Hey Boating! - Baja California Whale Sharks

Editor Daniel W. Long Treks Into the Baja Peninsula in Search of the Whale Shark

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Baja California Whale Sharks

Baja California Whale Sharks

Baja California Whale Sharks

Baja California Whale Sharks

Baja California Whale Sharks

Baja California Whale Sharks

Baja California Whale Sharks

Baja California Whale Sharks

Baja California Whale Sharks

HEY BOATING: If I don't get out of this cubicle soon, I'm going to go nuts. I need an adventure and heard you can swim with giant whale sharks. How risky is it to trailer my boat down into Mexico to dive with these monsters? Michael Johnson Hesperia, CA

Screee… screee…screeeeeeeeech!!!

This unscheduled ABS test on our rig whips my neck forward like a bobble-head doll. A dog on a suicide mission just misses being our hood ornament, then trots to the roadside undisturbed by the commotion. I check with my amigo Dave, the driver, to make sure he survived. He's laughing like a crazy man, which makes me wonder what the hell I'm doing here. Oh yeah - I'm supposed to trailer a Zodiac 650 Pro Open with this spankin'-new Honda Ridgeline, from Newport Beach, California, through the hardscrabble villages, low-slung fishing towns, and taco stands of Baja California to swim with the biggest fish in the world - the whale shark.

I dislodge the seatbelt from my sternum and turn to stare out the window at Mexico's emerald Pacific. We've already cheated the Angel of Death once, and we've only been here for 30 minutes. I hope our luck holds.

Below the Borderline

Anyone with the slightest bit of adventure in his soul and fortitude in his gut has longed to explore the rugged interior and 2,000-mile coastline of that giant chili-shaped landmass below California - Baja. South of San Diego, an older version of the world exists. Pangas are hand-painted bright colors and burros have the right of way. Life is slower and, many claim, better. To get there, though, you have to pass through Tijuana.

Border crossings are nerve-wracking even if you have nothing to fear. But no one notices our entry into Mexico, no one asks for our papers, no one even waves. We just drive in and that's that. We're in Tijuana. It's a city of hillside dwellings and billboards bigger than the buildings below, painted in lively purple, yellow, and red. The ads for Tecate beer ask: "Are you of legal age?" Si, senor.

Thirty miles south, I have a vision, the first of many. Can it be? A wooden frigate from 1805 perched on the roadside? A sign nearby explains: Fox Studios Baja. The tall ship is the HMS Surprise from the movie Master and Commander. Strangely, I'm not surprised.

Farther south, we stop for the night in the seaside resort town of Ensenada. It's a mixed bag, an Americanized Mexico with Corona poncho hoodies hanging everywhere. First order of business - food. Full-dressed Mariachis serenade us as I get my first taste of the second order of business - tequila. The word rolls off the tongue, the liquid sears the throat. My fish arrives fresh and fantastic looking. Taking a mouthful, I consider that if we do find an elusive whale shark tomorrow, the tables could turn and I could be the meal.

In reality there's little chance I'll be fish food. Though the misnamed whale shark is the world's biggest fish (some grow to 46 feet and 30,000 pounds) and has 3,000 or so teeth, it's indifferent to divers. This enormous shark is a filter-feeder and sieves plankton through its gills as it swims along at about 3 mph. It's estimated to live to 100 to 150 years. Whale sharks are found only in five warm-water spots - Belize, the Philippines, the Seychelles, Western Australia, and, during October, in the Sea of Cortez, off the eastern shore of Baja.

A Bay of Angels

Morning. My turn behind the wheel. We leave downtown Ensenada, passing the port, the remade waterfront promenade and the starting point of the fabled Baja 1000. South of town, Baja's mother road, the Transpeninsular Highway, turns from four lanes to two. Morning sun is shining and dust trails in our wake. All good. Until a guy at a military checkpoint starts waving an AK-47 in our direction. "Go around him," says Dave. What? I proceed with thoughts of Sonny Corleone's last moments. It turns out he's not interested in us. They only stop cars going north. I have a feeling the way home won't be as easy.

The guidebook says we're entering the "real" Baja. More like "surreal." The two-lane road suddenly narrows to the width of a New York City alley, then climbs and winds almost vertically over green and brown mountains, through coastal plains, small farming centers, then again into olive green hills. Driving this adventureway is a white-knuckled, cojones-shrinking experience. I'm waiting for the next northbound 18-wheeler to drift too far over the single yellow and relieve the Ridgeline of its sideview mirror. Road signs with cartoon rocks falling off cliffs onto cartoon cars don't ease my anxiety. I play leapfrog with a surf van and expect a head-on crash while overtaking. It doesn't happen. In the hardworking towns, half-dressed children and street-smart dogs are saved by speedbumps placed at 100-yard intervals. I take them at a crawl. Exhale.

