Up Close in Mexico’s Galápagos

The following article was originally published in Islands Magazine.

There we were, smack-dab in the middle of a blue whale’s footprint. “Can’t we stay here until it’s completely gone?” I all but begged, wanting to prolong the stillness and wonder of lingering in that shimmering, ever-widening pool on the surface of the sea. But Kirk was already motoring out of the footprint’s circle, adjusting the speed of the skiff so as to arrive, just at the perfect moment, at the spot where he thought the whale would surface next. Suddenly we were right on the behemoth, so close that I imagined I could reach out and touch it. Perhaps I could even jump aboard its enormous arched back and ride the big blue into the depths, leaving behind yet another footprint to broaden and disperse under the Baja sky. Then reality took over. Whew! When whales blow, the smell is really, really fishy. “You’re looking awfully small out there:. Capt. Rod Dufour’s voice crackled over the radio from the wheelhouse of the Safari Spirit, the expedition yacht from which we’d launched our skiff.

I was on an eight-day journey that would voyage 125 miles – “will lots of squiggles added,” according to Captain Rod – into the 750-mile-long Sea of Cortés. I had stepped at La Paz, where Megan Pearia, the youngest member of the Spirit’s youthful six-person crew, showed me to my stateroom. “Call ma Urchin,” she said with a smile and a toss of the pigtails that made her look very young, indeed. “Captain started calling me that, and it stuck.”

Urchin closed the door, leaving me to appreciate my stateroom, which was as big as my bedroom at home, with an attached marble-clad bathroom, plenty of drawer space, and a closet that was still half empty after I’d hung everything up.

With my stuff stowed, I set off to explore what else my floating home for the week had to offer – all four decks of it, complete with a comfy salon, a dining room with a long table already set for dinner, a small library with a sweeping view over the bow, and a hot tub on the bridge deck. The sleek Spirit packs a lot into its 105-foot length, and on this cruise there were just seven passengers aboard to enjoy the six-stateroom ship.

Plenty of space coupled with casually elegant surroundings doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing, however – a lesson I learned as we headed out the next morning against a hearty wind that kept insisting we stay in La Paz. Wind and waves increased as we began to cross the San Lorenzo Channel, a rough passage that turned more than one passenger green. Staggering to my stateroom, I flopped down on my bed’s flowered coverlet, which had already been tucked tidy by Urchin, to hug my plentiful pillows and pray, dear lord, that I might feel better or die.

Two hours later, the waters of the channel smoothed and we found ourselves surrounded by cavorting dolphins as Captain Rod burst out of the wheelhouse to exclaim, “Doncha love ’em?” Seasickness forgotten, we found ourselves bumping into each other as we ran from one side of the yacht to the other. “There’s more over there!” “And there!” “And there!” So it was that we entered the world’s newest sea.

A mere 15 million years ago, a rift in the San Andreas Fault wrested a gnarled finger, the Baja California peninsula, from the mainland. The ocean rushed in and islands appeared, some rearing up through the crack in the earth’s crust, others left behind as debris in the northward drift. A few are sizable, others rocky islets barely able to hold their noses above water.

The crystalline waters of the narrow sea team with an astounding array of life, a little-visited Galápegos-like treasure trove of indigenous and, in some cases, endangered and unique species. The entire Sea of Cortés and its islands are designated today as a special Biosphere Reserve; gathering ocean creatures is prohibited, and beach access is highly restricted.

Things had been different in 1940, as I learned during my first night aboard while leafing through John Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez, a slender little volume I’d come across in the ship’s library. Steinbeck wrote of accompanying his longtime friend marine biologist Ed Ricketts (“Doc” in Cannery Row) on a collecting expedition in the fauna -rich sea. Not only would we be traversing the very same waters as Steinbeck and Ricketts, but in the very same month, March.

Steinbeck’s description of unbridled collecting of brittle stars took my breath away. “Here they were, mats and clusters of them, giants under the rocks. It was simple to pick up a hundred at a time….On the reef, there were…anemones and cucumbers, urchins, and a great number of giant snails, of which we collected many hundreds.”

“It’s wonder there’s anything left!” I commented to Heather Peterson, a marine-conservation biologist who was the trip’s expedition leader. Heather and I were paddling along the shoreline of Isla Espiritu Santo; nearby, the Spirit lay at anchor in an idyllic cove. Gazing down into the clear water, Heather pointed out a still-packed aquarium of creatures – starfish, sea cucumbers, urchins, anemones, schools of darting needlefish, a passing rainbow wrasse. Exposed rocks were “ferocious with life,” the uppermost rocks swarming with sally lightfoot crabs, so named for their ability to scurry out of harm’s way on surprisingly quick tippy toes, which saved them 62 years ago from being hauled off for wholesale pickling.

Espiritu Santo, one of the sea’s larger islands, lies but 18 miles north of La Paz, yet is wild and remote. Its buff-colored cliffs of banded stone, eroded into flutes, curtains, and arches, give way to irresistible white sand crescents lapped by water the color of peacock feathers. A 2,000-foot-high spine marches down its center, cut here and there by deep arroyos.

Manning the skiff was Kirk Hardcastle – first mate, engineer, gifted naturalist – as we skimmed across the water for a close-up look at the island’s cliffs and inlets. Birds – herons, frigates, terns, egrets, cormorants, yellow-footed gulls, blue-footed boobies – soared, dived, and regally stood guard. Dozens of brown pelicans flapped over the water, fishing exactly as Steinbeck had described: “flying along and then folding their wings and falling in their clumsy-appearing dives, which nevertheless must be effective, else there would be no more pelicans.”

