Whale Encounter

There is not much to compare the whale shark to on land. I don’t believe there is much to compare it to in the water either. This creature stands on alone. Thor Heyerdahl from his epic trip across the pacific on a raft, described it in his book Kon -Tiki, as the most hideous “thing” he had ever encountered.  As I float in the water, barely a foot away from a whale shark, my mind is still trying to figure out what to make out of this 25-foot long fish. I have been in water with great white sharks, dolphins, sea lions and whales, and every time I looked into their eyes I saw something, I felt a presence.  This whale shark feels like a cartoon character. His size, needless to say, is impressive. His shape, the one of shark, however, is threatening. His army of pilot fish is definitely a testimonial of his status in the world of oceans. Yet, with his mouth opening wide, gulping planktons by the gallons and his eyes at least 4 feet away from each other, this is by far the most bizarre encounter I have ever had. His eye is glassy and lacks any depth. It barely moves, even when there is a human swimming right next to him.

Besides the voice, which vocalizes thoughts and desires, the eyes are the most communicative part of our body. And we humans constantly communicate with them. Our subconscious gathers more information by looking into the eyes of another person than from any other part of the body. It is by no accident that we say eyes are windows to the soul.  When there are no eyes to look into, we switch our focus and look at the shape, or other parts from which we can gather information and interpret what we are seeing. The eyes of the whale shark next to me are each about 5 inches wide. This species has roughly the same eye size to length ratio as humans do. Yet, I can’t connect. I can’t seem to feel it. My mind is perplexed by the failure to connect the dots. As if there were simply no dots to connect. This shark could be a giant jellyfish and there would be no difference.

Once I have accepted this new fact of life, I am no more this analytic species, but rather a big kid swimming with a giant fish. I dive below him and pretend to be a new member to his float of escorts. I tuck by his pectoral fin and pretend to be one of the remoras. I suddenly feel like a kid playing in the sand with a giant Tonka truck. I count the white dots on his back. I swim next to his head and open my mouth wide, imitating him. I dive again and again looking up, mesmerized at the huge silhouette, defined by a high sparkling noon sun. After a while, I feel it is time to give this apologetic creature his quietness back and watch as his tail, about my size, pushes forward and slowly disappears in the blue.

Punta Chivato

Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you gonna get!” That scene from Forrest Gump plays in my head as I sit at the point, watching the sunrise over the Sea of Cortez, spouts of blue whales out in the open leaving me with a small feeling of jealousy, wishing I had a way to reach them. Still, I could not ask for more. During a stay at Angel Azul B&B in La Paz, during the kayaking trip with AMG (Alaska Mountain Guides), I met one of the owners of a development in Punta Chivato, a point just north of Bahia Concepcion in the Sea of Cortez. After looking at my book, the gentlemen asked if I would be interested to visit the location and photograph it. They were opening a small hotel and were in need of a bank of images. I was just about to leave sailing with Hayden and had not bought my flight for Argentina. I told the man that I could do it upon my return from the sea. That evening, we shook hands and agreed on the terms. My friend Hayden was about to grace me with his hospitality for the next ten days, I didn’t hesitate one second and invited him to tag along.

The east coast of Baja California is majestic and dramatic. Squeezed between the Sierra de los Gigantes and the Sea, the land is a mix of desert and oasis. The sea brings moisture and the red mountains act like a giant heating system. There is more green in this landscape than you would expect; a forest of thousands of cactuses. Dried riverbeds lined with palm trees, orange trees and mango trees. Somehow, the flora has evolved and succeeded in surviving this extreme environment. It is almost deceptive and for a moment you forget how harsh this arid place can become when the wind dies and the sun toasts the soil like a giant oven.

The hotel faces south, looking into the mouth of the Concepcion bay. About two miles offshore, three small islands hold refuge to a broad range of life forms. One hosts a colony of sea lions, another hosts a colony of terns, and the last one, the biggest of the three, is the domain to an osprey. To the west is a point, made of black twisted striated rock and has an almost lunar aspect. Around the point are a series of beaches offering amazing snorkeling. All around are hordes of brown pelicans and Heermann’s gulls. Several ospreys patrol the waters. On land, finches and orioles fill the air with their melodies. The bushes are homes to lizards and black-tailed jackrabbits with their tall big ears. Elephant trees, Cordon cactuses and numerous others complete the scenery.

