Saturday, February 4, 2012

Baja California Sur

Asunción to Abreojos

“Fish on!” We were less than an hour out of Asunción when I got a strike and called to Patrick to help me bring the fish aboard. As we were leaving this anchorage where many living creatures—dolphins, sea lions, seals—created splashes as they porpoised in and out of the calm, I saw a large splash resembling the one a fish makes leaping out of the water. Soon, I saw another one—and the actual fish this time. A short time later, there was a third splash. As soon as we were underway and it was safe to do so, I got out a pole and put my fishing line in the water. At first, there were no takers, but after letting out a little bit more line, I got a strike. I was able to reel the fish in under my own power (it was a perfect size for us on a boat with no freezer and a tiny refrigerator:  two meals for two); and Patrick gaffed it when I brought the fish alongside. Our first catch of the trip turned out to be a skipjack tuna!

We followed the coastline to our next anchorage, Abreojos or “Open Eyes” under sunny skies and variable winds. The weather has finally warmed up enough to wear jeans and T-shirts in the cockpit during the day, donning a fleece only when the wind kicks up a notch. Off the boat and away from the sea breezes, the temperatures are warm enough for shorts (though we haven’t worn any out of respect for the customs of the small villages we have been visiting.) As we arrived at the anchorage, we were greeted by the blows of some large black dolphins, dorsal fins knifing slowly through the water:  “smooth, like butter.” We have seen these black dolphin—that actually look like small whales-- several times, but have not gotten a close enough look to identify them.

Traveling by sea, it’s amazing how many land dwellers come along for a ride. On the way to Abreojos, we saw a dragonfly, a butterfly, and a bee, all taking a wee rest on Silhouette. Shortly after anchoring, an osprey landed on our solar panel! (We are the tallest thing around on the water and probably an inviting fishing perch.) Patrick also captured this beautiful moth resting on our deck:

Before sunset, a couple of guys came along in a panga and spoke with us. They said they were “guarding the coast.” I asked why that was necessary. They replied that people from outside the area come and steal lobster from their traps. We told them we weren’t after any lobster; that we were here to see the gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon. (Abreojos is the closest you can anchor to this biological preserve. You are not permitted to take your own boat or dinghy into the lagoon but must go on a guided tour.)

The next day, we went ashore to try to arrange for a panga ride over to the lagoon. On the way in, we spotted our first frigatebirds:  a sure sign that we are headed towards the tropics! On the beach, they were using a small tractor to haul the incoming pangas above the tide line. The pangueros would roll a pair of wheels (attached with a two-by-four axle) under the panga and the tractor would tie on to the boat and drag it up the beach.

The tractor driver offered to haul our dinghy—which was too heavy to drag with the outboard on it—up the beach for us. We tipped him for the service.

Once in Abreojos, we were directed to a fisheries cooperative, where we agreed to a price for a panga to pick us up at Silhouette at eight the next morning. The panga would take us to a landing nearby the lagoon, where a tour boat from the reserve would pick us up and guide us through the lagoon. The panga (also not permitted to enter the lagoon) would wait for us at the landing and return us to our boat after the tour.

While ashore, we wandered through town. The first thing that struck us about Abreojos was its stunning osprey population. Looking down the main street bordering the approximately two-mile strand of beach, we could see atop the utility poles half a dozen osprey nests! Walking through the backstreets of town, we encountered still more osprey nests. The fishing must be very rich to support such a huge osprey population with such small territories.

An osprey sizes us up
Many, if not most of the nests, were occupied by mating pairs. We observed one or the other member of a pair entering or leaving the nest, and we think we even observed one pair mating. (One osprey—we assumed the male--flew in and landed right on top of another osprey!—we assumed the female. He appeared to be attempting to mate with her, but his advances did not seem welcome as the encounter was brief and he soon flew off again.)

