Isla San Martin

Valhalla Under Way

Flocks of cruise boats sailed north seeking refuge from the summer chubasco season in Mexico, but we were sailing south. Naive enough to ignore common wisdom, Robert and I discovered later the price of our impatience. We had spent two months in San Diego harbor strengthening our 25-foot fiberglass day-sailer for a sea journey and we were ready to sail. It was our first trip ever to anywhere in a sailboat. We had read about the Galapagos Islands, still an exotic destination in the late 1960’s, visited by only the most intrepid. We didn’t really care if we got there or ended up somewhere else. We cast off the lines and set course for Mexico.

Warm April days and placid nights affirmed for the moment our choice to begin our trip in May in spite of warnings from older salts about the storms and even hurricanes that hit the western coast of Mexico during the summer. We anchored at night when we could off one of the isolated fishing villages on the coast of Baja California and stayed for a week in the little bay on Isla Martin Island, a tiny island about 150 miles south of Ensenada. The anchorage wasn’t perfect, but we got used to the swells that managed to creep around the sheltering rocks. Kelp flies covered the boat and annoyed us until we discovered if we blew on them, they hunkered down as they would on a leaf of kelp in a strong wind. Easy targets. We counted our kill with glee.

Crating Dried Seaweed

A handful of men stayed on the island in semi-permanent structures planted above the high tide mark. Three of them gathered the purple seaweed prized for carrageenan, an important ice cream ingredient. They spread it on the beach to dry in the hot sun, turning it until it was ready to pack.  They prepared it for shipping by stomping it into a wooden crate with removable sides. Then they tied up the tight bale with twine to await the next supply boat.

Another team of two dived for abalone, taking turns in the water, the diver tethered to the boat by an air hose and thin rope. The second man tended the cranky air compressor and kept the boat above the diver by watching his bubbles and rowing the heavy skiff into place.

We visited them in the evenings, offering beer and food from our stores. They shared a dinner of lobster the abalone diver brought up that was so big my two hands around its mid-section were still far from touching. I struggled with my rusty Spanish but Robert was better at pantomime and we all laughed at our attempts to communicate.

Cave Entrance and Our Guide

On the day the supply ship arrived with family members for a brief visit, the men took the day off. Pedro suggested a picnic and visit to an old lava tube. About ten of us, men, women and children trooped part way around the island and up the cone of the volcanic peak. Warning bells rang in my head as we entered the dark tube that pierced the island. Among us, we had three flashlights, and only ours had fully charged batteries. We crouched and crawled past several side passages, reminding me of Tom Sawyer’s cave trip and I hoped Pedro was keeping track of those detours. I whanged my head several times and scraped my knees and hands on the sharp lava. After half an hour of uncomfortable progress, we had lost all hints of natural light. If one light went out, it would be even more difficult to make our way over the rubbly bottom of the tube. Pedro stopped when his light illuminated a very narrow passage ahead. I had difficulty understanding what he was trying to tell me until I realized he was saying we had to go back. Why? Not because it was a really risky thing to do and my self-preservation alarms were ring louder than ever. No, it was because Roberto was mas gordo, too fat, for that passage. He would get stuck. I wasn’t at all disappointed.

Living on a small boat requires we find ways ashore to exercise. The Mexicans pointed to a path next to the shore told us we could walk around the island, just follow the path. Off we went on a lovely day. It felt good to stretch our legs so we kept up a brisk pace, watching the path that skirted cactus and rocks.

A Surprise for Dinner

Our first wildlife encounter was with a herd of sea lions. The bulls barked and gargled while the cows watched us wide eyed and ready to move if they felt endangered. Many did flop their way into the water, but the ones up the hill and away from the water did not want to cross our path.

We tried not to disturb them but the herd was so big that to try and go around would have been difficult and possibly painful due to the barbed cactus inland awaiting agents of dispersal. Us.

We tip-toed through the herd as quietly as possible, watching for agitation.

Next, we came upon a tiny beach where three young sea elephants rested. They look like large seals with fleshy noses. They were alarmed, wide eyed and tense but less inclined to move than the seal herd, possibly because they looked ill with runny eyes and noses.

On a large, succulent-covered ledge with a great view of the mainland, we walked into a huge flock of birds: pelicans, cormorants and seagulls. They would lift off into the breeze, wheel and return to their place after our passage. We were so captivated by the activity we were barely watching the path.

But when I took the time to notice what lay around me, I was standing amidst bird nests extending in all directions. We were in the middle of a rookery, pelicans near the water and cormorants further inland. When I realized the effect of our passing, I was horrified.

Sea Elephants

Those lovely wheeling and diving birds that we thought were our personal entertainment were distressed parents As we approached, they fled to the air for safety, leaving their chicks and eggs unguarded. This was the opening the seagulls anticipated. They rushed to the eggs, pecked them open and gobbled up the tasty liquid so fast I hadn’t realized what they were doing. They harassed the flightless, downy feathered pelican babies until they regurgitated the hard-won breakfasts they had just received from their parents. The gulls gobbled that up, as well.

We needed to get away from there but going forward or back would have the same wrenching outcome. We hurried on, intending at least to minimize the time of disruption, having had our human arrogance about the displays of nature for our personal benefit considerably deflated.

We did see some gull eggs, laid right on the vegetation, no nest. The speckled egg is pointed at one end, so that if it rolls, it just bobbles around in a circle The parents do sit on up to three eggs, and they poop right there so that by the time the chicks hatch, there is a rim of guano around them.

When we got back to the fish camp, we asked why we were not warned about the rookery. The men, of course, knew about it because they went there for fresh eggs.

The patience and generosity of the men held us there for several days, but eventually other adventures beckoned, and we resumed our journey to the south.