Ready again for another Baja adventure my brother Brian and I and our friend Rick loaded up the truck with sea kayaks, cameras, camping and SCUBA gear and headed south. Our destination was Bahía de los Ángeles (Bahía) and its many islands, abundant wildlife, and miles of pristine coastline – the perfect place in Baja for birding, sea kayaking, SCUBA diving, and whale watching. Having been to Bahia several times before we knew what to expect, but we also learned that each visit brings new surprises. This trip was no exception.
The Bahía de los Ángeles Biosphere reserve was established in June 2007 by Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón. The reserve was created to help protect the unique ecology of the region and covers an area over 950,000 acres. The waters around Bahía have over 16 islands, the largest of which is Isla Ángel de la Guarda at nearly 360 square miles and 43 miles long. Within the bay itself are numerous smaller islands and islets that are perfect for exploring by sea kayak, SCUBA, or rented panga and guide.
The nutrient rich waters of Bahía attract a diverse variety of animals – from endemic species and migratory birds to sea turtles, whale sharks, whales and sea lions. For many of these animals the islands and bay offer foraging and nesting grounds, protection from predators, and also serve as nurseries for various species of fish. Because of the ecological importance of the islands, specific regulations are in place to ensure the ecological processes continue without disruption by exotic species or harassment by humans or their pets. As such, a permit is required to visit the islands. We found that the permits are inexpensive and easy to obtain at the Biosphere Reserve office along the main road in town.
There are many ways to explore Bahía, on and off the water. Some travelers prefer to be self-sufficient and bring their own boats, kayaks or SCUBA gear. Others like to kick back and relax while someone else provides the essentials and does the hard work. On this trip we packed much of our own gear and did most exploration on our own, but we also hired a local guide to take us diving and whale watching. It was a perfect combination. Both ways of exploring allow for amazing encounters with wildlife as well as personally definitive moments in nature. Local guides have local knowledge and because of this are able to take you to the perfect spot for whale watching, birding or even general sight seeing. The better guides will not harass the wildlife and will get you close enough to have an amazing encounter.
Either way you go it is important to carry some essential safety gear of your own, especially if you’re planning a day on the sea. When selecting a guide don’t be afraid to ask if he carries safety basics like life vests, VHF radio, signal flares and extra water and gas. In your day pack you can also carry simple items like a set of warm clothes, signal mirror, small hand-held safety flares, lighter, matches, water-proof flashlight, extra water and some energy bars. Adventure travel can be safe and fun when you’re better prepared.
After arriving in Bahía and setting up camp at a nearby campo we drove back to town to buy our island permits and food supplies at one of the local markets. Our plan for the few days we had was to hire a local guide for a day of diving, kayak the southern end of the bay looking for whale sharks, and kayak camp on an island or two. While in town we stopped at the Museo de Historia y Naturaleza. The museum, only a few blocks from the Biosphere Reserve office, offered us a view into Bahía’s past as well as its natural history – including its mining history and long dead sea turtle fishery. The Museo also has an amazingly detailed collection of sea shells and fossils from the area. Visiting the museum helped us tune our awareness to the natural world we were about to explore.
The next morning we drove to the southern end of the bay to kayak the calm azure water and to search for whale sharks. Bahía is known as a feeding area for whale sharks and they are best observed between August and November. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea and grow up to 60 feet in length. Their wide narrow mouths are adapted for filter feeding, allowing them to feed on plankton and small fish as they cruise near the waters surface. Their unique feeding strategy makes them difficult to spot on the open water, especially if the wind and waves are up, so often they are not visible until you are quite close.
While in town we had spoken with a few people who had seen a number of whale sharks the previous day so we were eager to get on the water. Once we arrived at the beach we offloaded our kayaks and geared up, setting out with digital 35mm and video cameras and high hopes of spotting a whale shark or two. It didn’t take long – about a quarter mile offshore we saw the subtle but obvious disturbance in the water indicating a feeding whale shark.