The first days were spent driving around to neighboring towns. The wind was blowing strong from the north and the sea was too agitated to go kayaking. We drove to Santa Rosalia, an old French mining town, with the original 100 year-old refinery open as a museum. The hill populated with plantation-like houses, much like the ones found in New Orleans, was a reminder of the origin of the early settlers. Mountains of slag, byproduct of melting copper, still dominate the view. Later in the afternoon, we drove all the way up a mountain on a tiny cobblestone paved road. Both Hayden and I were perplexed by how such labor had been invested for such an unfrequented road. We got the answer much later when we were told that these kinds of roads needed the least maintenance, the water during the hurricane season simply rolling down and leaving the road fairly intact. It was during that drive that we saw a couple of roadrunners. Although I looked for him, the coyote was nowhere to be found!!

The next day we drove to Loreto, down south, and headed for the mountains, our destination was the Mission of San Javier. This mission is one of the most important in Baja and is still visited by thousands of people during the pilgrimages. The backcountry had amazingly several dried up rivers with hundreds of ponds filled with still water. Little forests of palm trees were scattered around, contrasting the red cliffs. Small creeks seemed to flow from nowhere, producing lush greenery along their banks.  Paintings from early natives decorated the walls, their meanings left to our own interpretation, were proof that this place had been a hub of life for centuries.

The rest of our stay was spent kayaking around, snorkeling or exploring the land. We would wake up at sunrise and watch the dolphins play in the bay. Some mornings, they would simply pass by without making much wake. On others, they would be more playful and jump around. Every time we felt so privileged, able to watch this big ball of fire rise above the sea, while the dolphins graced us with their acrobatics.

Pelicans were another subject of our fascination. Masters of gliding, these birds are simply amazing. Barely inches above the water, their wings fully extended, they float on that thin layer of warm air. They form squadrons, sometimes with up to 50 individuals, all lined up. No one will start flapping its wings before the leader does. And when he does, it creates this chain reaction, a mini wave of perfect aerodynamic engineering.

There was a Great Blue Heron stationed in front of the hotel. There was an osprey couple nesting at the top of a navigating tower, up the beach. There was another one down by the boat ramp, their nest up an electricity pole. More than once, on our way to breakfast, one of them would be perched on a big wooden structure, holding a big fish, obviously proving the mastery of his realm. It was stunning to see him one day flying with a yellowtail, about his length in size, tightly gripped between those huge black claws. For this bird to catch such a fast and big fish was just another confirmation of his apex predator status. From time to time, exploring the cliffs, either from above or below, a kingfisher would be quick to fly away, always eluding our sight… and my camera. A group of four ravens, one afternoon, gave us an amazing show. Whether they were courting in the air, or simply playing, they would fly after each other, turn upside down, plunge a hundred feet at full speed and come right back up just a couple of feet off the ground. They would glide their way back up and proceed to do it again, and again. Their prowess leaving us in awe. We would spend hours with our heads down studying the tide-pools, scanning for critters. Those miniature ponds, sheltered from the sea, dug in the rock, hold a surprising wide range of life: tiny transparent shrimps, anemones, soft corals, countless hermit crabs, long zebra worms, tube worms, sea slugs of stunning colors and many kinds of tiny fish animated those mini waterholes.

On our last morning, we witnessed another incredible phenomenon. The day had started like it had the day before; quiet waters and pink sky. But out in the open, a wall of clouds was stretching for miles and was coming toward us fast. It didn’t look like a typical storm. In fact, that line of clouds was perhaps only a hundred yards high, and above it, the sky seemed undisturbed. It was only when our faces were almost in it that we realized what it was. A huge fog system rapidly trapped everything in its way. The world became white and the visibility plummeted down to barely 20 feet. It is fascinating how a world of long distances can be reduced to the size of closet, with no point of references, all within minutes.

