Aug 9, 2016

Redeemed in the Northern Sea?

It’s wilderness so formidable it can turn you inside out
and leave your raw flesh quivering.

Susan Vreeland

Alone again in Las Mujeres
Do expectations change when one has already visited an area?  Are they higher?  Can we still have a ‘neutral’ view of what we now see?  Do we take certain things for granted?  Are we jaded somehow?  Do we romanticize what we previously saw, making it sound better than it really was?

Those are the questions we ponder when we assume we see a lot less wildlife this year, when we think the water is choked with much more kelp and is less crystal clear, etc.  We don’t normally tend to be pessimistic in our thoughts and writings but it has been a little trickier to be that way our third time visiting the Sea.
Same bay from far above...

Our usual morning walk with Nikki - San Francisquito
To prove/disprove what we believe we witness as changes we asked the old timers/locals.
Perfectly preserved dolphin skeleton
No longer in service lighthouse
A few statistics/tidbits we collected seem to prove what we see, a fairly steady reduction of wildlife over the last 5 years.
  • For the past four years, pelicans, the two types of local terns (royal and elegant) and Heermann gulls have had nesting failures due to lack of bait fish (sardine, mackerel, and anchovy), their main source of food.  Dead semi-formed baby birds, still in the ovoid shape of the egg they were in, are found all along the coastline, parents not able to sustain themselves, never mind offspring.  To make things worse, when food is so scarce, many birds turn to eating other birds’ eggs to survive, especially the crafty yellow footed gull.   El Niño and overfishing are, according to scientists, to blame.  There are still Mexicans who try to collect birds’ eggs to sell at the market but scientists are now stationed on many of these nesting islands to keep them at bay.
Sargassum grass nearly all the way to the boat...
  • By now, the sargassum grass (brown kelp like growth that can reach 12 meters!) should have been freed up and gone for at least the pasts two months.  It is still attached to the ground in most anchorages.  Not only is it hanging around for much longer than usual, it is also found in increasing quantities since 2011.  Too much fertilizer leaching from farms?  Different water temperature than the norm?  The Mexican government has forked over $9.1M dollars and employed 4,600 Mexicans to help clean up the stinking mess along the shorelines that is keeping away tourism.
  • At this time of year, most divers only need to wear short diving suits; they are still using their 7mm long suits. 
  • 150 separate individual whale-sharks (identified) had appeared in the Bay of Los Angeles in July, the last few summers.  This year, only 10 so far.
  • Water for the town of Bay of LA is running out much sooner this year.  Not sure where the locals are going to get their portions soon.  People are talking of installing reverse osmosis or desalination systems.  Same goes for the town of Puerto Peñasco.  We cannot even wash our boat for lack of water pressure…  Trucks with empty water tanks are circling the streets at night looking for hoses that could lead them to water...
Oh beautiful Sally Lightfoot

  • The only positive change we heard from the locals/old timers is that the crabs have come back.  They had been completely wiped out for several years.  We witnessed that the other day when we walked about ½ mile of beach and saw literally hundreds and hundreds of them the size of dessert plates or larger.  A new type of crab (to us) was spotted as well, the Sally Lightfoot, pretty in yellow and red. 
Moving on…  By 28 degree north, we are entering the ‘no hurricane’ zone.  If you carry boat insurance, you have to be north of that by hurricane season (July-Nov)…  We are here and it feels like a little ray of hope as wilderness is given slightly more free rein.

Another version of mushroom rock
That we had to go explore
As well as more 'caves'
Torote tree
Our tradition is to look for an anchorage without lights (other than our own).  We finally found such anchorages and can relax and marvel at nature uninhibited.  Of the sights we encountered are:
  • A mother coyote and her pup watching us from 20 feet up a hillside as we, as silently as we can, glide by in our kayaks.  Mom is first to flee to higher grounds, pup a little more curious and less cautious.  She insists it follows and it eventually scampers up the steep hill, still looking at us, as agile as a mountain goat.
  • A hungry coyote walks very close to us, snatching dinner leftovers from a nearby resident’s home on the beach and Nikki starts growling protectively yet fairly quietly.  The coyote moves away towards the water and starts howling and yipping for about 10 minutes, obviously disturbed by Nikki, an unknown canine.  Not sure it was complaining or alerting its coyote compatriots but no other coyotes replied to her lengthy calls.
  • Another mother and pup combination, this time, a mother seal and baby frolicking for hours while feeding and learning to swim.  They are in front of the boat and each time the lighter color baby goes too far from her, or about 6 feet, she corrals it back near her.  They swim in large figure eights back and forth, baby seldom seen, so well protected by mother.
  • More mom and baby combinations in pods of two types of playful dolphins plying the waves created by the 15 knot afternoon winds.  They always keep themselves between babies and onlookers, a beautiful and graceful ballet.
  • A cormorant coming back from a dive, jubilant and proud, with what appears to be a 12-16” yellow eel (or snake) in its beak.  A very curious seagull coming to investigate comes too close and the cormorant has to gulp down its catch quickly.  Following that, it takes it many minutes to actually swallow this large piece of food.  It twists its head and neck this way and that trying to dislodge its lunch.
Stingray grouping of about 50-70 individuals

