Mexican Booby Trap


By Liz Tosoni

Isla Isabela, Mexico, 21 51.3 North, 105 54.0 W

Isolated, volcanic, 281’ high Isla Isabela is nicknamed the “Galapagos of Mexico” and no wonder. It is home and nesting grounds to blue footed boobies, magnificent frigate birds, brown boobies, red footed boobies, brown pelicans, white tailed tropic birds, Heerman’s gulls, sooty terns and brown noddies. Then there are the native reptiles like the green iguanas and the Mexican milk snake, not to mention the proliferation of underwater life.

We first ventured here in 1986 aboard Hoki Mai (ketch in the picture), then again in 1997 aboard Feel Free and here we are again in 2012. Looking through the Hoki Mai archival log book of 1986 I find this:
It wasn’t so much that we were trapped on Isla Isabela, but rather, we were captured by her charms and captivated by the antics of the thousands of booby birds that call her home. The island is only two square miles yet we stayed there for seven days and nights and were never at a loss for things to do.

I remember vividly heading south from Mazatlan on the dawn watch en route to Isabela in 1986, being engrossed by a fiery orange ball of sun rising in the east just as the luminous full moon was setting in the west. A little later, Tom yelled “Land ho” and we saw the faint outline of what appeared to be a huge sea turtle off the bow about 10 miles away.

Then it was me who screamed “We’ve caught a sailfish!” as Tom flew out of the companionway to haul it in. To our utter surprise though, it wasn’t a sailfish but a booby! The hook had embedded itself in the bird’s body under the wing. It was an hour’s operation on the foredeck to remove the hook, the bird continually fighting to defend itself. I dropped a hammock over its body and eyes to calm it down while Tom acted as surgeon.

Operation complete, the booby then chose to stay awhile to recuperate. She must have thought we weren’t so bad after all and a hitchhike home was most convenient. She flew off after an hour, but amazingly, returned to Hoki Mai shortly after we dropped the hook, doing her business on the foredeck. Was she thanking us for saving her and welcoming us to her home?

We didn’t learn our lesson about trailing a fish line near Isla Isabela though and when we were approaching in 1997, we hooked another one! Luckily, the hook wasn’t deep and the bird was off before we knew it. Yesterday, our approach was from the south and no, we did not trail a fish line close to the island.

The excitement this time, about 30 miles from Isabela, were long lines of fish floats, miles of them, difficult to see until you are almost on top of them, attached by tight, polypropylene lines, close to the surface. Fortunately it was daytime, we were under power and managed to spot them in time, but unfortunately, it meant altering course by miles in order to stay clear.

A hasty and dramatic course change caused the trailing fishing line to get caught in the prop which meant Tom had to go over the side to unravel the mess.

We were on the turtle highway again and saw hundreds of them, sleeping at the surface, or plodding along turtle fashion, on a reciprocal course to Feel Free’s, heading to their Mexican turtle convention.

Isla Isabela lies 18 miles off Mexico’s shoreline, 85 miles southeast of Mazatlan and 150 miles northwest of Puerto Vallarta, a convenient stopover between the two. It has National Park status and in 2003 was deemed a World Heritage site.

It has a crossword puzzle shape with detached rocky islets to the north and east.

Those to the east are called Las Monas (“mannequins” in Spanish), striking pinnacles, like giant sculptures providing protection from prevailing winds and a most unusual anchorage for Feel Free.

This unusual anchorage is also abounding in fish life, Tom’s idea of heaven- just drop over the side and scout around with spear in hand for lunch in the underwater supermarket. In the old days, I would swim alongside fisherman Tom as his private caddy, carrying a mesh goody bag so he could just pop the newly caught fish in the bag and then carry on for another.

Well, while in this very spot (with Feel Free in 1997), I got a surprise I’ll never forget, using this technique. Blithely swimming along with freshly caught fish in bag, I was stunned by a shark like attack to my leg. Screaming in pain through my snorkel and looking immediately to the attacked leg, I was shocked to see the mesh bag stuck to my thigh with the teeth of a trigger fish embedded firmly in my flesh! Immediately I began pulling the bag away from said thigh and within what seemed like agonizing minutes but was probably seconds, the fish disengaged its sharp, barb like teeth from my skin. On first observation, it was astonishing to see a white, circular incision as if by a surgeon, then blood, pouring out of it.

Needless to say, I no longer carry a goody bag alongside my fisherman. I still act as caddy, but instead of carrying a bag, I tow the dinghy- just tie the painter around my waist and stay a short distance from Tom so the fish don’t get spooked by the large shadow above. When a fish is speared, it is deposited into the dinghy, no muss, no fuss, very practical and convenient.

Going ashore on Isla Isabela is a fascinating jungle walk, stopping here to observe a praying mantis chewing on a leaf, and there to see a long highway of leaf cutter ants carrying bits of green leaf and other paraphernalia on their backs. It was rich with vegetation: banana trees, pineapples, papayas, sugar cane, coconuts, lime trees and more we didn’t recognize.

It is also frigate bird nesting territory and directly above our heads we were able to watch many courting pairs, the females gently caressing the males inflated, scarlet throat sacs. Ah, how romantic.

Dozens of tiny skinks scurried away from under our feet and the tail end of a red cat was seen scampering out of sight. We explored the many hiking trails, cliffs and beaches and came across marine iguanas hiding in the crevices of the rocky shores on the west side.

Many sections of the island are “wall to wall booby nests” as our friend Mary of Companion put it. You have to watch your step as the booby territories are covered with quacking parents, protectively tending their eggs and fluffy white chicks.

The immature ones are completely brown with yellow webbed feet, others look like little brown and white penguins with their ‘Sunday best’ suits and green shoes on. The bigger speckled ones with blue feet get skittish, squawking madly if you get too close. These two are doing the courtship dance. The males lift their blue feet one by one to impress a mate, and maybe, get lucky.

You might think that because Isabela is a nesting island and off the beaten path, life would be pretty easy for the boobies, but not so. Several times we observed one skillfully nose diving for its prey, sometimes from a considerable height, only to be attacked and harassed by a frigate bird until the prey was disgorged. The frigate would then grab the prey in mid air or retrieve it from the surface of the water or beach, leaving the poor booby ‘empty handed’. They also have to be ever vigilant of the gulls who love to steal their eggs whenever they get a chance.

Boobies do seem a little nervous by nature, maybe even shy. You might consider them comical with their beady eyes and long beaks and the funny way they raise their webbed feet in courtship. But certainly they are undeserving of their name which in Spanish is “bobo” meaning foolish or stupid. A foolish bird wouldn’t have been able to recognize Hoki Mai out of the six boats at anchor, after flying about for a few hours.

In Canada and the northern seas, these same birds are called gannets and somehow that seems so much more dignified a name for these fine feathered friends.

Going back to the Hoki Mai archives of 1986 I find another excerpt:

We left Isla Isabela for San Blas at dawn, the pink glow of the early morning outlining its unusual shape, seven days after our arrival. The spell had to be broken, for Tom and I have many more miles to cover in our own southerly migration. We will not forget this singular Mexican island and as we continue on our ocean track, we will be ever watchful for other such “booby traps”.

Well, we have indeed covered many more ocean miles since those words were written, and did find many more ‘booby traps’ during our world cruise. We never forgot this unique little island, and we had to return.