Our stay was coming to an end and we felt we had only scratched the surface of all the secrets Punta Chivato has. But like anything in life, the best never reveals itself at once. So it was with happy hearts and smiling faces that Hayden and I drove south, by the sea, through the mountains and back to La Paz where the next day we were flying away.

My time in Baja California has been absolutely incredible. I came down here originally for ten days and now, after a little over a month, I leave with dozens of new friends, amazing photographs and unforgettable new encounters. This part of the world is filled with so much wildlife and stunning geography. No wonder why Cousteau loved it so much and compared the Sea of Cortez to the World’s aquarium. As for me, now sitting in the plane, looking through the window, the land that I have been kayaking, sailing, hiking and driving, now looking more like a map, I smirk and think at life, and how, when you let it guide you, it will take you to places filled with treasures and loving people. Don’t force it, be like the water and go with the flow.

Sailing Matilda

Sailing earth’s waters has always captivated and fascinated man. The vikings sailed to America way before the Europeans. Peruvians explored and helped colonized the Polynesian islands. Darwin discovered the Galapagos and the Falkands onboard the Beagle. There is something about setting out on this vast blue liquid and only navigate with what nature has to offer – wind. My friend Hayden had sailed down from Los Angeles and I was to meet up with him in LaPaz. His sailing boat is a 1967 29ft Columbia MK II named Matilda. And she certainly bears her name correctly. “Matilda” has its origin in Old German and means “mighty in battle”. She was indeed mighty. Built like a tank, she may have been short, but she was heavy and steady. The plan for the next 10 days was to sail to Isla San Jose and spend time at Isla Espiritu Santo. I was certainly not sad thinking of spending time going back to the “Sacred Island”.

I love being in a marina. To be honest, I love living on a sailboat. It is my dream. There is a sense of freedom that reigns. There is sense of connectivity with nature’s biggest element: water. There is a sense of efficiency where everything, every little square inch, is maximized. There is a sense of community where no matter what your boat’s size is, almost everyone around you is here for the same reasons. Finally, sailing is humbling. It is not up to you. The weather and the winds are your master and you must be flexible. You must be like water and go with the flow. As much as the mountains speak to some people, for me, it is the water, and to live on it, there is simply nothing better.

The winds were pounding on our departure date so we decided to postpone it until the weather was more permitting. Coincidentally, one of Hayden’s sailing friends had fallen in the water while coming back from the island and was lost at sea. The Sea of Cortez is actually known to be one of the toughest. It is often unpredictable and the frequency of the swell can be so short that even a 30-foot boat will have her stern cresting one wave while her bow is smashing another one. That was the case that day. Waves of 20 feet and huge winds called for all marinas in La Paz to close and not allow any boats to leave. It was not long that the community gathered and organized the rescue. It was with great relief that five hours later, at 5pm, the channel 16 on the vhf announced that the man had been picked up by the Mexican Navy. He was safe and was on his way back to La Paz. That night, I was onboard the man’s boat, cheering his rescue.

The days were filled with encounters with dolphins, jumping rays, dinners of fresh fish, amazing sunsets, snorkeling, and music. It was also filled with some memorable bumpy nights, jellyfish stings, and windless days.

It is not until I came here that I learned about flying rays. During my first kayaking trip, what I thought were dolphins jumping, turned out to be modula rays. Sometimes reaching 20 feet in height, it is not rare to see them back flip several times in the air before landing back in the water with a big splash. No one knows for sure why they do it, but hardly any day goes by without the sight of one or several rays winking their big white bellies.

One afternoon, while snorkeling, Hayden was deep below, around 20 feet, when I was busy catching my breath on the surface. He came rushing up and spitting the snorkel out like a mad man, told me that the whales were singing. Blowing up my lungs, I tipped forward and kicked my fins. At about 15 feet, I took hold of a rock and held steady. And there it was. This time, it was much different. It was not the long melody, but rather a complex mix of rolls, high squeaks, loud bumps, and even sometime what sounded like scary scream. Needless to say, we spent a while going back and forth, up and down, listening as much as we could before we got too cold.

