March '99 Kayaking in Baja

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Map of our travels

I (Dave) flew to LA and met Aaron for our flight to Loreto, a small town on the east coast of Baja California. This map printed on the back of my t-shirt shows the general area of our Kayak trip. We arrived a day before necessary and took the opportunity to take a trip to see the grey whales. This was on the other side of Baja at Magdelena Bay (not shown on this map).

Aaron in whalewatch boat, Magdelena Bay

This picture is of our whale watching excursion. It's a 2 1/2 hour drive from Loreto to Magdelena Bay. Our whalewatch tour group (7 of us) went out in a boat for about 2 hours and tried to get close to the whales. The boat drivers are pretty good at guessing where the whales will go and tried to position us so a whale was likely surface near the paying customers.

On the drive to and from Magdelena bay we visited with the other tourists. There was a pair of brothers from Austin and Houston, Texas: Don and Clyde. Clyde was a friendly and affable chap. Don was a cave explorer who had made many trips to Mexico to open up new caves. He had been a participant in the 1991 National Geographic expedition and had known some of the cave divers including one who died in the cave. Apparently the cavers rule is that if one dies, the other split up the gear. He had some gear that was inherited. He told of the danger involved in caving and cave diving in particular, and emphasized the need to constant caution and precision in one's actions. He discussed what it felt like to be underground in the dark for 3 weeks at a time. He would cling tightly to his flashlight while sleeping and sometimes wake up to turn it on, just to see something. Sensory deprivation big time. Don kept a journal in which made entries even as we were driving across Baja. He told us that his journal entries are always entirely technical, only the facts and statistics of the event. He had been told by someone that perhaps he should try to put some feelings or emotions into his notes. But he confessed to us that he had no idea how to do this. An odd but very interesting fellow.

Grey Whale and Calf, Magdelena Bay

Here's a grey whale with calf (spouting). It's difficult photography since you don't get a second chance. We did observe a 'spy hop', where the whale pokes its head out of the water far enough to expose its eyes (which is about 12 feet of whale I'd guess). It came up and checked us out very briefly, and the whole thing was over in about 3 seconds.

Fish Camp, Magdelena Bay

Magdelena bay is formed by very narrow sand bars like this. The locals fish from here and have set up a little camp. The birds love it out here too and hang around in great numbers. I saw frigate birds (with their pre-historic wingspread), pelicans, egrets, cormorants, and tons of gulls.

Las Trojes B and B, Loreto

This is the view from our bed and breakfast in Loreto, named Las Trojes. It is so named (the granaries) since it was built from timbers and planks salvaged from granaries on mainland Mexico. It was fairly funky, with cracks between the wall planks, and rustic plumbing. But the manager and staff were friendly, it's in a pleasant location a short walk north of town, and has a pleasant garden overlooking the Sea of Cortez and Isla Carmen (left background).

At the B&B we met some of the people who were to be in our paddling group. We first met Janet, rom Toronto, who was travelling alone. She accompanied us on a walk into town to do some shopping. In town we met Libby and Diane, travelling together from northern Vancouver Island. The five of us had a pleasant dinner at a restaurant near the B&B (Chili Willies). We had missed happy hour, but Aaron and I wanted to taste tequilas. The proprietor offered some tequilas starting at 380 pesos a shot ($38 US). We settled quite a bit lower on the Agave scale, and our host brought us an extra on the house. We passed these around and became quite educated.

Pangas taking us from Loreto

These are the pangas (fishing boats) which ferried us and our kayaks out to Isla Carmen to begin our paddling trip. This was very early on Monday morning. Each of the seven pangas was loaded with a kayak, lots of gear, and a few paddlers. As we started out the fishermen joked about being the 'coyotes', smuggling their human cargo across the waters. They thought it was pretty funny, and as soon as I started to wake up I began to get it. (The people who smuggle Mexicans into the US for a fee are called coyotes.) It was about a 2 hour trip to the back (east) side of Isla Carmen to a little beach appropriately called Playa Chica (little beach). Everything and everybody was unloaded and we never saw the pangas again.

Moonrise at Playa Chica, Isla Carmen

It doesn't take long to get more attuned to nature and moonrises like this are a big event. The moon was quite full during our trip and the first night out it rose about 7:30 or 8 so it was not a very dark night. The beaches were mostly of gravel and rock.

