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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)

Time Management and the Modern Explorer

Blue Whales, Sharks, Unapologetic Time Management "Problems"

sunny 85 °F

The boat slowed, and I knew we had spotted some sort of sea creatures, but I didn’t yet know what it was. I was in my head (bathroom), getting my day started. I knew that whatever it was, was probably going to be pretty cool. Therefore, I spit out my toothpaste, grabbed my fully charged camera battery and headed up to the bow. The guests had gathered, and I found a group of crew ready to go with their fancy cameras ready to shoot.

I learned we had stopped for a Blue whale. The blue whale is the largest animal on planet earth. This thought alone, gave me a small charge of endorphins coursing though my veins. I couldn’t believe I was going to be lucky enough to witness one at a reasonably close distance.

The sun was bright, and the day was hot (as it always is). There was a soft breath of hot breeze, and the seas were softly rising falling like the contented breathing of someone asleep. Red clouds of krill and invertebrates willowed around like smoke in the water. These smallest life forms come in a variety of shapes and designs, but ultimately most of them end up in the same place: digesting in a fish or mammals stomach. It’s amazing to me that these tiny creatures are the start of the ocean’s culinary chain. These tiny creatures are very important to the ocean’s ecosystem. Without them, none of the spectacular wildlife I’ve seen would be here, and it’s possible we wouldn’t be here either.

Blue whales feed on krill, and while growing can pack on 200 pounds a day. The length of a blue is 100 feet long. Look at the comparison to other animals to give it some perspective. We humans are but a mosquito to these giants. One of our wildlife naturalists on board told me that there are about 50 year round blue whales that live in the Gulf of California.
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We were very fortunate; this Blue whale wasn’t diving down for long periods. They typically dive for 10 minutes at a time; however, the one we were watching was only going below for half of that. It would surface, blow, swim at the surface for awhile, then arc it’s lengthy back and dive down deep once again. I was in the right place at the right time, and was able to capture its fluke, the tail of the blue as it dove down deep. Seeing the fluke on a blue I’m told is rare, so I feel fortunate to not only see it, but can take this memory with me.
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I witnessed my first shark here in Baja. I was snorkeling among the vibrant corral reefs on the Isla Manserate, looking at the beautiful varieties of fish swimming below. In front of me, a school of some of the larger fish suddenly shot past towards shallower water. I thought to myself, “Well, they don’t just bolt for no reason,” and I looked in the direction from which they came. I saw in the distance the sharply angled v-shape of the shark, a gray body and a lighter underbody. It was significantly larger than anything else under the water, and in two strokes of its tail was gone. Awesome! That was a rush. I don’t fear sharks, but I am aware of the fact that while I’m snorkeling, I’m nowhere near the top of the food chain and there are many creatures much larger than I am. I continued my snorkel occasionally glancing ahead to see if it would return. It never did, but I hope to see another shark soon.

Author’s Note: Before starting my contract on the ship, I watched a shark documentary called, “Shark Water.” One man wondered why people feared sharks so much and set about to find out why. What he found is that, as usual, humans don’t understand sharks. We stereotype them into a man eating monster. Not only that, but he exploited the ruthless and needless killing of the sharks for there tails. The shark tail is considered a delicacy in some countries, and will pay top dollar for shark fins to make shark fin soup. It was an eye opening documentary, which I found informative, entertaining, and visually amazing.
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Landing on the small beach on the island of Ispiritu Santo, the first thing I saw was a small shark head bobbing in the froth of the small waves. It was frowning. I guess if I was decapitated and had my head thrown into the sea, I would frown as well. What does this unfortunate shark tell us? Somebody is killing sharks, but to what end? As it happened, I was in a “protected” national park of Mexico, this isn’t reassuring.

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December 23rd, 2010
“This is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I’m sitting atop one of the high, rocky overlooks on the Isla Danzante. Turkey vultures are soaring overhead, gliding effortlessly on the wind, the far off “SMACK” of a breeching manta ray down in the bay makes me turn and pull out my binoculars to watch it for awhile. Who knew? I never knew that rays loved jumping out of the water, until I saw it with my own eyes. All around me are endless views of the beautiful desert meeting the sheer rock cliffs that drop down into the sea below. All around me are more islands, uninhabited, beautiful and wild. The hike was enjoyable, it’s easy to hike in sandals which is a definite bonus, the thought of hot hiking boots seems intolerable at this point. I’ve swam in the ocean every day this trip, mostly on deserted beaches well away from anyone. This is the life. I haven’t worn pants since December 5th. I work very hard (12 hours a day), but the rewards are this: access to the magnificent desert islands that make up Mexico’s national parks, which I can explore as I want. This job is more a working vacation than a regular job.”

~Journal entry from my hand written journal
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I’m having trouble finding time for anything else other than work and exploration. This blog is suffering because of it. I haven’t made time to try and keep up with my explorations. Every day I work 12 hours. That’s one part of my day, then I catch the zodiac ride to the beach and explore for 3 to 4 hours, after which I only have time to edit my pictures and go to bed to do it all over again. Every day I’m at a new beach that I haven’t seen, and I have my choice of either hiking, beach combing, snorkeling, kayaking, or lying still. To do justice to every exploration, will take time, so please bear with me. To be perfectly honest, I guess I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm seizing every opportunity I have to explore this area, and that after all, is my billing.

I live in a world of exploration and monontony. The endless repetition of a deckhand is completely offset by every day of amazing exploration, discovery and play. I am loving my life right now.

Today, on Boxing Day (for Canadians), I’ve finally made it back to La Paz, and I have some time to catch up with my writings, but words fail me. This region is a desert paradise. Here are some pictures that hopefully will give some insight into my desert world of discovery.
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Merry Christmas From The Dusty Vagabond!
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Posted by Rhombus 14:06 Archived in Mexico Tagged boats flowers whales deserts sunrise oceans baja sharks photography jobs Comments (2)

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