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San Javier and Swimming With Sharks

Mexican Road Thoughts, A Cow's Perspective, San Javier, Whale Sharks

sunny 75 °F

I had finally gotten to bed at about 3 am. I had given two tarot readings after getting of work at 1 am. I woke up to the mirror rattling in the door, then the bow thruster of the ship turned on, which sounds like a cross between an industrial sized blender/chainsaw. It was almost impossible to sleep through. Then my alarm went off with my own voice whispering at me, “PSSSSST HEY BUDDY….” It was time to get up, and get ready for the field trip. I had gotten 5 hours of sleep.

We climbed into the van, slammed the doors, and pulled into last position of a caravan of vans that were stretched into a long white train. Our destination was the three hundred year old mission in the sleepy village of San Javier. It was a long drive of about an hour and a half through the beautiful mountain desert that climbed high into the Sierra De la Giganta, the coastal mountains on the east side of Baja California Sur.

The roads at first started out very good; smooth and narrow asphalt, on highway 1 that was a main thoroughfare between La Paz and Loreto. Our driver drove fast, but everyone else drove faster, and we quickly lost the lead cars of our caravan. No matter, we turned west just south of Loreto, and began our long drive into the gorgeous mountains that make up this region of Baja Sur.

Mexican Road Thoughts:

It was good to be traveling by van again. I missed having the wind through my hair while traveling down roads, I had never been on before. As an added bonus, I wasn’t driving, so I could look off into the desert for as long as I wanted.
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The landscape was amazing. As we drove up switch backs up into the mountains, I was surprised to see a copse of palm trees growing in the low areas nearest to the water. The green dread locks of the top of the palms made a nice contrast to the rest of the desert full of the usual suspects of Cardon, cholla, ocotillo, pin cushion cactus, among many others. At the bottom of the shady side of the ravines, only the very tips of the branches of the trees and cactus were caressed by the low sunlight. The mountains were jagged, and appealing. Giant rock spires of ragged rock stuck up in numerous spots, and the dry arroyos were calling me to come and explore them, as they most certainly led to desert wilderness. There’s grandeur in these mountains. I’ve started reading Steinbeck’s “The Log From The Sea of Cortez.” It’s his actual account from a trip he made to this region in 1940.

The road began to deteriorate as we climbed. It changed into a ragged asphalt, to a gravel road, to a rough gravel road, and finally to a washboard hell that we bounced and jounced along for the rest of the way to San Javier. We couldn’t keep the windows open, as we would’ve ended up eating dust, and we couldn’t use the AC because it would’ve clogged the air filter. So we suffered in silence, bouncing along and baking slowly in the sun. I read a bit, stared out at the desert, and wrote in my journal. My hand written journal looks as though a second grader was writing on top a spinning washer during an earthquake.

I saw a small ragged group of cows staring dumbly on the roadside in some shade. What the hell do cows eat in a desert? Every plant and animal has a sharp spine attached to it. I can’t imagine being the first cow in this prickly environment. “I wonder if I can eat that (to speak cow correctly, you need to draw out and deepen your voice in a very slow cadence)? OUCH! That’s sharp! How about that thing? Yowch! Nope…” Soon enough, the cow had tried everything, and she figured out that there was nothing to eat. Her tongue was pierced completely through, like a gothic punk rocker. And that’s how the cows looked--emaciated, hungry, hot, and pondering their fate in life.

I thought about this, and tried to put myself in a cow’s perspective. These ragged, hungry looking and isolated cows probably never heard of the fields of the Midwest, where a cow could probably find plenty of grass to eat, shade trees to lie under, and a stream or two to quench the thirst. A cow paradise? Who knows? The point being (I‘m hoping eventually I‘ll have one) that if a Mexican desert cow did know of these things, how would it react? Would it be jealous of its northerly cousins living in the land of plenty? Or would it take a live and let live approach, and try to make the best of a stacked deck. Long rides over bumpy roads tend to bring out weird topics of contemplation in me.

