Thursday, January 9, 2014

Isla Isabel

Let me keep my distance, always, 
From those who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say, 
And laugh in astonishment
And bow their heads
--Mary Oliver

The run to Isla Isabel was quick and quiet. Bryan took the first watch and then got some rest while I took over for a while. As we changed watches again, he joked that he’d hung the crescent moon just for me. He knows that a sliver of new moon is my favorite phase. At this latitude, the crescent hangs underneath the dim shadow of the full moon, which is just visible as a starless sphere in the brilliant night sky. I kept an eye out for fishermen (who turn their lights on and off unnervingly) and watched the glow of Mazatlan fade behind us. After the moon slipped below the horizon, I woke Bryan for his late evening watch. He had warned me that he might want to take a long night watch alone, so I wasn’t too surprised to wake up 6 hours later and find him still awake, enjoying the peace of a silent night at sea. He’d been working on a few projects through the night and wasn’t quite ready to be done. I went gladly back to bed and slept until the sun came up.

We’d made good time in the night. When I first peeked out in the morning, what I initially thought was a large boat low on the horizon was actually Isla Isabel. The approach was clear as indicated in our charts and guidebooks, but the charted location was off by several miles. The last hour or so, I stopped checking our navigation equipment and just pointed us toward the island itself and the pair of pinnacle rocks to its east sticking up from the ocean floor like a hitchhiker’s thumb. (Bryan claims this must be why the island wasn’t charted correctly; it keeps hitching a ride south with passing boats.)

As we approached the eastern shore, Valus Valeo shouted across to us from their spot in the eastern anchorage south of Las Monas, the pinnacles. When we were together on New Years Eve, we’d discussed our plans to head south about the same time, so we weren’t too surprised to see them here. They confirmed our plan to skip the southern anchorage. While slightly more protected than the eastern one, it is also surrounded by dangerous reefs, and underwater, an unmarked rock spire threatens keels and peace of mind.
The limpid water magnified the sand and rocks below as we motored slowly in, looking for a place to anchor. Bryan walked to the bow and waited for us to drift over a large patch of sand, then tossed the anchor over. After we set it well, he and the girls snorkeled our swing area looking for any rocks tall enough to bump our keel. We’d read a warning against getting complacent here; the sand is a thin layer over rock and in strong winds or current, we could easily drag. But the winds and seas were calm, so we relaxed a bit and celebrated the accomplishment of this long-awaited landfall.

Our friends from Valus Valeo motored over in their large dinghy and offered us a ride around to the southern anchorage. They zoomed around for a few minutes to give us time to dry off and pull together some fortification for an excursion.

We carefully balanced in their not-quite-overloaded dinghy and motored around the southeast point of the island. Another sailboat lay at anchor in the cove and before we left, two others had pulled in as well.

We landed the dinghy, hauled it safely up the beach. The wheels make it easier to haul up this heavy-duty inflatable with its large motor. Rover is lightweight and easy to launch and land, but it would have been a long row around! 


As we walked the beach past the fishing village, a panga full of eco-tourists landed nearby and we followed them and their bulging backpacks up the trail a few yards to an old research station, now a campsite for visitors and iguanas.
We spotted frigate birds, some still decked out for mating season,

some with new babies.

The air was humid and heavy with the scent of guano, though not overwhelmingly so. We marveled at the varied iguanas, all hanging out together in the sun.

We walked back through the fish camp to a trail leading up concrete steps into an inland valley. Bryan and I lagged behind until all sound receded but the sounds of the jungle, the prehistoric howls and clatter from the trees and the beat of powerful wings overhead.


We climbed another flight of steps up out of the valley and scrambled down the other side to a crater lake at the heart of the island. The small lake seemed stagnant, green with algae, but otherwise lifeless. A bird carcass lay on the bank near bare limbs of driftwood. We teased the girls, telling them not to toss rocks or disturb the monsters hiding in the gloomy water. Of course, they couldn’t resist, but the only monster we saw was a tiny hermit crab scuttling along his busy way.
The long night was catching up with all of us, so we hurried back to the dinghy and motored back to our boats. After dinner, the grown-ups from both boats were still pretty weary, but the girls wanted to get together, so Bryan rowed ours over to join theirs for an evening of games.
A couple of hours after dark, after the moon had set over the island and the girls were back from game night, Bryan took them out on deck for some spectacular star-gazing. Light pollution from even small population centers travels miles out to sea. But here, more than 30 miles out, the stars light up the night. I can’t remember why I didn’t join them, but I enjoyed listening to them exclaim as I got ready for bed below (alone…maybe that’s why:-) About 3 am, I awoke with middle-of-the-night clarity, the kind where you know right away you might as well give up on going back to sleep for a while. I got up to check our position. No problem: we were right where we’d been all day. I took a couple of dropboards out of the companionway and stepped out into the warm, still night. Familiar constellations swung in unfamiliar patterns. Orion, usually a friendly presence toward the southeast on winter evenings, hung by his feet on the western horizon. The abundance of stars, many typically too faint to see, made it difficult to pick out the well-known groupings. Our anchor light wobbled in a gentle circle somewhere east of Ursa Major. In just the starlight—no moon, no clouds, no hint of dawn—I stared at the pinnacles, the horizon to the east, the dark island sleeping out to sea.
I woke early to birdcalls outside and we spent the morning hypnotized by the swirl of countless birds overhead and the gentle sounds of surf and sea.

