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.

Dispatch 13 Cruiser Festivals

April 14-May 8, 2006
John Steinbeck wrote in his 1951 book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez,
“We were to sail in the early morning, and that night we walked a little in the dim-lighted streets of La Paz. And we wondered why so much of the Gulf was familiar to us, why this town had a “home” feeling. We had never seen a town which even looked like La Paz, and yet coming to it was like returning rather than visiting.”
We are happy to be in such illustrious company—we share the feeling that La Paz feels like home.

If it upsets you to think that we spend our time partying and having fun when you have to work, stop reading now. We will dutifully report on two cruiser parties we recently attended. The Mexico cruising scene is full of boats that party from one end of the Sea of Cortez to the other and we fell in with that crowd for a while. Now we are on our own again and making plans with just a few friends and, to be honest, are much happier for it.

Upon arrival in La Paz, we immediately got involved in the organization and planning of the La Paz Bay Fest, a newly inspired program in the past 2 years. We were busy getting our extended (1 year) tourist cards called FM3’s and so helping out was fine with us. We got our tourist cards in about a week not counting a few days of official office closure for Semana Santa (the week before Easter) and it all went very well.

Betsy had been recruited to give a medical talk at the Fest which had 6 informational seminars planned. In between seminars, there were games on the beach including a dinghy race, kayak race, bocce ball, Mexican train dominoes games and, well, hanging out and drinking beer which was not one of the award categories but we could have nominated some winners if it was. Richard got very involved in the bocce ball planning and both of us were committed to the kayak race of course; we feel obligated due to our boat name. Well, the seminar went well, the games and fun were a riot. We won the kayak race as the only 2 entries. We also rode on the committee boat for the sailboat race the last day and helped cool down the racers with machine gun type water guns (ducking their return fire with water balloons of course) and giving armchair strategic advice among ourselves. All in all, it was a blast and, since we have made many friends in La Paz, it was time well spent and we felt well appreciated for our participation. Since the event was new, it was only attended by 50 or 60 people (perhaps more over the course of 4 days) so was a manageable crowd.

We left La Paz planning to head to the more notorious party called Loreto Fest for this, its 10th anniversary. To get there involved sailing about 130 miles through lovely cruising grounds and we had a great time. There were many boats heading the same direction and, at one beach, we had an impromptu evening appetizer party which was wonderful fun.

One of our first stops was Isla San Francisco, a lovely comma shaped island with a perfect anchorage in the tail of the comma ringed by a white sand beach. The surrounding hills were transected by hiking trails and there were salt evaporation ponds a little inland off the beach which were interesting. It was a great stop. The first night we were there, the Cruising Club of America had chosen that anchorage for all their participating members to congregate and there were a total of 36 boats!! Apparently the next night’s population of 7 boats was more usual, but, the large anchorage and quiet conditions allowed graceful sharing among 36 boats. That night, while settling down to our books after dark, we heard knocking on our hull. In a dinghy alongside our boat were Tad and Joyce, friends from Seattle who finished circumnavigating 4 years ago and were here with the Cruising Club. What a small world experience that was!! It was so fun to see them and catch up on our lives briefly.

We enjoyed snorkeling with other friends at Los Gatos, our next anchorage. The spot was open to the Sea of Cortez but provided us with 2 days of settled weather to enjoy before swells started rolling in after we left. We also kayaked there and our fellow kayakers were visited by a baby whale shark—even the baby was as long as their kayak—who was quite curious and circled the boat while they circled the other way not sure of its intent. It is a filter feeder according to the books but we weren’t sure if it had also read the same book. Our last stop was at pretty Agua Verde which we loved but did not enjoy to its fullest due to our self-imposed “deadline”. We did join some folks on the beach for an afternoon bocce match and thus met some new friends before the big fest.