  • 75-100 small rays stacked on top of one another each evening in one shady corner of the bay.  At first look it appeared to be a very rocky part of the sandy beach but no, all were moving when approached.  Not sure what you call a group of rays…
  • Another type of rays, mobulas (aka flying tortillas by the Mexicans), jumping incessantly around the bay from dawn to dusk.  A game (since no one knows for sure why they do it) we never tire of seeing.  Back flips, belly flops, two hitting each other in mid-air, side kicks and wing flapping.  We never knew they also ‘play’ during the night and were woken up more than once by their energetic hip-hop type of dance sending water mist in the cockpit where we sleep.  Speaking of these rays, slow motion movies of them leaping in the air has revealed that sometimes female rays expel babies in mid-flight.  Not that we have been able to see this but what a way to start your life!  I like one blogger’s description of the sound they make:  “It’s akin to sitting in a pot of popcorn as kernels explode all around you.”  The only problem with spotting them however is that sound doesn’t travel that fast so by the time you hear a POP, the mobula has already disappeared under water, leaving behind only a couple of ripples or white foam…
  • During a fairly windy afternoon, it was interesting to watch which birds flew and which ones didn’t. Frigates seem to be the first ones to disappear at about 25 knots.  Seagulls stayed along the shoreline when the winds hit 30-35 knots.  Pelicans seemed to enjoy gliding in the wind up to about 35+ knots.  They made it look natural and easy.  Boobies still flew but it no longer looked effortless.  They had to work to get food. 
Front of fin whale...
Followed by back... 

  • Three fin whales less than a boat length away, mimicking our speed, as we go up the Salsipuedes Channel.  A little too close for comfort, but not too close for awe…  A mother and baby pair as well as a single much larger one, perhaps a male, but who are we to know.
  • Three pelicans reminding me of the three stooges, making comical faces and gestures as they preen and wait for fish perched on this particular rock when the high tide keeps it disconnected from land and therefore predators.  The moment water is too low to keep them safe, they move somewhere else.  They repeat this daily depending on tides.
Find the night hooded heron

  • Three caves above the water, each one inhabited by a very well camouflaged bird.  One, a tall gray heron, the other two night hooded herons.  They spend hours and hours not moving, waiting for prey.  The only time they reluctantly change perch is when the sun chases them to another shady part of their cave or when I come by kayak to take a picture…
  • Turtles are everywhere, egg laying season just around the corner.  At times it looks like shiny coconuts are floating around the bay but they are turtle heads bobbing slowly. Dozens of sights daily.   We move less than a mile to another part of the bay and we don’t see any more of them.  What is different in this part of the bay?  It seems the mobula rays follow a similar pattern of playing only in one area of the bay.
  • Coyotes know that laying season is approaching and they walk the beach 5 or 6 times a night hoping for turtle eggs and other goodies (crabs, rays, fish)…
  • When coyotes walk the beach during the day, they are taunted by crows and boobies.  They usually retreat under these annoying cawing and reedy calls.  One of them escaped up a hill only to run into an unaware hare and a new chase was on, crows and boobies quickly forgotten.
  • Coyotes used to respond to the sound of panga motors.  They would suddenly appear from nowhere when they heard them approach the beaches.  They had learned that these motors usually meant getting fish rejects from the fishermen cleaning their catches.  We have not seen that this year for there are so few small fishermen left in the Sea.  Will that affect the survival of the coyotes that had been trained to eat this way?
  • A couple of whale sharks, one about 5 meters, the other twice that size swimming near as we were getting ready to anchor.  Two more as we sailed the bay, one nearly colliding with the boat but swiftly swimming under the keel at the last minute then following our wake enjoying mixed up food from the boat’s movement.  Another day, a small unaccompanied baby, a little less than 3 meters long is meandering while we have lunch at anchor.
  • Feeding frenzy explodes around us as we drop anchor further west.  Hundreds of boobies, terns, and a few pelicans, hitting the water simultaneously to catch fish.  Between the various bird calls and the splashes from their brisk entrances in the water, it was deafening.  What started abruptly stops just as suddenly.  We have no clue how they know where the fish is, where it disappeared to.  About an hour later, the same show takes place anew.
Enjoying the shade and the breeze...
  • The other afternoon it was so hot and windy, 7-8 small swallow like birds (brown rather than black and white) hid under our wind-scoop at the front of the boat.  It was cute at first until they started to think of it as their home and soon the boat was covered with guano and they no longer wanted to leave.  We had to ‘make’ them.  Usually people sailing in desert areas worry about being invaded by bees looking for water/food.  We had to worry about birds…  In three years in the Sea we’ve never had bee ‘problems’.

