With permits in hand, enough fresh produce to feed an army of guinea pigs, and a few butterflies fluttering around our stomachs, we weighed anchor, waved goodbye to the Sea of Cortez – our trusty home for the past year – and headed south to go further offshore than we’ve ever been.
The three-day, 370 mile trip (yes, you can powerwalk faster than we can sail), from La Paz to the Revillagigedos Islands was thankfully a piece of cake. The first day we galloped furiously alongside the wild stallions of white breaking peaks in a typical Sea of Cortez norther. The second day we sailed out into the grand Pacific who leisurely pushed us along through soft ripples and whirls. And on the third day, when the wind completely ceased, we motored across a dark mirror reflecting a perfect cloud-speckled sky and endless twinkling stars.
Just after the dawn of our forth day at sea Jonah shook me from my peaceful slumber with his soft golden words “island up ahead.” On deck my sleepy eyes took in the small rocky landmass (1nm wide by 2.5nm long) patterned with greys and browns and a few rolling green hills. Although the scene had the air of salvation, accomplishment, and a good night’s sleep, it struck me, as I gazed over endless blue on all sides, that we were still very much “out there”. Our days at sea had been surprisingly devoid of life but as we neared the island we were engulfed by our favorite feathered friends- boobies! There were brown boobies and white boobies (aka masked boobies), small boobies and large boobies. They swooped and dove and gave us a proper welcome to Isla San Benedicto as the morning sun warmed the breeze.
The Revillagigedos are a group of islands way out in the Pacific (220-500 nm from land). The islands, sometimes called Mexico’s little Galapagos, are known for their unique ecosystems with high species diversity and endemism (containing species found only there) both above and below the water. San Benedicto, Socorro, Roca Partida, and Clarion and their surrounding waters were designated a Biosphere Reserve by the Mexican government in 1994. The islands are bereft of human life, save for a small navy base on the south end of Isla Socorro with some 40 inhabitants and an even smaller base on Clarion (10-20 guys). The navy has taken on the task of helping to enforce the laws protecting the natural resources on the islands. Even though this area has some of the best fishing in the world you must reel in your trolling lines within 6 miles of land because both commercial and recreational fishing are prohibited. Feel like stretching those sea legs after sailing for three straight days? Too bad, you’ll need a special permit and a good reason (like research) to go ashore. So why did we come all the way out here to this insanely remote location, away from services, grocery stores, and the sweet green of hospitable land, only to be confined to the water? Well, we came to play underwater in a very special place. Remote islands surrounded by deep blue make perfect congregating areas for large, pelagic (open-water, wide-ranging) marine animals such as sharks, giant mantas, whales, dolphins, and big fast fish such as tuna and wahoo. We’ve heard fairy tales of the amazing array of creatures to be found in these waters and we wanted see for ourselves. So last fall we began preparing for a month-long visit. Generally, people visit these islands on large week-long live-aboard dive boats out of Cabo, but private boats can visit too, you just need the right permits. After a fair amount of searching we figured out how to get them. Turns out the permits are free (woohoo!) but can be a bit complicated to obtain, so we paid $100 to Yolanda Espinoza in the Marina de La Paz office to take care of the paperwork. Apparently, the island permits used to be around $1200 per boat, so we were happy as clams to be on our way for $100. The permits took a whopping five weeks to arrive, but two of which the offices were closed for the Christmas holidays. Once we got them we were off!
Planning for this trip was… different. The islands are not in any existing cruising guidebook, nor in our chart books. There aren’t any diving guides, or published coordinates, or much information online. Since we made the decision to come we’ve met only around four other cruising boats (out of 100’s) that have even heard of the islands. Fortunately our friends Terry and Dawn on the sailboat Manta have spent many a winter here over the past 30 years. They not only inspired us with amazing stories and videos but they filled our minds and notebooks with all the logistical information we needed to feel comfortable with taking the leap. We sat down and with the aid of google earth we got coordinates and landmarks for a few safe anchorages and several good diving locations as well as endless tips about how to succeed on this mission and avoid dangers (shallow pinnacles, aggressive sharks, etc).
The only secure anchorages on Isla San Benedicto were formed in the 1952 when the island’s looming volcano erupted and an outpour of molten lava hardened into a large fan, projecting the island circumference out to the southeast. Nowadays at least one of the areas on either side of the dark, jagged lava flow is protected from the prevailing winter weather. We anchored in 40ft between by a promontory of sharp black lava and a rocky point with perfect turquoise waves thundering over it… in the lee of a grey sloping volcano with dusty tendrils swirling within its folds. There is not much to be seen stirring within this volcanic scene, but the shifting shadows speak of ancient furry in the low rumblings found deep within. I gazed upon the bleak and powerful vista and whispered, “Welcome to Mordor.”
Upon arrival we had quite a scare. When we were ready to anchor, I put Orion in reverse to stop her and heard a hideous, something-is-dying banging from below. Wide-eyed, we shut the motor, dropped the anchor, and went to investigate. We found that the drive shaft completely FELL OFF the transmission. This is not ok. Turns out the bolts that join the two vibrated out during the previous day of motoring, and reversing provided the final pull to separate them. This was scary, to say the least, and could have been an enormous problem. Lucky for us, it happened in the best way, in the best place, at the best time. We were anchored securely in a protected location. No (obvious) damage was done to the motor or the shaft. We are fortunate the shaft didn’t shear off and go flying out the back of the boat, leaving us propeller-less and with a gaping hole in the bottom. Just three bolts, and we were back in business. The next couple days, however, went on to prove the ancient theory that one shitstorm leads to another. The thing about boats is that if something breaks (rather than replaced before it goes) it almost always breaks other things. On closer inspection of the area around the shaft Jonah had some sad revelations. Our steering cable turns on a wheel that is secured to the hull right next to shaft and in the violent thumping it was severely bent. It was not catastrophic but it had to be removed and bent back into place before we could go anywhere. It’s still not perfect but will have to do until we get somewhere we can buy a new wheel. The exhaust hose is also next to the shaft and while it is normally hard as a rock it now has a soft, crackly spot that will eventually lead to a hole. So far it’s not a problem, but possibly upon our return to civilization we will have to replace the entire exhaust hose, which runs behind the cabinets and under the floors of half of the boat. Fingers crossed this is not the case. Anyway, every great journey has a series of “oh shit” moments.
We arrived, repaired, exhaled, put the boat back together, ate a proper meal, napped, got the dinghy and outboard set up in the water, got our new homemade flopper-stoppers dangling off the sides (it is a SUPER rolly anchorage), and then we took a good look around. We were so alone, but for the 3-4 sharks circling beneath the boat. That’s right, circling. We could hear nothing and hail no one on the radio. We went to sleep excited and just a little bit anxious about figuring out where to go diving the following morning. The next day we woke to the buzz of outboard motors and distant voices. A large dive boat had anchored near us in the night and the dinghies were busy dropping divers on a reef. We hailed one of them and a cheerful guy named Beto came over to say “buenos dias.” He patiently waded through all our questions, and then loaded us in his boat and showed us the lay of the land including the shallow pinnacles that we could anchor on for diving the deep canyon behind our anchorage. Thank god for Beto. This was just the introduction we needed and jumping in the water for our first dive (on which we saw 12 sharks, including a tiger!) it was a relief to know someone else was around. From then on at Isla San Benedicto there was usually a dive boat (or two) in our vicinity almost every day, who either ignored us or kindly took us under their wings. It was great to have some neighbors to talk to and some friendly folks looking out for us in such a wild and unruly place.