Terrific Long Weekend from MZT

A couple of blue-footed boobies. They love to touch beaks; could it be a boobie kiss?

I recently had the enormous pleasure of spending two nights of rustic camping at an unbelievably gorgeous spot: Isla Isabel, Nayarit. It is a mini Galapagos three hours’ boat ride from San Blas, which is about a three hour drive south of Mazatlán. I went with a few biologists, an astronomer, an ornithologist and a few friends; eight people in all. The trip was incredible!

Watch till the end: a family of blue-footed boobies will greet you.

On the boat on the ride to the island we were able to jump into the Pacific with our snorkels and masks and swim with whale sharks! We were cautioned not to touch them, but mine came right up to me and stayed beside me, touching me, for a good 30 seconds while she ate from the plankton in the channel. Heaven on earth!!! Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow. All photos are available as prints; contact me privately and thank you for supporting my efforts!

Also on the journey to the island we saw dozens of humpback whales, either courting, which is when you see the males hitting each other with their fins, or with their babies. While my long-held dream of catching one fully breaching went unfulfilled, I took many photos of them spewing and of that wonderful tail in the air pose.

Arriving to the island I was struck by the clear blue water and the volcanic rock. The first thing we did after setting up our tents was put on our swim suits and jump into the “pozos,” naturally occurring swimming holes that surround the island. They were terrific! The waves crash into them keeping things fresh, and if you have a mask and snorkel you can see loads of fish, star fish, crabs, etc.

The island is well known for “Las Monas” or nearby rock outcroppings. We were able to snorkel around them from our boat. There are also a couple of nice sandy beaches.

We chose to go in March as the boobies are nesting then. And boy, did we see boobies! Loads of my favorite blue-footed variety, as well as the brown- and red-footed boobies. The babies are cute and fluffy, with blue eyes to match their feet. Mom and Dad both tend to the nest and the offspring. On the whole the boobies were very friendly and curious. I suppose because Isla Isabel is a nature preserve, they do not seem to feel threatened by human presence. I kept my distance from the nests, however, using a long lens to get the close-up shots.

I especially loved to watch the boobies fly. Their wings are apparently jointed in the middle, and as they fly they bend them vertically in the center, up and down. When they come in for a landing it is downright comical: their big round eyes look surprised or scared, their huge blue feet stick out in front of them as if to say, “Watch out! I’m coming in! Aaaahhhh!” The folding of their wings up and down at ninety degree angles is a sight to behold. In addition to my photos, I will share with you a beautiful video filmed by my dear friend Omar Calvario.

Wait for it! It’s worth watching the landing! Video by Omar Calvario.

During our stay the frigate birds were also nesting. As with the boobies, both parents take care of the nest and the babies. Sadly, we witnessed at least three babies fall from their nests. The biologists told us that once the baby falls to the ground, the parents abandon it. It was heart-wrenching to refrain from giving these fallen birds food or water, to preserve the natural order. They were soooo cute and very forlorn. The male frigate birds develop bright red gullets during mating season, which they inflate like balloons. They then release the air in those inflated red gullets slowly to make their mating call, which sounds like a guttural vibration or “tap tap tap.” At first I thought they were snapping their beaks together.

Isla Isabel is also covered with iguanas; they are everywhere. Between the huge quantity of birds, the smell of guano, and having to watch your step to avoid iguanas, I really felt that we were visiting the Land that Time Forgot. It seemed to me to be the time of the dinosaurs—a time long ago before humans ruined the natural environment of Pachamama. Below are photos of a couple of tropic birds.

A final blessing of our trip were clear, cloudless skies! We went during the new moon, hoping to photograph the Milky Way. We were blessed with two nights for photography. My only disappointment was that there was a sailboat off the island, exactly toward the galactic center, and it had a bright light on top of its mast. As it was inevitable, I choose to think it adds to the beauty of the photographs. I was also able to capture photos of the nesting frigates, who nest in the trees, with the Milky Way overhead. My dream had been to capture nesting boobies with the galactic center, but as they nest on the ground this was a bit more problematic. I guess I’ll just have to make another trip.

