After leaving La Paz, we had more than a month left in Mexico before we needed to return to the US near the end of May. This would give us a lot of time to explore the Sea of Cortez; despite spending half of the previous two years in Mexico, we had still only seen a fraction of what the sea has on offer. May is a great time to see the sea, with no hurricanes or northers and nice temperatures. Water temperatures are colder and visibility is worse than in the fall, but diving conditions are still good.
After veering towards depression in La Paz I was pretty worried about how this trip would go. In the end, though, our trip north was some of best time we’ve had on the boat. We saw lots of great stuff, got along together really well, and for the most part everything just moved along smoothly.
Our first stop was at Puerto Ballandra, fifteen miles north of La Paz, a spot we’d been to several times before but not for a while. I needed some time to unwind from La Paz, and a few days at an easy, familiar spot seemed just right. We went snorkeling, did a very shallow dive, paddleboarded in the mangroves and along the coast north of the bay, all really fun. A couple nights the Corumuel winds built and I went out kiting in the morning, trying the hydrofoil board and making some real progress (well, going from being a total disaster to getting up on the foil for short distances before crashing; as hard as it is to learn kiteboarding, learning to foil is even harder.)
We motored and sailed thirty five miles north to Isla San Jose, an island we had passed many times before but had never stopped at. The south end of the island has some of the most extensive mangroves in the Sea of Cortez, and we anchored nearby for a couple days. We crossed through the mangroves by dinghy, which was nice but not spectacular — in close there were a lot of no-see-ums, which made it pretty hard to do much exploration of side passages. Some hiking on the beach, too, but mostly just relaxing.
Seven miles off the east side of Isla San Jose is Las Animas, a small rocky island. I’d been interested in coming here since first hearing about it on a dive trip in 2008, and we finally had a good opportunity to visit. After motoring in calm seas for a few hours we arrived and anchored on the southwest side of the island, in a cove framed by a couple of detached rocks. Very deep, we were in 90′ of water just a few hundred feet from the island. I dove on the anchor and found a steeply sloping sand bottom, which seemed like it would provide decent holding given the calm forecast.
Back on the boat, I was getting excited about how wild this place was. Lots of birds, fish under the boat, great visibility — around 80′, some of the best we’d ever seen in the sea — and several jumping swordfish nearby (which I’d never seen before). Lisa was concerned about how close we were to the island and wanted to wait before getting in the water, so I went out in the kayak for a dive. Conditions at the detached rock were fantastic, with lots of fish and coral, a lobster out in the open, just a healthy and vibrant ecosystem.
Soon after getting back to the boat I went out snorkeling with Lisa, dragging the dinghy through the water as we checked out another set of detached rocks at the north end of Las Animas. There was more great fish life here, and after a couple minutes a small turtle showed up, which was fascinating to watch as it kept swimming and diving around us, paying us little mind. After snorkeling we went paddleboarding around the cove, looking at the birds and fish and wonderful scenery. It was getting late, and we decided to stay the night and dive together the next morning. Unfortunately, after sunset winds came up from the north, pushing us towards the island and making for a restless night. Things were still sloppy in the morning, so we pulled the hook and moved on.
The wind died not long after leaving Las Animas, and we motored twelve miles to Isla San Diego, a small island just north of Isla San Jose. Conditions were still calm after anchoring and we headed out to go diving. There is an expansive shoal off the southwest end of the island which leads out to a detached rock. We had heard there was good diving in this area, and after looking around a bit we dropped in at a random spot near the shoal. This was mediocre, so we surfaced after a couple minutes and headed to the rock itself.
The rock southwest of San Diego has spectacular diving. Dropping to 20-30′ on all sides, quite a few fish were congregating around it, and the north side had huge amounts of well developed cup corals, beautiful colors. On top of this, there is an amazing cave packed with fish and coral. With light coming in from the three entrances this is an incredible, sublime place, the best cave I can remember seeing while diving. During our first dive I went and explored the cave by myself, and then we came back the next day and spent an entire dive checking out the entrances and swimming through the cave together.
After two days at Isla San Diego we left before dawn to continue heading north. Or, tried to leave. The anchor refused to come up, and felt like it was snagged on a rock. This happened to me back in 2008 on Grand Illusion at Santa Cruz island in southern California, and it was a big deal then to freedive down to 30′ and free the anchor. Now we had a compressor, though, so even though it was night and we were in 40′ of water it was pretty simple to dive down, free the chain from the rock it was wrapped around, then get on our way. In mid morning we arrived at Bahia Agua Verde, a very popular bay in the sea we had just seen briefly in 2014 but had not been back to. The anchorage was not as crowded now, and after finding a nice spot we headed out for a dive. Roca Solitaria — a tall and pointy detached rock on the north side of the bay — is the main dive site here, but after getting in we found terrible visibility, a rude shock after the diving we had been doing previously. The dive was still alright, with some nudibranchs and corals, but we weren’t interested in repeating it.
