Exploring Isla Espiritu Santos Island
Once upon a time, long, long before the first footprint appeared on a beach on the Baja California peninsula, in fact, long before there was a beach upon which a footprint could appear, a cataclysm shook the part of the globe where we now live. Water levels rose and fell, mountains crunched skyward and subsided, water flooded and ebbed, and at the end of a certain amount of time a sprinkling of shards of land, miniscule in the overall scheme of things, sat alone in the middle of a turquoise sea. Then somewhere in recent history a pair of these shards acquired names: Isla Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida.
These islands are two only in that a narrow channel of water which can be waded across at low tide separates them. They stretch twenty miles along their north-south axis, and are a mere six miles across at their widest point. Hikers can easily cross in an hour. Located only twenty miles from the metropolis of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Islas Espiritu Santo and Partida lure tourists and residents alike, because they offer activities for many tastes.
The islands are mostly alternating layers of black lava and pinky volcanic ash. On the eastern side of Isla Partida steep, tumbling, rocky cliffs drop sheer into the water. Within a half mile of the eastern shore, the water’s depth is 50 fathoms. The broken cliffs are a geology teacher’s delight, with obvious signs of faulting and “major inconformities”. Only one or two rocky beaches can be used to land a skiff, and only the indentation between the two islands is an acceptable anchorage for cruising boats.
On the western side of the islands, the layered geology is equally interesting. Look for places where the layers of softer ash have been cut by rivers and filled in by subsequent lava flows, or where a softer layer has eroded beneath a harder, leaving pink frosting dripping over the rocky cliffs. While the study of the island geology is an attraction to some, boating, fishing, camping, hiking, snorkeling, scuba diving, and the study of natural history draws others.
The gently inclined western shore of both islands is dentate, like the fingers of a spread hand, a series of rocky points separated by deep, shallow bays. The fine-grained and coralline beach sand is a creamy white. The water is a turquoise as clear as the finest stone in a Hopi necklace. Winter water temperatures may drop to 68 degrees, but from July through October it climbs to over 80. Reef fish abound along the rocky shores leading away from the head of each bay to the points which form it. Angelfish, wrasse, Moorish idols, the chameleon-like trumpetfish, and more, large and small, drab and bright dart or drift, according to their natures. Float over the shallow reefs and the rainbow wrasse will nibble on your legs. This particular small wrasse is normally striped horizontally in yellow, red, and black. However, if the school lacks a dominant male, the largest female increases in size and metamorphoses into a male with green-blue and yellow horizontal markings. You’d never know they were even related. Many of the angel fish also change colors as they mature. The parrotfish, named for its horny beak-like mouth and brilliant colors, is blue-green, even inside of its mouth.
Beaches on the south and southeastern end of Isla Espiritu Santo call to shell collectors. Do you want to make your own puka-shell necklace? Scooch along the lower tide line on the tiny south beach of Bonanza Bay and you should find enough shells (it takes about 150 of them) in a couple of hours. Search the beaches thoroughly in February and March to find an unbroken paper nautilus shell. Not a true shell, but the egg carrying case of an octopus-like creature which is discarded after the eggs hatch, it is highly prized for its fragile beauty.
Each beach is backed by a canyon, steep on Isla Partida, and gentle in inclination at the southern end of Isla Espiritu Santo. Behind the southern beaches are mangrove swamps in which brackish water rises and falls with the tide.
On the flats exposed by low tide, fiddler crabs scuttle as they clean out their tunnel homes, leaving a starry pattern of tiny sand-mud balls around the central door. Shore birds skitter along the water’s edge, dipping their bills into the sand in search of dinner, and the stately great blue herons and snowy egrets slowly flap their way to a farther shore as you approach.
Long lines of brown pelicans roller-coaster across the bays, gliding and rising in undulations like streamers from a flagstaff. In the early morning and late evening they feed in the shallows, falling in gangly and awkward-seeming dives. A flip of the beak signals a successful catch. Brown pelicans nest on Isla Espiritu Santo and on the rocky islets off shore in the late winter and early spring, the nests untidy bowls of rough twigs looking hardly comfortable for the featherless hatchlings.
Beaches backed by steep arroyos invite the hiker. Here on one small pair of islands is a microcosm of the desert peninsula as a whole. The arroyos are waterless except for a few weeks or days after summer rains. However, permanent water in the well hand-chipped through rock in the lower section of the canyon in Candelero Bay, and the giant zalate (wild fig) trees, palo de arco, and Miguelito vine, show the presence of year-round underground water; and caves further up canyon attest to the strength of falling water over time. Hummingbirds dart through the trees and ring-tailed cats shelter in the cool canyons during the day and wander down-canyon to the beach foraging at night.
Farther up the canyon, typical desert growth takes over, all the scrubby, hardy, thornful plants which have adapted their habits to long seasons of drought.
Embudo canyon, at the northern tip of Isla Partida, ends abruptly at the edge of a volcanic fault cliff. Below the cliff lies a dry lake large enough to accommodate an airstrip. The gently sloping bowl grows waist high grass in the rainy season and the ground later is littered with the droppings of feral goats and black jackrabbits, the only two mammals of any size living on the islands. These jackrabbits are found nowhere else in the world, and one wonders why a dark-coated jackrabbit has evolved in a hot climate, where you’d think a lighter coat would be more efficient.
Snakes and lizards and dozens of small insects inhabit the islands. An especially interesting insect is a wasp which lays its eggs only in the fruit of the zalate. Without this particular wasp to cross-pollinate the blossoms, the zalate would never bear the fruit needed by the birds and other animals.
Beyond the north point of the islands lies a shard of a shard, Los Islotes, a jewel with its own facets. Observe the sea lion colony from a boat; or snorkle toward shore until the young sea lions and the females swim out from the rocks to pirouette below you while the massive bulls bark “don’t come any closer” from the rocks. Swim through the arch where orange fan and white fire coral sway in the current and sea horses cling to ribbons of seaweed. Overhead, common brown boobies perch on guano-dotted cliffs, with sometimes a rare visitor among them, a blue-footed booby.
Out beyond the arms of the bay schools of porpoise play and feed, and in their seasons other cetaceans: orcas, California Gray whales, fin and sei whales, sperm and humpbacks, and the giant of them all, the blue whale, which migrates into the Sea of Cortez in February and March.
A visit of a day is not enough in which to find all the treasures this pair of small island has to offer. Wherever your interests lie, you will find something to draw you back again and again to this fascinating hunk of lava and ash only a few hours north of La Paz.