Jun 2, 2013

Isla Isabella, the Galapagos of Mexico

I am always doing that which I cannot do,
In order that I may learn how to do it.
Pablo Picasso 

Mike facing his first blue footed booby
I know it sounds trite but many have referred to this place as the Galapagos of Mexico and I’m jumping on the bandwagon, calling it that as well now that we have visited.

Precarious anchorage...
...but beautiful
Two islands just off of Isla Isabella 
But let me backtrack a little and address the trip to get here.  We left Barra de Navidad with fair winds and are amazed that we lose sight of the coastline at only 8 miles out - - - that’s how hazy the air is.  Our first leg of the trip north is uneventful.  We see many turtles, a few dolphins, and millions of jellyfish.  At one point we are in a thick soup of jellyfish, a soup so thick, they are stuck by their tentacles to one another.  It goes for as far as our eyes can see.  We encountered such a smack of jellies twice on the way to Jaltemba where we stop to catch a little sleep.  At night, we are finally welcoming back the twinkling of many stars not visible from the forever misty lagoon.

Turtle following us
One of the turtles we saw followed our boat for quite a while.  It seemed like it was drafting behind us, maybe it was a little easier to swim that way.  We are not sure if what is on its back is a tracking device of some sort or a huge barnacle.  The picture we have of it is not clear enough to tell.

Jaltemba is a tourist beach for Mexicans.  In the tens of thousands of folks we saw over that holiday weekend, we only saw one person from the US who worked at a restaurant on the beach.  We were clearly the only Norte-Americano visitors out here.  When we saw the incredible amount of people on the beach and in the water we fretted that it would be too noisy for us to get any sleep during the night.  Our 18 month experience of such events in Mexico is that crowds like these bring about very discordant and loud music until 3 or 4 am each night.  To our complete dismay, there was no loud music and the little noise there was ended around 8 pm.  What a different place this is!  It had a feel of an old silent movie:  from the boat we could see a huge amount of activity less than 1/8 mile away, yet we couldn’t hear anything matching the activities.  It was quite pleasant yet eerie.  

Unlike other beaches, here the BBQ shrimp on stick are cooked right in front of you rather than having been carried around in the back of a pick-up truck on a dirt road accompanied by drooling dogs and kids…

Walking the beach looking for an internet connection to get our weather forecast we bump into a young boy – probably 8-10 years old.  He asked us what we are looking for and where we are from.  He assumes Canada, not sure why – maybe more Canadians come this way.  I replied that I was from Canada and that Mike is a ‘gringo’ from the US.  At the derogatory term ‘gringo’ the boy looks at me and wants to high five Mike with a huge grin on his face.  He cannot believe we are using that term to describe ourselves.  He gets a giggle out of it and leaves us shaking his head.

If it weren’t for the plastic bottles holding up nets and marking other underwater fishing items, there would be much more garbage on the shores of Mexico!  Recycling is in its infancy here.  It has a way to go.  From our sailor perspective, how do you tell an empty Coke bottle as a marker from one just floating around? 

Alone for miles, only a jet streaming high overhead, when you see this vast expanse surrounding us it is hard to imagine how it comes to be over-fished/over-harvested. The exception is jellyfish (which some chefs are working very hard at finding ways to make appetizing so it too can start being harvested).  From my readings I learned that turtles eat jellies.  No food shortage there!
Our first booby up close...
Afternoon thunderclouds are rising over the mountains as they did last year at this time.  Rainy, humid season is upon us, it will be nice to be in the dry heat of the Sea of Cortez.  We get a few sprinkles as we near Isla Isabella – the first in a very long time.  

