Sunday, February 08, 2015

Bahia San Francisco and Isla de la Raza

 Every morning a flotilla of snowbirds in kayaks takes to the sea to harass the porpoises that hang around Bahia San Francisco. The beasts come daily and pretty reliably to the clock during this part of the year but when we’re here in other months they drop in too on a much less predictable schedule. Each day at breakfast time people in baggy shorts, floppy hats and personal flotation devices gather to mill around on the sea wall, scanning the open sea with one eye while looking at their watches with the other, and paddles in hand, asking the same question – “has anyone seen the dolphins?” I usually sit by, drinking coffee and watching the shore-bound spectacle patiently waiting until the call comes – “Mount your boats, they’re here!” And then they’re off, down to the sea in a giant wave, humanity and yellow plastic merged in a grand attempt to commune with nature. In addition to the paddlers there is one brave swimmer, in wet suit with giant fins who flops down the strand like a portly penguin trying to get out there for a more personal interaction, swimming right amidst the pod. Unlike the boat dwellers, she tries to act as porpoise-like as she can, swimming in circles, diving down, flailing her legs in the air in vain hope that the sea creatures will welcome her into their family. It hasn’t happened yet but not for lack of dedication.

We’re down here to participate in the election of our condo board. MLW was drafted a couple of years ago to bring some sense to the confusion that had dominated the process for what seemed to be forever. Like every volunteer organization this one had all the typical elements – a group of people trying to make things better, a few outlaws trying to derail every idea in spite of its potential value and a crowd of people interested in having everything their way. The big problem of course was one of rules – there were none - so the process of the annual meeting was a day long descent into chaos. MLW came in, applied Roberts Rules, silenced the annoying few and made thing better for everyone. Now it’s an actual process – the people vote, the votes get counted, the board gets elected and life goes on. It still takes two days, but for me it’s a blessing because I get to take to the sea in my boat, dolphin watchers be damned.

I put my boat in the water right at the peak of the porpoise frenzy, cutting straight out from the shore past some guy in a paddle kayak who was trailing two big guys who had pulled out of the group, perhaps to feed in the shallower water. Both surfaced and dove in front of my boat as I stopped paddling and let my forward momentum quietly propel me past them. Silly people aside, there is something special about being that close to wild nature, knowing that you’re in no danger and in fact probably of little interest to them. And it’s a special moment when they take a breath, blowing a mist of air and water yards into the air. Once they’d passed, I put the pedal down (so to speak) and started paddling hard towards my destination – Isla de la Raza, a guano covered volcanic shard about 2 miles offshore.
For the longest time,  I had stood on the beach and stared at it, counting the birds through my scope and wishing I could find a way out there. We eventually invested in a two person sea kayak and made a couple of circling passes, never really spotting a good place to go ashore. It occurred to me that I was living my own little Apollo Moon Project, making forays, getting closer, circling the target all the while gaining the experience to effect a successful landing. Finally, after many years of preparation I landed a couple of years ago. Goal achieved! Now I go out there as a matter of tradition.
A couple of miles of open water paddling can be a bit of a slog. There isn’t much to look at aside from a few seabirds and maybe a sunning seal. Mostly it’s about repetition and putting your back into your paddle stroke. Every once in a while you get a shock when you catch a wave crest with the edge of your paddle and you feel like you’re going to get dunked. But those are rare and far scarier than they really are and as long as you pay attention you’re going to be just fine for the hour it takes to get there.
On this day the wind was low but I did have to contend with some shallow rollers blowing in from out on the Gulf. Occasionally I’d get a pair in the right frequency to put both ends of my boat on crests and so convey the feeling that I was being lifted right out of the ocean. But mostly it was just about steering into them and riding them out.
About a mile offshore I began to see long strands floating on the surface and perhaps 5-10 feet down in the crystal clear water. Some were long, 20 feet or more, others little snippets. Tiny orange pods suspended in a milky clear gelatin, all attached to a long red whip with tiny hairs floating off the edges. Some kind of egg cluster? Or perhaps strands from jellyfish. I’m not sure, and every time I tried to get a photo, they ceased. I did see a couple of big jellies though, perhaps a foot across, a big clear dome with rusty brown interior pieces and parts, long, long tentacles extending out beyond my vision. I have no idea if the two things were actually related.
You start to smell the island long before you get there, due to a millennia of bird droppings. Today there were hundreds of Cormorants resting on the lee side, no doubt catching a few winks following a long night of fishing. They woke up as I rounded the point and began to leave, five full minutes of big black birds launching off the white rocks, down to sea level and flying off crossing both the front and rear of my boat as I closed on the shore.
Landing here is a challenge, because there is no beach in the traditional sense, rather a steep bench of black rounded agates. The rollers I’d encountered out on the bay were breaking hard here so I had to plan my approach. I angled in, stopped paddling and instead used my seaward oar as a rudder and guiding my boat into the calmest portion, pulling in parallel to the rocks instead of nosing in. The boat came to rest in the shallows, I scrambled out and tried to get a good footing on the agates, finally managing to get stable. I lifted the boat out of the water and left it well above the water line and took a moment to watch the last of the Cormorants fly by.
The island is also home to a colony of Yellow-footed Gulls, a few of which were there on the shore to greet me. For whatever reason, here on their turf they don’t have much fear of people. They rarely fly away, choosing instead to conserve their energy by walking off complaining with their raspy Gull voices.
Since this island is little more than a stinky speck in the ocean, one might ask why it’s worth the trip. There is nothing there but a cairn made of flotsam, a cross memorializing who knows what and a lot of hot rocks. I suppose the answer is “Because it’s there” and for me that’s reason enough. I climbed up to the highest point, added a few rocks to the cairn, took a few photos and wandered down to the other end. A pair of women in a tandem paddle kayak slowly passed by off to my south while a Mexican fisherman in a Zodiac tended to his crab traps on the seaward side. Other than that it was completely silent aside from some distant barking that might have been either a seal or a guard dog at some questionable sea front mansions a mile off to my right. So I strolled around, enduring the scolding gulls and finally got back in my boat and pushed off. The launch was far easier than the landing.
The trip back was made subtly better by being on the friendly side of the rollers that now slowly sent me back to shore. I still had to paddle but I was able to just sit back occasionally, paddle across the boat and just let the sea do its work. As I approached the shore, I was met by some other kayakers to which I nodded and said good morning. A woman to my left looked over and asked “Have you seen the dolphins, they were just here ten minutes ago?” I said “no” and she lost interest, returning to her vigil. I drove into the shore and pulled the boat up onto the sand.











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