Towards the end of our trip, while sailing back from Isla San Jose, we noticed a large group of black fins ahead of us. Those were definitely not dolphins. As we got closer, the mystery just kept growing. We could actually recognize some dolphins swimming amongst them, but we had no idea who the others were. Their fins were bigger and rounder. Our questions were answered when one sky-hopped. A round shiny head rose from the surface and sent us a series of clicks, echo-locating us outside the water like I had never seen before. They were a group of pilot whales. I told Hayden that I was jumping in the water. As soon as I was in, I started to regret my decision. The visibility was barely 5 feet and the water was full of tiny, stinging jellyfish. I hadn’t taken the time to put my top on, so here I was, bare chested, in shorts, getting stung mercilessly. Hayden was not sure what to make of me waiving at him telling him I was coming back on board just when the whales were all around! Since the visibility was so bad, I couldn’t see anything! Back at the boat, Hayden told me to hang in the water a bit more because the whales were coming. He threw me a line to tow me. The wake from the boat acted like a shield and protected me from the jellyfish. Still I couldn’t see anything. I suddenly received a tap on my head and looking up, Hayden told me that one was right behind me.  I turned around frantically and for a mere three seconds this long massive black silhouette was barely 5 feet away from me. To be honest, it was a bit spooky! I could not see the eye or anything else, but only the shape, enveloped in a dark green liquid. And then it disappeared. Breathing heavily, I was looking everywhere. I was filled with excitement, curiosity, joy …. and fear. The whole lack of visibility was getting to me! I decided to get back up in the boat and photograph and film them from the dry. We spent the next 30 minutes with them. They would come by and swim really close to the boat. One male in particular was huge, at least 17 feet. Many of them slapped the water with the tails, over and over. At one point, both dolphins and whales together were sky-hopping and slapping the water.

Dinners were either spent on the Matilda, or on another boat, invited by new or old sailing friends. It is quite common among the boating community that misfortune creates new friendships – a floating sleeping bag or a lost dinghy will turn unknown neighbors into the best drinking buddies. Our meals consisted of fresh fish caught during the afternoon. One night, onboard NordicV, we dined with the crew of Misty Moonlight on snapper and lobster, saturated in butter and garlic. Delicioso!! As if food was not enough to bring happiness, most of the time, after dinner, one would bring the guitar out and there began hours of singing and laughing!

All was not always paradise. Winds turn on a dime and transform a perfect sailing day into a stand still. A perfect sunny afternoon anchored in the most beautiful bay will turn into the bumpiest night where you sleep your toes stuck in cracks, hands on the wall, bracing yourself every minute. Not a day goes by without a bump on the head or on your toes. Spills are daily and bathroom times are no place to ponder. Sitting on the toilet is as comfortable as sitting on tin can in a two square foot closet. Lastly but surely: seasickness. Although I have no trouble on the water, it was not the case for a fellow canine we had onboard. On a particularly afternoon, after a sleepless roller coasting night, the furry four-legged creature threw up twice, a substance that goes way beyond what is permissible to write. Ironically, those moments became the funniest stories!!

On the last stretch back from Espiritu to La Paz, a group of bottlenose dolphins escorted us for a good twenty minutes. Sitting at the bow with those majestic animals two feet, sometime only a foot away, it is hard not to be moved. It is hard not to feel connected. Here you are, looking into the eye of another mammal, living in a different world. The other mammal is also looking into your own eyes. There is no doubt. You scream of joy but they don’t understand. They click at you but you don’t understand them. Yet, in this infinite world, you both share the same place, the same moment, you are connected.

Bahia Magdalena

It is said that their migration is the longest one amongst all mammals. Each year gray whales leave the cold nutritious waters of the Chukchi Sea, above Alaska, and head south to Mexico for breeding. Once called the Devil Fish, because of their resistance when harpooned, the gray whale is a 36 ton baleen mammal, recognizable by a unique set of white scars left by parasites and also by a series of knuckles on their midline, instead of a dorsal fin. One of their favorite destinations is Magdalena Bay, located on the Pacific Coast of Baja California Sur. It was also our rendezvous point with them.

