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Crossing the Sea of Cortez

Twenty years after bagging Mexico’s highest peak, two mountaineers eye another goal—crossing its Sea of Cortez—with the same summit mind-set.
San Lorenzo Channel
San Lorenzo ChannelDan Heidenreich
/ Source: Canoe & Kayak Magazine

Twenty years after bagging Mexico’s highest peak, two mountaineers eye another goal—crossing its Sea of Cortez—with the same summit mind-set.

There was no mistaking what we heard. The sound of so much air being expelled by enormous lungs was startling. How could a living, breathing creature be so huge? We were only 50 feet away from a massive finback whale in our tiny sea kayaks, and it was chilling to be so close. Finback adults commonly reach 80 feet in length, can weigh up to 120,000 pounds, and are second only to blue whales as the largest species on the planet. Then it dived and was gone. The encounter lasted barely 15 seconds.

We soon realized that the experience was not yet over. We had seen only the first in a whole pod of whales. One after another, finbacks surfaced, spouted, and dived all around us. We felt surrounded, looking right, left, forward, and over our shoulders to keep track of them. Just as it seemed they had moved on, one last maverick came straight at us. Just 60 feet away, the whale initiated a shallow dive, but remained fully visible in the clear water. A school-bus-sized silhouette passed directly beneath our kayaks. When it faded at depth, we sat motionless for several minutes, trying to absorb what had happened. Moments before, we had been quietly paddling along, mere specks on the vast surface, on the last day of our crossing of the Sea of Cortez. We couldn’t have asked for a more thrilling finale.

The journey that led to the encounter had started four days earlier in the small coastal village of San Carlos on the Mexican mainland. From there, the Midriff Islands look tightly spaced and not that far offshore. Rising beyond the islands, the rugged mountains of the Baja peninsula appear fuzzy on the horizon. From San Carlos, a hopscotching sea-kayak traverse of the Midriffs seems not only inviting, but even straight-forward. That’s how the seeds of our Cortez crossing had been planted a year earlier. 

Subsequent research produced only sparse information about kayaking along the mainland, and we found hardly anything at all about a Midriff Islands crossing. Maps show the islands as being well spaced for day trips in between, but are they cliffed out? Would we be able to find landings and campsites? How will we get back to our starting point? It seemed as if solving the logistical problems might be a greater challenge than the actual paddling.

Almost jokingly, we suggested that our friend Oscar should sail along with us and ferry us back after the crossing. A former Colorado climbing buddy, Oscar was retired and living aboard his 34-foot sloop Bombay in San Carlos. It didn’t take much arm-twisting to talk him into it. Not only did he help us over the logistical hurdles, but Oscar also shared a wealth of information about regional weather and sea patterns.

The Midriff group includes three larger uninhabited islands—Tiburón, San Esteban, and San Lorenzo—fairly evenly spaced in the remote central section of the Sea of Cortez. Our route through them to the Baja Peninsula covered 74 miles measured point-to-point. In reality, the combined effects of wind and current would add at least another 25 miles of paddling to the total. Tidal information for the region is very unreliable. Huge eddies near the islands sometimes result in tidal currents that are just the opposite of what is expected. Early Spanish explorers named one of the channels we would cross Salsipuedes—leave if you can—because of its unusually powerful tide rips.

Our expedition started in Bahía Kino, 60 miles up the coast from San Carlos, where we lowered our kayaks off Bombay in rolling two-foot swells. To make the crossing complete, we first paddled to nearby Punta Ignacio, tapped our paddles on an offshore rock, then turned and aimed for Tiburón Island, the largest in the Sea of Cortez.

The symbolic gesture marked our official beginning. We were excited to be on our way, but we also knew there would be difficulties ahead. Visions of kayak-swallowing tidal maelstroms, shark encounters, gale-force chubasco winds, and huge breaking waves lurked in our minds. This uneasiness gradually subsided as we settled in and concentrated on our paddling rhythm and efficiency. 

The 18-mile crossing to Tiburón’s Dog Bay started off well enough, with gently rolling seas and a light wind. Paddling in the open sea was a new experience for us. One of the first things we noticed was the increased stability of our fully loaded kayaks. We both had enough food, water, and gear to survive independently for a week. The other thing we noticed was the increased effort required to move so much weight through the water.

A half hour out, on three-foot seas, we realized that the flood tide, combined with the stiff, steady wind, required a ferry angle of at least 20 degrees left of our destination—which was always in clear view, but seemed to remain frustratingly fixed on the horizon. Oscar flew past us and within minutes disappeared in the distance.  

We approached the middle of the channel as the seas grew to four feet with a few sets of five-footers thrown in for good measure.  Fortunately for us, the waves were mostly steep-sided swells with very little cresting, so we just bobbed up and down like pool toys in a huge bathtub. The troughs were deep enough that we often lost sight of one another, but only when the tallest breaking swells caught us by surprise did we have to do any bracing. We kept a keen eye on the biggest wave sets rolling toward us as our calf muscles strained on the rudder pedals to keep us on the proper ferry angle. According to our GPS units, we averaged more than two and a half knots and made steady progress, even in the rough seas.

As we approached Isla Tiburón the radio crackled to life, and we learned that Oscar was anchored in the protected waters of Dog Bay. He was preparing carne asada and had just opened a bottle of Cabernet. Over dinner aboard Bombay, we discussed the day’s events with Oscar. So far, so good, we concluded. Secretly, we each hoped for easier days ahead, uncertain about whether we could maintain the same pace for the entire crossing.

The next morning, we had just left the shoreline of Tiburon and entered the San Esteban Channel when we noticed a tail and dorsal fin protruding from the water ahead. Paddling closer, we saw that it was a black shark. Although it was only about four feet long, we couldn’t help but wonder how many relatives it had in the area. After all, Tiburón is Spanish for shark. As it turned out, it was the only one we saw.