We quietly paddled in the direction it was heading and then turned our kayaks parallel to its course allowing it to continue feeding uninterrupted but also giving us clear views of the giant creature as it swam by. My kayak is over 17 feet in length and this monster was nearly twice as long as my kayak! In the short time we were there, two pangas with other eco-toursts came by also looking for whale sharks. It was clear that there was the potential for disturbance because of all of us eager eco-tourists. So, while paddling in the area of the feeding whale shark we made a point to be very careful not to disrupt its feeding. Experts recommend that while viewing whale sharks it’s best to remain at least 10 feet (3 meters) away and to not cross in front of a feeding whale shark. Sometimes though, despite taking care, a whale shark will find you. While sitting motionless waiting for my paddling friends to catch up a whale shark swam right under my kayak!
The following day we made arrangements with Ricardo, a local guide and dive master, to take us on two dives and a whale watching tour among the islands. The first dive was a drift dive on the northern side if Isla Coronado. The conditions were perfect – flat water, no wind and good visibility. Rolling off the edge of the panga we dropped slowly into depths, floating over the jumbled volcanic boulders and sandy bottom. As we drifted through the deep blue water the colorful sea life unfolded before us – red, yellow, and purple sea sponges clung to the rocks while green anemones and white feathery hydroids waved in the current. Every nook had a new surprise… We drifted through huge schools of fry so small that hundreds of them would fit easily on a ten peso coin. Red starfish and purple sea urchins foraged on the rocks while trigger fish and Cortez Angelfish darted through the sea.
While resting between dives and warming up under the hot Baja sun Ricardo took us to look for finback whales in Canal de las Ballenas between Islas Coronado and Ángel de la Guarda. The finback whale is the second largest whale (The blue whale being the largest) approaching nearly 80 feet in length. Finback whales are baleen feeders primarily feeding on krill and small fish. They can dive to a depth of nearly 2000 feet in search of prey.
In no time Ricardo spotted a finback whale surfacing in the distance and a short moment later we heard the characteristic phoooo! of the whale exhaling. Ricardo expertly motored the panga near the whale and cut the engine. As we drifted in the calm sea the whale surfaced a few more times, its wet back and dorsal fin glistening in the sun, before taking one last breath and diving into the inky depths. It was a perfect moment and one that helped prepare us for our second dive of the day with a different kind of marine mammal – California sea lions.
The sea lion rookery in Bahía is located on the small guano covered islet of Isla Calavera. From a distance the bright white island appeared empty and lifeless, but as we approached we could see the broken guano-covered boulders descending into the clear water, disappearing into the deep blue. Atop these sun-washed boulders sat nearly 100 California sea lions basking in the sun.
Ricardo cut the engine a few yards offshore and helped us gear up for the dive. While it would have been possible to snorkel offshore of this island we chose to dive in the shallow water in order to truly experience the sea lions’ under water world. Immediately after rolling off the pangas deck into the warm sea nearly twenty sea lions slipped from their rocky perches into the water and surrounded us. For a long while we simply sat on the rocky bottom in only a few feet of water and watched as the sea lions performed their aqua-batics – loops, rolls, and fly-by’s – as they checked us out. Their curiosity about our presence was obvious, especially as we descended into deeper water away from the shore line. When we did this the sea lions followed with the same acrobatic curiosity. I had experienced this kind of behavior before, but only from the seat of my sea kayak, where, from out of the blue, a sea lion would surface and swim along side me for a bit as if to say Hey, who are you? What are you doing out here?
We never did get to camp on the islands during this trip – we had other places in Baja to check out before returning home. But that didn’t matter to us. In the few days we spent in Bahía we had experienced more than we had hoped. Eco-tourism might not be the perfect answer to solving all the local economic and environmental issues, but in Bahía it has begun to allow locals and tourists alike to begin focusing on the value and importance of preserving the natural world that sustains us all.
For more information on the Bahía de los Ángeles Biosphere Reserve please visit the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas at www.conanp.gob.mx.