By day three, life on board had already taken on a rhythm. Of the seven passengers, I was always the second one up in the morning, after Steve from Idaho, whose interest in the sea began and ended with what ho could view through the lenses of his many cameras. At dawn he was off in the skiff, having inveigled Kirk to drop him on some nearby rocky perch so that he could catch the sunrise, the birds in early morning, the light hitting theSpirit.

In the salon, soft music would be playing, chosen by Shawn Sisson, who was in charge of all creature comforts; it was a gentle way to ease into the day. Hello to Shawn and the a peek into the kitchen to see what Chef Dave was mixing up for breakfast. Banana pancakes? Tempting but fresh fruit, juice, muffins, and coffee were waiting on the sideboard, and the sunny aft deck was an inviting place to begin the day. Surrounded by my breakfast, I would pull out the workbook I’d brought along – Spanish 10 Minutes a Day – hoping that sailing Mexican waters would give me a linguistic push.

Fortunately, next out of bed would be Jim from Mexico City, who good-naturedly offered himself as a sounding board for the ten minutes of conjugations and vocabulary I’d just pushed into my head.

Each day included the “squiggles” Captain Rod had promised, as something interesting popped out of the sea, or an irresistible cove for snorkeling or a shore for exploring appeared.

On Isla Partida, Espíritu Santo’s neighbor, Heather led the way into a deep arroyo, through colorful pockets of wild daisies, blue morning glory, purple nightshade, and pink-flowering spurge. She was looking for new species to add to the Plant Life List in her “museum”. Heather, who cheerfully described herself as a frustrated third-grade teacher, had all but taken over the ship’s aft deck with her collections of seashells and found oddities, along with colorful charts such as the one describing the differences between sea lions and seals, and an ever-changing posting of Spanish words and phrases under the heading “Colorful Espanõl.” Pay dirt for Heather this was a sprig of manzanilla amarilla.

We shuffled ashore from the skiff onto Isla San Jóse at a spot where Steinbeck’s boat had anchored. “Remember to do the shuffle!” Kirk always admonished as we jumped off to wade ashore. a maneuver designed to scare off any puncturing, stinging, or otherwise ill-mannered critter lurking about. Once on shore, we walked through a cactus forest of towering cardon, teddy-bear cholla, prickly pear, candelabra-shaped candelilla, and a host of others. When we returned to the skiff, Kirk, who had the uncanny ability to spot strange and wonderful underwater creatures, was cradeling a California sea hare in his hands. “See, it does look like a rabbit.” He said, of what struck me as merely a green-gray blob. “It’s crouched down, ears not yet grown.”

One of our walks ended with a surprise beach picnic, complete with seven folding chairs and a cloth-draped table set up to face the sea. Lunch arrived on the skiff, Shawn managing to hop off while balancing a plate of fruit on his head and looking for all the world like a chubby male version of Carmen Miranda. From an ice chest, Chef Dave brought forth a platter of focaccia sandwiches – chicken marinated in lime layered with slices of ripe tomato and leaves of sweet basil. Homemade potato salad, brownies, Shawn’s fruit, and a fine California chardonnay rounded out the picnic.

Other “squiggles” brought us to extraordinary snorkeling spots. Pulling on wet suits, we jumped off the skiff to glide over beds of coral, where we spotted scurrying yellowtail surgeonfish, king angelfish, a slender sea pen. Heather dived down to retrieve a chocolate chip sea star, well-named if one disregarded its multiple arms. Back at the yacht, Shawn greeted us, as if on cue, with a plate of just-baked chocolate-chip cookies.

Now it was time to go swimming with sea lions. I’d become increasingly iffy about the experience after talking with my sister before leaving on the cruise. “Doesn’t sound so great to me!” she’d said, concerned questions of sea-lion sanitation. With the ship anchored nearby, we skimmed across the water toward Los islotes, a pair of islets inhabited by a rookery of hundreds of sea lions. With the rookery about evenly divided between those barking hoarse encouragement from the rocks and those slithering into the water, everyone aboard the skiff jumped in – except me.

That night, after dinner, we watched a tape that Urchin had made underwater that day. Sea lions performed a cavorting ballet, streaking around swimmers in great curving swoops, giving a playful nudge here, a nip at the flippers there. It looked like such fun, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wished I had jumped in.

With one day left on the Sea of Cortés, our goal was to reach La Paz by puesta del sol – Spanish for “sunset,” as we learned from Heather’s “Colorful Espanõl” vocabulary list. But an extravaganza of whales intervened, and we zoomed off in the skiff, trying to catch up with that one over there, oh my gosh right there! Then dolphins appeared, hundreds of them playing all around us. Racing to keep pace in the skiff, Kirk clocked one pod at 25 mph. Suddenly, as the Spirit headed toward San Lorenzo Channel, we were encircled by Pacific mantra rays skimming like kites through the sea, then leaping out of the water, their undersides gleaming like giant silver handkerchiefs flung into the sky.

We anchored that night within sight of La Paz, glowing in low profile across the channel. Before turning in, I headed for the hot tub, where I liked to let the happenings of the day soak in. With the jets turned off (the better to hear the surrounding silence), I looked up at the sweep of stars in the blue-black sky. I found my thoughts returning to The Log of the Sea of Cortez. “One thing had impressed us deeply on this little voyage,” Steinbeck wrote. “The great world dropped away very quickly.

Not so, John Steinbeck, I thought. The great world was where I’d been.

View more information on this Sea of Cortez itinerary…


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