After an amazing time around Isla Espiritu Santo, we loaded the van with our kayaks and gear and drove across the peninsula to Puerto Santo Carlos, one of the major fishing villages on the Bay. After unloading our equipment from the van and loading it again onto the panga, we crossed the channel and set up our first camp on a spectacular sand bar. The bar is part of Isla Magdalena and is what protects the bay from the Pacific. We pitched our tents, walked across the dunes and went for a swim.

The next day, we pushed our kayaks on the mirror like waters of the bay and proceeded towards our first point of interest, the mangroves. Once again, these tress offer amazing protection to a broad range of critters. Several species of herons and egrets were perched on the branches amongst the pelicans, while godwits and whimbrels combed the receding waters for food. We saw dolphins passing by in the channel and on a couple of occasions, whales would spout and disappear, teasing our constantly growing curiosity. In the water, stingrays were a common sight. We set up our second camp site past a Mexican fishing camp and that night, as the sun went down, we sat on the beach with our binoculars and watched dozens of whales spouting and breaching out in the main channel.

The morning held an even more amazing surprise. As the sun rose, a group of at least forty whales were still spouting and breaching. The light was magnificent, reflecting through all these water droplets pushed up in the air through the whales’ blowholes. From our location, it almost looked like the fountain show at the Bellagio in Vegas. The day was certainly going to be a great one!

It didn’t take long to reach our next campsite, tucked in the little rocky bay, just before the Pacific. We were now at the main entrance of the bay, where whales hang out. After setting up our tents and eating lunch, we paddled out around the point and ventured along the high cliffs battered by the Pacific and played in the rock gardens. The force of the Pacific waters was so impressive. On the rocks, the water line would rise up and drop 20 feet, exposing seaweed of amazing colors. The swell would hit the daggered wall and rolled onto itself with great big white breakers. After getting our share of excitement, we decided to paddle back and head towards the middle of the channel and see if we could meet the whales. This short trip would have been impossible if the weather was only slightly bumpy, but for now, it was perfect. Midway through, I looked down in the water and was amazed at what I saw. Thousands and thousands of pelagic red crabs were drifting in the current. Those little shrimp like creatures, are known to be a food source of the blue whale. They congregate in such vast swarms, thick enough that they color the ocean surface red. They also wash ashore and litter the beach by the thousands. Besides tunas, dolphins, rays and pinnipeds feeding on them, birds have been observed to gorge themselves so much that they can’t fly.

Shortly after, a couple of whales were coming on port side. Their blows announcing their presence, they swam towards us and right before our bow, dove and disappeared. They started to play Hide & Seek with us. Showing up in one place long enough for us to try to reach them only to once again disappear. After zigzagging for 20 minutes, we were satisfied and started our way back to camp. The change of tide was coming and we didn’t want to be in the channel when the weather turned.

On the way back, we stopped by a fishing panga and asked if we could buy some fresh calamari. They declined our offer to pay them and handed over a 15-pound piece. Another panga nearby saw the transaction and came over to see if we were interested in buying two fresh yellowtail. Their request for exchange was a pack of oreo cookies! We gladly accepted and kayaked back to camp, gave them the cookies and proceeded to prepare the fish sushi and ceviche style. With only lime juice and cilantro, the ceviche was pure gastronomy.

The next day, we were picked up by panga and spent a couple of hours with the whales. As it turns out, the whales here are less afraid of boats then kayaks. I guess kayaks are too quiet and the whales are not sure what to make of them. Or maybe kayaks are simply not big enough for them to care. Anyhow, it didn’t take long before we were surrounded by at least four whales. Gently bringing their noses within arm’s reach, they floated up like quiet submarines and spouted in our faces. They bumped the boat, waved hello with their flukes and swung their tales on the surface with great force. At some point, the entire boat starting to laugh, looking at me, although I was not sure why. They all pointed their fingers behind me and as I turned around, a giant head slowly sunk back in the water. The whale had sky-hopped right behind me, close enough that if I had turned around, my nose would have touched her, they say! Apparently, her eye was at the same level as mine. It became quite evident that they were having as much fun as we were.