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Sea of Cortez on Kialoa II

Marshall Krantz, December 1987

LA PAZ, Mexico--Start with pure aquamarine. Place a dark shade of blue-green on top, and an inky cobalt blue on top of that. That's the water. Lay down a light, pastel blue. Deepen the shades until you get azure. That's the sky. Separate the sky and sea with brown desert swatches--an island here, a finger of land there, the jagged coast over in the distance, all artfully arranged.

This seemingly two- dimensional world, this collage where shapes and surfaces dominate and the two basic color groups are brown and blue, is the Sea of Cortez, as seen from Baja California Sur.

That's the big picture. But look closer. Life punctures the surface. On a quiet early morning, in Caleta El Candelero cove at Isla Espiritu Santo, I was making notes, waiting for the others to awaken. All of a sudden, a whoosh grabbed my attention. A dozen tiny, silvery fish flew through the air, inches from the water. In a fraction of a second, they were gone. The water, so smooth and calm a minute ago, was broken like shattered glass.

Champion Racer

The vessel for the trip inside this piece of real-life minimalism is the Kialoa II, a 73-foot yawl that was once a champion racer and is used for charter. It is among a handful of charters operating in the Sea of Cortez and one of the few means by which the traveler can explore this starkly beautiful area.

My companions on this trip included Kialoa II owner Frank Robben, a former engineering professor at the University of California, plus crew members Kevin and Pat McGrath, escapees from Silicon Valley. The others were Bob Cummings of Phoenix, a retired advertising executive; Donna Peck, an editor in San Francisco, and Debbie Aitchison, a nurse and a member of the La Paz boating community.

We visited half a dozen islands in about a week, traveling from the Kialoa II's base port of La Paz as far north as the southern tip of lsla San Jose, about 50 miles away.

The unexpected happened again and again. Once, far out on the water's surface, a large dark square vaulted from the water; it was a manta ray. It flipped in the air, then disappeared within a split second. This happened twice more during a few hours' sail between islands.

Things also appeared out of the blue - boats from the water's surface, or maybe whales or dolphins, or dozens of frigate birds, those distinctively angular black-and-white birds with 5-to-7- foot wingspans. They started as specks, as if imagined, and grew larger and larger.

Feeding Frenzy

Sometimes, they engulfed us. This happened the first day out. In the distance, we saw dozens of pelicans bombarding the water. The water bubbled furiously. It's called a boil, which is a feeding frenzy. Most likely, tuna from below are driving smaller fish, perhaps mackerel, to the surface, where the pelicans and dolphins snatch them. This takes place on a grand scale, with hundreds, possibly thousands, of participants.

Everyone's blood, it seems, races at the sight of dolphins. Kevin told me, the inexperienced sailor at the helm, to steer toward the boil. I veered to port, but the yawl, cruising at about five knots, didn't stand a chance of catching the dolphins, which by then had taken off and were racing away in the opposite direction. Unexplainably, they suddenly switched direction, heading in a line that would intersect our course in a few hundred yards.

Kevin put the wheel on automatic pilot, and we rushed to the bow. Soon, scores of dolphins swarmed around the boat, keeping pace with us. In their arching style, they wove in and out of the water. About 200 dolphins were visible on the surface, covering an area of about four acres.

About half a dozen swam on either side of the bow, which is a dolphin habit. Every once in a while, they turned sideways to look at us, apparently just as curious about us as we were about them. Eye to eye, humans and dolphins were no more than 15 feet apart.

Bottlenose Dolphins

I can't speak for the dolphins, but the humans were exhilarated. We laughed and giggled, even the old hands who have witnessed this spectacle many times before.The dolphins were bottlenose, just one of 30 kinds of dolphins found in the Sea of Cortez, and among 650 identified species of fish and water mammals.

Although heavy commercial and sport fishing have depleted the number of fish in recent years, the Sea of Cortez remains abundant with sea life. It is still called the world's greatest fish trap, because fish are drawn up into its warm waters. We spotted such tropical fish as angelfish, parrotfish and sergeant majors while snorkeling. One day, while sailing, we noticed several whales floating on the water.

