of the day.  We were served a fresh lobster bisque that was out of this world, followed by succulent lobster-stuffed rellenos, and finally, chocolate fondant with rum-soaked bananas.

I’ve been reading John Steinbeck’s book, “The Log of the Sea of Cortez”, written in 1941 about a trip he took to Baja with his friend Ed Ricketts, in an old fishing trawler.  I find it’s a book to read slowly, savoring.  He says:

“…There is always in the back of our minds the positive drive to go back again.  If it were lush and rich, one would understand the pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen.  The stone mountains pile up to the sky and there is little water.  But we know we must go back…. And we don’t know why.”

Monday, July 2, 2018

Returning to the Sea of Cortez - Day 11

[Feb. 12, 2015]

The van collected us from the hotel and delivered us 30 minutes south, back at the Marina at Puerto Escondido, boarding the Westward with our new group of guests.  It is always fun to observe guests getting acquainted with the boat for the first time.  It is such a beautiful vessel with unique beauty and charm and that hint of unique 1920 glamour.  The guest state rooms are immaculate, and Tracie has prepared a delicious lunch of smoked salmon fish cakes served on a bed of lentils and baby carrots.

After everyone is settled into their cabins, and we’ve had our captain’s orientation to the quirks of the boat, Randy starts up the big Atlas engine, hauls up the mooring line, and we chug out of the harbor to make our way through the glories of the Bay of Baja, heading to our first night’s anchorage at Isla Danzante, the island of Dancers, in beautiful Honeymoon Cove.  The waters are blue and gentle, the sky clear and refreshing, new adventures await and we all breathe deeply, soaking in the liquid warmth and the mysterious beauty and glory all around.

Bahia Magdalena Redux - Day 10

[Feb. 11, 2015]

After a sound night’s sleep (even though the cots were a little bit saggy), and a scrumptious hot breakfast, we head back to the pongas and out into the Bay for our morning's adventure. This one was even more invigorating!  We came upon a mother who was teaching her young one how to breach.  This is when the whale propels the bulk of its body up out of the water and falls back with a stupendous splash!  They did this behavior over and over again, thrilling to watch.

When they tired of this, they came alongside us to get acquainted, and once again it was the awe-some experience of enjoying these magnificent creatures up close.  It is a stirring highlight and memory of a life-time, to have the privilege and opportunity to intimately gaze into a whale’s eye, and to be invited to communicate with them through touch, these enormous beings.

We returned to camp, and, full to the brim with a good lunch and our experiences, packed up and headed back over the winding mountain road, back to our hotel in Loreto where we all had long, hot showers to wash off the sand, salt spray and whale snot, and then wandered into the square for dinner.  Randy and I had a fabulous sea bass and tasty paella, under the twinkling tree lights in the open air garden restaurant. 

After dinner, some of the guests elected to walk down to the waterfront for the opening festivities of Carnival, an exhuberant Lenten festival that goes on for a week.  They reported much loud music, gaily dressed people, costumes, dancing, and fireworks, and got back to the hotel well after mid-night.  Randy and I elected to go straight back to our spacious room and go right to sleep.

Bahia Magdalena Whale Lagoon - Day 9

[Feb. 19, 2015]

After breakfast, a van picks us up for the three-hour drive to the lagoon.  Out of town, up and over the Sierra Gigante – the mountains that run down the spine of the southern part of Baja.  These are magnificent mountains, high desert pinnacles laced with deep arroyos – and actually a very nice paved two-lane highway that winds like a ribbon.  (Julio, our van driver, is the most polite and attentive young man, and drives with such care around each winding precipice, that none of us are white-knuckled, that I’m aware of.)

Once through the mountains, the road continues across a broad western desert plateau.  We stop for a small herd of goats crossing the road, being all successfully corralled by a bright-looking, long-legged yellow dog, circling and nipping at their heels until they are all safely across, and then the dog deftly herds them along the roadside.  We couldn’t see a human goat-tender anywhere around, but assumed they were close by in the scrub.  At another lonely place, there were two ranchers trotting along the roadside, bareback, on burros, the broad brims of their straw hats bouncing up and down with each clop-clop.  We couldn’t see any structures nearby, or dirt roads or fences, but it sure seems they had a destination in mind.

