A Travellerspoint blog

March 2011

On Deserted Beaches

Utah By The Sea: Punta Colorado and Boca la Soledad: The Gem of Magdalena

sunny 70 °F

Utah By The Sea
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I was leaning on a rail on the stern of the ship looking at our destination with mix of excitement and fatigue. I had been up for 17 hours, having worked the night shift, and I was tired. My eyes felt like they had been sand burned on the backside of them and squeezed in a vice. However, I was looking at one of the more compelling landscapes I had seen here on the Baja Peninsula, and I was catching my 4th wind of the night. My day was definitely looking up.
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When seven o’clock hit, I gave my partner a high five, signaling the end of my day, and I headed directly to my room to get ready for my adventure. I was ready to go in seconds, donning my quick dry tan shorts (which are see through when you get them wet, thanks, morons) an adventure shirt and my day pack. I went back upstairs and our boatswain (bo’sun) was ready to give me a ride to the beach, an hour earlier than anybody else.

This is one advantage of being a deckhand for this company: if you plan ahead and have your things together, you can find yourself all alone on a beautiful desert island taking in the early warm sunlight glinting off of the water. And that’s where I found myself on this morning.

I was dropped off a mile away from the ship, around a huge rock ampitheater and past several jutting rock fingers, and on a beautiful soft sand beach. As the zodiac motored away in the distance, I took stock of my surroundings. I had options, I could hang out by the beach and scramble around on the ledges and boulders as I made my way to my pick up location. Or I could hike up into the high country, following an arroyo far up into the mountains. I chose the former, because this beach was too irresistible. The sandstone rock ledges that jutted into the sea were too intriguing to pass up. I wanted to dive in from the rock. I love diving, though not from any height. I love the all or nothing feel of it. To fly, even briefly in a perfect arrow into cool refreshing clear water is a pastime I hope I never tire of. There is a moment in mid-flight when I wonder what the water temperature will be. It’s far too late to change course, and my destiny has already been sealed, but I like the fact I think of these things after it’s too late to change my momentum.

Punta Colorado is located on the northeast corner of Isla San Jose in the Sea of Cortez just off the east coast of Baja California Sur. It reminds me a lot of southeast Utah, where the red sandstone cliffs form cool rock statues and walls. The only difference is, Punta Colorado has an ocean at the base of its gorgeous cliffs.
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It was hot. I shed my shirt, and hiked around in shorts, sandals and sun hat. I climbed down to a secluded sand beach and rolled around in the cool, rolling surf. I let the swell throw me around, rolling on my back and stomach right next to shore. It was so refreshing. I continued along, climbing on a rock shelf tip and took in the scene. The mountains dropped down to the sea. Rocky fingers led my eye to distant islands, and the sea was aqua-marine (of course) and crystal clear. I watched schools of fish swim around the submerged rocks. I drank some water, smiled, and looked for a suitable diving spot.
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I set up my camera on my tripod, and tried timing some jumps. After seven tries, I still didn’t time out a perfect mid air dive, but I had fun trying. I finally gave up and just swam around. The day was glorious, and I seized it with all I had left.
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The Final Footprints on Isla Magdalena

The ship was anchored near the Boca la Soledad at the extreme northern tip of the south island that makes up Isla Magdalena. Isla Magdalena is actually two separate long and skinny barrier islands that protect Magdalena Bay. A narrow and turbulent body of water separates the two islands and this entrance is called the Boca la Soledad. There are strong currents here where water from the bay flows out, and meets the rolling surf of the Pacific Ocean.

As usual, I was the first person to step ashore, and I was alone. I love being alone on deserted desert islands. It’s one of my goals to have dessert on a deserted desert island. Would that mean I would have been desserted on a deserted desert Island? Only Dr. Seuss could say. I digress. Sorry.

It was a cold day. The wind had been blowing hard for three days straight, and it reminded me of fall. If I was still in the states, I would’ve considered the weather almost summer like, but I was used to the summery weather of winter in Baja, and not ready to be cold yet.

I walked north along the shore into a grove of dead mangrove stumps. The bent and twisted trunks were bleached white with the constant sun and were sand blasted by the wind and sand. I switched to black and white and set down to capture some appealing scenes. This mangrove graveyard was very cool, the warped stumps and branches worked well with the patterned clouds in the sky.
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I crawled through the mangroves and back to the beach. It was covered in a wide variety of appealing shells. The surf kept rolling high up on shore as a very thin carpet of sea water tumbling the thin shells around before letting them lie once again. I’m turning into a shell fanatic. I love looking for interesting designs and colors that I haven’t seen before, and I think they are quite beautiful. I enjoyed picking up some of the shiny pearled ones with intricate designs on them. I’m a bit like a raven, I suppose. “Oooh! Something shiny!”

