February 25, 2009

Jacaranda Passage Note #30: Part 1: Marine Wilderness: Revillagigedo Islands, Mexico

 

Scott and Cindy on the catamaran BEACH HOUSE arrived at Isla Benedicto 5 days before us.  We were the only sailboats in the islands the entire 5 1/2 weeks we were there.   Although we had met earlier in the season, we didn’t know them very well and soon became fast friends.  They greeted us on our arrival on Dec. 24 with a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner which became only the first of several shared celebrations (New Years and Cindy’s birthday) and many laughter filled times together.    

 

Two commercial dive boats, each carrying about 22 divers, regularly run 8 day scuba trips to the Revillagigedos from Cabo San Lucas and we became friends with the captain and crew of each. About every 10 days, the Nautilus Explorer and Solmar V would show up in our anchorage and stay just for one day before moving on to another dive location. They were wonderful to us, sharing dive tips and good spots, allowing us to offload our garbage and supplying us with 40 gallons of fuel, some butter and fresh veggies.  They even offered to do some food shopping in Cabo if we needed anything brought out.  Linda did such a superb job at provisioning that we had just about everything we needed for the 6 weeks – cabbage, potatoes and jicama lasted to the end, and we had brought enough boxed milk and unrefrigerated eggs. Linda and Cindy shared homemade (boatbaked) challah, sourdough, French and beer breads.   Our larder was supplemented by two 35 pound wahoos (one caught trolling in the dinghy, one off  JACARANDA

 

And now that we’ve been there and back, we have glorious tales of our own to tell.

 

The Revillagigedo Archipelago is considered one of the top 10 dive spots in the world  - known for its BIG animals  (300 pound yellowfin tuna, 6 foot wahoos, sharks, whales, and whalesharks) and  featuring giant manta rays with 20 foot wingspans uniquely famous for their friendly interactions with divers.  The islands certainly lived up to this reputation for us. 

 

The diving and snorkeling were fabulous with visibility of 100-120 on some days.  Although Linda and I are scuba divers, we do not have the equipment on Jacaranda so we were limited to snorkeling and free diving.  Scott and Cindy live to scuba dive so BEACH HOUSE was outfitted with all the necessary gear including a compressor. They were kind enough to invite us to use some of their spare gear and both Linda and I did a few tank dives…..otherwise we stayed within 25 feet of the surface.

 

Another of Scott’s passions is underwater photography and an entire large stateroom on their boat was devoted to electronic equipment and cameras (video and still).  We were glad to have such professional documentation of our adventures to look at later and share with you all! To see his fabulous photos and videos (not only of our trip but of their other experiences) go to www.beachhouse.com.

 

 

 

We can hardly contain our excitement from being out in the marine wilderness of the Revillagigedos Archipelago for the last 5 ½ weeks!  This remote archipelago in the middle of nowhere is located 250 miles SW of Cabo San Lucas and consists of four islands:  San Benedicto, Socorro,  Roca Partida and Clarion.  We only visited the first two. Like most wilderness environments, it is pristine, uninhabited, far from man’s worst intrusions, where you can see lots of fauna that are native to the area, and where you find the BIG animals.  And, like most “designated” wildernesses, in this case a marine preserve, it is protected, or there is an attempt at protection, by the government.  In Mexico this means commercial fishing is prohibited and you need a permit to visit. Linda and I had wanted to go out there from the beginning of our cruising when we met some friends who mesmerized us with glorious tales of their interactions with giant manta rays and whales….but the fee of $1500 USD was prohibitive for us.  So when we found out that this year the government eliminated this exorbitant fee for small pleasure craft, we jumped at the chance to go!  Our permit did NOT allow us to go ashore and that in itself keeps most of the cruising boats away.  The Mexican government is hoping that having a few more boats out in the islands will help them protect the Revillagigedos from poaching and illegal fishing.  The Navy maintains a small base on Socorro with 100 personnel, a few small pangas, and a frigate.  They really need a few helicopters.

Isla San Benedicto and the friendly mantas

 

Isla San Benedicto was an eerie looking island dominated by a high, deeply furrowed ash cinder cone  formed by a volcanic explosion in 1952.  With no vegetation, it was barren and sculptural like a moonscape.  A large dark lava delta had oozed from a vent at the base of the Barceno Volcano and spread out dramatically like a black fan on the southeast side of the island.    We stayed in an anchorage that was an open roadstead (in 50 feet of water) at the edge of this delta for 3 weeks, swimming every day with the friendly mantas that were right in our back yard so to speak.  Because of the unique markings on the underside of each individual, we were able to identify each one and even gave them names. Most mornings we awoke to 4-5 mantas swimming right around our boat, feeding on the surface with the tips of their pectoral fins breaking the water just enough to look like a pair of sharks swimming in tandem.  

