While we were still in La Paz in early May, the temperature started to climb and the weekend was predicted to be in the high 90s. This sounded unpleasant to us, so we looked for an escape and figured out that we could spend the time on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula where it was significantly cooler. I quickly booked a really nice Inn and we planned to use our friend’s Penny and Lawrence’s (on N50 Northern Ranger) trusty little red truck to get ourselves there and back.
A day or two before we planned to go, we came out to the truck to find the battery was dead. Larry got to put his battery fixing talents to work sourcing parts and replacing the terminal connectors.
On Friday we drove out of La Paz, which seemed to go on forever in the hot sun, with the same type of urban sprawl we have in the US. About halfway across the Peninsula, we suddenly felt a welcome and distinct drop in temperature as the Pacific breezes kicked in.
Approaching Todos Santos we drove through lush irrigated fields growing crops we couldn’t quite recognize. In town, we found the old streets to be narrow and quaint in the restored part of the town. Our hotel, The Todos Santos Inn, was in a recovered sugar plantation home, with a lovely interior courtyard and small swimming pool. Our room was at the far end, opening onto the courtyard, and it felt like we were nearly the only people there.
This was the first time we had been off the boat overnight in nearly 5 months. I luxuriated in the very large shower where I didn’t have to keep my elbows in, and unlimited hot water.
The town is popular as an artist enclave – mainly American and Canadian artists from what I read – and has many galleries. Nearly all of them were either closed or only open for appointments because of COVID, so we decided not to focus on looking at art. The historic section of town was a few streets lined with beautiful old restored buildings, and the town square was bordered by the church. The square itself was not the focus of town activity though, a change from most Mexican towns. Rather, the commercial streets with restaurants galleries and boutiques seem to be the most heavily traveled. There were a fair number of tourists around, fairly evenly split between Mexicans and Americans.
There were a number of restaurants with outside seating. Because of the slow season, we were fortunate to get a table at the last minute at El Refugio Mezcaleria, which serves traditional indigenous dishes and mezcal. Noel Morales, the chef, is a Mexican man from Guerrero and an expert in traditional arts and food, and his wife Rachel Glueck is an American writer who published a beautiful book called the Native Mexican Kitchen, which I am enjoying reading for a lot more background on the culture and the explanation of foods and how to use them. I am inspired to make some of the dishes now that I understand the different types of chilies and how to use them.
Strangely, it is difficult to get to the beach at Todos Santos. We are not sure if that is by design, since the waves are quite strong and the reason this is a popular surfing area, so maybe they don’t want unsuspecting tourists to drown, or it’s just the way the town developed, but we spent a good bit of time driving carefully down narrow one lane sandy roads toward the beach side attempting to find an actual path to the beach.
We finally succeeded by following the instructions to reach Laguna La Poza from some blog posts and Google maps, which does map out the dirt and sand roads. The trip took us up the hill between the town and the water, past a neighborhood of vacation casitas and larger homes, through a lowland area with dense tropical vegetation and barbed wire and the sudden appearance on my side of the road of a man in camouflage gear and a machine gun who was talking on a cell phone, before we found a place to park the car. We avoided getting stuck in the sand, and crossed the dunes to the beach and the lagoon.
I had read a variety of information in articles and blog posts discussing Laguna La Poza as a bird watchers haven. But I had also seen some complaints about the decreasing water levels in the lagoon from development and other issues, and so was not totally surprised to see both the homes right on the edge of it and the lack of any real sign of bird life.
We enjoyed watching the crashing waves and the fog that drifted across the scene. All in all, an enjoyable respite from the boat and the heat!
After waking up at Isla San Francisco (previous post here) to strong westerly winds and wave action, we retreated to the safe anchorage at San Evaristo. We had a secure but very windy night. Before bed we watched a sailboat get blown clear across the anchorage not once, but twice, during the high winds in the dark (we had watched them set their anchor and clearly it wasn’t done well).
The next day we contemplated the weather and after some emotional conversation (mainly from me), decided to head to La Paz. We already had paid up moorage for the next month in order to get work done, and we acknowledged that no one is going to award us a trophy for hunkering down in the wind at anchor for days.
On the way, we had the good fortune to see a spectacular blue whale pair. Maybe it was mom and a baby, as they usually travel solo. They were majestic. Over the next few weeks, we would see a blue whale several times in the same general area around Espiritu Santo – not sure if it was the same one, but very exciting to see him or her. We have now seen at least 4 species of whales in the Sea.
