spearfishing by kayak on the baja frontier
The rows of sun-bleached panties tacked to the rafters of the desert shack whip with each gust of west wind, and the empty Pacifico cans decorating the wire fence rattle incessantly.
Not a good sign.
We’re already committed when we arrive at this random outpost, 10 hours and two military
checkpoints after crossing the border. We left the pavement long ago and are now tracking north on this desolate, heavily rutted dirt road tracing the empty fringe of the Sea of Cortez. Our destination, an island north of Gonzaga Bay, lies some 35 miles and about three hours ahead. We’ve spent months planning this trip to coincide with the best conditions for both an island crossing (before the summer heat) and spearfishing (a half-moon offers the best chance for water clarity).
But all bets are off with this wind. It’s the one intangible that can stir the sea into a translucent haze and prevent us from harvesting the bounty of these nearly untouched waters. So when a thick rope slung across the road signals us to stop our kayak-topped ‘99 Chevy Tahoe at this compound-slash-general store called Coco’s Corner, Robert, Clayton and I go inside. As we poke around the shack covered in faded photos from Baja 1000 races of years past, Coco himself pulls up in a truck. He dismounts slowly, having no legs beyond his knees, and hobbles toward us followed by a small pack of emaciated kittens. We’re the first people he’s seen in four days. Clayton, who has been fuming about the wind for hours, buys four cold cervezas, places an open can in front of the proprietor, and begins to gently interrogate him about the weather. Coco offers distressingly little in the way of long-range weather forecasts, but he has plenty to say about our plan to paddle to Isla San Luis, the southernmost of the Islas Encantadas (Enchanted Islands). He shares a few stories about the fierce Baja winds whipping the sea into an impassable maelstrom, but that’s not what he would worry about. No, Coco says, he would worry about the coyotes. Everyone tells you, “Be careful,” so sternly before road-tripping down Baja. Then they volunteer earnest
advice: Take small bills, don’t drive at night, look out for drivers using their blinkers, travel insurance is a good idea, and, oh, take cold Pepsi products since they aren’t distributed there and will reduce bribe times. But nobody ever warns you about packs of wild island coyotes. In parting, Coco offers us one more piece of off-road wisdom that saves us: “Take a little air out of your tires, okay?” They’re ready to burst at 45 psi, 10 over the manufacturer limit. The boats also seem to be loosely strung and casually rigged to the rack, despite serious cranking before our early departure. So we drop the tires, cinch the stack of sea-faring sit-on-top kayaks and press north from Gonzaga Bay on this road littered with shredded tires, which Lonely Planet Baja & Los Cabos calls “one of the worst in Baja.” We arrive at Campo Punta Bufeo to the sun casting its final rays on Isla San Luis. Our barren island goal looms immediately in front of this small beachside community of 23 empty Gringo homes, a graded airstrip, and the main ranch house/hotel, a Road Warrior-like assemblage of buildings, generators, water tanks and skeletons of old vehicles. This is where we meet Julio. Julio is a man of few words, and though his T-shirt bears the English words ‘Lick it, Suck it, Slam it,’ his constant, wry grin and mostly one-word answers make
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Wo r d s
S h i v e ly
p h otog r a p h s
r ob e r t
zales k i
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Coco offers little in the way of weather forecasts but he has plenty to say about our plan to paddle to Isla San Luis, the southernmost of the Enchanted Islands.
it unclear how much of our dialogue he understands. It’s also uncertain whether he remembers Clayton from a month prior, when he found this tiny beach hamlet tucked among a steep, rocky backdrop during a spearfishing boat trip down from Puertecitos: “Have we met each other?” Clayton asks. “I meet a lot of people,” Julio answers. “Are there any rooms?” “Gee, lemme see,” Julio says as we follow him to the row of four sand-swept rooms facing the airstrip. All that’s missing is a lone tumbleweed blowing by, as it’s plainly apparent that we are the only humans within 25 miles, and vacancy is hardly an issue. We pull the car straight up to the door. “Nice. Is there hot water?” “Well, it’s hot now.” “Is there a key to the room?” “Yeah, I have here,” Julio says, tapping his pocket, clear that it will remain there. “Does the light work?” “No.” Hmm, let’s not get hung up on details. “What happened to that cute little dog that was here last time?” “He dead.”