Every night at sunset little bats would arrive, fluttering around making feint clicking sounds, and feeding on flying bugs. We weren't bothered by the bug or the bats however. We were introduced to 'field margueritas' made without ice. They were a pretty good alternative to the beer which was cooled in the sea.

Aaron and Dave Paddling

Aaron and Dave the intrepid paddlers. Most of the other 8 members of our paddling group had some experience, but we had none. Apparently skill counts, since others were effortlessly gliding ahead of us while we labored with our paddles. It turns out one is supposed to do more pushing than pulling, so the hand you would pull with acts more as a pivot. Although we were told this early on, it took a bit of practice to get the hang of it. Most of the kayaks were 2 person, fiberglass, about 18 feet long, and with rudders controlled by the rear paddler.

Kayaks at Sunken Ship, Isla Carmen

This shot shows one of the two foldable kayaks. They are easier to transport, but they sure looked like a lot of trouble to assemble. They are also a bit heavier and were given to the more experienced paddlers. There was one one-man kayak, and our lead guide Neil usually took this one. In this shot we are examining a partially sunken ship.

Cactus Garden at Salt Plant, Isla Carmen

On our second day out (Tuesday) we paddled north to a bay in Isla Carmen where there is a defunct salt plant. There is a dry salt lake nearby according to the map, and I suppose that was their source. We looked around in the ruins of the plant for awhile and swam in the clear water at the beach there. The water is saltier than Pacific Ocean water. Whoever ran the plant in the past loved cacti and planted them in various gardens. This shot is of some cacti planted unusually close to the water in kind of a zen garden look. I thought it was cool.

Horticultural Garden, Abandoned Salt Plant

Amid the ruins of the plant was this elaborate horticultural garden, planted solely in cactus, some of which were dying for lack of water. The garden had been a labor of love for someone, putting little signs on the plants and laying out paths. Although impressive, it was a bit depressing in its desolation.

Aaron and Kayaks at Isla Carmen

This is Aaron in full kayaking regalia. The red life preservers were inflatable and in their deflated state were quite comfortable. I don't recall the official name for it, but the blue 'skirt' Aaron is modeling fits around the cockpit of the kayak so waves don't get into the boat.

Approaching Sea Cave

On Wednesday we packed up camp, cramming in all into the kayaks and headed south to a sheltered cove about 4 hours away. When the kayaks are loaded, it takes about 8 people to lift them off the beach and into the water. On our paddle south we stopped at a sea cave (shown here).

In Sea Cave

Here we are inside the cave. It was shady and cool, big enough for us to all get in and to turn around.

Sunset on Isla Carmen

Sunset at the sheltered cove. At this beach, between tides when there was no sound of waves, we could hear whales blowing in the distance. I could hear them at night while laying in our tent. It's remarkable to hear the giant exhale, followed by a brief inhale. They do this a few times then dive down deep for several minutes. At this beach we also saw about five dolphins swimming together, fairly close to camp.

Aaron on Danzante Island

Aaron with his new straw hat. My hat was pretty goofy looking, with the drapery around the back and the huge bill in front. But both hats worked well to keep off the sun. This picture was taken on Danzante Island. The plants on the islands are all hardy fellows, most with thorns of one kind or another, and tiny water-conserving leaves if any. Quite a few cactus also.

On the paddle to Danzante, some of the group saw a manta ray jump out of the water. We all turned in time to see the splash. But we were delighted when he did it again when we were watching. He was about 2 1/2 feet wide and quite close. Some of our group saw a school of manta's cruising below.

The Hikers in Repose

On Danzante a few of us hiked up to a ridge and were rewarded with a nice view. The hikers here are Wendy, Soliel, Janet, and Aaron. The wildlife was varied on Danzante Island. There was an osprey nest nearby and we saw an osprey perched on top of a tall cactus eating a fish. In camp there were bold little mice trying for scraps and hoping for spilled food. There were scorpions too. We saw just enough to make us careful.

View from Ridge on Danzante Island

Here's the view from the ridge we hiked to on Danzante.

We had spent the morning paddling around the island. We stopped at a place called Bahia Onda (wave bay) for lunch and snorkeling. Aaron and I borrowed wet suits to bring with us since we had been warned the water was cool. It was good snorkeling at this spot and we were glad to have the wet suits so we could stay in the water longer. Other snorkeling attempts had not been as good due to algae or other cloudiness in the water. On our paddle back we saw whales fairly near our kayaks. We diverted and tried to get closer but it's pretty difficult. Most of the whales we were seeing on in the Sea of Cortez were finback whales. We could see their shark-sized dorsal fins, looking quite small on such big creatures. Neil thought that some of the whales we were seeing were Minke whales due to their smaller size. Two of these surfaced very near to Todd and Lisa's kayak.

