Sailing The Sea of Cortez

The Sea of Cortez is the youngest and most diverse sea on the planet. It might also be the bluest. Jacques Cousteau – a frequent visitor there – famously referred to it as the world’s aquarium and he wasn’t exaggerating. It’s home to over 900 species of fish, 2000 marine invertebrates and 37 different marine mammals. It was formed around five million years ago when the San Andreas Fault – which runs directly down the middle of it – cracked open and separated the Baja Peninsula from mainland Mexico.

We decided that the best way to experience the remote, unpopulated islands that form the Archipelago Espiritu Santo National Park would be to charter a sailboat so that we could get out into the areas where the tourist pangas don’t go. We found a great charter company in La Paz and soon found ourselves aboard a forty-six-foot sloop named L’Oiseau Des Iles.

After provisioning in La Paz, we headed to our first anchorage at Isla Espiritu Santo. It was a short half-day sail during which we caught a skipjack tuna that would become dinner, watched mobula rays leap acrobatically out of the water and at one point found our boat literally surrounded by a mega-pod of dolphins, dozens of which followed along off the bow for a bit before heading back to the main pod.

Early the next morning we set sail for Isla San Francisco where we discovered a perfect crescent-shaped beach and some of the best snorkeling we’ve experienced. The Mexican government set up multiple marine conservation areas in these islands ten years ago and it appears to be working. The fish population far exceeded our expectations nearly every time we got into the water with a mask and flippers.

The next day we set out for Isla Coyote, the only populated island in the area and also possibly the smallest. Big enough for about 4 small houses, two families currently live there and fish in the surrounding area. We went ashore to explore and they couldn’t have been nicer. They even gave us a lesson on how to clean the local mussels and prepare a traditional ceviche. Hands down our favorite anchorage. We would have stayed there for days, but it offers little protection and isn’t suitable for an overnight stay. So we pulled up the hook and headed to the next island north – Isla San Jose.

Here we explored a huge system of mangroves that provide protected breeding grounds for many of the fish species in the area. It was easily one of the largest enclosed mangroves that I’ve seen and was so well protected from the open water that I had a hard time believing that it wasn’t man made.

Then it was back south to Ensenada Grande on the north end of Espiritu Santo. A very popular anchorage and it’s easy to understand why. The large bay harbors three little bays within it, each with its own perfect white sand beach and unique character.

First, we explored the bay furthest south which was also closest to the spot where we anchored. Here we found ample fish, including a rather terrifying close encounter with a Stonefish that was so well camouflaged that I didn’t notice him until I was only two feet away and spotted his eye staring at me. Widely considered the most poisonous fish in the world, the venom contained in their spines is often fatal.

After briefly exploring the bay furthest to the north, we settled on the bay in the middle and passed the afternoon lounging in water so beautifully turquoise that it hardly seemed real. The smooth lava rock walls that surrounded the bay helped to create a surreal landscape that nearly had us convinced that we were on Mars.

Later that evening we trolled from the dinghy and caught a perfect pair of leopard groupers that within the hour provided some incredibly tasty fish tacos. We toasted our gratitude with a cold beer and yet another perfect sunset.

The next morning it was time to pull up the anchor and head back to the charter base. As much as we would love to spend an entire season here – there are over 900 islands to explore – it was time to say adios to L’Oiseau Des Iles and head back home, but not before spending one last night in San Jose del Cabo where we feasted on air conditioning, food that we didn’t have to catch ourselves and some damn fine surfing at Old Man’s.