Kayaks and Islands
The air is very still here, and the outlines of the islands change with every passing flicker of heat. It’s as if the sky is sucking the land upward, all that simmering casting a dreamlike aura over the entire landscape – a thick and beautiful hallucination if ever there was one. I’ve been paddling and hiking the Baja peninsula for eight days now and yet my mind still has trouble grasping the reality of what it must have been like living in this arid – yet paradisal – place eons ago. Traces of human life have been found on these islands going back 11,000 years. With their desert sands, salt water, summer hurricanes and the unbearable heat – with every plant covered in spikes and wildlife so sparse as to be almost invisible in this hostile landscape – it’s a wonder anyone managed to live here at all.
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The air is very still here, and the outlines of the islands change with every passing flicker of heat.
It’s as if the sky is sucking the land upward, all that simmering casting a dreamlike aura over the entire landscape – a thick and beautiful hallucination if ever there was one. I’ve been paddling and hiking the Baja peninsula for eight days now and yet my mind still has trouble grasping the reality of what it must have been like living in this arid – yet paradisal – place eons ago.
Traces of human life have been found on these islands going back 11,000 years. With their desert sands, salt water, summer hurricanes and the unbearable heat – with every plant covered in spikes and wildlife so sparse as to be almost invisible in this hostile landscape – it’s a wonder anyone managed to live here at all.
Yet they did, and here I was: ready to walk and paddle yet further in their ancient footsteps.
The First Time
I first went to Baja in 2005 on a kayaking trip to Isla Espritu Santo and Bahia Magdalena.
Almost entirely undisturbed for several millennia, the precious and unique landscape of Baja stretches south of San Diego for about 800 miles in a striking peninsula jutting away from mainland Central America.
Millions of years ago this land was fully connected to the North American Plate but, during the East Pacific Rise, the peninsula became part of the Pacific Plate and is now slowly – millimeter by millimeter – moving away from the continent. Little is known about the indigenous people who first lived on these islands – the region only coming out of the shadow of history in the 1500s after the Spanish Invasion.
My initial visit was the first time I’d ever swum with whale sharks, or seen gray whales up close; it was the first time I’d experienced the magic of this serene place.
Ever since that first trip I’d wanted to go back.
A decade later, there I was, driving south with a kayak on the roof, looking to lose myself exploring this pristine world. My first objective was to go back and spend more time on Isla Espiritu Santo.
The island is located about 20 miles north of Bolivia’s lofty capital La Paz. In 1535, legendary conquistador Hernán Cortés named the island Isla de Las Perlas – Island of Pearls – after the rich oyster beds found in the surrounding waters.
In 1632 it was renamed, or actually baptized, Espiritu Santo (Holy Spirit) by Francisco de Ortega. Geologically, the island is a marvel of nature.
Composed of red, rose yellow, white and black volcanic strata, mud flows, and tuffs, all layered over granitic, its eastern side features impressive cliffs towering hundreds of feet high with large sea caves at their bottom. Meanwhile the island’s west coast is a jagged landscape formed of several long inlets, crystal emerald waters and shallow turquoise bays.
Shades of Blue
On my first morning after leaving La Paz and camping at Point Balandra, I woke up to the resounding blast and splash of a couple of nearby humpback whales swimming far into the Bahia Puerto Balandra.
With the morning sun still below the horizon, yet the glow of dawn’s twilight creeping across the sky, I left the tent and hiked to the edge of the cliff to watch the whales swim.
For 30 minutes I stared out to sea, keeping track of these giants’ whereabouts, watching their spouts shoot through the air, the noise resonating in the empty air for miles around. How amazing that these animals will soon start migrating north, heading for the nutrient-rich waters of Alaska, 4,000 miles away.
Soon underway again, I paddle across the four-mile San Lorenzo Channel, taking a bearing east to start exploring Isla Espiritu Santo from its exposed and less frequented coast.
Passing Punta Morritos and the mile-long, bright white sands of Playa La Bonanza, I rounded Punta El Pailebote, landed on the cobble beach shortly after, and established camp. The wind was not blowing strong and the forecast didn’t include any of the powerful stormy easterly winds that often batter this side of the island. Nevertheless, the location was surely not the best of camping sites, but it was worthy enough of a stopover.
From here, I would have access to the large interior Laguna La Salinita and could hike the high peaks around.
Rolling onto the pebbles with the surf, I got out of the kayak and pulled the vessel further up the beach, up past the high tide line.
Stretching tired arms and arching a stiff back, I looked around. My eyes suddenly caught something unusual just a few feet away. There were two grooves in the pebbles that went from the water and up to the foot of the cliff. On the sides of each groove were little depressions, the size of a small plate – similar to the mark left from a footprint.
I hadn’t being paying attention but a large group of turkey vultures were circling high above and – now that I was searching the surroundings for any clue as to the reason for their clustering – at least another 10 were perched close by, every one of them with their heads locked on that place where the grooves ended.
These amazing birds often wait until dead bodies are far into a state of decomposition before scavenging them.
They let bacteria do the dirty work of breaking down hard, thick skin; the birds’ digestive system immune to even the most powerful microbes. Whatever was hidden up there, by the rocks, was definitely of interest to them but it was still too fresh for them to start picking at yet.
A Different Perspective
I walked forward to the place of mystery and was sadly made aware of the reason for this feast in waiting.
