As a lad I enjoyed exploring the world through the pages of a good book. Arthur C. Clarke lead me on diving adventures off Ceylon and Australia, as well as on a Space Odyssey. Ray Bradbury chronicled life on Mars, and John Steinbeck guided me down Cannery Row. Steinbeck also chronicled a visit to the Gulf of California in his book, “The Log from the Sea of Cortez“, which summarized a 6 week journey of leisurely exploration and specimen collection he and his buddy, marine biologist Ed Ricketts (“Doc”), undertook in 1940s. Steinbeck did not publish the book until after Rickett’s untimely death in a traffic accident, probably motivated to do so as a tribute to his dear friend. Being scientifically inclined, even when quite young, I was fascinated by the story. It was exciting that I would be visiting these same waters almost three quarters of a century after John Steinbeck had!
The Gulf of California, also known as the “Sea of Cortez”, is the body of water separating the Baja peninsula from Mexico’s mainland. It’s an ocean-side desert landscape which contains many small rocky islands with steep cliffs and lovely sandy beaches, surrounded by the rich blue and turquoise waters of the Gulf. The Sea of Cortez is home to a larger variety of plants, fish species and marine mammals than any other place in the world, so Steinbeck and Ricketts had picked a good place to explore. This exotic assortment of living things of every size and shape make it an obvious UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My journey to Mexico was as part of a commercially guided trip, rendezvousing in La Paz, then by boat on the Sea of Cortez, specifically to Isla Espiritu Santo (Steinbeck and Ricketts had also visited this very island and collected marine specimens here). For four days we camped on this island, spending our time kayaking, hiking, relaxing, enjoying a few boat rides, with some snorkeling. But mostly, like Steinbeck and Ricketts, we just took it easy and had a nice time. The camp was fairly primitive but clean and with an excellent staff. They prepared great meals and “happy hour” was much anticipated every day and very memorable (with fresh popped corn and the best “on the rocks” margaritas — no blender out here — I’ve ever had).
Espiritu Santo Island is a pristine island, a National Park with an intact ecosystem. The island is over 22 km long, with a rugged coastline, home to an assortment of birds and small animals like rabbits and lizards. To see a map of it, please click here. It has a fascinating desert flora and fauna, with dozens of endemic plants. The waters around the islands have colonies of sea lions and are rich in sea-life, especially fish. It’s got a reputation as one of the best kayaking destinations in the world. I’m not an expert kayaker but found it easy to get around by kayak, the waters crystal clear and mostly very calm. Gliding over the shallows was much like viewing the underwater world through a pair of goggles, as you could clearly see the colorful fish and corals. And the quietness of kayak lets you closely approach birds and sea lions without spooking them, so I had a grand time exploring the waters around Espiritu Santo. We visited fish camps (seasonal, abandoned when we were there) and did a little beach-combing And I enjoyed the time to wander and take lots of photos of this truly lovely setting. At nearby Los Islotes, we had the chance to snorkel and swim among curious sea lions.
One of my favorite experiences on this trip was an encounter with flying mobulas — a type of manta ray that frequently flips out of the water. Several followed me for about 15 minutes while I was kayaking, a most memorable time as these acrobats flipped out of the water in front of me several dozen times, somersaulting, back-flipping, belly-flopping! I didn’t have a good waterproof camera, so never got images of them, but you can get an idea of what this was like on this great video.
When not on the water, our time was used to read, relax and get to know our guides, staff and comrades. Watching sunsets became a big event, with the beautiful golden-orange light of the setting sun preceding clear star-filled nights (you forget how many stars are out there until you see them in an isolated place). Without electricity you tend to go to bed early and get up to enjoy sunrise. The weather was near perfect. It was one of the most easy going, relaxing times I’ve ever had.
And this was just to be the opening act to the main event, which was to see the gray whales of Magdalena Bay, the topic of my next blog post.
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