We arrived at Puerto Escondido the day the Fest began. PE is a very protected anchorage, almost a lagoon, and is so large that 115 boats anchored in there without crowding one another. Another 50 boats were outside in an anchorage called the “Waiting Room”. OK, do the math and you’ll realize that upward of 250 people took part in this, the 10th annual Loreto Fest. It was so big and there were so many activities that it boggled the mind. From the start, it was overwhelming for us. Puerto Escondido, by the way, is the nearest large, protected anchorage to Loreto, a very nice little city, one of the first continuous settlements on the Baja and the namesake for this party/cruiser gathering.

Betsy had offered to give her seminar at this Fest as well. While they accepted the offer, it soon became apparent that seminars and general education take a very distant backseat to games and drinking at this Fest. Not only were there only 3 seminars in 5 days but they had to be given in the same tent as the card games and craft workshops so the presenter had to yell above the other noise. At the end, there were no thank yous for those giving seminars, just for the winners of and organizers of the various games.

OK, bitterness aside, the festival was full of fun and our team did win the bocce tournament thanks to our experience in La Paz. There was music every night and a chance to meet lots of other cruisers and catch up with old friends. One of the highlights of the Loreto Fest is the Spam carving contest, now an annual event. In it, contestants carve spam into various theme pictures that are quite creative. In announcing this event, the organizer gave a Spam Haiku poem for the day which was definitely the best part of the morning net on the VHF radio. Last year’s Spam winner saved their entry and re-displayed it, probably to demonstrate Spam’s lasting qualities even after being un-canned. They noted that all year long it never attracted a single fly and are now speculating on marketing Spam as the fly repellant it seems to be. Just a thought, if flies don’t want to eat it, I’d think twice about eating it myself…

And here are some of the other activities at the Fest: bocce ball, cabbage bowling (yes with cabbages), horseshoes, “over the line” (a pseudo whiffle ball game for non-athletic adults—no running required), Scrabble, dominoes, beading workshops, paper making workshops, dinghy race, decorated dinghy parade, beach clean-up (one of the original reasons for the Fest was to help clean up the local beaches), card games, crocheting plastic bag workshop (sounds bizarre but this one woman has developed a technique to take all those plastic grocery bags and crochet them into tote bags that are strong, waterproof and actually look pretty good), water volleyball, sing along the first night, rhythm and blues the second night, “sock hop” the third night, etc.

The cruisers with kids seemed to really enjoy the fest. One set of kids came up with a spontaneous “event”. As people pulled into the dinghy dock, the kids rated them on appearance, driving skills and dinghy etiquette and displayed cards with numbers on them for the combined score as they arrived (old fashioned Olympics style). The dinghy dock was a scene in itself. Imagine a float that, in normal times, holds about a dozen boats floating around its edges. Now imagine 110 dinghies (or more) trying to tie up to this same only-available-dinghy-dock for the 5 day event. One arrives to chaos of dinghies tied up 3 deep around the whole perimeter, and, if all is done right, those dinghies have long lines tied to their bow so that they can be maneuvered around. We then plow through the line up of dinghies gently shoving boats aside until we reach a little scrap of the dock to dismount, or, failing that, we pull securely up to a (preferably bigger, more sturdy) dinghy, climbs through that one and perhaps one or two others until we reach the dock with our line and tie off our dinghy now floating out in row 4. Scrambling through the dinghies, one hopefully does not spill the potluck item carried oh so carefully. Late at night, the reverse operation occurs, now in the dark and possibly for some participants, with some coordination inhibiting substance circulating (e.g., a gallon or two or Tequila). Suffice to say, it could get downright ugly at the dock, but luckily, nothing terrible happened. One woman did win the wet noodle award for her unintentional dinghy dismount several feet shy of the dock.
We escaped from the wild party scene the day after the fest and anchored in a small cove with aqua blue-green water over a sandy bottom surrounded by gorgeous volcanic rocks all by ourselves. Ahhhh to be cruising again. Now we have satisfied you who think this is the party life and we will return to our regularly scheduled program of wildlife sightings and sailing stories.