Monday, March 26, 2012

Passage to Nuevo Vallarta

March 18-March 21, 2012

Notes from the Logbook


A sliver of a moon rose at 0430 and is now being chased by the sun. 

Night Watch

Spirit dolphins
streak through pupil-black water
their presence only known by
their luminescent wake

Squid Patrol:  1 flying fish, 7 squid

When Jupiter rises and sets (in the absence of a moon), it's like someone has lit and then blown out a candle.

  • First time poling out the headsail while sailing wing and wing on Silhouette
  • First flying fish on deck
  • First sea turtle passed at sea
  • The screw to engage the wind vane self-steering snapped off the drum during this passage. Although this was normal wear and tear after years of service in the marine environment (to both the former owners and to us), we will have to take it to a welder to fix it. If we were offshore, Patrick could bolt it back together; but since we still have access to a welder, we will fix it properly. I guess the good news is this happened before we got offshore.
  • When we arrived in Nuevo Vallarta, Patrick also discovered some broken strands in the steering cables  they had started to fray. Thus, our project list grows longer instead of shorter.     

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Islas Espiritu Santos, Part 2


Cardoncito Reef

We actually visited Cardoncito Reef via the dinghy while still anchored at El Mezteno on Isla Espiritu Santos. However, the reef is located at the entrance to Caleta Partida at the southernmost corner of Isla Partida. Patrick found the water too chilly to go snorkeling, so I was alone amongst the myriad fish swimming through shafts of sunlight penetrating a blue-green sea. I find it miraculous that simply by donning fins, a mask, and a snorkel, I can become a fish by extension and enter into the piscean world. I consider it a rare privilege to be able to observe animals going about their daily business in their natural surroundings.

The visibility wasn't as clear at Cardoncito Reef as in Los Candeleros, but I was in deeper water, and there were different and larger fish species. This video clip gives you an idea of what my experience swimming surrounded by sergeant majors and king angelfish was like. I don't know what the other large fish periodically flashing below me were. If you've snorkeled before, you will recognize the crackling noise in the background as popcorn shrimp.  

I also captured a picture of a true puffer fish this time. Puffers come in a variety of colors; this one was brown with white polka dots.  

Las Cuevitas

We took a dinghy trip to Las Cuevitas from our next anchorage in Ensenada Grande. We realized that in the calm conditions, it would have made a spectacular anchorage; but there was already a boat there, and we didn’t want to disturb their magic by moving in on them. What makes Las Cuevitas such a special spot are the cliffs and caves rising straight up from the sea which house a blue-footed booby rookery.

Have ideal nesting spot, need mate

Blue-footed booby
 We are fortunate to be visiting the islands at the beginning of the mating season. Not only did we see the frigate bird displays in Bahía San Gabriel, but we were able to witness the elaborate mating ritual of the male booby. Las Cuevitas was a cacophony of sound as the piercing whistles of the male boobies echoed off the walls of the anchorage. The male booby first exhibits a wing display accompanied by making a high whistling noise. (I’m guessing this is to gain the attention of his prospective mate.)

The wing display is then followed by the male booby lifting his blue feet one at a time and showing them to the female.

Patrick read that the boobies incubate their eggs with their feet, similar to the Emperor penguins. (With boobies, the male and female take turns incubating the eggs.) He postulated that this foot display was a way of saying, “Look at me:  I have big feet! I am a good egg incubator!”

Head scratch with big blue feet
For being such funny looking birds, boobies are graceful fliers. Patrick caught some of them on the wing.

When landing, the boobies splay out their big blue feet, resuming their comical appearance.

Ensenada Grande

As an anchorage, Ensenada Grande wasn’t my favorite, because it housed a big tourist operation with tour boats coming and going all day. While we were there, a National Geographic eco-tour adventure boat also anchored and unloaded a flotilla of dinghies, ferrying kayaks and people back and forth from the beach (which itself was only a short paddle away.) However, the anchorage is scenic with much to recommend it in terms of activities. We took a side trip to Rocas Tintoreras (frigatebird rocks), where only a few frigatebirds were in evidence.