Back in La Paz, summer has arrived. We now believe that our Airmar weather station doesn’t have the ability to go above 99.9 degrees (F) – we’ve seen this several times. So we have also given in and become familiar with our air conditioning.
As Larry wrote in the fuel post, our follow-up boat work has gone really well. We were able to get out and spend a final weekend at Espiritu Santo in Caleta Partida (earlier post here), and again were visited by turtles every day.
Warning. Geeky stuff ahead, no wildlife pictures. Those without a deep interest in fuel systems or human suffering might consider skipping this post.
We are back in La Paz and I made arrangements for Rob Cross to help me get to the bottom of the fuel system issues. From the last post we know that the air leak that I see as bubbles forming in the Racor filter housing must be coming from somewhere between the tanks and the supply manifold. I had the opportunity to talk to a technical specialist at Racor since the last post and he agreed with my conclusion about the potential source of the leak. He also convinced me that the fuel levels in the filter housings have reached a steady state around halfway full, and that still provided adequate filtration. Any additional air coming in was passing through and going out as bubbles in the output line. He said that the bubbles in the output is common and not a concern. So, I eventually stopped refilling the housings every day and in fact have not even checked the levels since leaving Marina Puerto Escondido at the beginning of April. That has been 289 miles and 49 hours of engine run time over 14 voyages in the last month. I am pretty sure that this leak is not going to cause the engine to stall at an inopportune moment, but I am still determined to track it down.
Rob got to the boat and we started by pressure testing the fuel supply lines. To do this, we removed the supply line at the tank and plugged that end. Then we used the fuel transfer pump to create positive pressure in the fuel line. We shut all the other valves in the supply manifold, leaving open only the valve for the fuel pump input and the line to the tank. We turned on the pump and… no leaks. The pump is rated for 8-11 PSI of pressure, equivalent to 16-22” of mercury, which is easily 4-5x the amount of vacuum on the system when the engine is running. No leaks on either side.
The next step was to take the inspection plates off the tanks to inspect the fittings and dip tubes. As I observed before the thread sealant on the fitting that goes between the plate and the fuel lines was old and cracking. Bad thread sealant could be the source of the leak.
On removing the inspection plate we saw the dip tubes for the supply and transfer circuits, both with stainless steel screens at the ends. The welds on the tubes looked good, as did the tubes themselves, and the screens were free of debris. Rob took them to his shop for pressure testing, and they are fine. He used a high quality thread sealant on the fittings, so that should be eliminated as a leak source.
The next step was to reprime the system and fire up the engine to look for the telltale bubbles. Before we did that, Rob suggest that we pressure test the Racor manifold and supply manifold, again using the transfer pump to create positive pressure. The pump is rated for 8-11 PSI or 16-22 inches of mecury, the unit of measure displayed on the Racor vacuum gauge. This is at least 4 times the normal vacuum level when the engine is running (2.5-4 inches of mercury). We found no leaks anywhere.
Next, we primed the transfer and supply dip tubes using the transfer pump, and topped off the racor filter housings. There was about 3″ of fuel in the housings before we topped up, one month after I last checked. The filter elements are 5″ tall, so we were about 60% full, as good as I have seen when I was measuring every day.
We selected the starboard tank for fuel supply and return because it has a shorter hose run and therefore lower vacuum in operation compared to the port tank. We selected the forward filter on the Racor manifold and then started the engine….
Disappointingly, there were still bubbles forming in the filter bowl. We could reasonably expect some bubbles from residual air trapped in the system as we disconnected and reconnected various lines. We used a rubber mallet to tap on the supply manifold and the filter manifold hoping to dislodge residual bubbles. Even after tapping for a while, we were still seeing a small but steady stream of bubbles, perhaps less than before, but the goal is zero bubbles (or, at most, tiny “champagne” bubbles). When we switched the selector to operate both filters, the bubbles disappeared (after some transient air bubbles in the aft filter bowl). What remained were champagne bubbles in both bowls. Progress, but I was not satisfied. At Rob’s suggestion, we checked the fuel tank vents to eliminate the unlikely possibility of blockage there. Then, just to be sure, we plumbed some clear line into the input port of the Racor manifold reasoning that if there was any air at all, we might see at least some sign of bubbles. Nope. None. The fuel going in was absolutely clear. There was nothing more we could do. I believe we addressed any and all possible leak sources, summarized on the table below.