The Sea of Cortez, 700 miles long and 150 miles wide at the mouth, was created 10 million to 15 million years ago during a violent geologic upheaval along the San Andreas Fault. A large slice of western Mexico was wrenched apart from the mainland to form Baja California, and the Pacific Ocean rushed in to fill the gap.

There are about 100 uninhabited islands in the Sea of Cortez, only a few are inhabited. We got a chance to visit one of these inhabited islands, Isla Partido, a rock of an acre or two shaped like a wedge of cheese on its side.

The Kialoa II met up with Jazac, a motorboat charter that had a couple from Florence, Italy, as guests. The woman, originally from La Paz, was acquainted with the families that live on Partido.

As soon as the Kialoa 11 anchored off the island, Jennifer and Arnoldo came alongside in a panga to take us to shore. (A panga is an open motorized boat about 20 feet long that is used by local fishermen. )

Driving the panga was Roberto, a 30-ish man with black hair, black beard and a creased, sun-darkened face. Roberto lives on Partido with his wife, Beatrice, and their three children, along with three other families. Roberto's parents lived on the island, also known as Coyote, for 50 years. They now live in La Paz, and he has taken over the fishing.

The families on Partido are primarily shark fishermen. The men put out their nets in the afternoon and pick them up the next morning. They then fillet, salt and dry the fish. Shark meat, Jennifer says, is considered a delicacy, and is used in a kind of stew called bacalao.

As the panga drew near the island, I saw a small collection of ramshackled wood houses with palm-covered porches, a long building with a palm roof that is used as a drying room, a white block-and-plaster building, which serves as a schoolhouse, and a tiny white chapel on the island's crest. A few pangas lie on the small, smooth-rock beach in front of the settlement, which is home to about 20 people.

Shark Piled High

Jennifer introduced us to Beatrice, and then took us to the drying room. Inside, 2-foot- square sheets of salted, dried shark were piled up about a yard high on a wooden pallet.

Although life is harder for the families on Partido than if they lived in La Paz (they must import fresh water from the peninsula every 10 days, for example), Roberto says he prefers his island home to what for him is a big, hurried city, and what for us is an aptly named tranquil town (paz is Spanish for peace).

Frank gave Roberto about 45 gallons of water from the Kialoa II as thanks for his hospitality, and in return Roberto gave us a bucketful of chocolate clams, large clams with coffee-colored shells. The clams proved to be excellent eating, washed down with margaritas at cocktail hour.

When we weren't visiting shark fishermen or sailing from one island to another, we spent the warm days snorkeling, swimming, windsurfing or exploring islands. On the rugged, mostly barren islands we found giant cactus, elephant trees and mangrove swamps, along with lizards. Goats and deer inhabit some islands, but we saw no sign of them.

Just relaxing on board--reading, Iying in the sun, taking in the scenery--is considered a legitimate activity. "We've got a bad case of the slows," is how Kevin put it. Socializing with other boaters, in person or by shortwave radio, proved to be a constant activity. This was especially true aboard Kialoa II, which still enjoys celebrity status as a world-class racer dating to the mid to late 1960's.

At Isla San Francisco, a couple dropped by for breakfast one morning to get a close-up look at the boat. They admired the substantial equipment, which was intended for serious racing. The conversation soon turned to stories of agates and opals found on Isla San Francisco, and rumors of where "bugs" (lobsters) might be found.

It was a typical spring day. The sun shone brightly, and the air temperature was in the low 80's. Frigates circled overhead, and through 20 feet of crystal-clear water we watched dozens of conger eels, their ends stuck in the cove's sandy bottom, swaying in unison like tall grass in a breeze.

Best Fishing

Spring and fall are the most popular times for cruising in the Sea of Cortez; air and water temperatures are usually in the 70's and 80's, and the sea is fairly calm. Winter temperatures are also often warm, though there may be some cool days. The winter water temperature may be too cool for comfortable swimming or snorkeling and northerly winds can kick up large swells.

Copyright Marshal Krantz