Every day we had captivating encounters with marine life. One of the most memorable occurred later that same day about halfway across the San Esteban Channel. We had stopped to discuss our ferry angle when we heard prolific splashing on the northern horizon. Within minutes the source of the disturbance became evident. More than 100 dolphins were heading straight toward us. They appeared to be on a mission. Each jumped completely out of the water, flying through the air in a shallow arc. As they closed in on us, the group broke formation, split around us within 20 feet, then re-formed beyond. They neither slowed down nor displayed any curiosity about us. It was like being in the middle of a stampede, but instead of a herd kicking up dust, it was dolphins splashing ocean spray. Before we quit smiling, they were out of sight.

Soon after the dolphin encounter, we experienced the greatest challenge of our entire expedition. There was a wide discrepancy between our heading and bearing. Though our boats pointed toward our destination, we were tracking far to the north. We made regular adjustments to our heading in order to make landfall on the southeast coast of Isla San Esteban. Unfortunately, each incremental change was negated by increased current and wind. The closer we approached, the harder we paddled and the more powerful the elements became. This situation continued for hours, and we began to fear that we might not hit the small island at all. It seemed entirely possible that the strong tidal current and wind could carry us into the open sea north of the Midriffs.

The radio came to life again. Oscar told us he was in a tenuous anchorage beside San Esteban. He was worried that if the winds continued to increase, he would be forced to head for the nearest protected anchorage—30 miles away on the Baja coast. We radioed back that we would try to make landfall on the northeast shore and attempt to rendezvous with him when conditions improved.

Paddling the last couple of miles to San Esteban took incredible effort. It was like being on a liquid treadmill. It took all our energy to maintain a speed of one and a half knots. Paddling into the current, almost parallel to the shoreline, we seemed to be making very little any progress. We decided to abandon our planned landing site and head straight for the calmer waters at the northern lee end of the island. The strategy worked perfectly. Once we hit the protected waters, we turned south and landed about 30 minutes later. We hauled our kayaks onto the beach and found a comfortable camping spot in the shade of a giant cordon cactus. According to the GPS, this was a 22-mile day, but it felt like we had paddled twice that distance.

Oscar radioed again, reporting that he had been blown out of his anchorage and was on his way to Baja. We let him know that we were okay and needed nothing from Bombay.

From a ridge above camp there was an incredible view of the channel we had just crossed. While retracing our path, we noticed what seemed to be an odd set of waves in just one part of the channel, north of our route. The waves didn’t look right. They were random, like raindrops on the surface of a pond. Soon, it all made sense. They weren’t waves at all, but more dolphins, just like those we had seen up close earlier in the day. Gazing toward the horizon, it was hard to comprehend what we were seeing. There were literally hundreds and hundreds of dolphins, all heading south. SeaWatch, an organization dedicated to the protection of the Sea of Cortez, claims that the area’s marine life is at least 90 percent depleted. Imagine these waters 400 years ago during the era of Spanish exploration. Both the diversity and quantity of sea life must have been incredible.

The San Lorenzo Channel is nearly as wide as the San Esteban Channel, so we rose early the next morning to get to the business at hand. The power of the tidal current during our first two days had been more than a little disconcerting, and we anticipated that our third leg would be equally challenging. The first couple of miles were sheer delight, though, as we paddled along San Esteban’s north shore, which was teeming with noisy, curious sea lions. 

The previous day’s experience had taught us a bit about ferry angles, so we took an aggressive one early. Our day’s target was long, narrow Isla San Lorenzo. Because of the island’s length, we felt confident that we would not have a problem making a landing, no matter how far we might get blown off course.

Fortunately, our ealier hope for easier paddling conditions finally materialized. The distance across the San Lorenzo Channel was still substantial, but calmer seas and slack tides made a huge difference. The steady rhythmic paddling, mile after mile, was almost trance-inducing. By the time we made it across, both our minds and our bodies had fully adapted to the routine.

Shortly after we made landfall, Oscar radioed to ask if we needed anything. There were no anchorages on San Lorenzo, so the only option was a “drive-by.” We looked at one another and smiled, knowing there were ample provisions in Bombay’s galley.

“How about an ice-cold six-pack of Modelo Especial?” we asked. “No problemo,” Oscar replied. He sailed within 100 yards of our camp and we paddled out on a beer run for the ages. We didn’t give the cerveza a chance to get warm as we sat on the beach and watched Bombay glide away toward Bahía San Francisquito, on the Baja peninsula, our destination for the next and final day of our journey.

It is a relatively short, 14-mile crossing from San Lorenzo Island to the Baja coast. At 5,000 feet, it was also the deepest water of our journey. About a third of the way across, we joked that it was a bad place to drop the car keys. The great depths and strong tidal currents provide the perfect habitat for abundant krill on which whales feed. A few minutes later, we had our encounter with the finbacks.

In addition to the whales, our last day rewarded us with perfect weather and slack tides. Three and a half hours after launching, we entered Bahía San Francisquito. A thunderous slap from a breaching whale served as a congratulatory salute. We landed on a small cobblestone beach, and our handshakes were as exuberant as those we had exchanged on the summit of Mexico’s highest mountain, Pico de Orizaba, 20 years earlier. The challenge of our Sea of Cortez crossing had indeed measured up to our previous mountaineering adventures.

We knew that conditions around the Midriff Islands can repel the best efforts of much more seasoned kayakers than ourselves. If luck can be defined as the convergence of preparation and opportunity, then we were truly lucky to have completed this epic crossing on our first attempt.

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