A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about oceans

Sailing the West Coast: La Paz, Mexico to San Diego, CA

On Night Shift, The Life of a Sailor, Tattoos, and San Diego

overcast 59 °F

I’m forty miles out to sea, heading north along the west coast of the Baja Peninsula. It’s a bit snuffy out here. There are 4 to 6 foot waves hitting off of our port bow, gives us a long diagonal roll (forward to aft) followed by a sharper sway (side to side) to compensate. It’s been gradually building since we rounded the southern tip of the peninsula, also known as “the cape”, “land’s end“, and Cabo San Lucas.

Last night we were able to see how well we lashed down all of the loose objects on board. It was a good first test, and we passed. As seas build, the violent movement of the ship increases exponentially. We’ll see how things go when there are eight foot seas.

In the night, we discovered a leak on our forward port, and a mysterious creaking noise coming from the forecastle. There isn’t much we can do about the leak now, except sop up the trickle of water with towels, and keep our eye on it.

The chief engineer and I explored the bilges underneath the forecastle to discover where the creaking noise was coming from. To crawl in the bilges in a heaving ship isn’t easy. It’s a cramped space, with no place to comfortably put a foot down, and plenty of hard, sharp edges to hit one’s head upon. We discovered the sound was from an aluminum deck plate, creaking with the bend of metal in the swells. It was nothing to worry about.

I’m working the night shift. My shift runs from 8 pm to 6 am, and for me it’s a fun shift to work. I volunteered for it, actually. The other deckhands we have are relative new comers and a bit green (literally). The most seasoned one has only been here just over a month, and the other two have just arrived. I’ve been here six months, which doesn’t sound like a long time, but believe me, it is. I’ve been on this ship continuously longer than everyone else on board. Since October, I’ve been living the life of a sailor onboard this ship. It’s a good life; it’s more like a working vacation for me. It has allowed me to explore some amazing desert islands and to live more amazing ocean experiences than I would have otherwise. I’ve swam with whale sharks. I’ve kissed a gray whale. I’ve swam in bioluminescence. I’ve climbed some amazing desert mountains few people take the time to admire.
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The night shift is fun. There are three of us working in the night. One of the mates drives the vessel, an engineer is around to help out and to take control if there is something wrong with our engines or steering. I’m walking the decks to make sure everything is secured, make engine rounds, and look for trouble. I take it sincerely, I’m the first line of defense if there is anything wrong (such as the leak in the forward lounge), and there is no place I’d rather be.

I enjoy navigating the decks of a heaving ship in the salt spray, wind and dark. It makes me feel alive, and its fun to rely on your own athletic ability and know how in adverse conditions. I love the life of a sailor. I love the history, the ocean, and the unknown. There is something addicting about the ocean that calls to certain people. It satisfies the wanderlust in me, and makes me happy. I’m experiencing a part of the world (and life), that very few people have ever experienced. I’m going to be proud to say I’ve sailed from the Baja peninsula all the way up the west coast of North America to Alaska.

I’ll have earned my sparrow. There is a tradition of tattooing among sailors, with different symbols standing for different feats.

The sparrow indicates having sailed 5000 miles. A swallow indicates every 5000 miles sailed. So two swallows would be 10000 miles. I think I’ll have earned two swallows by the end of this voyage. Sailors get swallows because they always know the way home. I’m not sure I know the way home anymore…

I want to get an anchor tattoo on my right forearm, ala Popeye style. To earn it, I’ll have to sail on the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve also could put a compass rose or two stars, so I always know where I’m going. I like the idea of putting crosses on the bottom of my feet to ward off sharks…

The following is a list of Traditional sailor decoration and meanings.