I also realized my choice of footwear (flip-flops) was a bad one, especially if the van broke down. Walking on gravel roads in flip-flops is bad, and it would’ve been a long road to walk to get anywhere. Luckily, our vans held true.
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The mission was set on the far end of the small village of San Javier. Sleepy is the right way to describe San Javier. The town has one small main boulevard, a collection of small comfortable haciendas, a few shops, a two room police station, and a couple of small restaurants. It was charming. We stepped out into the bright mid-morning sun, and we headed towards the mission for a brief introduction.
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I skipped out on the introduction, choosing my own path and getting away from the large group of guests to which the tour was for. I sat in the cobblestone square in the shade of one of the many orange trees, and took it all in. San Javier is set in a beautiful mountain valley in the middle of the mountains. It is a true oasis, with a good river to provide water for the small population. There were small farms on the outskirts of town, palm trees, orange trees, dates, figs, and even a gnarled old olive tree. The buildings were well lived in and comfortable. A black chicken was pecking contentedly at the cobblestone. I made the acquaintance of three healthy looking dogs, two of which stayed around for a good scratch behind the ears (good karma). The dogs seemed to be on a mission (ha! Get it?) roaming around searching for something, but for what will remain unknown.
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I’m not a religious man, so the story of the mission and its religious effect on the region was lost on me. I enjoyed the old architecture of the place. The high arched ceiling of the main alter area were impressive, and I was surprised at how narrow it was. From the outside, it looks a lot bigger. There was very old art, and artifacts upon the walls and on display, and by all accounts it was considered beautiful.
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I was more into wandering around the small village, petting the dogs, looking at the birds, and napping in the shade of the vibrant flower beds, and taking pictures of the fickle butterflies and bees that fluttered and buzzed around. I’ve one regret, that being not getting something to eat from the small restaurant. I wasn’t hungry at the time, but I should’ve gone for it anyway. Our field trip was over, and we loaded back into the vans to head back the ship, and back to work.

Swimming with Sharks

Have I told you why I really like this job? One of the biggest reasons why I like it so much, is the fact that the company encourages you to go out and play as often as you can. In this case, a dozen of us had loaded up into two of the zodiacs at 8:30 in the morning and were headed north across the bay just north of La Paz in search of whale sharks. We hoped to swim with them. This might sound dangerous and a bit of a fool’s errand at first glance, but in reality, it was quite all right.

The reason being is that whale sharks aren’t like their meat hungry cousins. They eat plankton, and other tiny invertebrates. While their mouth is full of shark teeth, they are tiny, and not meant for ripping flesh off of bone. In fact, they don’t even use them, whale sharks gulp in huge amounts of water, filtering the water through their gills, entrapping the plankton.

We searched for about forty minutes before we spied them. The only way to really see where they are is to notice their small dorsal fin break the surface of the water. The sea was calm, and so spying the dorsal was easy. We were told by our naturalist that there are two rules to swimming with whale sharks: No. 1. Don’t touch the sharks. No. 2. Don’t touch the sharks. The reason being, that if you touch them, they will most likely swim away, to deeper waters, not to be seen again. With this in mind, I jumped overboard and experienced one of the more amazing mornings of my life.

The visibility was pretty good under the water, but not excellent. I expected to see the sharks from a distance, but as it turned out, the gentle giants just sort of appeared out of the gloom less than 8 feet away. It kind of catches you off guard, when you see a massive fish swim straight towards you from out of nowhere.

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It was magical to swim next to these amazing creatures. Under the water their skin is blue/gray with light colored spots all over their back. In Mexico they are also known as “pez dama” or “domino” due to the spots. The whales we swam with weren’t full size, the largest being about 25 feet long. Full size adults can reach forty feet long.

Even with all the knowledge I had about their docility, to actually swim with a shark that size was still a rush. My favorite moment occurred when I was swimming along side of the larger shark. To keep up, I had to kick fairly hard with my flippers. I was watching it just in front of me when it suddenly turned and completely crossed directly in front of me, not 4 feet away. I had to tuck my feet in order not to touch it. As it passed, I saw its beautiful markings from head to tail. After it passed I swam after it again, until it dove down deep. I love seeing those huge fish simply disappear into the depths. Like magicians, they melt into the depths leaving you wondering if they were ever there.

After a while, another boat showed up, a tour boat offering snorkeling with whale sharks. A couple jumped into the water, and began what I would call spastic motions intending to mimic swimming towards the whale shark. The first thing the guy did when he “swam” close, was to reach out and touch the shark. Like that, the shark was gone, swimming fast, and as hard as it could away from us. Whale sharks don’t swim fast, but a lot faster than any of us could swim. Apparently, the guy never heard about rule no. 1, or 2. Jack Ass. Ah well, he deserved it, I hope he paid a lot of money for his moment in the sun.

As it was, I had an excellent morning, and one I won’t soon forget. I swam with whale sharks! Long Live Whale Sharks!