At this point, we called my technical contact at Racor and reviewed all of the findings. He had no suggestions for additional tests, agreeing that we had covered all the possible sources. He said that the bubbles we were seeing were due to cavitation, which, in his experience occurs when the filter is undersized compared to the delivery demands of the engine. However, he confirmed (what I already knew) that my filter unit was well within spec for the engine, and also confirmed that the vacuum levels were well within the normal range. His one suggestion in this regard was that I could replace my filter manifold with the next size up, whose filters were twice the size. The other area we touched on was the fuel supply and return to the tanks. When we told him that there was not a return dip tube into the tank he speculated that the return fuel dropping from the top of tank could be aerating the remaining fuel in the tank, which he called the “aquarium effect”. He suggested that adding a dip tube returning the fuel to the bottom of the tank could negate this effect. In my opinion, neither of these suggestions are worth the time/effort/expense to implement at present.
As the last step, we removed both sections of clear hose from the Racor input and output ports and fired up the engine again. This time, we were seeing some small amount of bubbling when running the front filter, no bubbling at all when running both, and, surprisingly no bubbling at all when running the back filter. I suppose it is possible that it took a fairly long time of engine run time to clear all of the residual air out of the system, but this was quite encouraging. We observed this running the engine at normal cruise RPM, but at dockside. We will need to do a sea trial to be certain of the results.
Sea trial and videos
We got out of Marina CostaBaja on a warm, sunny Saturday morning. After we got everything stowed and up to cruising speed, I went down to the engine room to check on the filters. I decided to run the Racor on the aft filter and was drawing from the starboard tank. The first video shows me checking for bubbles selecting the aft, then both filters, then the forward filter. The results were pretty encouraging. Very little bubbling from the aft filter alone, some bubbling from the forward filter alone, and still less when both were selected. Pretty good, but not perfect.
I continued to run on the aft filter for the 22 mile, 2.5 hour run up to Caleta Partida. When I checked the fuel level in the housing, it was down to about 2″ or so of the 5″ height of the filter element… lower than I’d like to see.
On the way back from Caleta Partida, I decided to run in tandem filter mode, after having refilled the aft bowl. Here is the video with the results.
Again, better, but by no means perfect. There is still a little bit of bubbling even running in this mode, although less than I was seeing before. I’d REALLY like it if there were NO bubbles at all. However, I remain pretty convinced from following this all season that this amount of bubbling is not going to lead to an engine stall at an inopportune moment.
Summary and my conclusions
Here is everything we did to test the system:
Vacuum and pressure test Racor filter manifold. No leaks.
Vacuum and pressure test fuel supply manifold. No leaks.
Check/tighten all fuel fittings – hoses, supply manifold, Racor manifold.
Check/tighten all valve assemblies on the supply manifold.
Pressure tested supply lines – manifold back to tank. No leaks.
Inspected/pressure tested dip tube assemblies in port and starboard tank inspection plates. No leaks.
Resealed NPT to JIC fittings on the inspection plates.
Reinstalled inspection plates, tightened all fittings.
Checked all fuel tank vents. Clear.
Observed fuel entering the Racor manifold using clear tubing. No bubbles.
I can’t think of any part of the fuel system that we didn’t look at and/or test, and I am as certain as I can be that there are any extraneous leaks in the fuel system. I now believe that the residual bubbling that I see is normal for the filtration system. In fact, a Racor Technical Bulletin discusses air separation in diesel fuel, and starts by listing these facts:
Fact #1: There is AIR entrained in diesel fuel.
Fact #2: A very slight pressure drop can cause air to form visible bubbles.
Fact #3: Air can cause problems.
Racor, Products Parts, Service and Technical Information, 7480F
I love how understated they are with fact #3. In another Racor document, “Turbine Series Rebuild”, they state in the troubleshooting section that “It is normal for fuel level inside housing to be about 1/2 full after lid removal“. They also mention that if the fuel level gets too low, the engine will stall, and that excessive bubbles indicate either a system restriction (high vacuum) or an upstream air leak.
Going back to the very beginning, I did have engine stalls on two separate occasions last year. I am certain that both of those stalls were due to leaks within the Racor manifold itself, which I replaced back in January. From then until now, I have still seen some degree of bubbling, and have seen the fuel level in the housing consistently down to half full, but not lower. Until now, I have not been able to rule out an upstream air leak as the source of the bubbles. After this week, I conclude that there is no upstream air leak. The final question – is the bubbling that you can see in the videos excessive. I have decided, because it has never caused the engine to stall, that it is NOT.