We packed a lunch and all our snorkel gear and rowed over to the beach. We’d heard there was a population of blue-footed boobies on this island, but hadn’t spotted a single blue foot on our first trip ashore. Apparently, they all hang out on the eastern beach! We’d arrived during mating season and we spotted some birds already brooding over eggs in the sand. Others were obviously still in the courting stages. We even witnessed a couple of pairs perform their pompous, ridiculous mating dance (not that humans have a leg to stand on when it comes to criticizing ridiculous mating dances!)


We went for a walk north up the beach and discovered several unusual formations where the sea had eroded the volcanic rock.




Slender skulls, hollow breastbones, and tiny bird vertebrae lay scattered in the sand.


We met a couple of wary iguanas and stepped carefully around so many groups of hermit crabs we became convinced they’ve been misunderstood all these years. They’re really quite the party animal!



Hannah wasn’t in the mood to snorkel (she spent the afternoon building this magnificent coral castle), but the rest of us suited up and jumped in.

The water was shallow quite a ways out, and a bit murky with surf-tossed sand, but several yards past the breakers, the bottom dropped away and the water cleared beautifully. We’d heard people describe good snorkeling as swimming in an aquarium, but until today, hadn’t had that kind of experience. We left the camera on shore, but got lots of great underwater video on our GoPro. Schools of fish of every color and size swam beneath us in all directions. Blue ones with yellow fins, silver ones with blue fins, green ones with white polka dots, and black ones with purple eyeshadow. My favorite was a slightly pudgy, iridescent black one with white dots and silly, floppy fins. I followed it for several minutes wondering what it thought of the slightly pudgy, orange and black creature above it, the one with the bright yellow foam jacket and those gangly, inefficient arms and legs.

I got out to dry off and rest up and Bryan and Meira soon followed. We sat near the dinghy and ate our lunch, trying not to freak out the nesting birds nearby.


We spoke idly of the wonder of the underwater universe. We’ve been floating over it for months now but are no closer to being a part of it. Our snorkels give us a mere glimpse into the aquatic life so foreign to our own.

Suddenly, a great splash out past our boat signaled the presence of humpback whales. Our track and timing has mimicked their annual migratory patterns, so we’ve seen quite a few recently. This day, as always, the sight was breathtaking. Two whales surfaced multiple times, breaching and crashing back into the water with great energy and commotion. They swam south of our boat, then turned back and came closer again. On days like this, it’s easy to hope the animals come a little bit nearer, dance a little bit longer. But they are not here for my pleasure or to put on a show for us. Especially for those of us raised with disney-fied animated animals, it’s easy to anthropomorphize these creatures instead of recognizing their utterly different instincts and thought processes. We remember it is a privilege to witness a few moments of their lives and we offer them the respect they deserve. 

After lunch, Bryan and I left the girls relaxing in the sand and walked down toward the rocky southern edge of the beach.


We met colonies of crabs, accidentally startling several into a leap from their rocky perch.



Their claws skittered across the black rocks as they moved sideways, then shifted—quick-as-a-blink—forwards or backwards. Red and blue shells stood out against the pitted stone and black shapes hung almost invisible on cliffs and under outcroppings.


Here, brown boobies with greenish beaks and feet stood out among their more prevalent blue-footed cousins.



Bryan climbed down the cliffs for a better view of the green and pink chitons. I found an easier way down and joined him in marveling at their hard, articulated shells and their textured circumference. Streaks of color in the black rock echoed their strange hues. 


The tidepools appeared lifeless, but a closer inspection revealed hundreds of miniscule snails, each with a slightly different shell pattern.

We couldn’t stop exclaiming at the dense abundance of life. We finally walked back to the girls and launched the dinghy across the rocks and through the surf. We rowed back to the boat in a daze of gratitude, reluctant but ready to move on. The girls went below and made chilaquiles for dinner, hollering out questions about the Spanish directions on the package while Bryan and I sat on deck in the fading light and gentle breeze, overwhelmed and humbled by the wealth of wonder.

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