TUESDAY, MARCH 28, 2010

Jacaranda Passage Note #37: Part 1: Revillagigedos: San Benedicto Island

San Benedicto Island: A "swell" New Years in the Revillagigedos

 

Just like last year, we spent the holiday season in the remote Revillagigedos 300 miles south of Cabo San Lucas , having a swell time - both literally and figuratively - with the giant manta rays and humpback whales. Last year we spent 5 weeks but this year we are planning to stay 8 weeks before returning to mainland Mexico. So far its been a very different experience than we had last year - still magical yet different.....but more about that in a moment.

To back up, I (Linda) returned to Mexico from the annual Thanksgiving gathering at The Farm and the family circuit in San Diego, Philadelphia, and Florida (all except for son David who is in South Korea teaching english for the year). It was a whirlwind three weeks made especially crazy by the 150 pounds of luggage I had to gather and lug around (repaired watermaker, repaired autopilot, new snorkel gear, and of course, heavy on the Trader Joes comfort food). Chuck lamentably stayed behind in La Paz on Jacaranda this year, but in so doing surprisingly enough got to spend time with some of his family - brother Bill and wife Sue who left their catamaran Sunbaby in San Diego and rode down on the Fubar power vessel rally. Highlights of our stay in La Paz this fall included celebrating John on Masquerades birthday at an upscale restaurant with Two Can Play, getting to know Mike and Sherry on Ambar III and becoming involved in Seawatch (a Save the Sea of Cortez environmental action organization http://seawatch.org/), and having a wonderful dinner at Carlos and Daniellas (owner of the La Paz Pearl Farm) house with Carlos aunt from Chiapas who treated us to some regional food specialities of hers. Carlos let me cut a handful of mabe pearls (what treasure!) for a necklace collection highlighting his La Paz pearls - maybe well have an exhibition in La Paz when I get a few made.

We readied Jacaranda to depart for this years sojourn in the Revillagigedos (Islas San Benedicto and Socorro) but were delayed because of problems with Chuck's prescription dive mask from San Diego. We had to have another made quickly but how
to get it to us? As luck would have the timing, friends Alex and Sue (Mai Tai Roa) were driving down to La Paz and stopped in San Diego to pick it up. Such cruiser networking!

One important difference about our Socorro Sojourn this year is that we had the incredible knowledge and advice from two Revillagigedos veterans - Spirit Quest (Kathy and Doug) and Ambar III (Mike and Sherry). Both couples are on power boats and have been visiting the islands to dive for many many years now. They shared with us descriptions of areas and waypoints for new anchorages. Mike and Sherry gave us updated charts and their local knowledge - which is considerable since Ambar has carried most of the film makers, researchers, and world-class divers that come to see and report on these islands. With Jacaranda stuffed to the gills with provisions for 8 weeks of living at sea, we departed La Paz on Saturday morning Dec. 19, had a nice sail south through the Cerralvo Channel (where we caught a four foot mahi mahi but released it - no freezer room - what were we thinking?), and met up with John and Sandy on Masquerade in Los Muertos. They were going out to the Revillagigedos with us (as were a few other boats we had been consulting with about permits). Sandy is my shelling buddy and a cook extraordinaire (infamous for her sushi) but she is also the only one I know of who is ready to jump into the water to snorkel with me anywhere anytime at the drop of a hat. We then went further south and spent a couple of days at Los Frailes where we left on Dec. 22, a day after Masquerade, and had a nice sail and uneventful three day trip to Isla Benedicto. We sailed down the western side of the barren volcano island since we had done the eastern side last year, past The Boiler (the renowned dive pinnacle where we had our manta ride last year), and around the south side to the anchorage at the Lava Delta.


Arriving in San Benedicto

 

We arrived the morning of Dec. 24 and there we found Masquerade and other friends, Hopalong (Dave and Sally) already anchored and waiting for us. We had a wonderful gourmet dinner aboard Hopalong. The following evening, we celebrated Christmas with dinner on Masquerade and the table was set with all the trimmings Sandy had thoughtfully packed for the occasion (roast chicken, yams, homemade rolls, pumpkin pie). We were treated to Sally's famous sabering of the champagne bottle and were in awe when she took out her special little sword, held the bottle up, and in one smooth swipe cleanly whacked off the top of the glass neck, cork and all, into the sea...without spilling a drop!