Neil Serving his Souffle

This is Neil, the lead guide and chef. He's serving souffle. He and the other 2 guides did all their cooking on two camp stoves and they have two little ovens that fit on the stoves in which they put together some amazing meals. One night we had a great cheesecake, baked from scratch.

Sunset on Danzante Island

Sunset on Danzante Island. We are looking westward with the Baja peninsula in the background, not very far away. On this evening we saw several whales as they swam around in the narrow passage between the island and Baja. We also saw a little troop of three dolphins, who came close to our beach but not very close to us. It was a busy evening because when it got dark (the moon was rising well after 9PM) we could see sparkles of light in the lapping waves. It was bio-luminescent algae, which emits light when disturbed. Some of our group put on a light show for us with synchonized pebble tossing. Bigger rocks tossed in cause glowing all the way down until it fades a second later. Then for the grand finale, a UFO.

At about 8PM, looking west, we saw a fireball coming down from north to south at about a 30 degree angle. A trail of glowing gas grew behind it and continued to grow (and glow) as it descended. After about 3 or 4 minutes it either fell behind the horizon or burned out, but the cloud of glowing gas remained for another few minutes. Quite a show. We speculated that it was space junk falling out of orbit, and the glowing was caused by illumination from the sun below the horizon from our view.

Todd's Birthday Cake

Here is Lisa presenting Todd with the birthday cake the guides baked. To keep it a surprise it had been hidden in Neil's kayak. Neil later found a mouse in the kayak cleaning out frosting that had fallen off.

The Whole Group (except Dave)

These are our paddling buddies. It was a jolly group and we all seemed to get along well. Neil told of the 'guests from hell' on another trip he had guided. But we seemed an amiable group.

At the back, left to right: Jan and Franklin - seasoned kayakers from Sausalito, CA. and besides Aaron and I, the only other Americans in the group. Neil the guide and chef from Victoria BC, and one of the few like myself who admits to being a fan Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Todd, from the wilds of British Columbia, who turned 30 on the trip and had just completed his Masters in the natural sciences. Pato, the local guide from a town near Magdelena Bay and youngest of the group at a very accomplished 19.

In the middle row, left to right: Wendy, an ER nurse from Vancouver. Aaron, molecular biology researcher from LA area in the penultimate week of a 3 month vacation taken to work on a novel. Lisa, wife of Todd, and also a naturalist. She could identify all the bugs and birds and assigned 3-letter acronyms when necessary (e.g., LBJ for little brown job).

In the front row are: Diane, a children's therapist from northern Vancouver Island. Libby, an opthamologist, friend and neighbor of Diane, and charming woman. Soliel, the third guide, originally from Manitoba, athletic, energetic, and one of the French speakers in the group. Janet, originally from Quebec, now living in Toronto and working as a program director for the YMCA. When Janet and Soliel paddled together they sang French songs and sounded pretty authentic.

Diane and Libby with Gorilla Head in Back

Diane and Libby on our last day as we left Danzante Island and headed back to Baja. In the backgound is 'gorilla head rock'. Well, it looks like one to me.

Paddling in Fog

We headed back in a thick fog. Apparently this never happens in the Sea of Cortez and navigation is always by having your destination or landmark in sight. On this morning Neil had to dig out a compass and map and plot the course for our destination. I took this picture as it was clearing up and Baja was coming into view.

Trigger Fish from Shore, Beach near Puerto Escondido

We stopped at a secluded beach on Baja and spent some time just looking into the water. It's alive with fish, starfish, urchins, and lots of other little fellows. These are trigger fish we could see from shore. There were about 30 of them, about 15 inches long, with bright orange fins, dark black/blue body, and a bright white vertical stripe.

From this spot it was about a 1/2 hour paddle to Puerto Escondido. A few sailboats were anchored in this sheltered harbor. We pulled the kayaks out of the water for the final time and had lunch. The paddling company's van and trailer picked up the kayaks, and taxis picked us up for the 20 minute ride back to Loreto.

That night we met for dinner, and afterward it felt kind of odd to be parting from people to whom we had grown attached over the past days. The next day was windy and dusty. There were whitecaps on the water and dust clouds blowing in the streets. We headed home.

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