Waking up in Isla San Francisco on our third morning to southwesterly winds and rolly waves, we headed over to Bahia Amortajada as planned so we could hit the high tide at 9am to dingy into the estuary. We planned this trip after marveling at what a difference a few months makes in Isla San Francisco. Instead of having it to ourselves, with just a few other sailboats, there were multiple 100 foot plus crewed yachts setting up tents and lunches on the beach for their guests, jet skis and water skiers zooming around, and music playing out across the anchorage. We still enjoyed beach walking and snorkeling in the 70- degree water early in the day and lounging back on our boat on floaties in the water off the cockpit out of the action, but were also happy to move on.
We’ve explored other estuaries while here in Mexico and were looking forward to this one. Armed with long sleeves and a thick layer of bug spray against the reputed jejenes (little tiny flies) that bite, we got in our micro-tender and headed to the opening just before high tide. An inward current helped our little engine. The mangroves looked very healthy, and the entrance had a crowd of pelicans and scattered herons to greet us.
As we went further, we looked for fish in the relatively clear water. We saw a few – some trigger fish, some long coronet or pencil fish, some puffers and some groups of small fish – but much of the time the water was empty. This probably explains why we didn’t see birds in much of the estuary. We looked hard but didn’t see any of the usual mangrove crabs either.
We made it to the other side and the other entrance – which looked hairy and quite turbulent. Not a good place to take one’s tiny tender through!
Overall, it was a fun dingy trip and a worthwhile visit. We rank it number three on our explored estuaries – behind La Tovara at San Blas and Tenacatita, south of Puerto Vallarta, both on the mainland side of Mexico.
As we were wary of bugs and swarming bees – which have quite the nose for a single drop of fresh water – and of predicted strong southerly winds affecting the wide open anchorage at Amortajada, we headed over to the north side of Isla San Francisco a short mile or two away. As soon as we dropped the anchor, some fishermen from nearby Isla Pardito came over and showed us some humongous crabs, harvested from 200 feet deep out on the far side of the island. We took one, and I was scared to bring it in the boat. But I “womaned up” as Larry said, grabbed its two foot long front arms with big claws and held it while Larry sent it to heaven with a sharp knife and a mallet. It made a wonderful dinner for us, plus another meal, and a good paycheck for the fishermen, so we thank it for its life.
We were joined in the anchorage by 4 other boats, one a beautiful crewed 80-foot sailboat, seeking protection from the southerly winds stoking rolling waves. And we all woke in the middle of the night to 25-30 knots winds and rolling waves, despite the good protection. It’s never dull around here.
Our next stop on the way South from Agua Verde was Puerto Los Gatos, twenty-some odd miles down the coast. On the way North we stayed at Tembabiche, just a couple of miles south of here. When we arrived, the anchorage was empty save for a panga that seemed to be setting up a camp on the beach. We chose to anchor in the S lobe of the bay in anticipation of SW winds. In retrospect, it may have been better to tuck all the way up into the NW corner. Los Gatos is known for its beautiful pink sandstone formations, buffed smooth by the wind action. It also has several reefs that are good for snorkeling.
The anchorage is completely exposed to the east and as the southerly winds picked up in the afternoon, swell wrapped around the small point on the South end. As usual, we had the flopper stopper deployed, but wound up deploying the other one for the first time this season. That flattened things out nicely. Later in the afternoon a few sailboats arrived, and the beach camp took shape, with nearly a dozen dome tents, a cook tent, a sun shelter, and what looked like a “pee pee tee pee”. Soon afterwards, a group of kayaks pulled in, led by another panga.
After a pleasant night, Gwen got up early to catch the early morning light on the rocks.
We got the big dinghy down to go ashore, and as we were doing that, we saw spouts jut offshore. We motored out and saw a couple of humpback whales swimming back and forth just outside in about 100 feet of water. We wanted to get a little bit closer… until one surfaced nearby and we realized how big they were. Gwen says I screamed like a girl. I steadfastly maintain that I was merely commenting on the majestic creatures. Afterwards we went ashore to walk along the beach, explore the rock formations, and walk out on one of the reefs at low tide. The sandstone was very cool. It was easy to rub off bits of it from the rock, so you could see how the jagged bits of it were eventually worn down into smooth shapes. There were lots of tide pools on the reef, but as we have come to expect, none were particularly rich with life. There were a fair number of crabs on the rocks and Gwen got some good pictures of the increasingly rare Sally Lightfoot crabs.