“What happened?” “He got bit by a snake.” Okay, enough small talk, let’s get down to business: “If I drive down there to unload these boats, do you have something to pull me out of the sand?” “Umm, sí.” The next morning the gusts have calmed to a breezier south wind, and we spend a few minutes preparing our boats and diving gear for the crossing. Probably a good call considering Robert and I have never touched spear guns and Clayton has zero open-water paddling experience. Our tasks for this trip are clearly defined: I would handle the boats, Clayton would handle the guns and Robert would handle the cameras. “Is a 30-degree, right-hand control okay for you?” I ask Clayton as I put together our breakdown paddles. He gives me a stare about as blank as the one I return a few minutes later as he breezes through a tutorial on the Riffe Euro 90- and 120-cm spear guns he brought for us—sleek predatory implements powered by rubber bands as thick as our fingers. All I hear is, “Pull back here, don’t do this, always point it down, make sure this piece is locked here. And don’t do this—doing this will cut through to the bone.” Clayton is an old college buddy who grew up duck hunting
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Left, after a long desert haul to Punta Bufeo, the end of the road leads straight to Isla San Luis, our Enchanted Island destination. Top right, heading across the azure waters to the island; and gearing up for a dive.
with his brother and dad in the South Texas marshlands. But after moving to Southern California three years ago, he went off the spearfishing deep end. He began living and breathing it like an addict, making 15 trips to Baja and progressing from total novice to winner of the Puertecitos Open Tournament, where his three-fish bag included a 19-pound cabrilla (leopard grouper). To me and Robert, all it means is he has enough spare fins, masks, weight belts, and dive knives to supply us all. We load the rear storage wells on our three Wilderness Systems Tarpons and shove off the smooth sand. The paddle strokes feel good moving the loaded kayaks. We quickly round the point and head south to a landing where we can access some shallow boulder gardens and visible kelp stalks. As soon as we land and pull the kayaks up the rocky shore, Clayton is immediately geared. Robert and I are a little slower to don weight belts—the most counterintuitive piece of equipment to a paddler who’s just taken off a PFD. “I’m itchin’ to kill something,” Clayton half-jokes, slipping on his fins and slithering away. Robert smiles. “That guy’s acting like a 5-year-old on Christmas Eve out here.” Once we’re out, I focus on my breaths, slowly working to increase my dive times, adjusting the pressure in my ears, getting
comfortable in my newfound underwater stealth mode. There’s about 10-15 feet of gray visibility and tiny baitfish dart by on each trip under the 74-degree water. Robert calls me over to an underwater rock that he’s hovering above. We both dive down to scan for a large fish he spotted. I react and take my first shot. I think it’s a hit. We surface for breath and Robert confirms the strike. “Zaleski with the assist!” he says as we high-five. Then I pull in the line, seeing that I’ve just lanced a beautiful, noble blue and yellow angelfish. I sheepishly pull out the spear and the fish darts, but I’ve learned my lesson in selection: Only shoot what you can eat. I soon spot my first triggerfish. These sharp-toothed, large-headed ovals have a pair of dorsal spines that pop up to escape predators, which can be retracted by pushing down on the back ‘trigger’ spine. And fortunately for the rookie spearfisher, the eyes on the sides of their heads cause them to react to movement by turning sideways—presenting a broad target. With the fish in range, I take my shot. Clayton swims over as I inspect. “Hey, your first game fish!” he says. “It’s about a one-taco.” “Whoa, how much you think yours weighs?” I say, looking down at the triggerfish hanging from his waist. It looks big enough to eat my prize, plus the two other fish on Clayton’s stringer. “I dunno, probably three-taco.” As Robert and I bask in our first kills on the paddle back to the campo, we dive one more spot where Clayton positions himself in a tidal eddy and nabs a monster 14-pound grouper. It’s completely off the taco scale, and we hand it off to Julio, destined for his frying pan. Clayton filets the triggers and a pair of sargos that Robert struck, yielding a massive bowl of ceviche and a few obligatory tacos for our final feast on the mainland. We light a raging bonfire in an old grill that provides the only ambient light in the silent cove, and listen for the distant howls of coyotes before falling asleep in the cool sand outside the hotel rooms.