Two dead turtles had been dragged, hidden away from the inquisitive eyes of any passing fishermen. Barely bloated, it was clear these two reptiles had left the world of the living no more than a couple of days ago, if not the day before.
For a moment I considered if their death could just be natural since there was no evident sign of an accident – a broken shell due to a engine propeller or deep cuts from digging nets, but their position, neatly put side by side tucked in a corner that would have been extremely hard for any turtle to access, and impossible for two, left me no choice but to accept that this was the work of humans.
I decided to offer these two departed apologies on behalf on my species and wish them safe travel wherever their next journey would take them. Then to the vultures, I told them that they better make good use of this offering, cruelly created by man.
A New Day
The next day, after my morning stretch, I grab my backpack and head for the hills.
Under a blistering sun I moved through the steep volcanic shambles of Scoria carefully, my discomfort only alleviated by the occasional breeze. The rocks underfoot are light in weight, formed when rising magma encounters lower pressures. They can be dislodged quite easily or roll from under your foot without any warning, making hiking on or around them quite treacherous.
Apart from the occasional chirp of a bird far away, or the sound of the wind bouncing off the surrounding cliffs, silence reigns.
The Noise of Oblivion
I am stricken by the overwhelming feeling of emptiness that clings all around me.
Here, out on the ocean, on an island, the harshness of the landscape is in your face, raw, without fluff around to distract you. The thin line between life and death is almost non-existent in this place; I could be on Mars and it wouldn’t sound any different. My inferiority is undeniable; my nothingness is thrown at me without any filters. In this world the silence penetrates you, squatting deep in your gut; the noise of oblivion.
Friends on the Island
The View From Above
It’s amazing how everything looks different when looked at from above.
I am always reminded of Marcel Duchamps’ ‘Boats and Deckchairs’ painting and his powerful statement on perspective. Now several hundred feet above the sea level, I look down at the Laguna La Salinita where I had previously kayaked its entrance and hiked along the shore. From the sea, no one could really tell what was hiding behind the beach.
From the island’s shore everything looked flat and without any depth, but from above, the beauty of the laguna is finally revealed. A wash of emerald green water encircles a center of deep ultramarine.
Around these bright colors moved various shades of brown, the result of sand and water mixing together and bordering this mass of briny water are crusty circles of white sand. Like the rings of a tree, these circles mark time – a recording of the history of the lagoon’s long, long life.
I left the next morning, paddling to Los Islotes, a little rock off Isla Partida; home to a sea lion rookery.
I remembered the last time I had visited the place how I had played with a sea lion pup, his flippers on my shoulders and his teeth nibbling on my neoprene hood. Like a little kid, I played with the pup in the same way I would a dog. It pulled my fin and tried to grab my hand while I evaded his bite and tickled his belly.
We were all twisted, chasing each other under water when a dominant 600 pound male, his father most likely, swam by barking under the water and reminding his legion who they belong to. We quieted down a little but as soon as the alpha’s silhouette disappeared beyond the deep blue, the little one and I were back at it, like a childish duo defying authority.
Today is beautiful.
Quiet, without a breath wind and barely any cloud. Yet the calm above the water stands in total contrast to the excitement and chaos happening just below the surface.
At the rookery, the cormorants and sea lions have cornered a large ball of bait fish close to the shore and now that thick layer of thousands of anchovies are squeezed between mammoth snappers and groupers at the bottom and the abstract ceiling formed by the surface of the water.
Moving in unison and creating a confusing curtain of reflection, the tiny fish are doing everything in their power to evade death. The natural world is on full display and the motivating equation behind the food chain is starkly revealed to me once more – that the death of one being sustains the life of another.
On the Move
A Bit of Play
I attach the kayak to one of the buoys and jump into the water.
Putting my snorkel and fins on, I take a deep breathe and dive. Millions of fish, tiny and seemingly meaningless individually, together form this formidable silver wall that leaves me with the sense of being locked in, trapped in a glimmering prison. But the second I kick the fins and swim forward, the living glitter mesh opened and gives way wherever I go, always staying just a foot or two away from me.
I was reminded of a physics class back in high school, studying magnetism, when two elements of the same polarity can never touch each other, their forces continually and gently keeping themselves apart.
For two hours I swim, dive and pretend to be a sea lion, often forgetting that I am not of this world, reminded of my human limitations only when my lungs instinctively try to inflate themselves with air, my brain frantically over-ruling my need to breath until I reach the surface.
Eight days after waking up to the sound of humpback whales, I am back by Point Balandra, paddling towards La Paz.
Behind me, across from the San Lorenzo Channel, Isla Espiritu Santo looks out from the horizon marvelously. There is something imperturbable about this island chain; time seems to have a different meaning here. While we worry about our short existence – about the constant flux of work and life, and all our other anxieties and stresses – this majestic world remains unmoved and immutable.
Hope for the Future
From my kayak, swaying to the gentle rhythm of endless waves, I look back at the shore, at the same beach over which humans walked thousands of years before my fast moving modern existence was ever conceived of.
One day – a millennia from now – I know someone will stand on that same beach, and will gaze over the same beautiful perspectives I have witnessed along this journey. No doubt their lives will be vastly different from my own but – I hope – their view will be the same as mine is now.
How it has always been.