We know we are nearing the Pacific coast when Sarah, our naturalist, points out the osprey platforms, one every quarter mile.  They are built to provide the osprey an alternative to nesting atop the electric poles that line the roadway.  Just about every platform is in use – large, messy stick nests plainly visible, as are the great birds themselves.  I also spy two crested caracaras foraging in a ravine along the roadside as we pass by.

We arrived at the crowded little village of San Carlos on Bahia Magdalena, and proceeded to a white sand strip of beach at the far edge of town.  Here a panga boat was waiting to take us out to the whale camp.  We were met by Roman, a friendly, happy, smart guy who immediately took charge of our group, and who also happened to be Julio’s uncle.  With great efficiency, he had our van unloaded, had us each outfitted with life vests, and had our belongings transferred to the panga as he invited us to wade out and climb into the boat.  We each had our water shoes on, shorts or pants rolled up, and a wind-breaker/rain jacket, as per instructions.  It was like stepping into bath water, shin deep, and we boarded by swinging a leg over the side and clambering in.  Ran and I both sat in the bow.

A panga is basically a 25’ fishing skiff with an outboard motor and 3 or 4 benches spanning the width.  This one had a center driving console and a sunshade canopy over the benches, for which I was grateful as it was a bright, sunny day.  Our 20-minute ride would be a wet and wild one, bouncing hard across the bay at 35 knots, taking us to Isla Magdalena (the island), where we were to camp for the night.

Bahia Magdalena is a large bay, about 20 by 30 miles, formed by the long, narrow, “L”-shaped island that separates the shallow bay from the Pacific Ocean.  This is one of only a few places in the world where gray whales migrate to mate and to give birth.  In fact, according to our guide Roman, a well-versed whale educator as well as outfitter, all gray whales are Mexican!  The only existing group of these whales in the world travel only along the Pacific coast of America, summering and feeding in the deep, rich waters of the Bering Sea.  They migrate south to winter along the Baja coast, where the large shallow bays provide protection and warm water for breeding.  During this time, they relay on their stored fat, which must sustain them until they head north in the spring, to feed again.

 Our camp on the barrier island of Magdalena was along the narrowest part of the island, just a half-mile over the dune to the ocean side, which made a nice exploration walk.  It is the only permitted camp on the island. White walled tents were arranged on the sweeping white sand beach, everything tidy and sparkling in the sun.  There was an open galley tent and a dining tent.  And down a short path, a very decent privy tent.

Roman’s crew couldn’t have been finer.  They were 5 young men, earnest, capable and delightful:  a second naturalist, a professional chef, two boat capitans, and one general worker.  After a yummy lunch of yellow-fin tuna salad on tortillas, we suited up again for the panga ride out to the whale watching area at the far end of the bay, where the mothers were nursing their weeks-old calves.

It was the most indescribable, exhilarating, mind-bending afternoon, making friends with these giants of the sea.  Without a doubt, they seemed to enjoy the interaction, seeking it out, always coming back for a closer look.  They seemed as curious about us as we were with them.  We hung out with one young mother and her baby, and she seemed to nudge and encourage her little one to come and play. I thought it had been fairly amazing to look a dolphin in the eye, but over and over again the mother would propel her massive head out of the water and take a good, long look.  

Astounding feeling!  And then there were those fortunate enough to be sitting in the right spot when she would come up alongside as close as she could get, and those lucky folks could reach down and gently stroke her snout or her back.  Or when she would come up suddenly with a loud exhale, forcefully propelling her copious spray all over whoever was nearest, just another way to say ‘hello’ I think.  She was easily twice as big as our boat, one committed bump from her would have meant big trouble for us – but she always knew where her elbows were, and was very gentle.

(Three weeks later, at another bay, St. Ignacio, we had a similar encounter with another friendly whale dubbed “La Cee”, due to a pattern of barnacles on her side in the shape of the letter C.  She stayed alongside us for a solid 40 minutes, at times gently bumping the boat from the side or from beneath, trying to roll over enough to get a good look, and finally managing to stay in the current enough to let us all stroke, pet, and even kiss her!  How surprisingly delicate and soft is her skin, and cool to the touch.)

After the exhilarating afternoon, we dined on fresh grilled lobster tail (the workers had gone diving for them while we were out whale watching) and after a stunning sunset, watched an entertaining and educational slide show on gray whales.  I learned that their mating is very cooperative, rather than competitive as it is with most mammals.  It takes at least two males to mate with one female as one must support and balance the mating pair.