However, the rocks were alive with all kinds of wildlife, and we also saw pelicans, cormorants, sea lions, and turkey vultures.

It seems strange to see turkey vultures in the marine environment, but we have seen a lot of them on this trip. It makes sense when you consider the vast fish and marine mammal populations in the Sea of Cortez:  There is obviously a huge source of carrion in the Sea.

Back at Ensenada Grande, we took another hike up an arroyo for stunning views of the anchorage.

Here we are on a cliff overlooking Silhouette at anchor in the cove below.

I took a look inside this cave and came face to face with the wide-eyed stare of a black hare. 

 I ducked my head out and readied my camera for a photo, but I wasn’t quick enough. Patrick captured the hare as it exited out “the back door” of the connecting cave.

Black hare on Isla Partida
More improbable desert flora were spotted along the way.

Ensenada Grande is also laced with reefs great for snorkeling. A deep reef housed big walls covered with coral and sponge gardens. Numerous small fish darted out of every nook and cranny, feeding on the corals.

Coral Garden

Damsel Fish?

King Angel Fish

Purple coral
The shallow reefs also teemed with fish. Although we have seen porcupine fish in every location we have snorkeled, I got the best images of this fish in Ensenada Grande.

I can relate to the porcupine fish:  prickly on the outside, but with a cheerful demeanor on the inside.

Los Islotes

As we rounded the northern tip of Isla Partida, we paid a visit to the huge sea lion rookery on the rocky pillars and arch (not shown) known as Los Islotes.  

Playa Bonanza

We had one more stop to make on the east side of Espiritu Santos before finishing our island sojourn:  Playa Bonanza, the beach that had eluded us on our hike from Bahía San Gabriel. Alas, our weather window was closing due to an off-season cold front affecting the islands. The skies grew overcast and the temperature dropped a few degrees. At another time, this two-mile stretch of white sandy beach would have been the perfect beach for lounging in the sun and swimming in the crystalline turquoise water. However, we enjoyed ourselves by taking a walk along the beach, listening to the soothing sounds of the waves lapping the sand, and collecting the shells which presented themselves in an infinite variety of colors and patterns.

By that evening, we had 15-20 knot westerly winds in the anchorage, and I was sensing the sad, anti-climatic feeling of a wonderful vacation coming to a close. I felt like our journey was ending when, in truth, it was just beginning! 



Friday, March 23, 2012

Islas Espiritu Santos

The Sea of Cortez is located over a rift zone or an area of spreading tectonic plates. Magma wells up between the spreading plates and hardens into new oceanic crust. From my limited understanding, some of the islands in the Sea of Cortez were formed when huge chunks of this former oceanic crust were uplifted by faults along the plate boundaries. The resulting landscape is one of striated layers of black, red, ivory and pink rock. I don’t fully understand what all the layers represent, but I think the black is hardened lava (basalt), while the pink is volcanic ash that has been "glued together" over time like sandstone. 

We had the good fortune to spend a week at two of these islands, Isla Espiritu Santos and Isla Partida (formerly joined together but seperated by the rift zone), before turning south to mainland Mexico. Each anchorage we explored had something unique to offer. Everything was completely novel compared to what we are used to in the Pacific Northwest, and I could easily understand how people could spend months or years familiarizing themselves with this island paradise.

These islands were so beautiful and we have so many pictures we'd like to share, that I am breaking this post into two parts to make it easier to load. 

Bahía San Gabriel

After being tied to the dock for a month, Silhouette was ready to stretch her legs (perhaps “spread her wings” is the more accurate metaphor), and we had a glorious sail across the San Lorenzo Channel to Islas Espiritu Santos. We anchored in the first open bay, Bahía San Gabriel. This bay is generally recommended only as a daytime anchorage due to its lack of protection from the southern winds, called coromuels, resulting from specialized weather conditions in this region, so we knew we were taking a slight chance by anchoring here. The forecast was for very light winds, however; and even though they did switch around to the south during the night, our gamble paid off:  The wind remained very light and we didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to move the boat.