I came home with numerous cuts, scratches, bruises and splinters. Ten days later I am still removing splinters from various spots on my body. Isla Isabel is not high-end luxury travel. I fell in love with the place and can’t wait to return. I am fearful, however, because the Mexican government is building a terminal in San Blas that will have daily ferry service to Isla Isabel as well as the Islas Marías. While they say the trips offered will be eco-touristic, it frightens me that these gorgeous nature preserves may soon be ruined. I am guessing that ferry service may make the islands more accessible as day trips, which could be nice. If you want to go, I urge you to do so soon, before it’s too late. We went with:
SARTIAGUIN TOURS Y EXPEDICIONES, Calle Valentín Canalizo, 63740 San Blas, México, Tel. 311 117 1123, e-mail: emiliosartiaguinc@hotmail.com.

If you enjoy my reporting and the photography, please help us continue it by purchasing a print. They make terrific gifts and look great in your home or office. Contact me at thrudiseyes@gmail.com or via WhatsApp +52-669-122-8962.

Whale Watching in Mazatlán


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One of many happy humpback couples we saw on our excursion last week

I love how you all join in the excitement about our whale-watching trips with Onca Explorations. On our first trip in 2009 we had unbelievable good fortune; we had so many pods of whales come right up to the boat—breathing beside us and playing with us—that we lost count of how many whales we saw! The video on the link above will give you an idea. Remember, the camera is not zoomed on those shots! We felt like we could almost reach out and touch the whales, they came up so close to us.

Each year we have been blessed to see whales, though each time out has been a bit different. The humpbacks (ballenas jorobadas) that frequent our waters are the most acrobatic of the baleen whales; in fact, that’s how they got their name—the humped back motion they make when they breach out of the water. In addition to breaching, humpbacks spy-hop, lob-tail, tail-slap, and fin-slap. In our various outings we have seen humpbacks jump on top of each other and hit each other with their pectoral fins, which the males do to establish dominance and secure a mate. This time out, however, we saw a bunch of couples romancing—swimming around slowly and gently, courting and most probably mating with one another. Here, in warmer waters, is where the humpbacks mate and have their babies.

Onca’s owner, marine biologist Oscar Guzón, had to teach a class so did not go out with us this time. Saúl Herrera was our guide, and he told us that no one has ever recorded seeing humpbacks mate. Apparently it’s not uncommon to see huge gray whale penises in areas such as Baja, where they frequent. Saúl lowered a microphone so that we could hear the male humpbacks singing. They produce their haunting songs by pushing air through their nasal cavities.

Below is a short clip of one of the happy couples, swimming about romantically, with the Baja Ferry and the smaller Onca I (we were on the Onca II) in the background. First you’ll see their spouts, then the dorsal (back) fins come up, and, finally, the whale on the right dives sharply enough that the fluke comes briefly out of the water. Ah, love. You can see how coordinated their water ballet is.

The gestation period for humpback whales is 11-12 months, so calves this year were conceived in our waters last year 😉 Mature humpbacks reach 40-50 feet in length and weigh about 80,000 pounds (females are bigger than males). Their tail flukes—up to 18 feet across—are like human fingerprints: individual identifiers. No two flukes are alike.

Humpbacks live up to 50 years and are sexually mature at 6-10 years. Below you can see some of the great variety of flukes, as well as some of the spouts, that we saw during this trip. As you can see, there was a whole lot of love going on out there! Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Oscar is a marine biologist, and he, Saúl and the crew of Onca have now spent nine years cataloguing and tracking the whales that frequent our waters. Their research has made huge contributions to what scientists now understand about humpback behavior at the southern tip of the Sea of Cortéz. Below is a clip of Saúl telling us a bit about cetaceans in our waters, including that they have recorded sightings of 17 species of cetaceans here in Mazatlán.

In addition to whales, this year we saw two species of dolphins (bottle nose and spotted) and, the stars of the trip, the mantas. Be sure to click on the link if you haven’t seen those photos!

Another great advantage of this whale-watching excursion with Onca is the great view of Mazatlán from the water.