 

And the premier dive site was only a 100 yard dingy ride from the boat!   Here, around a semicircle of underwater volcanic pinnacles called “cleaning stations” is where these gentle giants would come to have small fish rid them of parasites and clean any sores.  In the afternoons, after their morning feeding was over, we went out and played with them every day. They would recognize us, swim over for a belly rub and if we were lucky would allow us to climb aboard for a ride!  Everyday we snorkeled and everyday we saw mantas.  They are very intelligent creatures and actually invite you to go for a ride.  There is a  protocol we followed for approaching them and going for a ride was an incredible experience!  Cindy shows how to do it the best aboard Buttercup in Scott’s terrific 3 minute video called Cindy’s Manta Magic at  http://svbeachhouse.com/videos.  Check it out. It may take a moment to load so be patient. 

 

Very little is known about mantas but they are considered to be the most intelligent fish. Unanswered questions abound about breeding, life expectancy, migrational patterns, and most of their behavior. They are filter feeders consuming large amount of plankton each day and when they were feeding they were never interested in playing.    Often mantas pick out a favorite diver among a group and befriend that person, following them and staying close by; there was an account of a diver becoming claustrophobic when a manta continually hovered over his head.   We saw this behavior firsthand with Buttercup who loved Scott.   Research performed at Benedicto by a California biologist confirmed that they recognize and differentiate among individual divers….. through eye contact!!  A diver who was chosen especially by a particular manta exchanged gear (different colored wet suits, tanks, etc.) with other divers in his group on subsequent dives but was always recognized by his manta who came over to be with him.  On one dive, however, the divers put on their original gear but covered the inside of their masks with tin foil so their eyes were not visible.  In this case, the manta did not come close to anyone.  Indeed, one of the first things the mantas did with us  - and the first step of the protocol - was to swim by us closely, eyeball to eyeball, looking us over with their large pupils.  We were also astounded by two other things when we climbed aboard and held on to their upper jaw for a ride:  (1) they dropped you off where they picked you up, and (2) they stayed within 20 feet of the surface when Linda and I were freediving as if they knew they could not dive deeply with us.  Amazing creatures and we never got tired of swimming with them!

 

There were plenty of other fish and animals among the coral heads, reefs, and pinnacles– and nothing much was very small.  It made for great snorkeling, especially around Turtle Point  where we saw 4-5 turtles each time (including 2 that were mating at the surface).  Large schools of blue and green jacks, nocturnal octopus and eels out and about during the day, big Socorro lobsters that clustered  10 to a hole, beautiful orange Clarion angelfish and fragile Moorish idols, shimmering clouds of  roving convict tangs. Dense aggregations of colorful clown-like red-tailed trigger fish made such loud chirping sounds when feeding on the surface that we came out on deck one day thinking it was a flock of birds.

 

Shortly after we arrived,  Linda cultivated her own private aquarium under the boat.  It consisted of  20-30  brown chubs, 4 of which were in a bright yellow phase (these were her “lemony snickets” ).  They were joined by several blue jacks.  She handfed them, swam with them, and could even touch them and delighted that they hung around every day.   

 

Linda’s fish boil 

One afternoon the commotion of a fish boil occurred a few hundred yards from JACARANDA.   Birds pounded the water, the darkened patch of sea looked like it was boiling, and you could see yellow fin tuna jumping in the air as a feeding frenzy took place around a huge sardine bait ball. Linda decided to investigate it and took the dinghy out to get a closer look..  Little did she realize that the entire beleaguered bait ball would try to cram under the dinghy for protection from the carnivores! The sardines were huddled so densely that you could easily scoop large handfuls of them at the transom.  Soon yellowfin tuna were jumping over the dinghy, the birds were diving all around inches away, Linda was soaking wet, and the large marauders below her (yellowfin tuna, sharks, and large jacks) started pelting the bottom of the dinghy so hard after the bait that she was fearful that she might be capsized by all the action.  When she started the engine and made it back to Jacaranda, we had a hole in the bottom of the dinghy. We patched it and it seems fine but she won't be doing that again anytime soon! 

 

At the end of our third week, we concluded our stay at Benedicto with a wonderful dive at another site called “The Boiler”,  a 30 minute dingy ride up the west side of the island. 

 

This tale will be continued at Isla Socorro in the next Passage Note #31