Finding the Holy Spirit in Baja: Darwin would be proud

Imagine an uninhabited island with clear bays of turquoise water edged with rocky cliffs. Sea turtles, blue-footed boobies, and sea lions make their home on its shores. The surrounding waters contain giant manta ray, shark, dolphin, orca, and the mighty pacific gray whale. This island boasts one of the most biologically diverse bodies of water in the world, so you might think we’re describing the famed Galapagos. We’re in Baja Mexico, the island of Espiritu Santo to be exact.

The cockpit of a kayak is the best place from which to view the island. Paddling the shores allows you to experience the water and take in the beauty of the landscape. I trolled for jack and bonita while paddling and even caught dinner for my camp one night. There are several operators on the island, but be sure to go with a trusted tour provider. For example, Boundless Journeys provides week-long all-inclusive trips (under $2,000) to the island and practices leave-no-trace camping ethics.

To see the unique desert landscape of Espiritu Santo strap on a pair of boots or sturdy sandals and explore the dirt paths criss-crossing the rocky landscape. After a rain the dry island transforms into a colorful wonderland of flowers and plants. Summer temperatures can easily skyrocket into the 90s and sunscreen as well as frequent shaded breaks are mandatory. While on a guided hike of the island our group found shelter in one of the caves naturally carved into the cliff line. Self-guided hikes are fine for experienced hikers but a guide is recommended for those unfamiliar with desert hiking.

Setting up camp in one of the natural bays provides a perfect base of operations. From a base camp a panga (small motorized boat) can be used to reach remote areas of the island. A base camp also eliminates the need to trek across choppy water back and forth to the mainland each day. Most pangas are equipped to carry kayaks and can drop paddlers in bays that offer easy paddling as well as mysterious mangrove swamps. The twisted limbs and roots of the mangroves are home to many of the islands bird species such as the long-necked snowy egrets and blue herons.

Although paddling and hiking are two of the most popular activities on the island, wildlife viewing is why most come. Throngs of tourists flood the shores each year to spot the many species that call them home. The playful sea lions on the north shore are a huge draw, as are the wide variety of bird species. The blue-footed booby is one of the most sought after. February and March are the best time to catch mighty gray whales as they spend their winter in the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez.

The closest city to Espiritu Santo is La Paz. The calm waters in the bay where La Paz sprouted create a protective harbor for ships. Although small, the airport has daily flights from Mexico City and Guadalajara to accommodate tourists. Visiting La Paz during the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, provides an opportunity to experience one of the world’s most unique festivals. Giant skeletal statues, faces painted like skulls, and dioramas depicting tiny skeletons enjoying daily activities are just a few of the ways locals celebrate their ancestors.

After a week of paddling the mangroves and experiencing the diverse mix of bird and sea life, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it might take the Mexican government to get a good grasp on the difficult task of enforcing the rules they’ve set forth on Espiritu Santo.

Locals cash in on the abundant fish populations surrounding the island and are finding employment as guides, camp cooks, and panga drivers. For now, the island seems to be maintaining it’s extraordinary biodiversity while simultaneously providing income for locals and enjoyment for tourists, but this is a delicate balancing act indeed.

Finding the Holy Spirit in Baja: A park is born

Roughly twenty miles off the coast from the Baja town of La Paz lies a desert island no more than ten miles long and four miles wide. For centuries the locals have fished the bountiful waters surrounding Isla Espiritu Santo, or Island of the Holy Spirit. Scores of grouper, snapper, and a variety of fish in the jack family are snagged by locals and visitors daily. However, in recent years, tourists have been flocking to the island not just to fish but to kayak, snorkel, and photograph the diverse array of wildlife that it contains. Up until 2003, there was little regulation for any of the activities taking place on Espiritu Santo and it’s surrounding islands and islets. The tourists that visit, and those that fish the waters, are still trying to come to grips with the island’s new found fame.

According to The Nature Conservancy the island was purchased from the Ejido Bonfil community and then turned over to Mexico. It was designated as a protected area in 1978; the Mexican government acquired the island in 2003. Although all the islands making up this archipelago are now a national park, management resources are scarce.

Spending a week camped out in a sandy bay, I had the opportunity to meet someone with a passion for what happens to this beautiful place, a local guide named Miguel. According to him, as of last year, only two rangers were patrolling the coastline of this 23,383 acre island. As we paddled together throughout the week, I learned more on why the island is struggling.

Large scale commercial fishing is not allowed. Long netting, a form of dredging, is now strictly prohibited as well. Local fishermen have had a tough time coping with the new regulations being passed down to them. As hard as it may be to believe many of these people have no experience with a fishing pole and are using the arduous method of hand-lining to maintain a living. Hand-lining involves dropping a baited hook overboard and pulling a fish in on the line with no rod or reel. After trying this method I can vouch that hand-lining is a tough chore on the hands to say the least.

According to Miguel, the lack of information from authorities initially led to misunderstandings. The fishing community was not exactly pleased with the changes being made when the island went under the wing of the government. Rules included restrictions on certain popular species such as parrot fish. Although dropping explosives in the water or “dynamiting” is outlawed and a thing of the past, fishermen can still be found pushing the limits of the law. Fish are encircled by boats to create a bait ball which makes them easier targets.
Fishermen are allowed to stay overnight on the island in designated spots called “fisherman shacks.” They can use nets to catch bait fish only. Since most fishing boats are equipped with nets and regulation is slim, it is uncertain how many stick to the strictly “bait only” rule for netting.

Although fishing regulations were the main management issue at first, the new threat to Espirtu’s land and waters is unchecked tourism. On Los Islotes, an islet resting just off the rocky shores of Isla Partida, Espiritu’s northern neighbor, the sea lions sun bathe most of the day, awaiting their nocturnal hunt. Snorkeling with these graceful swimmers is a treat for visitors. These dog-like sea mammals dart in and out of underwater grottos, play with starfish and shells, and encircle the odd looking human insurgents to get a better look. While visiting this islet, our snorkel group was not alone. Another tourist boat anchored nearby and within minutes a few of the passengers were on the shore, ignoring the rule that tourists must stay 50 feet away at all times.
In summer, when La Paz receives its annual influx of Mexican and European tourists, the island’s shores become overrun. “There have been times when it was so crowded we couldn’t find a place to anchor when we pulled up to see the sea lions,” Miguel told me. Despite these growing pains park attendance continues to soar, and for good reason. The island’s shores are home to one of the most biologically diverse bodies of water on our planet.

Next: Darwin would be proud (Part 2)