At El Rosario, the highway turns southeast and heads into the Parque Natural Del Desierto Central, giving us a vast panorama of car-size boulders, chocolate brown hills, and red flat-topped mesas. The only thing missing is water. Nonetheless, it's eye-popping beauty. We stop for lunch at a ranchero, one of many dusty roadside stands. I ask for cholla and am served what looks a lot like rice and beans. It could be anything and Dave is worried about its effects on his intestines, but eats it all anyway. That's the way it is with road food-all it has to do is hold you over until you reach your destination, which for us is Bahia De Los Angeles.

The Devil's Lair

We take swigs from gallon jugs of Alpine Spring Water we picked up before crossing the border (recommended) and scan the scene below. The Bay of Angels is an island-studded lagoon backed by huge rocky mountains - a perfect setting for a band of banditos to make camp. To me, it looks like Shangri-la - a night on the hook with nothing but wave noise, casting to mile-wide water boils without some idiot putting the fish down, desolate beaches to bow-into, hop off, and take a nap. Not much has changed here since the 1950s. Sure, there are a few motels, cafés, and a fuel station, but this is an old-style Mexican fishing village. The real thing.

We check into the Villa Vita, a well-kept mom and pop, where we park our rig in front of the rooms. Our shark-finding contact is at a camp off the mainland, so we try to raise him by VHF from Guillermo's Devil's Lair, a restaurant on the bay. No answer. We wait, which in Baja means it's time for iced Coronas and salsa-smothered fish. Still nothing from our contact, so I take a walk under a star-spangled sky, then turn in for the night.

Asleep by midnight, awake at five by rooster calls. My room feels like a sauna. Electricity isn't a 24-hour luxury at the Villa Vita, or anywhere else in town. No light, no air conditioning. Dave opens his door to let in some sea air. Mistake. He wakes to find a stray dog licking his feet. I wonder if it's the same dog that left a rabbit's head at my doorstep. I'm about to toss the head in the trash when a lovely senorita walks by. What can I say? I'm holding a severed head by its ear. "Good luck, just like its foot!" is what I manage. By the look on her face, she disagrees.

Here Sharky, Sharky

Back at Guillermo's for breakfast, I talk to a local pulling his 26' panga out of the water. Yesterday he slammed 'em (of course) but today he says there are tightly spaced 15-foot rollers out there. Not good for stalking whale sharks. "Beyond the islands…when it blows from the northeast, it's trouble," he warns. He thinks the sharks have gone elsewhere.

Dave finally reaches our contact, who tells us the spotter planes haven't seen any sharks since the wind picked up. Besides, it's too rough to make it out to the camp safely in our little Zodiac - or anything else. Skunked. He suggests waiting for the calmer, afternoon Santa Ana winds. I'd rather be getting cozy with a giant whale shark, but sitting under a palapa with a cerveza doesn't sound like a bad alternative.

The wind works in an inverse relationship to our prospect for swimming with the sharks; the more it blows, the fewer our chances. And it's blowing like crazy. By the next day the word is the whale sharks have gone. It's over, we'll have to wait for next year. It figures. Bad luck.

We pack up the Zodiac and head north. In the hills above the bay, camo-clad checkpoint guards take an interest in our rig. A gathering of baby-faced, semi-automatic-toting soldiers mill around the Ridgeline. Two of them bang metal wrenches on the bed, listening for a hollow knock. They hear it. They seem particularly interested in the hidden 300-pound capacity cargo bin. Can't imagine why. They disassemble the entire bed searching for more hidden compartments. In the meantime, one of them inspects our New York State licenses. "Ah, Nueva York?" he asks. "Si, Si," I answer emphatically. His next question takes me by surprise: "Terrorista?" I shake my head, laugh nervously, and wonder what the hell is going wrong. Then, clear as crystal he says in English, "You may have to turn around and go back." Is this a joke? I catch a glance of the pristine beach below, a thatched roof blowin' in the wind, and that sapphire bay…on second thought, my luck may be turning.

Hey Michael,

Now, to answer your letter. Yes, you can trailer to Baja. And you can snorkel with these strange fish. We didn't get a chance, but don't let that stop you. Because down here much of the coastline is accessible and unspoiled. Because your cell phone is worthless south of Ensenada. Because, like the ocean, the desert has healing powers. Because Corona tastes better when you're swinging in a hammock staring out at the Sea of Cortez. Because down here, your boat can get you lost. Because you said you want to.