The hard packed sand near the water was ruffled and patterned from the retreating surf. It was like the ocean was making a sand painting, blending black and brown in an elegant display of natural art.

The sky added its own design to the scene. It was beautiful azure blue, and a wide set of small puffy popcorn ball clouds floated along directly overhead. The contrast was magnificent, especially combined with the dynamic sand painting in front of me.
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The strong currents of the sea caused the breaking waves to curl ashore in a power display of water. I watched a little blue heron look for its lunch in the shallow surf. It’s long twig like legs look like they might snap at any minute, but it held its own as the water surged around it. A flock of sanderlings ran out in the retreating surf to eat, and before the next wave would arrive, they would sprint back toward shore. They never were caught by the water, and I was impressed by their speed.

That was where I spent my afternoon, simply amazed at this magnificent landscape before me. I have a good sense of my landscapes, and some of them “speak “ to me more than others. I find myself hyper-sensitive to the subtleties of the scene, and I am truly living in the moment.
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I set my camera down and sat down in the sand to take it all in. I breathed deeply, taking in all I could of the fresh ocean air. I knew I was making my last footprints on Isla Magdalena, and I knew I had made good ones. I didn’t plan it, but I had inadvertently saved the best for last. The Boca la Soledad is an amazing place. It was textural, sensual, and beautiful, and I will take it with me, stored in my memories, my journal, and my photographs.

Posted by Rhombus 16:18 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches birds diving hiking deserts oceans sand photography philosophy mangroves Comments (0)

To Kiss a Whale

Coyote Encounter, Humpback Whale Aerial Show, Kissing a Gray Whale

sunny 75 °F

Coyote

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The parallel sand lines were crisp and perfect. They led off into the distance as far as the eye could see over the never ending the sea of dunes. These lines were unblemished, except by that of the paw prints of roving coyotes. To be fair, my own yeti like footprints marred the surface of the dunes as well. I try to walk a path of little impact- trying not to wreck the more beautiful sand art pieces nature has patiently etched into the sand with unceasing wind.
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I was admiring the dunes and the delicate sand features found upon them, when I noticed high up on the rise of a dune a coyote scanning the horizon. I saw it before it saw me, and the wind was blowing my scent away from it. I crouched down, and swung my camera out, and started shooting. As luck would have it, it didn’t run away. Instead, it seemed curious and comfortable with the distance between us.
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I crouched behind the dune I was on, and keeping hidden from view, I circled around and higher up on the dune I was on. Then I popped up slowly, more not to startle it, and found a better composition than my quick attempts. It still hadn’t really moved, and had sat down, obviously enjoying my amateur “sneaking” attempts, and taking notes to tell his buddies later. It wasn’t long before it became bored with me, and moved on, trotting west into the lumpy bumps of sand that separate the dunes from the western beach of Isla Magdalena.
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Later that night I heard the long lonely howls of several coyotes coming from the dunes, and I smiled.

Humpback Whale Aerial Show

My friend Kathy, who is the BIGGEST fan of whales you’ve ever seen or heard about, started pounding on my door one morning as we were sailing south towards the tip of the peninsula. “Whales, Thom! They are breeching, and fin slapping the water right outside of the boat! Come on, come on, come on, I want you to seeeeeeee.” She said, while hopping around my room shaking me. Kathy tends to get excited when there are whales around. As the whales get more animated, so does Kathy, and it is hilarious.

One afternoon, the entire crew was sitting down eating lunch in the dining room when Kathy detonated a sonic boom of a scream. When we recovered from the initial concussion of the blast, we looked to see her pointing out the window as she bolted out of the room to the fantail of the ship. All of us thought she cut off her finger, witnessed a horrible tragedy, or saw one of the Beatles, but when she came back, she sheepishly informed us that she say a baby whale breeching. Then she started laughing hysterically about her amazing scream, and when Kathy laughs hard, you can’t help but laugh right along with her. The whole room was laughing, and it was a great moment. Long live Kathy Miller and whales.
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When I came upstairs and saw the mother and calf humpbacks pectoral slapping, and breeching, I grabbed my camera, and headed out on deck. The whales were only a couple of hundred feet off our portside, and to me it looked like they were playing a game of follow the leader. One would roll on its back, and begin slapping the water with their extremely long pectoral fins. Humpbacks have the longest pectoral fins of any of the whales, and they stretch out to near 20 feet in length for an adult. After mom would roll, the calf would roll, and do the same thing. Then the calf would dive down showing its characteristic tail fluke as it dove. Then mom would dive, and it would be a few seconds before they both launched themselves skyward breaking the surface of the water and into the air in an amazing display of power.
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The calf was completely airborne. To see a whale launch itself like a surface to air missile is awesome. Emphasis on AWE. To see the size of the splash when they land into the water makes me feel like my half ass “cannonballs” into a pool seem pathetic.
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The whales didn’t do this just once; we spent the better part of an hour watching them play. It was a terrific way to start the day. I shot over 80 pictures, most of them I deemed exceedingly crappy, but I did get collect a few gems. If you missed the shot today, you might as well have set down your camera for good. It was that easy to get a fantastic shot.