The nests were of fascinating construction and comprised their own microhabitat, which Patrick described as condominium-like Most nests incorporated local grasses and plants as well as man-made elements (such as the scrap of blue plastic sadly shown in the nest above.) We noticed a variety of sparrow and warbler sized birds flying in and out of the osprey nests and concluded that they had their own dwellings underneath the osprey’s perch. Since ospreys are fishers by nature, the smaller birds are well protected there from seagulls and other interlopers who might steal their eggs. The nest below has old fishing lines woven into it, a choice befitting its occupant. If you look closely, you can see a sparrow-sized bird perched under the left side of the nest:

Bird condominium

As we were looking at the outside of the village church, a panguero (still in his fishing gear) came by and saw us, opened up the church, and invited us in. As we viewed the beautiful stained glass windows from the interior, he explained that the completed church was only two or three years old, but that it was built little by little, with contributions from all the local fishermen.

Abreojos iglesia (church)

One of the most interesting things about Mexico has been the mix of old and new technologies. Note the compact fluorescent bulb above the stained glass window:

In Asuncion, many of the storefronts on the main street were closed and out of business, yet the internet café was thriving, abuzz with children playing video games. Another example of the mix of old and new is the packaging (or lack thereof) in the markets of the smaller villages. If you want fresh meat while grocery shopping, you open the refrigerator and take out an unwrapped portion of raw beef or an unpackaged chicken leg; if you want eggs, you bring your own container and choose from unrefrigerated flats of 36 fresh eggs; while in the same store, there may be two dozen brands each of boxed cereal and brightly packaged chips, and your groceries are rung up on a computerized cash register.

Returning from that tangent, Abreojos has been our favorite stop so far. The people there seemed busy and content, and we immediately noticed the marked pride and the level of upkeep in the village. Upon further reading, we discovered that the sense of cooperation and community we experienced in Abreojos was no mere accident.

The skipper relaxes into the cruising lifestyle
"Guardia de la costa"

Whale Highway (Carretera de las Ballenas)

You won’t find that name on a map of Mexico. I coined it this morning on the way to San Ignacio Lagoon. As we approached the entrance to the lagoon, we could see a procession of whale spouts, in almost single file, also approaching the entrance. It was an amazing sight and reminded me, as so many of the sunset colors in Baja do, of a picture in a Dr. Seuss children’s book that I haven’t thought about in years:  McElligot’s Pool.  

McElligot’s Pool is the story of a daydreaming fisherman who begins to wonder what he might catch at the bottom of the local fishing hole (McElligot’s Pool) and where his catch might have come from. His imaginative journey eventually leads him out to sea. The story is an allegory for all fishers—and sailors too, for that matter—who drop their hook into the unknown.

After an exhilarating panga ride across the water (during which Patrick and I did not let go of our grips on the boat), we were transferred to a motorboat for a tour of the lagoon. During the ride, our panga operator explained that many sea turtles also live in the area, and that now they are protected like the whales.

Our guide, Ramiro, explained that he was a motor guide and not a naturalist because it was the off-season. Ramiro said the trained guides and naturalists start arriving at the peak whale-watching season in February. However, Ramiro was able to answer all our questions as well as enrich our experience with his local knowledge of the whales.

Our guide, Ramiro

There is not much that can be conveyed in words about being in the presence of great leviathans and our mammalian kin.

There she blows

Dolphin also visit the lagoon

Blowhole or spiracle

Lado al lado (side by side)

Eyed by a whale

The back of a gray whale looks like lichen covered basalt

Where's Waldo?

The action commences

Petting a whale


Returning to the vortex

As we rode in the panga back towards Abreojos after our tour, passing more whales and dolphins leaping out of the water on all sides, we couldn’t help but feel extremely lucky to be doing this.

End of the rainbow

Note to Fellow Cruisers:  We had been following the information in Captain Rain’s Mexico Boating Guide which stated that the number of whales in the lagoon is at their peak from mid-December to February. Local knowledge indicates that the largest number of gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon occurs around February. There is a protected area in the reserve for mother and baby whales (calves), where even the tour boats are not allowed to enter. However, we were told that the best time to observe the whales is when the tide is going out:  Since the protected area is very shallow, most of the whales exit that area of the lagoon on the ebb tide. We were told that the best time to see breaching whales is also at that time.

The Captain Rain’s guide also states that a visitor spends four hours in the lagoon on a park tour. That may have been true at one time, but the tours now last 90 minutes. Our guide told us they try to be consistent and give all clients the same experience in that regard. All of that being said, we had a phenomenal whale-watching experience while visiting before the peak season (and not during ebb tide). The advantages to visiting early are that there are very few tour boats in the lagoon (there were only two other boats besides ours), and that there is more opportunity for a close encounter with a whale (all of the boats during our visit had at least one whale come alongside them.)   