Last year, we had arrived the exact same time - on Christmas eve day - and joined divers/photographers extraordinaire, Scott and Cindy on Beach House for 5 weeks...the only two yachts there. This year, due to publicity and word-of-mouth, a lot more boats came out. Quite a crowd actually! We missed, by one day, Mandan and Distant Shores who had preceded us by about a week and had just left for Socorro Island. This year we traveled in company with Masquerade and Hopalong and were joined later by Cirque and Lady Lexi. Amizade and Stella Maris were due out toward the beginning of February. We also saw three power boats during our stay. Its a good thing our schedules were staggered since the small anchorages dont accommodate more than a couple of boats at a time.

But perhaps the biggest difference from last years Socorro Sojourn was the rougher weather and poor water visibility. At Isla San Benedicto we rocked and rolled from the time we arrived until the day we left. The weather was much more unsettled this yearand large swells came into the anchorage so that we curtailed our stay and left after only two weeks for the more protected anchorages at Socorro Island. Spirit Quest had been surprised when we told them that we had stayed at Benedicto for 3 weeks last year in calm conditions since they said they usually get blown out after a week. I guess we experienced more normal conditions this year. On December 29, a squall came in from the west with winds of 25 knots gusting to 30 and we stood ready to move Jacaranda to the other side of the Lava Delta. We didnt but it sure would have been more comfortable if we had -Solmar V, one of the large commercial dive boats, spent the night over there rather than coming into our anchorage.

Maybe that was why the water visibility was so disappointing this year. Instead of clear 100 like last year, we often only had 40. The best this year was the worst we experienced last year. There seemed to be large translucent patches of plankton and krill streaming by clouding our vision (the food source which of course attracts the manta rays and whales), and thick masses of jellyfish (mostly venus combs which the turtles like). Windblown ash from the volcano in front of us added to the lack of water clarity. The day after the squall passed, the water was filled with floating pumice rocks and pebbles and Cirques two toilet pumps became plugged and stopped functioning.

Even so, we wasted no time jumping in the water with the giant manta rays, one of the most spectacular creatures in the sea. We saw more mantas this year than last, especially in the mornings when they were feeding on the surface. The first day at least 6 or 7 - a combination of chevrons and all-blacks - were swimming off Turtle Point. Later that day, I spent the whole afternoon snorkeling with 3 or 4 right off our boat. You can get right up next to them and even touch their sandpaper like skin but they dont like to play when they are in feeding mode. Several afternoons we anchored the dinghy off the pinnacle near the anchorage to wait for mantas that arrive to be cleaned by the Clarion angelfish - this is when they like to play and it is possible to ride them. But we were disappointed - they rarely came around the pinnacle and then they didn't stay.

We did see large yellow fin tunas swim right past us with a couple of playful dolphins following. The occasional curious hammerhead and white tipped reef shark came up to see what we were about but they posed no threat. And then there were always the large schools of jacks and colorful red triggerfish we call chirpers for the sound they make when they are feeding at the surface. The poor visibility hampered the snorkeling around Turtle Point at the end of the lava delta but we did see a few turtles, some big Socorro lobsters clinging to the rock walls, and lots of colorful reef fish.

We took the dinghy to The Boiler one day when sea conditions seemed the calmest but it was a long 25 minute rough ride out to this famous dive site. Masquerade and Hopalong followed in their dinghy. Chuck and I had fond memories of riding an all black manta that stayed within 15 feet of the surface as if it knew we were free diving and couldnt go any deeper. Hoping to repeat the experience, we zeroed in on the top of the pinnacle which was within 20 feet of the surface and dropped our anchor.....without the bitter end tied on! Whoops! Chuck dove down to retrieve the line but the current was so fierce that we decided to abort the swim. Disappointed by the conditions, we returned to the boat.