Fortunately, there are a lot of other things to do at Agua Verde. We paddleboarded around the boat, went snorkeling at some rocks nearby, walked the beach to look at the crabs skittering around, and went on a neat hike to a marshy area with lots of palm trees. What’s most special about Agua Verde, though, is the bay’s town. Separated from the main highway by a long dirt road, the town is pretty sleepy, some fishermen and, uniquely, a goat dairy. Almost anytime we looked around the bay from Magic we could see goats foraging high on the hillsides, and eventually we went ashore and walked into town to get some cheese from the dairy, watching all the animals — goats, chickens, dogs, a mature male turkey — wandering around freely. I didn’t reflect on it much at the time, but this is a side of Mexico we don’t get to see or appreciate very often.
Our next stop was Bahia Candeleros, a spot we keep coming back to. The diving at the Candeleros never gets boring, and we found good conditions over several dives at these islets. A lot of siphonophores in the water, but visibility wasn’t bad and everywhere we went we found good fish life and great corals. We stayed for several days and got to unwind a bit. Every day we went ashore to jog on the beach, and we spent a bit of time eating at the resort in the bay and talking to some friends from La Paz who were anchored nearby. One day the wind built and I tried kiteboarding, but conditions were gusty and I abandoned the attempt pretty quickly. It’s interesting that if the wind is strong but turbulent then the kite still won’t get the lift it needs.
We continued moving north, spending a night at Isla Danzante, another favorite spot. We went diving together, did some paddleboarding, the usual stuff. There were quite a few mobula rays jumping in the anchorage, and a couple times we saw a large school of them near the boat, but we weren’t able to get in the water and snorkel with them before they moved on.
Conditions were calm, and we needed to reprovision, so we headed north and anchored off of Loreto. This is an open roadstead anchorage, but has a good sand bottom and we weren’t worried. We took the dinghy into the harbor, walked around, went shopping, got groceries. A nice, charming town. We didn’t dally, though, and headed to Isla Coronados for the night, six miles north. We had passed by this island several times before but had never stopped here. We anchored off the south end of the island, which was alright but not that pretty. The next day we went diving at the southeast end of the island, which was alright — boring topography but some good invertebrate life, and Lisa caught a glimpse of a large school of mobulas coasting by.
One of the main attractions of Isla Coronados is the hiking. The island is dominated by a volcanic cone, and the terrain is pretty mellow. We went ashore inside of where we were anchored, hiked up onto the bluff and connected with a trail running north. This connected with another trail leading to the top of the volcano; Lisa was concerned about the time and turned back about halfway up, while I pressed on and got some good views from the summit. Back at the beach Lisa came in the dinghy to pick me up, while I watched mobulas jumping almost continuously, sometimes three or four at a time. The further north we were going the more mobulas we were seeing, which was exciting — they migrate around the sea throughout the year, and we were catching up with them.
Our next stop north was San Juanico, a very pretty, quiet bay popular with sailors. We’d never been here before, and I’d heard the diving was good here and wanted to check it out. Alas, our dinghy was giving us problems. I could start the motor but it would die quickly, and pretty soon it refused to start at all. The area I wanted to dive was over a mile away so we abandoned that goal, and just rowed in to shore to do some hiking. This was nice, and the anchorage was very pretty, but I was frustrated with the dinghy motor and after one night we continued north.
Not too far north of San Juanico is Punta Pulpito, the furthest north we had ever been previously on the Baja side of the Sea of Cortez. Forty miles further north is Bahia Concepcion, a long and narrow bay that is one of the largest in the sea. I’d wanted to come here for a long long time, and we finally had a chance. Our first stop was Punta Santo Domingo, out at the mouth of the bay. I wanted to dive at nearby Punta Concepcion, but I needed to get the motor working before we could try that out. I started tinkering and after removing the carburetor and getting some gunk out of it the motor seemed to be working alright, and we went diving.
From the start of the dive it was clear we weren’t in the southern Sea of Cortez anymore. There wasn’t any coral, and a lot of algae and grasses were sticking to the rocks. Still, it was very good diving. Several friendly angelfish swam up to us at the start of the dive, and shadowed us for much of the remainder. Fish life was good, some new species, and we found a lot of nudibranchs feeding on the algae. The next day we went out again, and on the way to the dive site had an amazing encounter with the mobula rays. We spotted some of them jumping, diverted course and found a huge school of hundreds of rays swimming below the surface. We snorkeled with them a bit, but they were moving fast and were hard to keep up with.