The water was very clear and reasonably warm, about 71 degrees. We went ashore and had a good time snorkeling along one of the reefs. As we finished up, the wind had shifted from SW to SE and started blowing vigorously, creating a bit of surf on the beach. We were in the big dinghy and had a bit of excitement getting it turned around and launched into the surf and freshening breeze.
After a rolly night and more SW winds forecast, we decided to bid Puerto Los Gatos good bye and move further South. On the way out of the anchorage we spotted a fairly large pod of whales we had not seen before, which we think were pilot whales. They were swimming back and forth in a leisurely manner, again just off the anchorage. The depths drop off quite rapidly here, so we assume that this must be a good feeding spot. After watching them for a while we turned Southward bound for San Evaristo.
We set off from the S side of Isla Coronados to return to Agua Verde, where we had spent some time on the way up North in mid February (https://mvmissmiranda.com/2021/03/07/agua-verde/). It was a calm and pleasant cruise of about 5 hours, with sunshine and rising temperatures. By the time we arrived at Agua Verde it was 91 degrees. There were already 4 sailboats anchored in the “Agua Verde Yacht Club” or AVYC, also known as the fisherman’s beach, in the Northwest corner, so we elected to drop the hook right off the beach in front of the village. There was one other power boat anchored in the mouth of “Pyramid Bight”, and that was all. We put out the flopper stopper as usual and were a bit surprised by some swell coming in from the NE, where the bay is open. The afternoon heat drove us into the water, which was just under 70 degrees. Gwen put on mask and snorkel and swam over to shore. I took the more genteel approach of inflating a floaty toy and swinging on a line tied to the back of the boat. The swell calmed down by bedtime, and we had a pleasant, if warm, night’s sleep. When I awoke before dawn the next morning there was another power boat anchored not far from us, and two more heading in. One was the gigantic Megayacht Ulysses that was anchored near our friends Ron and Nancy the day before in Bahia San Francisco.
It was a bit cooler in the morning, but overnight temperatures hovered around 80 degrees. When Gwen got up we noticed that the yacht anchored behind us left… actually, it simply pulled up to Ulysses. Why? This 70 ft flybridge motor yacht was a tender (one of many) to the megayacht. We watched for a while as the dual cranes dropped boat after boat from the foredeck, from a 20-some foot wakeboat to a 50 ft speedboat, along with the usual assortment of jet skis, landing dinghies, etc. The capper was the giant slide set up off the upper deck on the port side. I can tell you that some group was having big, expensive fun!
Soon we saw that the boat moved out of pyramid bight, so we moved over there and tucked into a very nice S wind cove with a great sandy beach and, we would find, good snorkeling out to Pyramid rock. We went to the beach for the day and did do some snorkeling along the shallow reef on the W side of the cove. We saw lots of starfish here, including one called a chocolate chip starfish, and a pretty good assortment of small tropical reef fish. The water was warm enough to snorkel just with rash guards.
Late that afternoon, our friends on N50 Duet entered the anchorage. We have been corresponding with them for months (mostly me complaining to Ron about various boat problems) and they were on their first extended cruise since the boat returned from Australia in 2019. They were vaccinated before leaving San Diego, and we all had been out of human contact for a while, so we… gasp… had cocktails on their flybridge without wearing masks (though of course, Drs Gwen and Ron insist that we include that we maintained 6 ft of social distance).
The next day we visited the little tienda in the village and picked up some avocados, tomatoes and bananas.. we were running short on fresh produce. Later, Nancy and Ron joined us for some snorkeling around Pyramid rock.
We had a dinner of burgers, roasted cauliflower and baked beans, with some nice red wine, again on Duet’s fly bridge. Notably… the burgers had CHEDDAR CHEESE, the most valuable food commodity in Mexico. Nancy and Ron even made a gift of a chunk of cheddar as we left. I’m sure they will regret their generosity at some point.
We love the pyramid bight anchorage. Apparently, so do other boaters. We wound up with three other boats in there close enough to exchange jars of Grey Poupon. The weather is quite settled so not a big deal… but Agua Verde is HUGE… I’ll never understand why people feel that they must tuck in no matter what.
