Paddling the Sea of Cortez
By Melissa Gaskill
The small white and blue-trimmed boat, known as a panga here in Baja California, zips across La Paz Bay, carrying our group of 10 toward a mountain rising out of blue water in the distance – Isla Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited island and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. White tents line a fingernail of matching sand in a secluded cove of the island, facing the gem-blue bay where pelicans, cormorants, and brown- and blue-footed boobies fish energetically from dawn to dusk. Each tent sports two cots, a table, solar-powered light and floor of soft, clean sand. At the end of the row, a larger tent serves as a kitchen, and a large table under a shade tarp, our dining room. A solar shower hangs on its corner post, and a composting toilet hides behind a gnarled palo blanco tree about 20 yards away. Eco-adventure travel at its finest.
Paddling and Snorkeling
After we drop our luggage in a tent, the panga transports us to nearby Los Islotes, a collection of spray-soaked rocks populated by sea lions and birds. I pull on my snorkel gear and plunge in amongst some young sea lions, which dart in close before swooping away, diving deeper than I can go. I surface for another breath, then dive into a massive school of shiny silver fish, which part and close around me like leaves in the wind. I do this over and over before finally returning to the boat, exhausted yet exhilarated.
Next morning, we paddle kayaks along the island’s red and cream-colored cliffs, weathered in intricate patterns. The shore is scalloped with small coves, some hiding tiny beaches, others covered in rocks, with occasional swaths of mangroves. That afternoon, our guide, Jose, leads us on a hike up the slope behind our camp. We spot huge blue lizards and iridescent hummingbirds, and near the top, stand speechless before a view of wide blue sea and the craggy mainland beyond.
The following day, we paddle to the end of the island to a rocky beach, where the panga delivers lunch. I watch bright red and orange crabs scurry among the wave-splashed rocks. On our way back, we snorkel over a reef about 20 feet deep and alive with tropical fish sporting every hue of the rainbow. Each evening brings happy hour of fresh margaritas, followed by dinners featuring just-caught fish, fresh peppers and handmade tortillas. After brilliant sunsets over the peninsula, we retire to our tents under a sky filled with countless stars, nary an artificial light in sight.
The World’s Aquarium
Jacques Cousteau called The Sea of Cortez – or Gulf of California, as it is known in Mexico– the world’s aquarium, and with good reason. These waters contain 30 species of marine mammals, including nine kinds of whales, more than 900 different fish species, and five types of sea turtles. I’ve seen manta rays leaping into the air, and our panga’s been surrounded more than once by large pods of sleek dolphins.
During one of our paddles, two 40-foot-long Bryde’s whales surfaced repeatedly near our kayaks, keeping pace with us for nearly 20 minutes. Every snorkel outing reveals more fish than I can possibly identify. Our guides report spotting whale sharks in these waters, and researchers have filmed giant squid in the deep. It’s a paradise, but one in peril; overfishing and unregulated tourism development pose serious threats, according to The Nature Conservancy. Tourists who value Baja’s natural treasures can make a difference, simply by coming here to enjoy them.
Returning to the San Jose del Cabo airport at the end of this trip, I’m struck by the contrast between its glitz and our cozy island camp that, by now, has disappeared with hardly a trace.
Photos: Top photo of Melissa snorkeling by Sea Stewards; sea lions photo was taken by Melissa.