While the dinghy’s motor behaved for our dives at Santo Domingo, it started acting up again afterwards in much the same way as before. I eventually realized that the gas we were using was pretty heavily varnished. Back in February we bought forty gallons of gas for our Revillagigedos trip, but used less than half of it (I really didn’t want to run out of gas at the islands; the boat’s main engines are diesels so we didn’t need the gas for propulsion, but the dinghy, compressor, and generator all run on gas and if we ran out early we would have needed to return to Cabo). Now, over three months later, we still hadn’t gone through all of the gas, and after that much time in the sun it went bad.
The town of Mulege wasn’t too far away, so we motored over and anchored in front of town. I rowed the dinghy to shore, walked a mile to a gas station, filled up a five gallon jerry can, carried it back to the dinghy, then rowed back out to Magic into the wind. Yeesh. The dinghy motor ran better with the new gas, but still had problems. After several failed attempts at cleaning the carburetor, I took it apart as best as I could and soaked everything in pure simple green for a while. This did the trick and the motor didn’t give us any more problems for the rest of the season. Several lessons learned here, though.
We next headed south into Bahia Concepcion proper. The most popular area in the bay is Bahia Coyote, about halfway down on the west side. Bahia Coyote is a pretty cool place, only three miles across but packed with several islands, half a dozen nice beaches and some smaller coves. We anchored off a beach at the far northern end and stayed for a few days.
What impressed me the most about Bahia Coyote was all the bird life at its islands, which are steep-to and a good refuge. At the island closest to us there were several unfledged seagull chicks near the waterline, hopping around a bit and generally ignoring us. We saw a vulture that was interested in two of the chicks, which ticked off their parents to no end; they kept swooping by the vulture to try to drive it away, hitting it rather violently a couple of times. A couple islands further out were home to several nesting ospreys, and we saw plenty of the usual Sea of Cortez birds — pelicans, gulls, terns, cormorants and such.
Snorkeling at the islands was good, the paddleboarding was excellent, and the beaches in the bay were all nice. I was feeling pretty lazy, but Lisa prodded me to get out and mount expeditions in search of hot springs our guidebook claimed were at various points in the bay. We eventually found two: a shallow, hot pool in some mangroves near our boat, and a developed tub in the next cove down. Underwhelming, but fun to look for.
We headed north, stopping off of Mulege briefly for more gas (more long walks) and continuing on to anchor off the south end of Isla San Marcos, twenty five miles further up the coast. This is kind of an ugly island (the south end is a large open pit gypsum mine), but we stayed a few days and did several excellent dives at a nearby detached rock. The waters around this rock are shallow — 25′ or less — but there was a healthy fish population and lots of interesting life. Particular favorites were the abundant stingrays, I would constantly see them hiding in the sand or swimming around or forming piles of up to a dozen individuals. We also saw a slipper lobster (a bizarre creature, the first in Mexico I’ve seen), an octopus, and some other neat stuff over the course of the dives.
There was one last place we wanted to stop at before crossing the sea to San Carlos. Isla Tortuga is an island twenty miles to the northeast of San Marcos, cliffs on all sides, no good anchorage and not much information available for cruising sailors. It is supposed to have great diving, though, and we left for it in the morning. Unfortunately, pretty quickly after leaving San Marcos the wind picked up to twenty knots or so, and with such marginal conditions we bailed out on Isla Tortuga. We sailed past the island towards San Carlos, making it about halfway across the sea before motoring the rest of the way, arriving an hour after dark.
We anchored in Bahia Algodones, a favorite anchorage from last season, and started work on decommissioning the boat. Conditions were pretty mellow, though one afternoon the wind came up and I went to the beach with Lisa to go kiting. Alas, a few minutes after starting to get the kite ready I noticed that the dinghy had slipped back into the water and was now rapidly drifting across the bay. I got into the water and started swimming after the dinghy, but got exhausted without closing much of the gap and returned to shore. The dinghy was drifting parallel to the beach, so I walked / ran down the coast to get even with it, then started swimming again, then got exhausted again and swam back to shore again. The dinghy was about halfway down the bay now and drifting towards some rocks along the shore (not good). I headed down the beach yet again to get as close to the rocks as I could, but before I got too far someone came by on a jetski and recovered the dinghy — Lisa had talked to him and described our predicament. I was super grateful, and waded out to get the dinghy and motor back to where I’d landed it earlier. Pretty embarrassing, but no harm done and more lessons learned.
Anyways, with the dinghy further up the beach and the anchor deployed (normally we take the dinghy up above the high tide line, but its wheels were broken) I went out kiting and had a blast. I didn’t try to foil, but used a directional board and was switching my stance reliably and comfortably. The kite and board just felt right and easy to manage, and between the steady wind and the warm water and the beautiful scenery everything felt great, and I spent hours out on the water. Lisa was enjoying the scene at the Soggy Peso beach bar, where we spent so much time a year and a half ago, and after kiting we had dinner there.
Wind like this in May is unseasonable, and though I hoped it would come up again it never did. After another day at anchor we moved into nearby Marina Real, finished decommissioning the boat, and returned to the US.