This has been an absolutely fantastic stop. Sunny days, calm weather, warm temperatures and crystal clear water. What more could you ask for?
Well, you could ask for… more. After going back up to re-visit Marina Puerto Escondido and Loreto with Ron and Nancy, we headed back down to Agua Verde while Ron and Nancy headed North. This time several other boats had found our preferred South cove, but we managed to squeeze in (having decided to act as others do).
Our mission this time was to hike on the trail from the north beach over the hill, past the village cemetery and on to the beach on the other side. The trail was a typical human/goat trail, a mix of compacted dirt and lots of loose rocks. Some other boaters were investigating the cemetery so we went onward toward the beach. Soon we found ourselves at the head of an estuary, surrounded by palm trees and looking into a brackish water pool. It was low tide, so we could cross the stream. Once we did, we could see the estuary opening to the beach, several hundred yards away. We tried bushwacking along some goat trails that ran next to the estuary, but weren’t able to get there, so we gave up and headed back.
We stopped in the “village cemetery” which is quite clearly abandoned and in a pretty advanced state of decay. Most of the memorials that were still legible were from the 50s and 60s. We assume that the descendants of those former residents have moved on and there is nobody left to care for the place. Kinda sad, really. We went back to the dinghy and then over to the main beach and the tienda. Gwen was able to get some goat cheese, chips, and a couple of hours of very slow internet connectivity. The goat cheese, while perfectly OK, was nowhere near as good as the stuff we had in San Juanico.
Late one afternoon, a large pod of dolphins came charging into our little cove and were very active, jumping and swimming rapidly back and forth. They seemed to be feeding and kept sweeping in and out of the shallows on the W side of the cove… it was crazy and lasted for at least an hour or so. Meanwhile, Gwen was looking out in the other direction out into the bay and spotted a pod of Orcas. At first I didn’t believe her, thinking it was just more dolphins, but a careful look with the stabilized binoculars made it clear that they were, in fact, Orcas, and at least a half dozen of them. Gwen said she thought she saw one flipping a small animal, maybe a seal or baby dolphin, out of the water… apparently not an uncommon trick.
We had more cool wildlife sightings. Early one morning, Gwen saw a squadron of Mobula Rays (like mantas, but way smaller) cruising by the boat. It was very cool to watch them slowly flying by just under the surface, in formation. Later in the evening we saw an even bigger group come by, and saw a bunch of them trying to fly, without success. They would launch themselves out of the water as if they believed that their wings worked in air, too, only to be disappointed when they fell back to the sea.
This time in Agua Verde, the water really was a deep green, and not at all as clear as it was on our previous visits, during which we could see our flopper stopper and the sandy bottom below. This time we couldn’t even see the flopper stopper, not ideal for snorkeling but just fine for enjoying the sunny afternoons on our floaty toys behind the boat.
We spent a total of 11 nights over three visits to Agua Verde, making it our favorite anchorage in the Sea.
After an interesting time at Bahia Salinas, we rounded the top of Isla Carmen and headed over to Isla Coronados, where we had been earlier in the season. With warmer weather and some southerly breezes, the time was right to anchor on the northwest side and hang out on the white sand beach. It was much busier with pangas bringing day trippers over from Loreto, but we had it pretty much to ourselves in the evenings. We spent a couple of days beach lounging, soaking up the sun and wading into the aqua water.
We awoke on the morning we knew we would have to move to the other side because of shifting wind to find ourselves socked in with good old northwest style fog! What a shock. We hadn’t known this might happen here (but later reviewed the paragraph in the guide that mentions it as a spring and summer phenomena). The volcano was shrouded in fog, and at times it was so dense we couldn’t see the other boat in the anchorage. The quintessential northwest sound of foghorns seems to be missing in Mexico.
As it started to lift, we pulled up anchor to head around to the other side of the island. As we rounded the turn, a pod of dolphins headed right for us. They were very big dolphins, and they seemed to be having a fabulous time, leaping and diving. We clapped and yelled for them, and this seemed to make them jump even more – right next to the boat! I was lucky to get a few shots off – they were so close I wasn’t sure it was going to work with my telephoto lens, but I positioned myself as best I could and managed some lucky shots.