Sailors got their ears pierced because it helps improve eyesight (I think it’s an acupuncture site).
A black pearl earring for survivors of a sinking ship.
Golden earrings were used as a means of ensuring they were buried properly should they die at sea or in a foreign port.
In modern times a brass earring denoted a survivor of a ship sinking.
One left ear piercing for crossing each of the Equator, Artic Circle, and Antarctic Circle.
Earrings were thought to keep spirits from entering through the ear, but that's not a purely sailor thing.
A sparrow for every 5000 thousand nautical miles traveled,
A sailor would get a swallow tattoo for every 5000 miles he had sailed.
A swallow because it will always find its way home.
A rooster and pig on the ankles are to prevent a sailor from drowning.
The pig and the rooster are tattooed on either the calves or the top of the feet, to prevent a sailor from drowning. These animals were originally carried on most ships in wooden crates. When a ship goes down these crates would float and then catch currents and wash ashore with the other debris from the ship, making the pigs and roosters often the only souls to survive a shipwreck.
A tattoo of a pig on the left knee and a rooster (cock) on the right foot signified "Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight."
Tattoos of pigs and chickens were to make sure they always had their ham and eggs so that they never go hungry.
A turtle standing on its back legs (shellback) for crossing the equator and being initiated into King Neptune’s Court.
A tattoo of King Neptune if you crossed the Equator.
Crossed anchors on the web between the thumb and index finger for a boson’s mate.
Royal Navy tattoos of palm trees for the Mediterranean cruises in WWII.
Many US sailors have a palm tree or hula girl from Hawaii.
The words HOLD and FAST were tattooed on the knuckles to help hold line.
Hold Fast across the knuckles to keep them from falling overboard or dropping a line.
Anchor tattoo for sailing the Atlantic.
Full rigged ship for sailing around Cape Horn.
Dragon Tattoo for a sailor who had sailed into port in China
A Golden Dragon was for sailors who had crossed the International Date Line.
Rope around the wrist for being a dockhand.
Two stars to ensure always knowing the way.
The anchor usually noted that the sailor was in the merchant marine.
Guns or crossed cannon for military naval service.
Harpoons for the fishing fleet.
Crosses on the soles of one's feet to ward off hungry sharks.
A nautical star, or compass rose was to always find your way home.
A dagger through a rose signified a willingness to fight and kill even something as fragile as a rose.
Many sailors also got pornographic images so that they would always have them with them.

I found this list using a basic search engine. I think it is an interesting list. In fact, I read it aloud to the crew sitting around me in the dining room. To be sure, there are a lot of tattoos onboard this boat, though most of them aren’t nautical tats. I’ve yet to get a tattoo, but I’m making my mind up on the matter as I write this. :-D
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So far my favorite scenes on this voyage have been right at dawn. There was a carpet of very low clouds stretching all the way to the horizon. The sea was relatively flat and calm rising and falling in the swell like the breathing of a slumbering child. The sun broke over the horizon, showed itself for a minute and disappeared above the clouds. It was very peaceful. I sipped my tea, leaned on the rail, and thought about where I was and what I was doing with my life. I had to smile.

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This marks the end of the first leg of this journey. We docked in San Diego, California to clear customs, take on fuel, stores, and water. I haven’t spent a lot of time in San Diego, and it wasn’t looking like I was going to. I was tired from working all night, and was basically staying up so I could clear customs.
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Coming into a big port by way of water is a great way to get a look at a city. We were cruising at roughly 8 mph, which compared to the speed of a car on the freeway, is crawling. I leaned on the rail and watched the cityscape open before me. Low clouds hung over the downtown buildings, and reflected off the water of the channel. It was peaceful, and perfect scenery for my tired eyes.
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Tired as I was, it was good to see the city. The sea gets monotonous at times, especially when you are so far away from land. There isn’t much to see, but water and sky, with the occasional bird or mammal. To see land lubbers going about their daily life is interesting to us seafaring folk. I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like to drive a car again…

So Long from the coast of California, heading to points north.

Posted by Rhombus 16:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged boats oceans sailing photography dawn tattoos sailors Comments (3)

Landscapes and Seascapes of Baja Mexico

Spatial Experiences By Land and Sea

sunny 80 °F

There is a timeless quality to the landscapes of the southern Baja Peninsula. I feel as though if I visited these same vistas five hundred years ago to compare, nothing would have changed. They are timeless. The peninsula is perhaps one of world’s greatest interactive natural history museums.

These are peaceful views of incredible magnificence. They have grandeur.

From Land

Punta Friars on the East Cape
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I’m sitting high up on a rock far above the coastline and watching the quiet movements of the earth cycle and flow. The swells are deceptive. They are a lot bigger than they look from the sea. They roll in and stretch over the beach in a thinning white carpet of foam. The distant coastal mountains arc back, and form “points” out to the sea. The sun has warmed everything, the rocks, the earth, the sand, and me. There is always a wind here, and I’ve grown accustomed to its enveloping embrace around me. It’s like getting a soft hug from a swirling warm ghost all day long. The sun also provides the light, which make this whole gambit possible.