The buzz of Julio’s remote control car skittering around the campo complex wakes us before the sun begins roasting. The wind has settled, but the reality of leaving a place with zero emergency infrastructure for an even more remote location begins to set in. Fortunately, Clayton gives Julio the heads-up about our departure. Based on our vague introduction, he gives the rudimentary Spanish a try. The translated message comes across as, “We go to island canoekayak.com | 45
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I’m starting to slow my breathing, to worry less about equipment comfort, to move more fluidly underwater. Hearing more, seeing more. Waiting longer on the edges of submerged boulders. today. We sleep—no wait—we will go to sleep there. If we no return by tomorrow night … emergency! And we for need an old boat. Can you help us, do you understand?” Julio nods, “Sí.” Reassured, we load the kayaks down with our diving and overnight gear, which the Tarpons easily accommodate, and we strike out toward Coyote Island. Having the most sea-paddling experience in the group, I load my boat with as much gear as possible, down to the griller strapped aboard the deck. I’m not too concerned about the crossing, but just a half-mile from shore I can feel the group anxiety. “This is definitely the farthest in the ocean I’ve been out in a kayak,” Clayton says. “It’s only four miles—no problem,” I say. “Well, I was waiting until we were out to tell you that it’s four nautical miles,” Clayton says. The extra paddling is no matter. But I feel the slight breeze on my neck and think about the possibility of the wind angering the sea and stranding us. I didn’t bring close to enough water for any extended stay. Did Julio understand our bailout plan? Did I check the batteries in the VHF? Was Channel 8 the frequency the campo uses? The waves seem to be splashing into the cockpit more and more. Wait a second, they’re sloshing over the sides and flooding
into the open day hatch between my legs where I’ve stashed a water bladder. And I’m sinking. The day hatch is not sealed with bulkheads, as I’d assumed. It’s just a gateway to the hollow hull, now quickly filling with seawater. I close the hatch. The cockpit seating well is filled, right at the waterline. Our paddling pod has separated from earshot, though there’s no easy solutions stuck here mid-channel. Each sideways swell shifts the fluid ballast beneath, forcing a series of jerky low braces to keep ‘er steady. We’re okay, just a wet and heavy push to the finish. I’ve spent full days paddling four times this distance, but I’ve never been so eager to get to a landing. The fact that the giant volcanic cone is right there in full detail, yet getting no closer, doesn’t help. Now paddling in high gear, I focus on my high-output strokes and think about what lies ahead, what rabid creatures and coyotes await. John Steinbeck captured this island anticipation in the log from his famous 1940 scientific charter exploration in the sea as he approached Guardian Angel Island, just beyond our view to the south: “Islands have always been fascinating places. The old storytellers, wishing to recount a prodigy, almost invariably fixed the scene on an island—Faery and Avalon, Atlantis and Cipango, all golden islands,
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just over the horizon where anything at all might happen … Perhaps this quality of potential prodigy still lives in our attitude toward islands … We wish to go over the burned hills and snake-ridden valleys, exposed to heat and insects, venom and thirst, and we are willing to believe almost anything we hear about it.” My visions of this supposed coyote domain are dashed as we approach to find a surprisingly lush tidal lagoon. After a relieving drain of my kayak, we follow the tidal current inward, beach our kayaks and head for the high ground. From the ridgeline vantage we get a better take on this largest in the chain of seven Enchanted Islands. At about two square miles, the pair of obsidian domes project the island’s not-so-ancient volcanic activity. You can trace the path of the lava by the streaks of barren ground reaching all the way to the lagoon. The contrast between the parched brown and red of the mainland’s rugged Sierra Santa Isabel, dropping abruptly into the deep azure, is sharper than ever from this height. Isla Los Lobos, our enchanted neighbor to the north, looks like a jagged, white incisor. White, because it is covered in a layer of bird droppings. Despite the ominous name—lobo is Spanish for wolf—the only worrisome life forms on these islands are of the feathered variety. The shrieking cacophony of pelicans, sea gulls, cormorants and terns fills any momentary silence—our cue to get in the water already. Though this area is known for inconsistent diving conditions, whatever worries we had about visibility also fade when we paddle all morning to the