Kissing a Gray Whale

My friend Ame woke me after only 5 hours of sleep, informing my clouded mind that I should get up and come on a whale watching tour. I mumbled something about door locks, and said thanks. She let me be. I immediately went into the time honored bargaining session I hold with myself every time I have to wake up earlier than I want to. “They’re probably not any whales out today anyway, and you are dead tired. Wouldn’t you just rather sleep here in this comfortable bed? You can go next time. It’s probably cold out, and man, you sure are comfortable.” I happily talked myself out of going. As I shut my eyes and was about to walk into dream land again, there was another knock on the door.

I decided against my better judgment to open it. My buddy Paul was there, telling me there was a whale tour leaving in a few minutes. I asked him how many minutes I had, and he said just a few. I told him I was going, and jumped out of bed, put in my contacts, put on my comfortable jeans over my shorts, grabbed my toque (my warm winter hat), and was out the door in about 2 minutes. I’m not sure why I changed my mind, but I think I decided that if my friends are going to put this much effort into getting me to go, that I better go. I have good friends, and I’m damn glad I chose to go.

As we rode south in the bright overcast of a passing cloud bank, I wondered if I made the right decision. I decided to make the best of it, and breathed in the fresh ocean air, and looked out at the peaceful watery scenes all around me. It really was gorgeous out, and I began to enjoy the ride.

We followed a mother and calf pair around for awhile, and since they were on the move, we passed them by. Grays on the move are cool, but we were in search of a pair that wanted to play. We motored towards a pair that looked like they were just hanging out, and when we got close and slowed way down, they indeed came over to check us out.

The mom stayed near the surface and out of reach, keeping a maternal eye on the calf that was having a ball rolling off the side of her, and coming to play with us. It bumped our zodiac’s bow, moving it around like a bow thruster. Then it popped up along side, and after our clients had a chance to touch it, I took my turn.

My first touch of a Gray whale was an opportunistic passing touch that wasn’t fulfilling at all. It left me vaguely disappointed. After all, I didn’t make the connection with the whale. It didn’t really know I was there, and it felt like I stole the touch. But technically, I touched a whale. That thought made me smile, and I got more excited by my chances. I hunkered down on the side of the pontoon, and began splashing at the passing whales, and sure enough the calf came right up the boat, and popped its head out near enough to make a solid touch, and I petted its eggplant like body as it cruised by.

That was really cool. The scene was beautiful. I saw the mother’s humongous eye just underneath the surface of the water as it came up to breathe. It was a huge whale, an adult gray grows to a length just over 50 feet, and has a mass of over 35 Tons. To see one up close is awesome. Everyone onboard our zodiacs were very happy, and moved by the experience. There were many smiles, and a feeling of peace fell over all of us.

I was already satisfied with touching one. I am very easy going, and make no demands of what I can’t control. Some days the ocean will provide you with its bounty, and some days it won’t. The nearby zodiacs were leaving, and I made sign language with Ame who was onboard that one. We both had made the connection and we were both smiling. Her boat motored off, and everyone on my boat was watching the mom on the far side of the boat. Just then, the calf popped up right next to me, spy hopping high out of the water. I didn’t even think, I just reacted, bowing my head maybe 8 inches and I kissed that whale right on its head. It was a good kiss. I didn’t French kiss it, like my friend Taylor did, and it wasn’t a peck on the cheek, it was not too long, and not too short, in a word: perfect. It was like kissing a salty eggplant. My friend Ame saw it all and screamed, “Thom Kissed a Whale” to which she received some confused looks on her boat. She told me that immediately after I kissed it, I raised my arm in triumph, like I had just kissed the prettiest girl in the world. I don’t remember that, but I don’t doubt it. Whenever I kiss pretty girls, I like to celebrate a little, who doesn’t?

The most charming moment was when we had to return to the ship. The whales started swimming after us, trying to get us to stop and play for while longer. I don’t think it was mere coincidence, I think these whales wanted to stay with us. It was cute, and a friendly gesture. It was really hard to want to leave them, after such a moving experience.

