Dawn is the best time of day in the Sea of Cortez... A ruby red globe of promise hovers just above the water, we watch the sunrise like castaways waiting for rescue, slowly sipping our smoothies and savouring our chia pots. Desert days get hot quickly - just fifteen minutes after sunrise the cool of our white van (affectionately named ‘the beluga’) feels like a welcome reprise. As on all our trips, waking up at sparrows never feels like a compromise - we are the early birds who will get the worm… or in our case - the fish.
Just south of our hacienda is the small town of Cabo Pulmo - we roll in while the street dogs are just waking up and greet our hosts. David Castro and his family were part of the pioneering fisher-families who lobbied the Mexican government to protect their bit of ocean, instead opting for eco-tourism as a sustainable way of living off the sea. And boy does it work! After launching the boat we travel out to sea, you don’t even have to be within the reserve to see the effects of protection. ‘Stop the boat’ David says, ‘I can smell them’. Yep, you heard right, with his nose in the air David asks Peter to jump in and check - we hear his garbled yell of excitement through his snorkel. We have found the jack fish.
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Slipping into the warm blue water you look down through the sharp angled slicing sun rays to a world of whirling silver. At first it’s hard to comprehend what you are seeing, but as your eyes adjust to the still dim morning ocean colours, you start noticing the horde. Thousands upon thousands of jack fish the length of your forearm are schooling just below us. Perfectly synchronised they move like a stream of mercury - the individuals becoming the group. Take one breath, kick down and the ball of fish start opening up, you begin to see eyes, and gills, tails and fins. Carefully controlled movements allow for a slow freediver to be able to gently enter the mass of fish, they move in slow motion out of your way, a wall of fish being poured through blue water and you are surrounded. Hanging suspended in one of the greatest conservation success stories of our time, the jacks of Capo Pulmo! As the sun climbs higher the fish sink deeper and we leave them to their fishy pursuits and travel further south for deep clear water and long ropes - freediving training! Ears, focus, stillness, breathing and technique. We teach a slow and kind approach to freediving, there are no expectations other than pure joy of the ocean. Dive by dive making our way deeper into the ocean and knowledge of ourselves. Our days alternate between diving the waters around the Cabo Pulmo marine reserve and meeting the La Paz whale sharks. The largest of all the fish in the sea, the whale shark is surely one of the most enigmatic of all the ocean giants. A shark not a whale. A filter feeder not a top predator.
Covered in individually unique white spots like a galaxy of make-believe, the whale shark truly captures the imagination! Our wonderful guide is Maritza Cruz from Whaleshark Mexico, a knowledgeable, passionate and wonderfully goofy researcher who is as excited to talk about her beautiful whale sharks as we are to pick her brain! How old are they? (Between 3 and 15 here in La Paz.) Why are they here in La Paz? (The wind and current traps plankton in the bay and it becomes a whale shark smorgasbord) How do they get pregnant? (They meet romantically somewhere in the blue then the female can keep the sperm and self inseminate at will… ‘what!!?’) How many babies do they have a time? (One female was found with over 300 babies inside her at various stages of development - thus the staggered self insemination theory) How big can they get? How many are there? Have you counted their spots? Are they shy… happy… curious… etc etc etc. Thank you Maritza for your patience and knowledge. Yet you can talk about whale sharks until the cows come home and know every single fact about them but nothing beats actually seeing one. The iconic broad mouth and head speckled with spots, the gently swaying action of the huge tail that looks so lazy but try to keep up! The incredible moment you come across a whale shark that has stopped swimming and ‘gone vertical’ - hanging suspended in the clouds of delicious plankton to maximise feeding and minimise movement, vacuuming huge gulps of water into the wide open mouth, trapping the food and flushing water back out through the gills. Remarkable. Here it is so shallow, the whale sharks so intent on feeding and the conditions so perfect that everybody gets to see whale shark after whale shark. Swim fin to shoulder and gaze deep into those small smart eyes, count some spots and be mesmerised by the gentlest of all the giants.
Other days offer sea lions, turtles, the unexpected ghostly swim by of five mobula rays in perfect formation. The Sea of Cortez is still the worlds aquarium as Jacques Cousteau famously dubbed it. Red cliffs meet the blue ocean in a cascade of hundreds of years old cactus plants, desert eagles soar above the scrub and donkeys wander along the dirt roads. Baja is still a place that suits the wildest of hearts… both above and below.
Words // Hanli Prinsloo
Images // Peter Marshall