We hadn't taken the boat out except to tie it up fifty meters offshore. There it had ridden out restless days and nights, rolling, bow tied to the partial chassis of an old car frame we had worked hard to get onto the boat and haul out into ten vertical meters of water to drop overboard with several nylon ropes tied to it. Once resting on the floor of the bay, we had fastened an empty plastic gallon milk bottle to the surface end of the rope. We tied the boat to it and swam for shore.
On an afternoon when it was too hot even to sit in the shade on the beach I swam out and pulled the boat ashore. Mary Ann and the boys climbed aboard and we headed into the gulf. Las Cuevitas is just outside the northern end of the Bahia de Los Angeles. We left the protection of the bay and headed north, hugging the peninsula. Here were many small bays. The shoreline was rugged with many rocky points falling into the sea and reappearing as protrusions through the surface of the water. We wound slowly through these small coves and protected landings, watching the surface for rocks and peering into the depths of water, which was quite clear. After we'd gone a kilometer or so the boys found one bay that was so clear we could see the fish circling the bottom twenty or thirty feet below. We stopped for a few moments and watched the slow-motion movements of the fish and the seaweed far under the small boat. With the protections offered not only by the Sea of Cortes, but by Smith's Island as well the water was very tranquil.
We turned east and headed across the channel. Coronado, Isla Smith, is the nearest island to Las Cuevitas. It is the largest island near the bay, 10 kilometers long. On its north end is a volcano. On humid days a cap of clouds covers its peak. It's about four kilometers by sea from Las Cuevitas to the closest part of Isla Coronado. It took about fifteen minutes in our small boat and outboard. The open sea in this channel is usually no more than small swells, one to two feet high. In the early mornings it can be dead calm. The wind was often from the east as it was on this day and the spray and spume was soaking but salty and cooling in the heat. We bored ahead, the light boat bouncing in a forward spin on the corrugated water, taking wet feathers of spume over the bow. The boys were shrieking and begging me to slow down when they were afraid or go faster when they were secure.
In calm weather the boys would take the handle of the outboard and drive. Their composure changed from happy and laughing to serious and focused as they did an adults job. They were responsible, knowing that it was permissible for an experienced hand to get us wet and play around, but not the novice. Soon, even though they were young, they were better at maneuvering and pulling on to the beach than I was.
The channels between Coronado and the Baja mainland and between Coronado and Angel de la Guarda are called Canals de Las Ballenas, Channels of the Whales. The water rushing between landmasses and the chum it churned up attracted many forms of sea life, some of which were food for the massive but tranquil beasts. There is no other feeling like pushing through the water in a fourteen-foot boat to have a forty-foot whale surface gently along side to see what you're up to. A black mass of an arched back floats through the surface, moving parallel to the boat and in the same direction, at a gently higher speed. As it passes through the water it appears, from the perspective of the boat, to be stationary. But then a dorsal fin moves by, then a narrowing body and then a tail ten feet across. He slows and you gain on him and a giant eye rises near and then above the surface and looks directly at you. He blows, exhaling a hollow, tubular, gooselike ringing breath of air and spume, steaming and shooting into the blue sky. The spray falls across the boat.
We could almost reach out and touch their dorsal fins as they went silently past. It is an ethereal, unearthly feeling that something so large could come that close and be unthreatening, even curious about you. Often there were several whales, moving together, a hundred meters apart, diving and surfacing, blowing and diving again, in unison and then separately.
When there were many whales over an extended area, the dolphins would pass through, seeming to use the whales to help herd the tuna. Dolphin are to me the cowboys of the sea. With bait by the millions breaking the surface, the birds were coming from miles and all directions. They got so thick that the sun was shaded by a sky full of falling pelicans, gulls, boobies; the frigates hovered haughtily aloft. The surface of the water boiled and we could almost walk on the solid backs of fish. If we had brought a fishing pole we would have a week's food in two minutes.
The five hundred pound Dolphins passed in pods through our location, across miles of open sea, circling, searching for food. When we knew by sight or sound they were coming we would stop and turn off the motor and wait. On the horizon we would see a white crest of water moving toward us and hear their high-pitched chirps. They neared the boat, and passed, by the thousands. Usually they were in pairs, the older appeared to be teaching the younger the techniques of maneuvering in the water. When they neared the boat they would deviate just slightly and often leap over the bow, several at a time. We could start the motor and stay amongst them for as long as we wanted. They were not bothered by our presence; in fact they seemed to enjoy it. Their tails, like hydraulic plungers, forcefully pumping them constantly forward, each pair traveling many meters under the water than surfacing for air, often jumping, then diving again to just under the boat, to surface again a few meters on. They were the colors of the water and sleek and smooth and you wanted to dive in and be with them, share their space.