Bahía Magdalena (“Mag Bay”)

En route to Bahía Magdalena, one of our questions about the gray whales was answered:  Does their range extend past San Ignacio Lagoon? We had been traveling with these great whales since we left the Strait of Juan de Fuca and would miss them if their breeding grounds were the end of their range. Departing Abreojos, we passed many more whales headed into San Ignacio Lagoon on the whale highway. Additionally, as we traveled further south, we continued to see many grays, including those foraging in the entrance to Mag Bay.

The winds between Abreojos and Bahía Magdalena had diminished to light airs, and we were able to fly our asymmetrical spinnaker. Unfortunately, the winds were not behind us enough to make this the ideal situation (we more on more of a beam reach), but it allowed us to sail instead of motor.

We did end up motoring at night when the wind died to almost zero. We passed to the west of the rich fishing grounds ironically named “Uncle Sam’s Bank” in the dark, so we did not get a chance to try our luck. It was one of the calmest nights I’ve ever spent at sea. The Milky Way in the water (composed of a multitude of bioluminescent organisms in Silhouette’s wake) mirrored the Milky Way in the sky. Shooting stars---including one of the biggest meteors I’ve ever seen---arced across the heavens. After the moon set, I noticed that planets give off beams, like moonbeams, on the water, while stars do not. Why had I never noticed that before?

Late the next afternoon, we approached Mag Bay. The scenery on the way and the entrance itself were spectacular.

Bahía Magdalena is the second largest bay (being second only to San Francisco Bay) on the west coast of the Americas. The topography encircling Mag Bay is, in fact, reminiscent of the Marin headlands, and allowed us to see what this area of our own country might have looked like to the first explorers.

We are seeing many frigatebirds now.

We spent our first night anchored on the south side of Belcher Point, a calm anchorage sheltered by neighboring Mt. Isabela. The next morning we were delighted when, instead of going to the market, the market came to us. A panga with its bottom full of fresh shrimp, fish, and lobster pulled alongside Silhouette, and we purchased a half kilo of the freshest shrimp you could ever hope to find—just pulled from the water--for our dinner that evening.

We moved on to Puerto Magdalena. Puerto Magdalena is located in an idyllic location for a village, nestled in snugly against the hills in a cove facing a bay plied by sea lions. However, we did not see the town pride exhibited by Asunción and Abreojos displayed here. The village has no systematic method for dealing with their waste, and trash was seen everywhere thrown on the ground or in burn piles. Most of the populous makes a subsistence living, but almost everyone has a satellite T.V. dish. The church was, as usual, one of the key features of the village; however, this church was not as well maintained as the ones in the villages farther north.

On the way out of Mag Bay to continue our trip south, we came across a large school of feeding dolphin. They crossed and re-crossed our bow, herding fish one direction and then the next. After this incredible display, we passed five gray whales:  two to starboard and three directly across our bow!

Stay tuned for the video!

The wind stayed light as we continued our trip south, and we were able to fly the asymmetrical again, this time with the wind behind us.

Our new best friend

We arrived at the southernmost tip of Baja, Cabo San Lucas, on February 2, 2012---but Los Cabos are a story in themselves...


  1. Beautifully written, Kirsten! Thank you. I wonder when my family will make it back to San Ignacio Lagoon. Few things in this world can match the experience of being so close to those fantastic animals. I remember so clearly the sound of tens of whales blowing and spouting around us. Giant exhalations over and over again. I think the Grey population has made quite a come back after hunting brought them to the brink of extinction.... Of course, with climate change and development, thier continued health is in question.

  2. I didn't get an email alert for this update. Glad I checked out your blog by happenstance :-) Sounds AWESOME!!!

  3. Beautifully done. Thanks for the update.

  4. Thank you for sharing your travels!

  5. kirsten, patrick, what wonderful pics and descriptions....thanks for bringing what you experience so completely alive! gordon

  6. What a great read! I'm following along marking the anchorages on Google Earth and making notes. Keep up the details, especially sheltered anchorages, and places where you can go ashore. We'll be following in your wake about 10 months from now.