We weren’t the first or last to arrive, and by the end of the evening, we had six other boats joining us in the anchorage. It was a weekend, and I was glad we had avoided the more protected and popular anchorage of Caleta Partida for our first stop.

How many synonyms can I find for the word “beautiful?” Bahía San Gabriel is an exquisite natural setting full of several magnificent microhabitats. A picturesque turquoise cove and white sand beach are surrounded by scenic red cliffs. 

Bahia San Gabriel
Porcupine fish* wobble along their courses and crabs hover territorially over the sand inundated by mere inches of water.

(*What I called “puffer fish” in my last post—the ones we have been seeing in Mexico with the stout spines—are actually porcupine fish. We saw a yellow one at the dock but are now seeing brown and white ones in the islands.)

The cove’s southern shore houses a delightful frigatebird rookery where the handsome colony rests, preens, mates, and raises its young.

Frigate bird colony with white fuzzy chicks

Male frigate bird throat display

 Just inland from the beach is a vibrant green mangrove lagoon.

One has only to walk a few meters away from the shore, and the superb desert flora abounds.

The trail across the island was one of the most unique I have been on. It was composed of bits of shells and fossilized coral, indicating that this part of the volcanic island was once underwater. 

 We saw large whelk-type shells and pearly oyster shells embedded among the cactus and igneous rock. 

I wanted to make the hike across the island from Bahía San Gabriel to Playa Bonanza, and Patrick was willing to humor me in this endeavor. None of our guidebooks cited its length, and I estimated it to be about three miles from a scale on one of the chartlets. Once we got to the beach, an interpretive sign stated the hike’s true length:  five miles (or ten miles round trip). Since we did not get started until 11:00 a.m., it was blazing hot, and we only brought two liters of water from the boat, we had to abandon my goal among the saguaro. 

This cactus reminded me of "Quick Draw McGraw"
We were over halfway down on our first liter of water, and the beach on the east side was still nowhere in sight, so we turned around. We probably only did four miles round trip, but the walk was well worth it for the wide variety of desert plants and the black hare (endemic to the islands) we saw along the way. To complete the entire hike, we would have to start earlier in the morning before it heats up and bring at least two liters of water per person. 

Not to be discouraged from having a good time, our attention turned to other activities. We took pictures of the boat in her postcard-perfect anchorage.

I swam half way back to the boat while Patrick protectively monitored me from the dinghy. 

It was a good thing he did, because we discovered I couldn’t get back into the dinghy without a hand from Patrick to hoist me aboard. The pontoons of the dinghy were too high to get over! When we returned to the boat, we tied loops of webbing to the sides of the dinghy to act as steps (one short step and one long) and a grab loop to hold on to. I can now board the dinghy independently.  

We took another dinghy excursion to explore the nearby reef and cliffs. These Sally Lightfoot crabs were a colorful feature of the rocks above the reef. 

Our appetites were whetted for snorkeling by the many fish we saw swimming through the rocky canyons in the reef.   

That evening while barbecuing, we noticed a pelican gorging itself on fish that were attracted to our stern light. Doesn't he have a handsome auburn mohawk?  

After dinner, Patrick entertained us by shining successively larger flashlight beams on the water beneath the boat. Literally hundreds of fish---many of them a foot long---were attracted to the light.

Los Candeleros (Candlestick Cove)

After trying our luck at fishing around three small rocky outposts along the coast of Espiritu Santos (islands Gallina, Gallo, and Ballena) and failing to catch anything, we next set the hook in the south end of Los Candeleros. Anne and Jeff Mott, who were directly across the dock from us in Marina Palmira, were anchored on Outrider in the north side of the cove. We had left the dock abruptly without being able to say a proper goodbye to our neighbors, so we were happy to be able to raft up our dinghies for a visit with them later that afternoon. 

Outrider at anchor in Los Candeleros Cove
Los Candeleros is a smaller cove than Bahía San Gabriel and with its steep, red rock walls, felt snug and protected. It is still open to the coromuels, however, which again---luckily for us---didn’t blow like stink.