Oh the sound that this made....

  • A huge, I mean huge, blue whale is only 7 meters in front of Déjàlà as we sail up Canal de Ballenas (how appropriately named)…  It is twice as wide as our boat and we never saw both ends of it so couldn’t tell how long it was.  The sound from its blowhole expelling was deafening.

  • A couple of herons are making their mating dance or territorial dance, not sure which.  They puff up their chest, walk back and forth along the waterline flapping their wings wildly, they run-stop-run in erratic directions and squawk as they do all this.  It lasts for a couple of days, usually in the morning.  Quite the show while we have coffee in the cockpit.
Speaking of the Salsipuedes (“get out if you can”) Channel where we saw the fin whales; in the early 1700, Jesuit Father Juan de Ugarte tried to sail his sloop northward between Isla San Lorenzo and the peninsula, but gave up after 20 days of fighting the currents and wind.  Mike read that passage to me as we were at anchor preparing to sail up that channel.  We had sailed it twice before but this early history made me rethink the sanity of sailing it again without a motor…  When we first entered the channel to anchor in San Francisquito Bay, the currents were running at least 3.5 knots across the beam, making it very difficult to steer.  Good thing we had at least 16 knots of wind to plow through this intense ‘river’.  A fellow sailor with motor didn’t make it through and had to wait for slack time before entering the bay.  We made our way up the nearly 20 miles channel in one day thankful the tide was with us most of the way since we had very light winds towards the end…

Finally back around the Bay of Los Angeles (BLA) for about six weeks before we haul the boat out while we visit Australia.  Some of the bay’s coastline has changed since the remnants of hurricane Odile passed through a couple of years ago.  Even the village has suffered some heavy damage.  The only constant is change….
We are noticing something new (to us) this time around when it comes to weather.  The micro-climates that occur around these numerous bays and islands are astounding.  Maybe because we were new before and too busy figuring out our way around we hadn’t quite notice the large variations but this time we can’t believe them.  While we had about 30-32 knots of wind one afternoon, we noticed that the other end of the bay (less than 2 miles away) had no wind at all.  While one end of the bay experiences westerly winds of about 5-6 knots, the other will have 17-20 knots from the NE.  There are multiple examples of this making it a tad difficult to plan a sail.  The other day we sailed about 10 miles to be in a new bay because the weather was pleasant for a day sail.  By the time we had sailed only 7 miles, the winds and swells had picked up so much that we had to turn around and return to where we started from which still had very pleasant winds and fairly calm water.
Anyway, I want to finish on a more educational note and apologize for sounding a little depressed about the conditions we have seen this time around but I am guessing it comes from caring about this place more than we’d like to admit.  However, there is no need to bring you down ‘my’ rabbit hole….  This is a truly amazing place worth a visit.

