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July 14, 2010

A Trip to Magdalena Bay: Baja’s Pacific Jewel

By Serge Dedina
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Village fishermand with WiLDCOAST's Zach Plopper

For decades, Baja’s largest coastal wetlands and system of lagoons remained almost forgotten. Once the domain of American whalers who killed more than 2,000 gray whales there in the 1800s, Magdalena Bay one of the largest coastal wetlands along the west coast of North America.

Located about 800 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico Border, the bay is really a series of bays and barrier islands that extend for more than 180 miles starting at the fishing village of La Poza Grande south to the fishing village of Loma Maria and Isla Creciente.

More importantly, Magdalena Bay is a wildlife wonderland. With gray whales, Eastern Pacific green sea turtles, bald eagles, and the peninsula’s largest population of bottlenose dolphins, sea lions and magnificent frigatebirds. In fact Magdalena Bay is one of the most important shorebird and waterfowl sites along the Pacific Flyway.

So on the last leg of our Baja Pacific Transect, Zach Plopper along with my two sons Israel and Daniel, stopped at the dusty and forgotten fishing village of Puerto Chale on a gusty Tuesday morning, for a tour of the southern end of Magdalena Bay. I had not been to this part of the bay—where the waters of Bahia Almejas—are protected from the open ocean by the rugged peaks of Margarita Islands and the sand dune of Isla Creciente. It is a remote and sparsely populated part of the Bay and includes some of the most important wildlife colonies in the Peninsula.

After making friends with Nicolas, a local fisherman, we board a panga along the muddy shoreline of the mangrove channel that Puerto Chale is located on. At least on this portion of the trip we are protected from the 25-30 knot gusts by the mangroves that line the narrow channel.

But once we hit the open bay we are in Victory at Sea territory. The bay is white capped with 2-3’ rollers hitting us in succession. We bounce up and down along the bay. The boys think it is a riot. Zach and I try to find a lifejacket or towel big enough for some padding to shield against the painful wave and the fiberglass boat benches. Despite the winds, fishermen from Chale are out diving for fan scallops that live beneath the sand in the shallows. Fan and bay scallops were once plentiful but have been largely sacked from the bay due to their overharvest by successive waves of fishermen over the past 20 years.

After about an hour we finally reach the mangrove lagoon and calmer waters of Estero Las Tijeras, the site of the largest frigatebird colony in Baja. On our approach we spot a four-foot hammerhead shark cruising along the surface of the water. Thousands of birds circle the mangroves and we gingerly walk over to a nesting area where a couple of dozen birds guard their newborn chicks.

After a nice visit we board the boat again and head due south to Cabo Tosca, the southern end of Margarita Island. We pass thousands of pelicans and cormorants that line the sandy shoreline of the island. To our south are the sand dunes of Isla Creciente.

Finally we reach the rocks of Cabo Tosca. A lighthouse silently stands guard here. The cliffs below the lighthouse are lined with hundreds of nest of brown pelicans. They seem to love rocky promenades for their nests. Soon it is time to go. Our panguero turns the boat around and we head back to the shelter of Puerto Chale.