The Sea of Cortez, Another World

10/3/2011

“El otro mundo” or “another world” is the way Mexicans refer to the long crooked finger of land extending southeast from California, having broken away from the mainland aeons ago. Although more widely known as the Baja Peninsula or Baja California, its nickname evokes the stark beauty of the region with its giant cacti and dramatic landforms.

 
Just as impressive as the land is the sea that resulted from that ancient geological shift. Nestled between the west coast of mainland Mexico and the Baja Peninsula, the Sea of Cortez, the youngest sea on the planet, is a unique body of water that teems with life.

The waters are vibrantly rich with sea life, the skies animated with flocks of birds and of the 29 islands, only two are inhabited by humans.

Together, the land and the sea of the Baja Peninsula present a breathtaking, dream-like scene: metamorphosed rock formations surrounding the coves, variegated shapes and hues of pink stone, an intensely blue desert sky, turquoise waters, white sand beaches, distant hills peppered with scrub brushes and stands of cacti. This soothing landscape of muted colours relaxes the body and soul.

Tom and I have sailed there twice, once aboard Hoki Mai, and once aboard Feel Free and we plan to head there again. It’s definitely in our top ten list of favourite places.

Cruisers around the world are enticed to the region by the promise of striking scenery, countless anchorages, easy access to provisions, interesting culture, good fishing and wilderness sailing. The waters are considered by some to offer the best whale watching in the world and I’d have to agree with that as we encountered far more whales, as well as dolphins, porpoises and sea lions than we’ve seen anywhere else. The bird life is spectacular too.

The weather for most of the year is fair and pleasant with cooler temperatures from December to April and hotter temperatures May to November. The best seasons for sailing are spring and fall with winds from the north. Rainfall is rare, usually confined to brief but sometimes violent summer storms called “chubascos.” Winds are generally moderate, north to northwesterly winter and spring and variable to southeasterly summer and fall. There are local winds such as the southwesterly “corumels” that can blow for parts of the day or night. When “santana” conditions are in effect in southern California, a northerly wind will develop in the sea with winds blowing at 25 to 30 knots, generating five to six foot seas. Then it’s best to hole up in one of the many anchorages that offer excellent northerly protection. Because of the long protective arm of the Baja, there is no Pacific swell; however, when the “northers” or local winds blow, an uncomfortable chop develops. The stronger northers appear in the winter and can last three days.

 

Bird loving mariners thrill to the many sightings of pelicans, cormorants, frigate birds boobies, gulls and ospreys on the open water and egrets and herons on the shores, or even on your boat’s stern! This one somehow thought Feel Free was a good stopover.

 

La Paz, a clean and friendly middle class town built around a church, is the hub of the sea. Here, everything is available from excellent restaurants and hotels to taco stands and large modern supermarkets with abundant produce, hardware stores, movie theatres and marinas. La Paz serves as home base to hundreds of boats preparing to sail away to the nearby islands or distant islands like Hawaii or the Marquesas, often making use of the huge anchorage where you can drop the hook for a small fee. Being at the head of a long estuary, it is subject to strong tidal flow though and at the height of the tidal action the motion, colloquially referred to as the “La Paz Waltz”, can be sudden and jerky and boats sometimes face every which way, so you do need plenty of swinging room.

After navigating your way through the long and shallow but well marked La Paz channel and crossing the five mile stretch of San Lorenzo channel, you will arrive at the southern end of the Islas del Espiritu Santo and La Partida.

 

 

 
Once one single land mass but now separated by the crater of an ancient volcano, Caleta Partida, forms a favourite anchorage with cruisers because of its excellent protection from almost all directions. You can spend several days exploring the numerous scenic coves found in the immediate area.

Here, 12 boats gathered for a Christmas potluck feast with all the fixings, food being laid out on top of overturned dinghies on the beach. The sing-a-long that followed wrapped up a memorable Christmas in paradise. (That’s Tom carving the turkey.)

