It was nice to be in Santa Rosalía again. Visiting places several times gives a sense of familiarity to our unpredictable life. Santa Rosalía is a thriving mining town and on Father’s Day Sunday the men of the city were dined at restaurants all over town by their wives, sons and daughters. On large tables families sat together, cakes and gifts were given. Everyone was in a festive mood. The regular employment shows in large houses on the hills, new cars, landscaped courtyards.
Radu went to the emergency room with an acute ear infection and was met with friendliness and competence. The doctor on duty spoke some English and he sent us on our way with antibiotics, anti inflammatory drops and painkillers. All of that including the visit was free. The town is taken care of by the mine and by it’s city government.
After Radu was completely healed, we left for the Northern Sea. It is very remote up there, no cell service between Santa Rosalía and San Felipe, for about 260 nautical miles/480km. And I believe no hospitals either; I did see a pharmacy and a medical clinic in Bahia de los Angeles. The Baja is, the mainland is more populated. We didn’t want to risk a backlash.
After we left Santa Rosalia, we sailed to an island, Ísla Salsipuedes, to snorkel its underwater rock formations and caves, but were greeted with a stronger South wind than predicted. The wind made for a rolly swell, so we quickly decided to continue to our next stop Ísla Partida, where we will be nicely protected from South, East and West winds in its deep-pocketed North Bay.
On our way, we passed over a deep underwater canyon with upwellings carrying small fish because hundreds of seagulls, tern ducks and a flock of pelicans were fishing, circling and diving into the waters. A small bird island was just east of the area, a cone shaped rock covered in white guano or bird poo. Sure enough, when we passed the area, the sea went back to normal. There are several islands like this one, very remote and next to upwellings. Although they don’t have bays for protected anchoring, they were exploited for the guano used as fertilizer, decimating the bird population, before this practice was outlawed. (More on ‘When the Western World Ran on Guano’ here)
Ísla Partida greeted us with calm waters and South winds blew over the island and kept the cabin cool in this scorching heat. The whale decomposing last year on the beach is totally gone now, only some bones are left. Amazing how fast and efficient nature takes care of itself. At night even these porous whalebones are taken apart by hundreds of crawling.
We had noticed a camp on the west side of the island coming in. We went ashore quickly and found science camps for bats and terns. Every year in June, graduate students and professors spend an entire month on this remote island supported by local fishermen to conduct studies into behavior and physiognomies of endangered species. We had interesting discussions with the passionate scientists about their research and were invited to a communal dinner of grilled fish and rice at the tern camp cooked by the fisherman. What a treat. Stimuli for mind and taste buds! I even got to touch a bat! (Whole story ‘A Love Affair with Bats’ here.)
We stayed for a couple of nights and left for Bahía de los Ángeles in the early morning, because we were hoping to catch up with our friends on SV Providencia. Sure enough, Angel and Peter were still there. We met at Guillermo’s for some beers and they finished provisioning, as they were leaving the next morning for Ísla Coronado on their way up to San Felipe. We will haul out a couple weeks after them and spend the following weeks in Bahía de los Angeles and Puerto Refugio.
Last year, when we arrived at Guillermo’s on the beach, I said: ‘I could spend the summer here’ and that’s exactly what we are doing right now: having breakfast at Guillermo’s, sitting under their palapa in the midday heat catching up on news, internet reading and futzing around with the blog. Guillermo and his brother came to Bahia de los Angeles in 1941 with their trucking business. Guillermo brought his teenage bride, Lucy, with him, who became stayed here with her sons when her husband was driving trucks all over Mexico. Living as one of the few women amongst fishermen, she became tough and influential. An artist as well, she chose a lovely spot on the beach for her restaurant and motel, opened an art gallery and shop. In her nineties now, she comes to Bahia de los Angels for the cooler winter months.
We meet many people at Guillermo’s: travelers stopping on their way down the Baja, locals, expats with homes on the bay and sports fishing tourists. There was a fishing competition over the weekend, and others hired local fishermen for a day or two. Local fishing grounds are still plentiful although the regulars and locals tell us that the fish has been in a steady decline. Fishermen used to fish with rods and now mostly set nets. The shrimping boats with their gigantic nets depleting the Sea for ten months a year, their two month time off isn’t long enough to replenish the fishing population. Some fish are especially in demand for their supposed aphrodisiacal capacities: the Vaquita, a small whale endemic to the Northern Sea, nears extinction, and shark is only hunted for its fins.
Corruption lets fishing fleets evade severe fines, although the laws are in place, they are rarely upheld and if they are, the captain of the fishing boat is made responsible not the fleet owner. Fishing is the one big industry of the Sea of Cortez feeding most of its people, so that it is hard to find fault with the fishermen. John Steinbeck mentioned already in 1940 in his famous ‘Log of the Sea of Cortez’ the overfishing practices of the shrimping boats and worried about the long-term effects. Back then, the boats were owned by the Japanese, Japanese captains ran a mixed Mexican and Japanese crew. Steinbeck predicted the severe decimation of ‘food resource fish’ and that ‘with their many and large boats, with their industry and efficiency’ ‘the Mexican officials and the Japanese captain were committing a crime against nature and against the immediate of Mexico and the eventual welfare of the whole human species.’ *
There is a concerted preservation effort in the Sea, the entire Bahía de los Ángeles and the sixteen islands laying just off shore were declared in 2007 a Biosphere Habitat and as overfishing has also affected this area. When fishing couldn’t support the community anymore, the local fishermen offered guided sports fishing and hoping to that tourists will come to enjoy the areas’ secluded beauty.
