Off on the horizon, a soft white light ignited and extinguished, slowly revolving, whispering the presence of small islands ahead. The stars began their disappearing act with the lightening blues and pinks of the sky, and a cluster of sunburnt rounded hills took shape ahead. After over four days at sea we reached our destination.
The San Benitos are a group of three small, mostly uninhabited islands off the tip of Baja’s large Punta Eugenia, roughly halfway down the peninsula. The islands form a small, not entirely enclosed bay that has good protection from the prevailing wind and swell coming from the northwest. We weren’t planning on stopping here but along the way read in our cruising guide that the diving here is particularly good so we stopped to check it out. Plus we were eager to rest. We hadn’t had more than 2-3 hours of sleep in a row in days.
We dropped our anchor behind a few moored pangas in front of a fishing camp, which was nestled in a small cove. We exhaled deeply, ate a proper meal, and went to sleep. We awoke midday and while putting the boat back together (after days of creating piles of clothes and dishes) we heard a motor outside. We found four young guys on their way back from fishing curious about the newcomer boat. We found out that they were part of a cooperative of commercial fishermen from Isla Cedros, the much larger island 50km to the east. Normally the fishing camp was populated with fishermen and their families, but at this time there was only six “vigilantes”, guys whose job it is to monitor for poachers. I told them a bit about the work my former employer Reef Check did with a nearby fishing cooperative on Isla Natividad and the work I personally did with a cooperative in Bahia Magdalena, further south. They seemed to enjoy our familiarity with their job and when we ask if they knew where the good dive spots were they offered to pick us up the following morning to show us.
Even though we often do not know what day it is we both had this day on radar because it was Jonah’s 38th birthday! We spent the remainder of the night relaxing and celebrating his life.
After a solid twelve hours of sleep we climbed aboard a panga (small Mexican fishing boat) with Jorge, Paul, and Jose, who chuckled as we loaded our many belongings onto the boat. We decided to go free diving instead of breaking out all our scuba gear, which was a good choice because they took us to several spots and we were constantly in and out of the boat. The scenes that met us were well worth the trip. The bottom was covered in an understory of southern sea palm and flowing surf grass. The organisms were reminiscent of southern California a hundred years ago, the same players but larger. The fisherman only commercially collect invertebrates (abalone, lobster, wavy-top snail, clams, etc) not fish. So while they do take fish for personal consumption they appear to have little impact. There were huge kelp bass (calicos) everywhere, tons of large sheephead, and the occasional yellowtail jack out in the deep. The water was a crystal blue and though brisk at 65 degrees, much warmer than we are accustomed to. We were still glad to have our wetsuits!
The east island must be a sea lion rookery because although we saw very few hauled out on rocks the water was full of small curious little guys who followed us and larger females around like frisky puppies. I can play with these guys all day and spent most of my time in the water doing a clumsy dolphin-kick dance with them as they zoomed all around me. Jonah on the other hand speared several calicos for dinner for the guys and us. Jose joined us in the water and the other two fished with rod and reel. We got back on the boat spent and pleased to see that the catch was enough to feed all of us, as well as stock up our freezer. We made plans to return to the best of the spots on the following day with them. This time we brought our scuba gear and spent another glorious day frolicking with sea lions and big fish. With the extended bottom time we could spy more of the cryptic invertebrates such as lobsters, abalone, urchins, and anemones.
Each night we dinghied over to the “casa de los vigilantes.” Six guys in their 20s live in this little bunk house and spend their days sleeping, eating, playing cards, fishing and drying fish to bring home to their families, and their nights are spent in shifts motoring around the islands on lookout. They stay for fifteen days, after which they are relieved by another group, and return every two months. It was obvious that they get pretty bored and they seemed relatively pleased to have some new faces around, even though our Spanish skills put us as a cross between three year olds and clowns.
One night they taught us how to make their version of sashimi with the fresh calico (cut up raw with lime juice, soy sauce, tomatoes, onion, chilies- eaten with saltines). Another night they made us steak and french fries. We in turn brought tequila, IPAs (which they’d never had and loved- cervezas fuertes!), and chocolate. We actually brought this chocolate from Trader Joes called firework that has chili pepper and popping candy in it. They had fun with it. They told us about the little endemic nocturnal birds on the islands (nocturnos) and the different boats that pass though from around the world. We played cards. And once they learned that we didn’t have kids (a travesty in their eyes) they gave Jonah many special instructions to follow to make sure that when we return we have a baby in tow. We all had a good laugh at Jonah’s confused expression.
Our last day the wind was too strong to go diving so we hiked all over the large west island with Paul. We climbed the hill to the old ruined lighthouse, which told countless stories of times and tides past. We saw the many houses of the nocturnos- holes in the earth made by the birds or by visiting researchers. We visited the elephant seal beach populated only by a small number of females and young seals at this time. And we wandered around the now deserted fishing camp, returning with only a few cactus spines in our toes.
We said goodbye to our new friends and to the islands. They are barren, beautiful, and lonely masses of earth on the very edge of a continent, and we are grateful to have sailed upon them.