After departing Puerto Escondido in early April we embarked on a circumnavigation of Isla Carmen, a large island with a number of anchorages. Earlier in the season we had spent a number of days in Puerta Ballandra on the west side of the island, mainly sitting through a long norther. This time we were going to explore some anchorages on the east side of the island.
We started out at Punta Colorada, an open anchorage just around the southern tip of the island, mainly providing protection from north winds and swell. Our first night we were alone save for a sighting of a lone bighorn sheep on shore at dusk. For the first time this season, the water seemed warm enough to snorkel in, and we were thrilled to be able to suit up in our wetsuits, hoods and fins and snorkels and check out a couple of the rocky areas near shore. When I say warm enough, that’s by Pacific Northwest standards. It was still in the upper 60s but getting very close to 70.
The first day we snorkeled we were somewhat disappointed with murky water, turbulent waves and a handful of fish. The second day had clear water and a better number and variety of tropical fish – including some of my favorites which are neon yellow and have purple tails – some brown urchins and a few sea stars. No underwater camera, so no pics. There was a lot of dead and bleached coral.
We walked on shore and saw what looks like an abandoned refrigerator that we joked that the hunters – who are here periodically to shoot bighorn sheep when they get too prolific – can store their beer. They just need to plug it in.
After a pleasant time at Punta Colorada we made our way about 10 miles north. This bay has natural salt flats which were first discovered by Jesuit Missionaries in 1698 and then operated more or less continually until the early 1980s when a salt mining operation started in Guerro Negro on the West Coast of Baja. The convenience of that operation – no long trip up into the Sea – effectively put the Salinas salt operation out of business. Some of the workers lived here in the small village, and apparently they were given short notice about the closing of the plant and had to leave in a hurry, but the last boat helping to remove their belongings wrecked on the beach.
Isla Carmen has bighorn sheep and no natural predators. A hunting lodge was built here sometime after the salt plant closed. While we were here no hunting was happening, fortunately!
We dingied to shore with the intention to explore the salt ponds and the village. We had heard from another boater that no one approached them the previous day, but as we were walking toward the village, a young man with a topknot and wearing a face mask, the caretaker presumably, came out to inform us which area we could walk on – the path to the salt ponds and to the church, and the beach. The rest of the land is private.
After our tour of the salt ponds, we walked the length of the long white beach and back. At the south end there is an entrance to a wide hiking trail. Ironically, an old faded Semarnat sign (Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources) says that hunting is prohibited.
As I write this, it is April 16th. We are departing today from a two day stay at Puerto Escondido and are starting to head slowly south back toward La Paz. Our intent is to soak up the hot weather and warming water with as much swimming and snorkeling and beach lounging as we can before we arrive back in La Paz around May 2nd.
On our way down from San Juanico to Puerto Escondido for whale watching, we passed some beautiful striated cliffs. These were just north of another anchorage called Punta Mangles. It was notable for the hulks of abandoned hotel construction on its shores.
On this return visit to Puerto Escondido, at the end of March a month after our first time there, it was obvious spring had come and birds were migrating through. There was also quite a bit more boater activity, probably partly because this was the Semana Santa week – Holy Week, to celebrate Easter, and the biggest vacation week of the years for Mexicans.
I had a good time finding a number of birds in the scrublands around the marina and getting some good shots of them. I did not manage to get any of the rufus hummingbirds which migrate across the Sea of Cortez in one shot on their way north to the US and Canada, but they were definitely around!
Since we had the car, we made a trip into Loreto to check out the malecon and the waterfront and to get more tacos. We happened to choose a day when the winds were blowing a steady 20 + knots, which you can see in the palm trees!
We decided to head from San Carlos directly back to San Juanico on the Baja side of the Sea, and left at first light. Conditions for the 100 mile crossing could not have been better – flat calm seas and light, variable winds. The crossing was uneventful and the wind gradually picked up to about 15 knots in the afternoon, coming from the SE. Given that wind direction we decided to anchor in the South end of the San Juanico Bay. When we arrived, however, the swell rolling into the bay was pretty substantial, and while we were getting some protection from the wind, we would have 2-3 ft of swell on the beam, not at all comfortable. We turned around and headed back into the NW corner of the anchorage where we’d been before. There were 3 sailboats but plenty of room. In this corner, the swell was still coming from the SE, but so was the wind, so we were bow into it. Much more comfortable. Later in the evening as the wind died down so did the swell. The next morning we headed down to the Puerto Escondido area hoping to anchor right across from the marina at a place called Honeymoon Cove. There was another boat in the main anchorage, tour boats in the north lobe, and I couldn’t find a spot that I was happy with, so we went on into the marina a day earlier than expected.