We met a couple of friends on a fishing trip down from Southern California, who offered us to sample their fish tacos of their fresh caught Grouper and Yellowtail before heading back up North. And another successful fisherman gave us four Yellowtail steaks, he also caught that day, Radu made into a fantastic ceviche. Life is good!
On our second day in Bahía de los Ángeles, we spotted whale sharks from Guillermo’s terrace. Several were swimming right next to the public boat ramp. I jumped in the dinghy while Radu watched our things, and motored over to them. They were a family of two adults and one small one feeding on plankton right in front of the beach. They didn’t scare when I drove closer to them, one eying me with a human size eye, which looks tiny on their 20′ body. I turned the motor off and drifted next to them for a while. They have two fins, one on their backs and one on the tails and both moving when they swim. Kind of confusing at first, also they were gray with white dots in dark gray water on an overcast day, so it was not so easy to make out which fin belonged to who. Then they dove and were gone.
After a week of hanging out in front of the village, we wanted to try swim with whale sharks. We heard that they hang out in front of an estuary further south in the bay, so we went to Bahía La Mona for a night.
La Mona was deserted and the vacation homes along the beach empty. Few people come to the Baja in summer. The long white beach was narrow at high tide, backed with a deep valley reflecting the setting sun in all shades of orange. We saw coyote tracks along the beach, some birds, some bees, and we were attacked by mosquitoes immediately after the sun had set, but that was the extend of the wild life we saw on land. We had a little bit of rocky night, the bay funneled waves down to La Mona, like a ripple effect and the east wind wasn’t strong enough to flatten the waves. Surprisingly the roadstead anchorage in front of the village was much calmer, so we left La Mona after breakfast. We went past the estuary, eyes peeled and searching with binoculars for whale shark fins, but unfortunately they eluded us. Fishermen back at the village told us they had seen some near the islands that day.
Back at the village we provisioned for the upcoming week out at the islands of Coronado and Ángel de la Guarda. We measured heat of 38°C/ 98°F and couldn’t wait to get back on the water to those remote anchorages and beaches.
We left early, going past the village light house, past small islands and La Gringa beach, and found a large bay, called Bahia La Rocas, with several gravel beaches on the west side of Ísla Coronado. It said in the guides that there was a submerged reef with all Sea of Cortez fish and aquatic critters, but a west wind coming over the island rippled the water surface and fouled good visibility for snorkeling. I am still a beginner at snorkeling and, although I don’t have fear of heights, I have to talk myself into looking down into the water and still need calm waters. Instead we dinghied around the bay and around a bird rock, explored a couple of beaches with caves and watched lots of tiny crabs carry their shells. At sunset over a Cuba Libre we watched Pelicans fish by plunking into the water and schools of ducks dive all at once dive together. With the setting sun painting the surrounding rocks and the island, and the moon already high above, these desert islands are just magical.
I wanted to spend my birthday on my favorite spot in the Sea at Puerto Refugio. So far up north on the north side of Ísla de la Guardia, the second largest island in Mexico, I love anchoring in front of it. It’s high, interior mountains and valleys of mixed geological composition and colors are beautiful. I could sit in the cockpit all day to watch the sunlight moving over the landscape, sunrises and sunsets are particularly spectacular. We arrived after climbing up against a strong current, which slowed us down more than an hour, in the late afternoon. We found that the depth meter was fouled by growth again, which makes for neatly blind entering of the bay, luckily we had the handheld depth meter and our tracks on the chart plotter from the last two times we were here.
We anchored in the gorgeous west bay across from a wayfarer’s chapel. The next day was my birthday and after breakfast, we went for a dinghy tour of a bird island and visited said chapel. Several islands form this bay, which are rounded and stark with caves along the shores and pebble beaches in all colors from yellow, red, gray to black. We climbed the hill to the chapel and a lovely view from there. We inscribed ourselves on the chapel wall with chalk lying around for that purpose and contemplated on the shrine build around the Virgin of Guadalupe. Fishermen had a camp on the beach below, their bags and coolers still there while they were out fishing. That evening, a large tourist boat arrived in the East Bay, which runs diving tours from Puerto Peñasco. As remote as it is up here, there are still always at least fishermen in their pangas around. They run their fast boats with two hundred eighty horsepower, our motor has a tenth of the power at twenty-eight horsepower, the fishermen can cover large distances fast!
My birthday was slow and lazy, the heat smoldering, to cool off; I dipped in the water several times. Radu made a delicious meal for me, we had a toast on the deck watching the sunset and went to bed early to get a long and good night sleep before the overnight passage next afternoon to Puerto Peñasco.
* John Steinbeck, Sea of Cortez, first published in 1942, reprint by Penguin Books 2009 Edition with Specimen Catalogue, page 247-250