I don’t know it yet, but In a few minutes, I’ll be sprinting over two hundred yards of boulders to assist in helping a kayaker who flipped over in the big swell get back to shore. But I don’t know that yet, and so for these last few minutes, I’m at peace. It is kind of funny how life is; you just never know what’s going to happen next. One second I’m completely at ease, and the next I’m completely in motion in body and mind. Let this be a lesson to you Chuck: Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean.

Boojum Trees and Skylight
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I love bright, diffused light through thin clouds.

To Hike Punta Juanico
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It was an unexpected stop at an unknown location. It looked cool. When I say cool, it means it was gorgeous, and better yet, I could get on the beach and explore. I was ahead of the curve by two hours--I was alone and had a plan. I started south, hiking up the first trail I’ve used here in Baja. There just aren’t many trails down here. Hiking on a trail again was kind of a novelty, after four months of making my own. Stepping easy, and making good progress (I was designed for walking up steep hills), I was soon atop the first overlook and blown away by the view. I stopped to smell the roses, so to speak.
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The thin trail continued to stretch further south over and up a much higher ridge, and I was happy to oblige my sense of wonder and excitement as I climbed higher to an ever improving view.

At the apex of height, the trail descended to a perfect secluded beach. I had visions of meeting my one true love at the bottom, or at least some alluring senorita, but alas, it wasn’t to be. One day….
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I did find a beautiful cardon cactus standing tall at the edge of the beach. It had five stalks rising high like the fingers of a skinny hand. I liked its position in life. Not too close to the sea, but close enough for an excellent view.

Dry Wash

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I purposely angled to the shady side of the arroyo in hopes of finding highlighted cactus scenes. Instead I found myself on the cusp of shadow and light, perfect for black and white. This common scene of a dry wash gets much more interesting in low angled light.

Last Hike on Danzante

The climb was sketchy at best. Loose chunks of crumbling rock and gravel pieces lay on a steep hillside of scratchy desert brush and small cactus. To fall, meant pain. I was climbing my way up to the top of a high bluff that would overlook the entire north side of Isla Danzante. This would mark my last hike on this island for awhile, and I wanted to make it a good one. On my first hike on this island way back in December, I hiked up to a high point, that I could see not to far away. This would make bookends so to speak, with all kinds of memories in between.

With deliberate steps I made it up, and took in the view. It was satisfying, over looking the rugged landscape of rock bluffs, islands, the mountain ridges of the Sierra de la Giganta, and the sea. A single clump of cardon was placed perfectly, and I knew that was the picture I would take home with me. I took one photo, took in the view, and said farewell.
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From Sea

The Layered Ridges
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I love the layered shades of the coastal mountains and rocks. These landscapes are begging to be drawn; I want to sketch them out in shaded charcoal on my sketchpad. For now, a photograph will have to do.

Dolphins and Mountain Light
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Baja a remarkable experience because of the ocean wildlife melds so nicely with desert scenery and mountains. This photo has several names that come to mind: “Bottom’s Up”. “A Dolphin Mountain Gallery” or “Dolphins at Dawn.”


In looking at these photos, I wondered what goes into a good landscape? I decided one of the more important elements is space. With a strong subject and artfully arranged, they become appealing to the senses. That’s really all I am, an observer who arranges his own artwork to take home.

I hope you find time to get outside and see what it looks like beyond that next ridge.

Posted by Rhombus 10:11 Archived in Mexico Tagged landscapes beaches desert rocks seascapes oceans photography Comments (0)

The Best of a Mexican March: Part 1

A Vagabond's Last Takes On A Winter in Mexico.

sunny 79 °F

With only just over a week left here in Mexico, I feel a bit overwhelmed thinking about all the writing and photography I’d like to share about this remarkable peninsula. The problem lies in the fact that I want to get out and play, savoring my last week before starting the long ten-day voyage back to the United States and Alaska. Once again, I’ll solve this problem by offering a photographic journey through some of the desert and ocean scenes that I’ve enjoyed so much.