 

Except for the summer months, prevailing winds are from the north to northwest and tend to build as the day progresses. Heading north, an early morning departure ensures a nice easy sail to your next anchorage while a later departure will require a brisk beat. The reverse is true upon your return to La Paz- a fine broad reach back to home base is the usual pattern.

Our favourite anchorage in these parts is Ensenada Grande which actually contains three coves within the cove. At the head of one of the coves is a wide, fine sand beach with a large “palapa” (a shaded area formed by four posts and a thatched roof.)

Next morning was windless so friends Norm and Pat invited the whole gang to join them for a day trip aboard Tsonoqua II, their Maple Leaf 48, to Los Islotes, a craggy volcanic outcropping just north of the bay, and home to a friendly colony of sea lions. Dinghies were trailed and once Tsonoqua’s hook was down we all set about exploring.

 

 
The stony islet is divided by a natural archway tunnel. The sea lions were as curious as we were, boldly swimming right up to our masks for a good look before darting away.

The 14 mile stretch from Isla Partida to Isla San Francisco can be a vigorous beat or a leisurely cruise in light breezes with spinnaker flying. Our first arrival there found us pulling fresh bread out of the oven and a beautiful dorado off our trailing line. The island is a small hook of volcanic rock with a perfect crescent sand beach and lots of interesting shore side treasures to be found. A short inland hike reveals a group of salt evaporation ponds used by fishermen for curing fish. Good protection from north winds and good holding can be found under the cliffs at the north end. Protection from southerly weather is found at the cove’s south end.

17 mile long Isla San Jose is a short hop away. As you approach a low sand spit, another beautiful bay opens up. Here there is good daytime anchorage under all but very windy conditions. It is particularly worth a trip ashore here to visit the cardon forest, where you can take an intimate look at some of the many specimens of cactus to be found in this part of the world. The cardon, the world’s tallest cactus, can reach 80 feet in height and grow to be 200 years old. The Baja desert seems to naturally arrange itself like a botanical garden with manicured, swept paths and perfectly placed plants.

If the northerlies pick up you have the choice of running back to the shelter of Isla San Francisco or heading northwest across the channel some eight miles to San Evaristo, a safe haven from all but easterly winds.

In this picturesque and popular harbour you will also find a quaint fishing village and small shop with limited supplies.

The coastline now begins to display its most spectacular side. Sailing north, you can admire the finely sculpted sedimentary bluffs and well defined striations of the Sierra Giganta. Puerto Gato is a shallow half mile long cove with sand bottom, about 30 miles north of Punta Evaristo. A strong wind can get you rocking and rolling in there but the stunning panorama and transparent waters make up for it. Here we enjoyed freshly caught trigger and parrot fish while watching the sunset spill over the red rocks and golden sand dunes in the west, at the exact moment when the full moon rose in the east. Our pleasant stay was short lived though as the northerlies picked up during the night, refracting the swells around the point and into the bay.

A little further north, the coast makes a 90 degree turn into the very popular destination of Agua Verde. With several coves, good shelter from both north and south winds, sandy beaches, a small village, good holding and a temporary fish camp, it’s a great cruiser hangout; but if you prefer solitude and privacy, you can tuck into Punta San Marcial, the prominent, steep-faced rocky point of land just south of Agua Verde.

You are probably getting the idea that the anchorage possibilities in the Sea of Cortez are limitless and you’d be right. One could honestly spend a lifetime exploring them. Although Tom and I spent several seasons there, we still feel we barely scratched the surface. The Sea still tugs at our memories “Come back, come back.....” and one day, possibly sooner rather than later, we will return.

Fascinating Facts

- The elegant Tern, a beautiful small black and white bird migrates approximately 5,000 miles from Chile and Peru just to lay its eggs in the desert sand of Isla Raza, one of the 29 islands in the Sea.

- Over 90 % of the world’s Heerman’s Gulls breed on Isla Raza.

- The world’s tallest cactus, the cardon, can reach 80 feet in height and 200 years of age.

- Thirteen species of whale appear (of which six breed) in the Sea of Cortez.

- Only two of the Sea’s 29 islands are inhabited.