Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Dispatch 14: Beneath the Surface

April and May, 2006
While we sail, we enjoy the scenery above the surface of the Sea of Cortez. This includes mountains that rear up abruptly and display stunning pastel colors especially as the sunset slowly paints them. One cruiser described the mountains as appearing like one edge of the Grand Canyon with water filled in below. They are beautiful. The islands are rocky and barren in this desert climate save cacti and hardy brush. The water is aqua colored, best seen as the boat pulls into a cove and the bottom shallows to 20 feet and the water goes from rich blue to aqua in tone. We watch boils on the water that signal fish balls below, usually accompanied by the flash of a hunting dorado on the surface or the slice of dolphin fins as they feed in the boil. Sometimes we see sea lions frolicking on the surface and, always exciting, we see whale blows and the surface breaks from their back and dorsal fin.

We have not yet been lucky enough to see all the whales that live here in the Sea of Cortez but it is an amazing place with Orcas, Fin Whales, Blue Whales (Blues are the biggest whales in the world and Fins are only a little smaller), Humpbacks, Grays, to name a few. The area is also home to the huge whale shark which is a fish not a whale (the largest fish species in the world), has a dorsal fin like a shark but is a filter feeder not a predator and grows to 60 ft. in length. Another odd and beautiful species is the manta ray, lovely to watch gliding by. Smaller versions (mobulas) jump in the air with wings beating wildly for reasons nobody knows and the large ones are like hovercraft in science fiction movies as they swim by.

We love to watch the wonderful birds, from the accomplished dive/hunt of the boobies, pelicans and ospreys to the frigates which fly beautifully but only get their food by harassing the others birds into dropping their catch which the frigates then swoop and recover in mid-air. Vultures hang in the air updrafts much like eagles in the NW and gulls fly and dive and screech just like at home. On the rocks as we kayak by we see sea stars, and wonderful colorful athletic crabs. There are also many species of shorebirds.

What we have really finally been able to enjoy is the scenery under the surface of this water we travel daily. We debated bringing scuba gear and decided against it for space reasons, but we do have our snorkel equipment which is used almost daily. The water is still a bit chilly—74 degrees, but on its way up to 90 at the end of summer—but now we can spend some time in it with our wetsuits on. Below the surface lies a whole other world and one of great beauty. The rock formations are also stunning with canyons below as well as above. On the rock grows coral, sea fans, sea urchins, sea stars, barnacles, anemones and hidden within these are the tiny reef fishes, often colorful but also very wary and shy. Hover on the surface for a while and they grow more brave and emerge to show their cute selves. Swimming between the rocks are the ubiquitous Sergeant Majors, a yellow, white and black striped fish and many species of damselfish, angelfish which are very colorful. Then there are the food fish including groupers, cabrillo, parrotfish, triggerfish, pargos. There are strange fish like needlefish and pufferfish, the latter hovering like begging puppies as we have snorkeled or kayaked along. Then there are the predators including barracudas, moray eels and, though we haven’t seen them, sharks including the odd looking hammerheads who reside here in the Sea. So many other species I haven’t mentioned make up the community beneath the surface and they all provide us with great enjoyment. So far, we are not collecting the food to eat. Perhaps that will change.

In one anchorage, we somehow hooked up with a couple boats whose owners are avid divers. We have been invited on several dive outings and, due to various reasons, we’ve been able to borrow and patch together dive gear. We are excited to see even deeper into this world and need to consider bringing down dive gear for ourselves as the experience is so wonderful. These folks harvest from the deep, always trying to live off the sea. They’ve been wonderful role models and are some of the most active cruisers we’ve met. With them, we motored out to the middle of what looked like open water, but, following the depth sounder closely, we located a sea mount that rises from the bottom (more than 500 feet deep) to within 30-40 feet of the surface. These sea mounts attract a huge amount of sea life. There they anchored their 68 foot motorboat and we went scuba diving around the mount for an hour or so.

The volume of sea life was stunning, it was a kaleidoscope of color and movement underwater. This particular area is a “No Take” zone where fishermen can only hand line fish and the fearlessness and volume of fishes reflects the untrammeled nature of this spot. We were circled by a small school of Almaco Jack (a game fish) that were 3 ft long the whole time we were down at the mount and on our way up—they seemed curious rather than concerned about our presence. One of our fellow divers found a fish cleaning station where tiny wrasse type fish clean the bigger fish of parasites (and thus get a meal out of the deal). Apparently, the big fish hover while the little fish clean them. I saw a bright green moray eel giving me the evil eye from the doorway of his cave. They are wicked-witch-of-the-west green and it’s a color that really helps make you want to steer clear of them. On another snorkel/dive trip I saw 4 eels swimming in a canyon and appreciated their sinuous graceful motion at the same time I was repelled by their presence.

Our dive hosts have an amazing video compilation of their dive experience over a single season. In it they show swimming with dolphins, swimming with and “riding” giant mantas (12 ft wing span), humpbacks who swim right nearby. The video also showed the end of a bad storm they were in and, even more eerie, the dive where Doug went down with the camera only to be immediately bumped by Galapagos sharks as they investigated whether he would be good to eat. The most terrifying footage was of 2 tiger sharks circling an area of a dead baby humpback—they are the size of a Volkswagon underwater and they have a similar shape to a great white shark and similar unpredictable behavior. We were happy to watch that stuff on a video and not experience the shark encounters personally.

We’ve observed the technique for harvesting lobster which live in the places where moray eels live so one does not just reach in a grab a lobster for fear of a serious laceration from the eel bite. We’ve enjoyed chocolates, a delicious local shellfish species found in shallow beach areas. We’ve found gorgeous shells on nearly all our beach walks and, so far, have avoided the sting rays found in the shallow water of beaches as well.

In my last dispatch I quoted from John Steinbeck’s book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which is a “must read” for us in the Sea. He traveled with a naturalist on a fishing boat compiling a study of the species that lived in the tidal zone here in the Sea in 1940. It is evident from reading the book that the richness of the sea life here has diminished since that expedition, nonetheless, the sea life is remarkable and an endless source of wonder for us both above and below the surface.