Sperm Whales
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Sperm Whales were on my list of whales I really wanted to see while down here in Mexico. I had visions of Melville’s classic ‘white whale,’ and I wanted to see one for myself. Sperm whales have a very different shape than the other whales I’ve seen, and their spout is distinguishable from others as it comes out diagonally from their blowhole

I witnessed three separate pods, and a huge solo male. Sperm whales are very social; the females tend to stay together with calves and it almost as though they are synchronized swimming. They would rest on the surface in between dives, and it was during this time when I could get a really good look at them. When at last they had rested enough, they would take a final breath, and begin the long slow process of diving. First, the head would go down, and like a cracking whip, the rest of the body would follow. I could see the dorsal bend and submerge which would lift the huge flukes of the whale’s tail to a near vertical position. Seeing the humungous fluke lift out of the water is amazing. It is among my favorite views of the whale, any whale. It’s as though they are waving goodbye before disappearing into the depths for several minutes.
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Animal Prints
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The desert is full of nocturnal animals. They come out at night to eat, drink, and be merry--avoiding the harsh light and heat of the day. I was lucky enough to get out at first light, and spent the golden hours of the morning admiring the simple beauty and design of animal prints on the sand dunes.
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Two Sunrises
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I told Clay our Chief Engineer that the sky would light on fire this morning. He was skeptical, and impatiently called me out when at first the clouds remained unlit by the rising sun. I told him to be patient and wait, that it would happen. Ten minutes later, the sky smoldered and caught, briefly highlighting the large gray clouds in sunrise orange over the ocean and Isla San Francisco. Sunrise orange is hard to describe, it’s not pink, orange, or gold but some amazing mixture of them all.
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It was a cold, windy morning on Magdalena Bay. It was brisk. I watched a panga of anglers slowly work their lines in the choppy seas. I thought about the life of an angler here in Mexico; the long hours, the hard work, for not very much money. Two things stuck in my mind. One was that I was more or less living the same life, working all night on a boat to watch the beauty of the rising sun and cloud. The other thought I had, was that to work outside for a living is a good life. To immerse oneself in the golden glow of a sunrise for its entire duration is better than the best corner office with a good view in the world. Money is worthless in comparison to a life lived well.

Desert Plants and Landscapes
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What do you think of when you think of a desert? Perhaps you think of a flat, bare, plain, rocky, desolate with the odd scrounging a living here and there. The desert of Baja is a lush desert full of desert plant life. It’s varieties of plants, cactus, shrubs and flowers is quite impressive for how little water falls here.
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Boojum Trees
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We took a field trip in buses to a Boojum Tree forest. The Boojum tree is a funky looking tree, with a white trunk and hundreds of think twig like branches extending about a foot from the trunk. It grows tall; maybe thirty to forty feet high twisted and bent high into the desert sky. It looks like a tall inverted white carrot.
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The desert where these trees are located was superb. It was full of a wide variety of flowering plants and cactus. I loved the silence of the desert solitude. The only sound was that of the occasional bird, or the buzzing of giant bumblebees, and the cursing of your absent-minded author as he accidentally thrust his foot into an extremely sharp ball of needles that punctured deeply into his foot. This marked the first time I had received a puncture from a cactus spine in four and a half months of sandal wearing wandering. I was due, and didn’t let it slow me down.
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Snorkeling at Isla San Marcos
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The island of San Marcos is a geological gem, and an amazing setting to don your snorkel gear and see what’s going on below the surface of the water. The shoreline was a jagged rock wonderland of arches, sea caves, overhangs, spires and coves. The water was cool and refreshing, and as I made that first lunge into the darkness of the sea cave, I gave a little yelp as the water reached my sensitive areas. I don’t dive with a wet suit, as the water temperature here is about the same as Lake Superior in mid July.
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I swam deeper into the dark water, heading underneath a giant arch and to the greenish glow of sunlit water some distance away. It was very cool to swim through the darkness of that cave, and to emerge into the bright sunny water beyond. I saw at least ten varieties of fish swimming lazily through the coral covered giant rocks and boulders. The water was warmer in the sunlight, but occasionally a cold current would swirl over me, mixing warm and cold water over my body leaving my skin tingling in delight.

This was among the best snorkeling I’ve done here in Mexico, and I hope to return one more time before I leave.

Dolphins

Dolphins are good for the soul.
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Desert Insects and Animals
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The desert is full of life. The best advice I can offer is to walk slowly, take your time, and look at each rock and plant before you move much. Often these insects, birds, and animals are lazily sunning themselves in the heat of the day.
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So Ends Part One. There's more to come this week, so stay tuned!
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Posted by Rhombus 11:06 Archived in Mexico Tagged cactus plants whales deserts oceans insects dolphins photography dunes Comments (0)

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)

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