The main goal for coming back to Puerto Escondido was to make a trip over to the Pacific side to go whale watching in Magdalena Bay, one of the protected bays that is a “whale nursery” during the winter months, from a (different) town also called San Carlos. We rented a car and left the Marina at dawn for the long trek across the Baja Peninsula on MX Highway 1, the main road serving Baja. It is a two lane highway and well maintained for the most part, but it is fairly narrow and there are no shoulders… hence the many roadside shines to people who have died in traffic accidents. The cows that frequent the sides of the roads at all times of day likely also contribute to accidents. Just S of Puerto Escondido, the road climbs steep canyons to get over the Sierra Gigante Mountains and then straightens out over a long, flat plain towards the West coast.
Speed limits on Mexican highways are pretty conservative, Mexican drivers are not. In many places the speed limit was 60 kilometers per hour, and at most 80. I think 80 is the limit for any two lane highway in Mexico. We were passed by all manner of vehicles as I made a rare attempt of complying with the posted speed limits. We turned off highway 1 around Ciudad Constitución for the highway to San Carlos. Around 9am we finally arrived at the little hotel and office in dusty San Carlos and were taken directly to our waiting panga and Captain Juan. As we pulled out of San Carlos, everything was starting to look familiar. We stopped at Magdalena Bay with the CUBAR rally in 2019 and did a big dinghy excursion to tour one of the estuaries in the area. Captain Juan took us back to the main part of Magdalena Bay off the same town that we anchored in front of in 2019.
It was a beautiful day, sunny and pretty mild, with flat calm seas. First we went by a spit with lots of birds, which made Gwen happy. Soon we started to see spouts and headed towards them. They were Grey Whales, traveling singly or in pairs. All were adults. We’d approach the whales slowly as they swam along the surface and eventually, they would sound, showing their tail as they dived down. When that happened, we knew that it could be a half hour before they surfaced possibly nearby… or not. Over the next couple of hours, the whales were pretty actively working their way back and forth along the bay, and we would slowly follow along. The captains were respectful, never approaching from ahead, and maintaining a reasonable distance from the whales. At lunchtime we went ashore for lunch at the same beachside restaurant we visited with CUBAR.
The enterprising village kids dragged over a wooden platform to the bow of the panga to make it easy for us to get off. Gwen gave them a propina of a couple of pesos which the boy, at least, viewed with some disdain (she later found more coins and offered more on our return to the panga). The kids offered to sell us shells but we were more interested in the Pacificos and fresh fish offered for lunch.
We did another hour or so of whale watching after lunch, finishing with a pretty close encounter in which a large whale surfaced very close to the panga, swam alongside for a few minutes, and then sounded. After that we headed back to San Carlos, just as the afternoon winds were picking up. The panga pulled into a beach landing, but instead of climbing out, Juan had us stay in as they pulled it up onto a trailer, and we traveled overland by panga back to the car.
On the long drive back from San Carlos I paid less attention to the speed limit signs and maintained what was still a stately pace by Mexican standards. Eventually a large fuel truck approached close behind as we were getting to the twisty part of the highway. I thought that I would be able to stay comfortably in front of the truck given the tight turns and steep descents. I was wrong. Even maintaining a speed of 100 kph, the fuel truck was bearing down on me. I was having visions of Mad Max and all going down into a canyon in a ball of flames. Sure enough, the truck passed me, and I was happy to let it go to menace some other unsuspecting gringo driver.
While we enjoyed the day on the water and the opportunity to view these magnificent creatures up close, we decided that we’ve had enough of whale watching trips. I have to admit that I got interested in doing the trip after hearing from friends and reading a blog post about close encounters with grey whales including mothers and calves that actually approached the boats and allowed the passengers to touch them. We had no such experiences and honestly it seemed that the whales in Mag Bay barely tolerated the pangas, never approaching, and sounding after a few minutes. So rather than “oh the whales will come right up to us”, it was really, “we will follow the whales until they tire of us and sound”. Honestly, we’ve had many fantastic experiences viewing whales from our own boat – Orcas in the Salish Sea, humpbacks bubble feeding in Alaska, and Grey whales popping up all around us as we approached San Francisco, and we’ve seen humpbacks several times here in the Sea.