Seaweed along shoreline

  • The Sea of Cortez is so large that for a very long time it was believed that Baja California was an island.  In 1539, explorer Francisco Ulloa sailed to the head of the Sea, establishing that it was a peninsula, not an island but that fact was soon forgotten.  It was not until 167 years later (1706) that explorer Father Kino via an overland exploration re-established that indeed Baja California was not an island. 
  • The Sea of Cortez was first called the Vermillion (red) Sea by Father Ulloa.  The red coming either from plankton bloom or from the red mud of the Colorado River runoffs. 
  • Hernan Cortés ‘discovered’ the Sea while sailing his ship Concepcion in 1533.
  • 30% of plants are endemic (restricted and unique to a specific geographic area).  It is an evolutionary treasure home to the largest number of endemic species of plants and animals in North America: 3,500 vascular plant species.  
  • 50 species of reptiles are endemic, richest diversity in the world.
  • Most desert plants cannot tolerate fire and do not burn easily.  Unfortunately many introduced plants (invasive or not) burn easily or explode, destroying much of the delicate desert plants.
  • 50% of the world’s blue footed boobies inhabit these islands
  • 50% of the world’s California brown pelicans live here
  • 90-95% of the Heermann gulls mate here then go live in US and Canada
  • 95% of the Elegant Terns use the same areas as the Heermann gulls
  • 5 of the 7 species of marine turtles call this home
  • 1/3 of cetacean species (whales) or approximately 20 visit these waters (fins, gray, mink, sperm, etc.)
  • This area serves as a nursery for the largest of them all, the blue whales (tongues the size of a bus, heart the size of a car)
  • The black throated sparrow is the only North American bird that never has to drink water.  It gets moisture from metabolizing fats and carbohydrates out of seeds. 
  • Kangaroo rats and spiny pocket mice also have no need for water much like the sparrow.  They also have nasal passageways designed to re-absorb vapors coming from the lungs and very efficient kidneys.
  • Some islands contain 2 to 20 times the population of scorpions as the mainland
  • Barnacles have the longest penis or about 40 times the size of their bodies.  Wonder why you see them everywhere (keels, whales, turtles, propellers, dinghies, etc.). OK this doesn’t apply only to the Sea of Cortez – but had to share!

San Marcos gypsum mine
Where they load the boats

  • Three types of mining have occurred on the islands of the Sea: salt, guano and gypsum.  Only gypsum mining is still active on Isla San Marcos.  Thankfully guano mining stopped in the early 1900 so bird populations could recover.  Salt was first used by folks from Alaska to preserve hides (1841-42), it was then sent to San Francisco in the 1850s.  Now instead of salt mining, big horn sheep have been introduced to Isla Carmen for trophy hunting at a cost of $30,000 a head.  Something new for the environmentalists to worry about.
  • A few islands are home to fish eating bats.
  • Giant Humbolt squid are still being fished just outside of Santa Rosalia for a short season.  In one night, 10,000 squids can be caught!  We witnessed how they fish them.  Pangas line up in a single long line and have lights on all night while fishing.  It looks pretty cool for being so destructive.
  • Poaching of (a very small type of dolphin only found here) is being fought with drones observing the activities of the people participating in it.  Arrests are being made in hopes of saving this endangered species.
  • Charles Lindbergh (the aviation hero) was instrumental in protecting this area.  In 1973 he met with President Luis Echeveria’s team to educate them.  By 1978 a decree was issued to protect the islands as wildlife refuges. 
  • In 2005, 244 of the Sea’s 922 islands/islets were recognized as World Heritage site by UNESCO.
  • Home to Isla Tiburon (464 square miles) the largest in the Sea of Cortez and the largest on the Pacific Coast of North America south of Canada.
  • One of the endemic plants that lives here is a 60’ cardon cactus that interbred with a 5’ golden club cactus.  How a giant like this can mix with a small cactus and create a new 12' plant, the pacherocactus!  Nature is awesome.
  • Speaking of cardons, their main trunk grows 2.5-3.0 cm/year while their arms grow 25-30 cm/year, 10 times faster than their trunk.
  • Puerto Penasco was first called Rocky Point.  It first carried an English name.
  • When the village of the Bay of Los Angeles finally got electricity about 7 years ago, a slew of men started complaining about gastric problems.  Turns out they used to drink warm beer since they had very little refrigeration.  Their system wasn’t used to the cold stuff so when they made the switch, their bodies rebelled…  Something to say about Chinese medicine which believes drinking cold is not so good for you...
Adios seagull
Interesting fence ornament...
Anyway – this will be our last season here.  This is where you come to see nature more than culture as there are few people living around.  Many of the places you reach by sailboat don’t even have roads, only animal tracks zigzagging along the hillsides or beaches.  We got attached to the serenity and beauty that nature had to offer and even though we are saddened by the changes, it is a very worthwhile area to visit and enjoy. 
Isla Smith volcano covered with cloud SV Espiritu

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