It all started out at what had to be the most boring New Year’s Eve party on the Baja Peninsula. A group of friends had decided to spend New Year’s Eve camping on the beach, but due to some unseasonable rain showers and cold winds, the trip had been cancelled. Instead, we decided – at the last minute – to cook spaghetti at a friend’s house. It was about as exciting as it sounds. I would never have imagined that what appeared to be an incredibly pathetic crawl into the New Year would evolve into one of the most emotional days of my life – snorkeling with Sea Lions.
After suffering through several hours of small talk and boredom, one of my friends suggested that we head off to Cabo Pulmo anyway. Cabo Pulmo is a beautiful cape located less than two hours east of San José del Cabo at the tip of the Baja Peninsula. Relatively untouched by tourism, Cabo Pulmo is a paradise familiar to locals, RVers and bicyclers.
Despite the fact that it was already 3:00 in the morning, we decided to head out. The majority of the trip to Cabo Pulmo is made on a well-maintained, paved road, exiting off the trans-peninsular highway at Las Cuevas and continuing to La Rivera before turning off for the final few kilometers. Here the pavement ends and the last 20 miles or so are endured over a washboard-ribbed gravel trail.
We arrived at Cabo Pulmo at about 5:00 a.m. We threw our blankets out on the sand, making sure to place our bedding well above the high-tide water line. Sleep was impossible as we took turns looking through binoculars at the expanse of stars that can only be seen when one leaves behind city limits and lights.
We woke up to the light of the sun sparkling on a crystal blue sea with pelicans fishing just off the coast. I never cease to be amazed at the hunting prowess of these birds that dive at wing-breaking speed to snatch fish from the ocean.
As luck would have it, one member of our group ran into Juan Castro, a weatherworn fisherman and a walking encyclopedia of information regarding Cabo Pulmo’s geography and history.
Juan offered to take us snorkeling at a nearby beach and we agreed, having no idea of what he really had in store for us. After loading a variety of personal and borrowed snorkeling gear and pushing off the beach into the Sea of Cortez, we jetted across the ocean in the little panga. Juan pointed out a line carved in a sand cliff, dividing Cabo Pulmo’s beach between private property and the land designated for the fisherman, including the section which belongs only to the ancient natives buried there.
Juan cruised around hidden reefs and weaved through boulders as we beached on a little stretch of sand nestled between towering rock mountains. I couldn’t wait to get in the water as it was only my second time snorkeling and I was anxious to once again see the colorful fish that abound in the Sea of Cortez. The fish here were much larger than those I had seen on my first snorkeling expedition. I was thrilled by schools of yellow and black angelfish and the colorful, but shy parrot fish. Coral reefs offered rough contrast to the grace and fluidity of the fish. The waves were tempered by the rocks, allowing us to explore rocky crevices and see clearly for several feet in every direction.
After snorkeling, I joined Juan on the beach and was treated to a guided tour of the surroundings. He pointed out the smoothness and shape of the rock formations and explained that in hurricane season, the waves crash over the towering rocks and land on the beach where we stood. Smooth, round boulders are stacked in a huge pile that looks as if a giant had tired of his game of marbles and left them there to be collected at a later date. We hiked over the boulders to see the even calmer waters found on the other side. The rocks are so smooth that we hiked barefoot over rocks and cliffs, collecting large fragments of conch shells and startling the crabs.
I thought I had misunderstood when Juan said he was going to take us to snorkel with sea lions, but he was completely serious. A sense of anticipation surrounded us as we pushed off once again into the ocean and sped around the cape toward our next stop. As we neared the sea lion colony, Juan advised us to speak softly and not yell at the sea lions. When the animals spotted us, they began barking and diving off the high, flat rock where they were basking in the sun. There were about 10 females and a much larger male.
The animals were huge and we were hesitant to join them in the water. Juan explained that it was safe to swim with the sea lions, but we shouldn’t ever try to touch them. He also advised that if one came too close and we felt afraid, we should turn our backs to them. Most importantly, he advised us to stay together. I forgot the last piece of advice.
One after another my friends jumped out of the boat. I wasn’t sure I was brave enough to meet a sea lion face to face in his territory, so I thought about it for quite awhile. I finally decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I had to grab, so I jumped in.
My heart was pounding as I searched the water for one of the animals. I was only momentarily distracted by the beautiful fish and other sea life found at my fingertips.
Before long, I heard the tell tale bark of a sea lion and jerked my head out of the water to see one of the animals just feet away, looking right at me. As he ducked back underwater, so did I. He was enormous. I had no idea from looking at them sunning on the rocks that they were so large in life. I looked closer and realized that there were four sea lions swimming 10 or 15 feet below me.
I was busy watching them flip and glide when I heard a bark just behind me. I looked back towards my feet in time to see the largest of the animals, the bull, swimming just beneath me. I could have straddled the animal, it was that close. I screamed, but the sound was muffled as I was under water. I looked around and realized I was separated from the group. The other snorkelers were futilely looking for sea lions several feet away. I motioned to them that I had encountered the jackpot and was more than a little relieved when they swam to join me.
We soon learned that the sea lions were playful and merely curious about us, as we were about them. They would swim directly beneath us, turning belly up and watch us with large soulful eyes. We spent what seemed like hours swimming together. It was with resignation that we climbed back in the boat and continued around the cape.
As we left the sea lions, they jumped back on their sunning rock and strutted in the sun. One remained in the water, turned on its side and waved a fin at us, almost as if saying goodbye. I was amazed that these animals were wild and not trained to perform for visitors like us.
Juan continued to point out natural and man-made wonders. We saw a camel formed out of jutting rock and rock carvings left from ancient inhabitants. We saw traces of what remained of rock paintings depicting early friars, eroded away from hundreds of years of exposure to salt, water and wind. We also saw the ruins of a stone wall built by former dwellers of the cape.
Our final stop was in the bay of Los Frailes (the Friars). Here the water was still and warm. I left the snorkeling gear in the boat and went for a swim in the inviting waters.
Several sailboats and RVs evidenced that this beach was better known than its neighbor to the east. Tourists were buying fish from the day’s catch and we bought a “cabrilla” of our own.
We pushed off for the last time and headed back for Cabo Pulmo. The ride back took my breath away as Juan raced over the water and the little boat bucked and dipped over the waves. As we neared the beach, we were instructed to brace ourselves, with good reason, as Juan drove the panga right onto the beach.
Juan’s wife cooked up our fresh fish and we finished the afternoon eating fish tacos and refried beans. It was with full stomachs and smiles on our faces that we piled back into the car for the return to San José.
by Kristin Batchelor
Photos T. Zyber