Posted by Rhombus 16:46 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains snorkelling oasis flowers mexico roads deserts baja sharks photography cows missions Comments (2)

A Vagabond's New Year

Hiking Isla Catalina, New Year Celebrations, Favorite Pic's of the Week

sunny 76 °F

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The Isla Catalina is probably the greenest, most lush desert island I’ve ever had the pleasure of hiking. It’s home to two unique species, one being the rattle-less rattlesnake, and the other being the giant barrel cactus. While I haven’t seen the rattlesnake yet, I am intrigued by its genetic evolution. I can imagine its thought process, “Well hell, every time I move to nab that mouse my damn rattle gives me away. Who needs it?” and over time, stopped growing one. Isla Catalina is quite deserted, so another possibility could be that predators to the snake are also probably few, so with no need to warn enemies, it learned to do without.
Desert Scene

Desert Scene


The giant barrel cactus is something I have seen, and I am quite fond of it. It lives up to its billing. It’s quite large. It’s very stout, and has a bright green trunk, about the diameter of a telephone pole. It ranges in height from a foot high to well over my head (roughly 6 feet). They are dotted all around the island, sometimes growing right next to another in a small copse of funky cactus. The barrel cacti aren’t the only inhabitants of the island; there are massive clumps of cardon, interesting clumps of cholla, and other wildflowers, sharp desert shrubs and plants.
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In starting my hike, I chose the road less traveled. Not only was this a better way to travel, it allowed me to completely lose my sense of civilization’s grip on me. I saw nobody, I heard nothing manmade, and I was free.

The overcast skies were leaden gray, and it was surprisingly cool. I hadn’t been cold in many weeks, but I loved being in cooler temperatures again. It was probably only 70 degrees, but the wind was steady, and it felt good to my body.
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I really enjoyed hiking through this amazing desert. I swear Dr. Seuss designed the landscape: giant clumps of weird cactus, some looking like lumpy offset stumps, others like land borne octopus. I stopped often to marvel at these amazing plants. I found another of my sacred places. I have sacred places all around this planet of ours. Usually, they are small little areas of land that appeal to my sense of order in the universe. In this case, it was a small sandy area, maybe 20 feet in diameter, it was devoid of any visible presence of life, and on the fringes were clumps of desert fauna. In the distance, I could hear the rolling waves of the ocean crash on the beach. I could see the rocky crags and hollowed out holes of the nearby cliffs. It smell like a desert, and I was immediately smitten. It was like sitting in a desert shrine, dedicated to the simple beauty of earth, this time in a desert format. It was peaceful, energizing, and I could’ve stayed there for hours, and possibly days, drinking in, and enjoying its finer features.
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Eventually, I found a jungle of desert shrubs; bright green, thick desert growth that looked like it was going to be very painful to try to cross. Luckily, I had a dry wash to follow through the tall carpet of impassable spines. The wash led to a beautiful little cove tucked into a wall of steep rock cliffs. The sound of the rolling waves was very nice, as I walked around looking at amazing and interesting shells scattered all over the beach. I had fun crawling among the rocks, watching the quick and agile crabs clatter away from me. I crawled through the eroded rock tunnels and explored the beach before turning back again. I didn’t have a clock, and I really wasn’t sure what time it was. One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to be the guy who missed the last ride back to the boat.
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New Years Eve, Vagabond Style.

We loaded into our inflatable zodiacs at about 8:30 pm, sure, it wasn’t close to midnight, but it was midnight somewhere, and we had work in the morning. Our team consisted of eight highly trained, crack-shot pyrotechnicians, recruited for our penchant for rocketry and night ops. We drove a quarter of mile through calm green waters, our wake glowing alien green from bioluminescence. Do I have to explain bioluminescence? More on that later. We landed, anchored the boat, and chose a firing location. A million stars were shining bright in the dark sky. We grabbed our parachute rocket flares, lined up, and waited for the countdown. None of us had ever shot off flares of this kind before, and we really didn’t know what to expect. They were rated for 1000 feet, and we figured it would be pretty cool. The countdown began, and we at …1 we fired them off in unison. Holy Crap! These things are serious! A powerful hiss, and the rocket shot off, a blinding orange light in the night sky. Then the chutes opened and they fell slowly down to the sea, extinguished in the cool waters off Ispirito Santo.
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After cleaning up our trash, reloading in the zodiac, and making our way back to the ship, we decided to top off our night by swimming in the bioluminescence. “Bio” are tiny microorganisms that glow in certain areas of the oceans when agitated. The wake of a boat will cause it to glow, a passing dolphin, or my favorite: Swimming. To swim in bio is to immerse yourself into cool liquid smoke, lit up by millions of fireflies and glowing an eerie green. It is beautiful. It is amazing, and it is probably one of the all time coolest things I’ve ever done. If you get an opportunity to swim in it, go for it, you won’t regret it.
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What an end of a tumultuous year, and a righteous beginning to the next. I’m quite optimistic about this years travels. I’m already situated in a beautiful desert locale, and I have some other plans to be fully developed by May. Any suggestions for a good month long trip? I’m all ears, and ready to go.

Favorite Pictures of the Week.
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For now, look for more desert stories, and descriptions. I love Baja. It is heaven on earth, and I’m enthralled that I’m here to explore it.
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Posted by Rhombus 19:51 Archived in Mexico Tagged me boats islands wildlife mexico deserts oceans baja cacti photograhpy Comments (2)

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