A blue moon preceded by a gorgeous sunset ushered in the New Year on Jacaranda with Masquerade and Hopalong joining us. After eating dinner (wild rice with scallops in tequila creme fraiche) and more champagne sabering, we continued the tradition of last years Silver Manta Awards - every one received an aluminum foiled (my specialty) manta badge, awarded for different feats of daring in our time together at the Islas, New Years Day was a highlight for me and I know I will never ring in another year with such a delightfully off-beat experience. After a lazy grey morning, I noticed 5 mantas swimming around the boat in the afternoon. I jumped right in, of course, and found myself drifting slowly to the west in the company 9 mantas coming towards me from all directions, swimming by me, receding, and coming back again as if I were a busy interesection.


There were 4 all blacks and 5 chevrons, skimming the water near the surface with their cephalic fins uncurled and arced in a half circle, pushing the krillladen water to their large mouths. A smaller all-black manta was barrel-rolling (feeding by somersault) and his antics were a delight to watch. His body was in pristine condition with no nips or bites on his wings (from sharks), no sores or tumor growths near his tail, and no sneaker-shoe prints - the tell-tale sign of remora suckers - on his beautiful black velvet topside. I read this to mean that he was a relatively young manta although he was still about 14 feet wide. I knew I could count on Sandy to join me, and Louis on Cirque dove in also. After two hours we had moved along with the mantas and drifted about a mile from the boat. I reluctantly swam back to Jacaranda because I was having company over for dinner that night - a crowd of 11 of us. I felt exhilarated as I climbed aboard and started to prepare a community Tortilla Soup, to which everyone had contributed some ingredients . Although Jacaranda was the smallest boat in the anchorage, we have the largest cockpit and everyone - 2 from Masquerade, 2 from Hopalong, 5 from Cirque, and Chuck and I - was able to squeeze in to one space for more raucous socializing.



By January 6, we were all tired of the rolly conditions and disappointed by the poor water visibility. With Cirque already departed, Masquerade and Hopalong planned to leave for Socorro Island that morning. Chuck and I delayed our departure from San Benedicto to wait for Nautilus Explorer, one of the regular commercial dive boats, because we had arranged a meeting with the two manta researchers who were on board. Masquerade weighed anchor but Hopalong had trouble - their anchor wouldnt budge. They tried all types of maneuvers but they were not able to raise it; and none of us had scuba gear to get down to it. Luckily, Nautilus Explorer arrived shortly thereafter and we asked Sten, the divemaster, if he could assist Hopalong by diving on their anchor to see if he could free it. Sten came over to Hopalong in a skiff and spent about an hour trying to free it but part of the anchor chain had wrapped around a big underwater rock and sawed its way underneath it; it was hopelessly stuck in 70 feet of water. Sten buoyed the anchor to mark it and had to leave, already late for the boats next dive excursion at The Boiler.

There are two kinds of people in the world....those that have ridden mantas and those who havent said foremost manta researcher Bob Rubin with a twinkle in his eye, as we pulled up alongside the skiff from Nautilus Explorer in our dinghy. We had been corresponding with him and his assistant, Kerry Kumli, from Santa Rosa Community College, and were delighted to meet them both in person when they arrived as paying customers on the NE. They were here to survey the manta scene and check on their transponder stations which track the signals from their tagged mantas. Our meeting was brief and we were unable to connect with them a second time since the NE left and we never shared the same anchorage again.

Meanwhile, back to Hopalongs predicament. Before the arrival of Nautilus Explorer and Stens assistance, Dave and Sally were faced with the growing realization that they would have to cut 250 feet of chain and lose their anchor. Losing an anchor is certainly one of the risks that anyone takes who ventures out to the Revillagegidos; our friends on Ambar say they have lost at least 3 or 4 over the years. However, now, with the anchor buoyed, it would be possible to at least raise it to the surface and recover it, but still lose a lot of their chain. At the eleventh hour, as fortune smiled, another boat, Lady Lexi, pulled into the anchorage with Dave and Cory aboard - ace salvage divers. The next day Cory dove on the anchor but still could not free the portion of the chain that was under the rock. Bolt cutters in hand, he returned to the 70-foot depths to cut the 3/8 links on either side of the rock, thereby salvaging most of the chain and the anchor too. Hopalong left San Benedicto with everything but about five feet of chain. What luck!! A major problem averted!!