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December 13, 2012

Adventures in Bahia Magdalena

Discovering Hidden Treasures in Baja California Sur
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Abandoned fish camp, mangrove forest and frigate bird colony on Isla Santa Margarita

Several years ago, WiLDCOAST Executive Director, Serge Dedina, and I drove the Baja California Peninsula to visit our project areas and explore coastline. One of our stops was the magnificent Bahia Magdalena. Home to expansive mangrove forests, grey whale breeding lagoons, barrier islands, sweeping beaches and isolated fish camps, the bay is one of the peninsula’s most dynamic treasures. It is impossible to take in the bay’s sites from shore so we found a fisherman in Puerto Chale to give us a tour in his lancha.

We wove our way through the mangrove maze that buffers the shoreline from the open bay, passing resting migratory birds, feeding sea turtles and leaping schools of fish. Once we hit the deep blue of the bay we could see the rugged hills of Isla Santa Margarita and the low sand dunes of Isla Creciente. Soon the vibrantly colored homes of Puerto Chale faded into a vast expanse of hazy mountains and desert behind us as we motored out into the bay.

The Baja California Peninsula is notorious for wind that howls from the northwest most days of the year. It usually picks up around noon and blows until dark. It can be a camper’s dilemma and a windsurfer's delight. It can also be a boater’s worst nightmare. We had driven from Punta Conejo that morning and got a late start for a bay voyage. By the time we reached the middle of the bay, equidistant from our launch site in Puerto Chale and the desolate islands ahead, the wind began to stir. As each minute passed it intensified another knot until wind waves the height of the lancha slammed us head-on. I was sitting toward the front of the boat which experiences the most wave motion. I could feel my behind bruise as the front two-thirds of the boat leaped into the air and crashed down with every chop. As the wind continued to intensify the lancha would tip slightly in the air giving us the sensation that we would eventually get tossed into the bay.

After one exceptionally close call our driver killed the engine for a moment to rest and take in the immensity of the bay. I caught a glimpse of something large and black in the water from the corner of my eye. I studied the water around us for a few seconds when out of the depths emerged a juvenile hammer head shark. The four foot elasmobranch cruised around us for a few minutes and then continued on. I thought, what are the chances, in this massive bay, without another person or boat in sight, the shark would choose to surface there?

We resumed our slow and painful voyage. Before too long we were finally under the wind shadow of Isla Santa Margarita. The calm and warmth was satisfying but ephemeral as we knew that we would eventually need to return across the windswept bay. We beached near a dormant seasonal fish camp. The sheet metal roofing of the camp’s shacks eerily creaked in the wind. Nearby was a small mangrove lined lagoon. Prehistoric sounds emerged from the water-floored forest. Thousands of frigate birds darted overhead and filled every nook in the mangrove trees.

We continued along the island shoreline to one of the bay’s southern entrances. Here the Pacific meets the draining bay in a narrow bottle neck between sand spits producing some of the most treacherous waters on the peninsula. Above the eerie abandoned lighthouse of Punta Tosca haunts the point. It is bewildering to think of the early Spanish explores trying to navigate these dangerous waters with no instruments or maps and knowing that nothing but the unknown was ahead.

We were more equipped and comfortable than Francisco de Ulloa probably was when he entered the bay here almost 500 years ago. Our motorized lancha, ham sandwiches and the trusty Tacoma that awaited us on shore seemed like essentials but in actuality were luxuries; luxuries I wasn’t willing to give up for a night beneath the lighthouse on Punta Tosca. So we turned for Puerto Chale to beat the dropping sun and continue our trek up highway one.

We crossed the border several days later and were directed to secondary inspection because our car was lathered in Baja Sur dust and mud and filled to the brim with battered gear. As I watched from inside the containment cage the Tacoma go through the X-ray for the fifth time I thought of the seemingly empty expanse of desert we traversed. But what looks like a bay vacant of life or low brush growing out of the sea that looks barely alive, there are thriving secrets stirring about. You never know when a hammerhead will poke its head out of the water below or a colony of thousands of frigates will accompany you on an empty beach. But you can’t see these things from the highway or the dock. You need to explore and fortunately there are places like Bahia Magdalena where that is still an option. 

Zach Plopper