I was surprised at how moved I was by the experience. I still smile at the thought of it. To touch and to actually kiss a whale is one of the highlights of my life. It seems like I say that a lot these days, but it’s true. The Baja Peninsula has a lot of magical qualities to it, and to experience these moments has made my life a little better with each one.

Posted by Rhombus 15:07 Archived in Mexico Tagged whales deserts oceans sealife photography dunes coyotes humpbacks Comments (2)

The Magnificent Whales of Magdalena Bay

Some Insight on Gray Whales

sunny 76 °F

There were four of us in the panga including our whale-whispering guide, Jimmy, who had a unique ability to coax whales to come close. And it was CLOSE! A Fifty-foot long mother gray whale was floating perpendicular to our boat directly beneath us. It was about two feet away, and despite my gorilla arm length was inches out of reach. So close, yet so far.

I’m ok with that. Close encounters with whales are as moving as watching a gorgeous sunrise light up the alto-cumulus, or finding a mountain meadow full of wildflowers. Her calf was very curious, and surfaced a couple of feet away. In fact, it gave one of us a slap with his tail on her palm. I like to think it was a high five, though she didn’t see it my way.
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After our friends moved on, swimming away, practicing for the long migration up to Alaska, we looked about us and saw gray whales everywhere. There were more mother and calf pairs, seemingly synchronized in their swimming, breathing and blowing at the same time. A great big billowing cloud of misted salt snot for mom, and a cute little puff of salty snot mist for the calf. Speaking from experience, the smell of whale breath is far sweeter down here in Mexico than it is in Alaska. In Alaska, the humpback whales are feeding heavily on herring, giving their breath a horrible noxious mixture of rotten fish belches. The gray whales down here aren’t feeding yet. They have to migrate up to Alaska before they feed, and so their breath is relatively clean smelling. It’s weird to think about, but I’ve breathed the same air a whale has breathed.
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Look at the “knuckles” on this particular mother. The gray whale is a very unique looking compared to other whales. It doesn’t have a dorsal fin, it has “knuckles” This is an old whale, though nobody is really sure how old these whales are. Gray whales don’t have teeth, which usually tell us a whale’s age, they use baleens to eat, separating their food from water. Some think that the whales swimming in Magdalena bay are old enough to remember being hunted by whalers.

The gray whale was known as the “Devil Fish”, as they would fight harder than any other whale when harpooned. The harpooners who were dumb enough to harpoon a gray whale calf would have to face the angry mother attempting to save her baby, and there are tales of skiffs smashed to pieces by enraged whales.

If these whales remember whaling, the fact that these mothers bring their calves to our zodiacs to let us touch, pet, hug and kiss them, is amazing. These whales should give all of humanity hope that there are beings far more forgiving than man is. Man has spent decades trying to kill whales, and in some countries still are. However, these whales, these magnificent gray whales of Magdalena bay, have crossed over and connected with us. This is unprecedented, and it is one of the coolest, feel good stories of the year.
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Everyone who I have talked to concerning touching a whale, has this to say, “It is really, really cool!” or “It’s one of the highlights of my life!” The consensus is, we love whales. I’ve yet to see someone who’s seen a whale up close say, “BAH! So I touched a stupid whale, all it did was come up to the boat, and splash around.” It just doesn’t happen.
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While hiking along the western dunes of Isla Magdalena, I came across a couple sets of whale bones. They were very large pieces, some vertebra, and I think a skull. The scouring westerly winds combined with sand, and hot sun had polished and bleached them pure white. I stopped to look at these bones, and composed a few photos, but mostly I was thinking about the life of the gray whale and their bones on Isla Magdalena. It makes sense that if whales are born here in the warm shallow waters in Magdalena bay that they might come home to die as well. This small island is witness to the gray whale’s life from cradle to grave life coming full circle here in Magdalena Bay.
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I ran my hands over the smooth bones, pondering my own journey. Isla Magdalena is a very powerful and peaceful place. It’s a great place to wander and think. I love the white noise of the rolling waves, the wind continually shaping and remaking the textures of sand make for a pleasant place to lose yourself, and explore a unique place as well. The island collects interesting bits of ocean life. Next to my whale skull was the skeleton of a turtle. I really liked the skull. It was very cool. I’ve found five turtle shells in my jaunts around the island so far. I really like the shells of Magdalena Bay. Look at the colorful detail of this shell. I knew I was in the right place, and on the right path. My lucky number is number nine, and to find one of such vibrancy, was reassuring that I am where I should be.
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I walked on my way, feeling good, and enjoying life. This is how it ought to be.
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Posted by Rhombus 21:49 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches turtles shells whales deserts oceans photography Comments (0)

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