We broke reluctantly from this great celebration of life and turned east to north and motored along the inside shore of Coronado. About two-thirds of the way up the inboard side of the island there is a large but shallow bay and several small off-islands that you cannot recognize as such from a distance. We motored between the small islets and Coronado, into an area with a clear deep bottom and many jagged rocks shooting upward from the darkness, sharply out of the water. The tide was out and the water quickly shallowed in places. Michael and Kevin stood in the bow, looking into the clear depths for rocks I should have seen. We turned the motor off in an area near the shores in this small channel. The silence was deafening. There was no sound except the lessening passage on water under the boat. The water was deep and clear, with shards of sunlight passing down, angled, illuminating its depths. We could see fish near the bottom. In their environment, fins and tails working, moving forward and backward, their eyes constantly on the lookout for food and danger, they seemed very vulnerable. Most animals I thought have little or no relief from pursuit that will quickly end in death if they are not always aware of their surroundings and on guard.
The boat drifted near a set of large rocks projecting from the surface. Michael and Kevin climbed out of the boat and onto the rocks and dove into the water and climbed back onto the rocks. They splashed us and dared us to jump in. But their splashing was enough to cool us from the heat. Further north along the same shore is a small lagoon, shallow enough that we had to pull the engine up and row in. Here there were thousands of stingrays and other flat fish. We could touch them on the back with an oar and they would scamper away in a wake of bottom sand, to bury themselves, flapping their fins, creating a dip in the floor, at a place not far away. There was a small hut at a point of this lagoon that had been deserted for many years; the locals hunting turtles had once used it. The turtles were protected now.
I was often of the impression, in Baja, that issues of conservation and the environment were largely up for grabs to the highest bidder. During the early years I fished there, there was a great abundance of so many species of fish. But during the 1970's and 1980's the word and news was that the Mexican government had been bought off to allow the Japanese long-liners in to drag the bottom for miles at a pass, destroying all life in their sweep. I don't know the truth with respect to the political processes. I do know that the first time I fished from the shore in the bay, in 1974, I caught 16-inch cabrilla with almost every cast. In 1976 I trolled for my first time around the off-islands and caught yellowtail in a number of places. We learned to fish the bay gradually and as we became more knowledgeable we caught more fish. Then, somewhere in the mid-eighties, I encountered a Japanese boat. There were more and more of these during those years. They were recognized to be illegal, but subtly permitted, through bribery, by the Mexican government. There was even a report that approximately one hundred Japanese fishing vessels had been rounded up, all with the same hull identifications, and all fishing off the permit for a single vessel. By the mid eighties the fishing was not as good.
We motored north up the inside of Coronado to the Isla Coronadito at the north end, a bird rock separated from the main island by fifty meters. Here the tide poured through the narrow, deep channel with a rush that tugged at our boat. As we rounded the northern limit of Coronado we could see Isla Angel de La Guarda, twenty kilometers across the open gulf. In front of us, a giant ray, three meters across broke through the surface and did a complete flip, hit the water and repeated his performance twice more, landing, finally, in a tremendous splash, returning to the depths. We skimmed around the northern end of the island and turned east along the kilometer or so of barren decomposing lava jutting almost straight up a kilometer into the sky. Landslides of red sand and gravel poured down from the heights, stopping only at the edge of the sea, where the small waves turned them even redder. Rounding the north point we turned south down the outer shore, following this along the bays and inlets of the coastline to the southern end of the island. Along the outside of Coronado the water was much rougher. The sheer power of the tides was evident in the way the boat handled in the masses of water rising from the ocean floor.
Occasionally we would pass a seal lion, typically a sole female. She would raise her head above the surface as we passed, sometimes barking a greeting, sometimes diving until we were passed.
From the southern end we turned west, toward camp. We were about twenty minutes from home. Halfway there was seal island, Isla Calaveras, and we pulled to the south end on this small craggy and tall islet to watch the seal lion colonies that habituated the rocky shoreline. A single male and his harem of fifteen females were curious about us at first, but as we drew closer, within several meters, even though we turned off the motor and rowed in, they grew nervous and more aggressive. They were not threatening but they were quick to let you know that you were too close. We backed off and sat watching their antics and listening to the male roar his defensive attacks at us.
Rounding the point we could hear and see another group of sea lions at the other end of the islet. We left them to their own attentions and headed for the hut. From half way across the channel we could see our lonely patch of beach and the hut, the steps. We could see the mesa just north. As we closed on the beach our summer became a reality. We were living out a dream.
Ten minutes later I dropped Mary Ann and the boys on the beach and tied the boat up and swam to shore. This was the first day we had been out in the boat. I had known that it would add a dimension to our trip. This was just a great beginning.