north side of the island, stash the kayaks on a rocky beach and dive a spot called Orange Peel. The name is fitting, as the overhead sun illuminates the maze of shallow, reddish subterranean rock piles and pinnacle remnants from the lava dome. Shafts of light pierce through the slowly wavering columns of leafy sargassum down to the sea floor. I realize that equates to about 30 feet of visibility. I’m starting to slow my breathing, to worry less about equipment comfort, to move more fluidly underwater. Hearing more, seeing more. Waiting longer on the edges of submerged boulders. Peering slowly around the rocky obstacles. The fact that it’s as clear as an aquarium only makes the sea feel that much more alive around me, and I start to pass on the one-taco fish I was springing at before, starting to search out something bigger. Hours pass in this calm, meditative space, one with the water. Then it breaks. Something darts in the corner of my eye. My breath is running out, but I take a couple more kicks. My heart rate builds, oxygen burning. I sight it, slowly extend my arm, waiting for it to turn. Point, pull—THUSSSH—release, and kill. Stuck right through the gill plate. The fish spirals downward into the seagrass from the impact. I pull the line up to the surface, giddy as I catch my breath and see the round Frisbee size of the triggerfish. Three tacos, easy. I catch Clayton between dives on the surface. His eyes are bursting out of his mask. He spits his snorkel out and accounts for the largest cabrilla he’s ever seen, a 20-plus pound monster. “I saw it in the weeds, and it rose like this zeppelin in the water column where the grass ends, just emerged right in front of me, and all I could do was stare down the end of my gun,” he says as he grabs my fish, stabs its brain through the eye and throws it on his stringer. “I couldn’t do it—even if you went into serious Dave eating mode—it would be such a waste, we wouldn’t even eat half of it.”
Top to bottom, pulling the loaded rigs out of the island tidal lagoon; cashing in on ceviche spoils; remnants of triggers; Julio himself; and relaxing after a long day lurking in the pristine waters.
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It’s being alone on an island—the tide rising suspiciously toward our campsite, body exhausted with cut-up fingers and chest rubbed raw from days jabbing the gun grip into my sternum. I’m no fisherman. I can’t stand waiting, passively introducing food and casting, praying for a bite, and finally heading home with only a sunburn. This feels more active. There’s agency and control, something primal, latent, deep in our earliest worm brain. We scatter and spend hours in our own private huntergatherer minds before we realize how low the sun is getting. So we regroup, compare catches, load up the kayaks with our diving gear and paddle back around to the lagoon on the east side of the island in the setting sun. We stuff the griller to capacity with the day’s catch plus an onion and a pepper and place it over the sparse pieces of brushwood gathered in the dark for a fire. “Even if you paid as much as you could at the nicest sushi place, the fish still wouldn’t be as fresh as one filleted on the beach, still quivering with life,” Clayton says with his typical intensity. And sure, the fish tastes good. But at this point, I’m just craving calories, period. The allure of this place is something more. It’s being alone on an island—the tide rising suspiciously toward our campsite, body exhausted with cut-up fingers and chest rubbed raw from days jabbing the gun grip into my sternum to tension the band, a spider crawling up my leg. It reminds me how real this is and that I’m still quivering with life too. Taking full control of your actions, knowing that only you can paddle yourself back, that you can’t miss or you won’t eat, and you can’t live outside the moment: Mis-load your gun and lose your thumbs, stop paying attention and you sink your own kayak. So before our early rise with the sun and a lucky tailwind ride back to Bufeo, before another near miss in the haphazard construction zone at the head of the pavement moving slowly south from Puertecitos toward this forgotten and pristine corner of the Baja frontier, we finish our fish with a jar of peaches and a bottle of Jack. We soak in the feeling of being out there. For the time being, before the road arrives, we can still wonder about the unknown creatures lurking, the crises to cope with and problems to solve, that shared excitement that “anything at all might happen” on that uninhabited island in the distance.
Kayakers looking to craft their own adventure to the Enchanted Islands should check out Dave Eckardt’s invaluable book, ‘The Guide to Baja Sea Kayaking’ (paddlepublishing.com); Contact Francisca Fernandez Murillo for information and camping at Punta Bufeo (01152) 555-151-9408.
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