At Play in the Land of the Giants
Whales look good from the deck of a tourist boat or from a vantage point on shore but up close from a sea kayak they are very intimidating!
The moment I left the shore of Isla Carmen I began to have doubts about my decision to cross to the next island. I had left it very late in the morning to cross to Ilsa Danzanante to my next campsite on the southern end of the island. Though only a crossing of 6 nautical miles, the usual gusty late morning breeze had begun to strengthen and white caps had begun to build and there was a strong northerly current to contend with.
I was crossing back to the mainland after a 6 day solo trip around Ilsa Carmen in Baja Mexico.
For six perfect days I had been captivated by the dry beauty of this paddling paradise. Ilsa Carmen had formed a perfect back drop, this deserted island with its steep mountain spine, salt pans, cactus covered plains down to the sea, cliff-lines, and perfect crescent bays was the stuff that I thought I would only ever read about.
I had paddled the previous week along the coast south of Loreto with an organised tour group based in California. That was fine, the trip was well organised, the food terrific, and the company and night time conversation was good but, there was a distinct lack of adventure. I do not care to have someone in charge, some one who knows what they are doing. The trip goes so smoothly, stuff falls into place and you never end up swimming through shark infested waters.
As outdoors writer, Tom Cahill says, “you never wake up half drowned in some small Mexican village where there are no telephones, no electricity and of course no doctor, you are never nursed backed to health by some dark haired beauty”. No what happens on an organised trip is good clean, safe fun!
For my six day solo trip I started from Puerto Escondido, a marina, south of Loreto and headed across the three nautical miles due east to the islands of Ilsa Danznante and then across to Carmen, which have been called an imitation Galapagos. Contrary to what we imagine by desert plants such as octillos, tawny dusters, palo blancos and spiny chollos cover these islands, proof as some biologists contend that the Sonoron desert in northern Mexico hosts more different plants than any other ecosystem.
Paddling Baja is green coves, eroded islands, a beautiful desert backdrop, the stunning Sierra Giganta mountains that drop precipitously to the sea.
Each day I had seen whales in the distance, there where a number of pods feeding nearby on the rich waters of this part of the Gulf of California, this great arm of the Pacific Ocean is a giant fish trap, a fecund sea in proximity to harsh unforgiving land . It is this contrast that intoxicates the Baja coastal kayaker.
The bird life was fantastic I saw peregrines, herons , large numbers of Pacific brown pelicans and blue footed boobies.
I poked around the abandoned salt mine on the southeastern end of Carmen, tumbleweed bounded down empty streets and I expected any moment to come face to face with one of the regulars from a “spaghetti westerns”.
I quickly fell into a pleasant touring routine, a careful swim (there were no sharks I’d been told “sharks, no problemo”), while the MSR struggled with the local leaded petrol, a quick breakfast of tortillas and bananas, a cup of coffee sitting in the sun while the tent dried, a read of the guide book and a quick pack of the kayak and then off again for six or seven hours paddle along the rocky coast.
Occasionally I could hear whales exhaling, particularly early in the morning when the air was very still or at night when they would come close inshore. Suddenly there were whales right in front to me cavorting and breathing
In Baja whales are numerous, mostly the gray and fin whales- but these were Goliath blue whales. One surfaced right in front of my tiny Sealution seakayak – soon I seemed to be in the middle of a major whale freeway, I could see whales to my front and hear whales behind me. I kept tapping my hull with my paddle, hoping that they might hear my puny noise above their songs and the ambient noise. I thought I might be enjoying the long swim through shark infested waters after all.
I was suitably chastened by the thought of a 60 tonne mammal blasting skyward and launching me and my plastic boat into orbit – this helped me focus on the absurdity of my position, I sat there bobbing on a lumpy sea as six or seven Blue whales and their calves passed majestically by, their long backs arching in perfect curves, breaking the surface in a stylized arc, barnacles and tiny dorsal fins upsetting the streamlined shapes. As soon as I regained my composure and I was reasonably sure the whales had moved on I paddled the next 50 minutes to Ilsa Danzanante non stop. That night once again I could hear whales breathing and breaching very close inshore.
I packed early next morning before the final paddle back across to my pull-out at Puerto Escondido and had gone about 100 meters off shore when there they were again, this time one whale a little way ahead and others surfacing and breathing behind me. This time the whole episode was over in a matter of minutes and suddenly they were gone. What a fitting farewell to a magic two weeks. Paddling in the afternoons after work on Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin will never seem the same again.
I paddled quickly back into the little port inspired by this fantastic farewell and also inspired by the thought of a hot shower and a fabulous Mexican breakfast in Loreto and the start of a long journey home.
Paddling in Baja is terrific!
Mexican travel is cheap, the food is good and nothing like Mexican food sold in Australia. The Peso is worth about seven to the $US and restaurant meals are cheap, 49 Pesos for three courses. Mexicans are nearly always very pleasant and appreciate if you try a word of Spanish or two even if it is only Hola!(hello).
The fisherman who work these coasts are very helpful and can be seen any time of day or night fishing from their big open boats. The Mexican Navy and Federal police patrol the coasts in search of drug runners so help is not that far away in an emergency (sea kayakers don’t seemed to be hassled by their presence).
Good quality sea-kayaks can be hired in Loreto and other towns nearby. Loreto is about one and a half hours flying time from LA and there are good connections from Australia. Loreto a pretty town, founded by the Jesuits as a mission in 1670, is very relaxed and feels safe. There is a good supermarket stocking a familiar range of foodstuffs.
- Baja By Kayak, In Pecked to Death By Ducks, Tim Cavil, Fourth Estate, London, 1993.
- Baja California, Lonely Planets, Melbourne, 1994.
- Into a Desert Place, Graham Macintosh, London,1988.
- Sea Kayaking in Baja, A Romana-Lax, Widerderness Press, Berkeley, 1993.
- Log From The Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck,Pan Books, London,1951.
- Keep It Moving, Baja By Canoe, Valerie Vons, The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1986.
- The Free Republic of Baja in Outside Magazine ,1991,pp 65-71.
- Plus various articles in Seakayaker Magazine, index in current edition.