The major attraction in Los Candeleros is its two reefs, one shallow and near shore, and the other closer to the cove’s entrance. The reefs on Islas Espiritu Santos are rock reefs. Although corals are found on them, the reef structure itself is not composed of coral.

Shallow reef at Los Candeleros
Although the water was just warm enough for me to snorkel in a bathing suit, Patrick (with exponentially less body fat) required his wetsuit, and the temperature of the water was the primary limiting factor to our exploring the larger (and deeper) reef. 

 We found plenty to excite us in the shallow and warmer reef near the beach. We had a wonderful time playing with Patrick’s new underwater digital camera and discovered that invertebrates are less challenging subjects than fish because they sit still for the photographer!

Sea of Cortez blue starfish

Sergeant Majors

Anemone, neon green coral, snail

Needle fish
Left to explore another day

El Mezteno

Arguably the most spectacular cove among those on Isla Espiritu Santos is El Mezteno, just around the corner from Los Candeleros. It took us less than an hour to change anchorages; however, we exchanged the company of the large snorkel-kayak and panguero camps on the beach at Candeleros for the company of only one other sailboat in the small cove and a lone tent (from voyaging sea kayakers) onshore. A beautiful blue-green cove extended far inland, appearing like a river mouth instead of the head of a beach.

Our guide book showed a “hiking trail” near the head of the cove. We found a faint trail starting at the edge of the beach and then proceeded to hike up an arroyo full of red rocks and boulders leading up a canyon from the beach. (The arroyo was included in the brief trail description.) 

As the arroyo filled with brush and became difficult to pass through, we picked a trail through the rocks and cactus up the slope. We identified a low notch where it looked like we might gain the ridge and headed for that. All semblance of a trail had disappeared, and the “hike” became a Class 2 to Class 3 scramble. Once on the ridge, we walked along the canyon rim to see if we had undershot the trail by leaving the arroyo too soon. 

We did see something that looked like a trail at the head of the canyon; although, we saw no path less steep than the one we took (and much looser rock) to gain the ridge.

For anyone wishing to do this hike who is not up for a scramble, another method to gain access to the ridge might be to take a dinghy excursion to the end of the low shelf at the north edge of the cove. (You will need a dinghy anchor or a line to tie your dinghy to a boulder.) From there, another (less steep) arroyo leads up, and it looks like (we didn’t actually do it) a steep but clear hike up to the ridge.

On the way up to the ridge, we found more evidence of the unique geologic history of these islands. Look at the size of the scallop shell I am holding! (The island was covered with oyster shells this size too!)

The ridge top above El Mezteno had spectacular vistas of both the cove

Silhouette at anchor in El Mezteno
 and the neighboring Caleta Partida. 

Caleta Partida
When a boat anchors in Caleta Partida, it is actually anchored in the crater of an extinct volcano, two sides of which have eroded and almost completely subsided into the sea. (How cool is that?!)

The ridge top was littered with volcanic bombs.

We pondered whether the numerous caves were actually formed by gas bubbles in the cooling lava? ( I later read that the pink layer was volcanic ash.)

And the parade of unlikely desert flora continued… 

The beach held its own surprises, but since Islas Espiritu Santos is a national park, we followed the wilderness hikers’ motto:  Take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints.   

Anchored with us in El Mezteno were a British couple, David and Stella, on S/V Morning Star. We noticed that the kayakers who were camped out on the beach had gone out to their boat for a visit, so we rowed the dinghy over for a gam. The next day, I rowed over for a second visit. Both Stella (a zoologist) and David shared my enthusiasm for the unique plants and wildlife found on the islands, and it was fun to be in the presence of people who were just as excited about them as I was. Stella brought out her Fish of the Sea of Cortez and helped me identify some of the fish I had been seeing on my underwater forays. She also told me that many of the islands in the Sea of Cortez had reptile species only found on those particular islands (sort of like Darwin's finches in the Galapagos.)