On the rocks - how can you miss those feet!
So back to the Mexican Galapagos…  Here the water is clear to at least 25 feet – our anchor visible from the boat which is good because this is considered a fair anchorage – not too much sand coverage over rock.  It is easy to drag and you have to ensure good holding - - -

Wet booby - just coming back from a dive
The famed Jacques-Yves Cousteau is the person who called this island the Galapagos of Mexico after his visit here.  Not surprising once you meet with the birds, the iguanas, and the land here. 
A pair of boobs
Look at me fly - - -
There are birds virtually everywhere – rocks, trees, clumps of grass, stumps, logs, crevices, edges, etc.  All have hatched and these newcomers are in the various stages of dawn to feather ratio – some all fluff, other halfway fluff/feather, others learning to fly but barely making it.  The ones who are learning to fly scramble with difficulty over the rocky volcanic soil to avoid us.  We try very hard to not disturb any of them but it is nearly impossible.  Parents are still protective of the young when they are present but most of them are out fetching the precious calories needed for rapid growth.  It’s a good thing we weren’t here around Easter when the nests were still full of eggs or new hatchlings for it was then impossible to roam around the island without being attacked.  

We learn that at one time there were pineapples and bananas growing here – the bananas were so delicious that they tasted like strawberries.  In 2009 when the university took over the management of the island it took out all that was not native: rats, cats, pineapple and banana.  We can see the remains of a few of the trees left in a small clearing.  The crater lake is very green due to the lack of oxygenation and the high content of nitrogen brought on by all the bird guano. 

We are told that at the beginning of the rainy season the water around the island becomes very murky due to the guano runoff.   
'Green' footed booby (brown booby have greenish feet)
Another 'green' footed booby
Listening to the sounds of the birds I finally understand what someone once described to me as a reedy bird call.  Boobies make this type of call seemingly in an attempt to chase you away if you get too close… It’s like someone blowing in a hollow bamboo stick – it’s kind of soothing.  We see many blue footed boobies and for the first time some green footed ones (actually called brown boobies).  We visit some areas of the island 3-4 times and each time find the same boobies in the same locations.  After only a couple of times of seeing the same ones I already start to recognize them and their particular personalities. 

Frigate chick - it stayed in same position for hours with no shade, waiting for parent.  
I don’t know how the little ones manage to not fall out of the nests they have in the trees (frigates) while waiting for parents to feed them.  These nests are merely just small platforms or perches.  We see very few dead specimens – and the few we see are mostly of adult size bones and feathers stuck among branches.  We watch a frigate seemingly in mourning next to the body of a dead one.  It is there for the 2 days we are visiting the island. 

Frigate in mourning of dead one for at least 2 days
Easier said than done to take picture of one of these lizards
Lizards are also abundant - - - we even watch one catching a live cockroach and quickly carrying it away when it sees me approach with my camera.  Dead leaves give them away as they make a lot of noise when they scurry on them.  A young man walking with us catches one and shows me that if you turn them upside down and rub their belly, the lizard slowly relaxes, opens its mouth, and seems to go to sleep.  It’s quite amusing to see – reminds me of the Geico insurance commercial character.

Three tail iguana (hard to see)
Iguanas seem to like the tallest trees to rest in the afternoon.  At first you think the trees are naked but once you start looking closely you start to make out (a la search for Waldo) the several iguanas camouflaging as branches…  They also love rock walls and drainage systems (pipes, gutters, etc).

Needless to say – beware what you walk under around here - - - there are poop dispensers above your head just about everywhere - - - splat – one got me good – thankfully I have a hat and glasses.

Students have a very minimally furnished camp here – they come to study plants, birds, or marine life.  The government had the intention at one time to open this island as an international educational research center – the building they erected for this is all is left of that dream.  Nearly all the birds we saw were banded and nesting areas were numbered and color coded.  They have had researchers here for the past 10 years and they have tracked a pair of boobies having babies for these whole 10 years.  

Some fishermen also camp here – they live in tin huts with very few if any luxuries.  They built a very small chapel that they keep very clean and votive candles nearly always burning.  The island is at least 40 miles from the nearest city so it is very remote. 
Line of tin huts - fishing camp
Small spotless chapel
In the evening when we enjoy our wine and dinner in the cockpit we watch as hundreds of birds return home to their offspring – some in V formation, others alone.  And the cycle continues.  The little ones start voicing off to let their parents know where they are.  We watch a chick fighting its parent for food right away – the parent takes its time.  The chick becomes really agitated.  The parent finally regurgitates the precious food and we are lucky enough to see it happen.  Dry lightening is brightening the mainland’s horizon.  It almost seems like the Gods are taking picture of what is going on down here.

At edge of tall cliff - see little one under mom lower left
Feeding young one finally!

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