Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

023: Sea of Cortez Revisited, Part I

Last week I mentioned I would be in the Sea of Cortez for much of this winter... literally "in" it diving and gathering underwater video for the passengers of the Lindblad Expeditions cruise ship I'm working on. As I write this, I'm still here on Catalina thinking back to the last time I visited the Sea of Cortez in January of 1973. I was the senior master (teacher) at the old Catalina Island School (Toyon Bay). That year we did a winter quarter in which students took trips off-island to learn firsthand about different environments and cultures. Until now this was my first (and last) trip to Mexico. It wasn't due to the wonderful people I met there, or the liesurely pace of the culture, or the interconnectedness I sensed between the people, and the people and their environment. I've never returned until now for reasons which will become apparent in this article.

The group I was co-leader of went to the midriff islands region. Given the large group size (40+ students), several other faculty supervised including Chris and Sam Graham who you may remember as Avalon tennis club members. We camped in the sand dunes at the outskirts of a largely undeveloped Bahia de Kino. I set up a makeshift marine biology lab complete with specimen jars and five gallons of undenatured (drinkable) alcohol for "preservation" purposes (largely of my sanity). One of the purposes of the trip was to collect marine specimens for the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History (LACMNH).

At the time there was no air fill station so I didn't bring any SCUBA gear. All my diving on that trip was free diving, although much of the collecting was done from boats or by net from shore. The school had an excellent ocean kayaking program led by Mike Acebo. We took a number of Klepper folboats (rubberized canvas shells stretched over a collapsible wooden frame). Earlier we had used these to cross the San Pedro Channel from the mainland to Catalina. We also took a Zodiak and had access to the boats of the local shrimp fishing fleet.

One of my teaching assistants that year, Barry Aires who some of you know, went with me to Mexico while the other (some kid named Packy Offield) went on a sailing trip with another group if I remember correctly. Barry had the best "eyes" for marine biology I've ever seen... he could quickly spot unusual interactions in the marine environment and later became a salmon fishermen. We decided to take a double kayak and paddle out to Pelican Island, about five miles across open water from our camp, to collect intertidal specimens and explore the small island.

I was in the bow and we were paddling smoothly about three miles out when I noticed something in the corner of my left eye. I turned to look and saw a very large shark dorsal fin approaching. As the large fish came close, it turned slightly on its side and stared at me with a large, "cold" eye. I raised my paddle out of the water and froze. It was a very large tiger shark. In what seemed to last for hours, the shark slowly swam under the kayak's bow, lifting it partially out of the water. I tried to balance with the kayak paddle and barely avoided tipping over. It continued on leaving the two of us in silence, which Barry finally broke by asking something like "did that really happen?" It did and we were both worried the shark might return to finish the job (and us). Our kayak was 18 feet long and we estimated the tiger shark at 22 feet. Because we were closer to the island than to shore, we paddled out to it.

Once on the island neither of us really wanted to paddle back. We tried to keep the situation out of mind by focusing on our collection and preparing all the specimens for preservation (boy did I need that undenatured alcohol now!). Sunset was approaching and as beautiful as it was, we started to get cold and realized we had nothing to keep warm with nor any food. We decided we had to paddle back, but by that time it was getting dark... quickly, and a wind was beginning to blow. Barry and I were quiet the whole paddle. We wondered how we would spot our campsite. Fortunately someone left a Coleman lantern on the beach knowing we were still out.

When we got in, there was no dinner left so we hiked into the small town and went into the tin shack restaurant for the local shrimp fishermen. As we entered, the room got very quiet until some of the fishermen pointed at us and started talking excitedly. Not being fluent in Spanish myself, Mike asked one of the captains he knew what it was about. Apparently the small fishing fleet, anchored near Pelican Island, had watched the incident earlier that day. They thought we were among the bravest people in the entire Sea of Cortez, encountering "El Grande Tuburon" in our tiny boat. Apparently it had eaten several crew members that slid off the slippery decks of their boats. We were honored with all the beer we could drink and a special dinner (must admit I didn't eat the fish eyeballs). Of course we didn't tell them we weren't the bravest, just the most scared people in the Sea of Cortez that day!

So this tiger shark encounter is one reason I haven't returned. The other was the behavior of my Toyon students. Many of them combined all the tequila and beer they were able to buy with some illegal drugs and the result was a disaster which has left bad memories to this day. The collecting trip for LACMNH went well and we brought back hundreds of specimens which the border guards finally allowed through. However, when they asked whether I'd guarantee the students were clean I replied "They're on their own as far as I'm concerned!"

So hopefully as you read this I'm SCUBA diving the "other" Santa Catalina Island in the Sea of Cortez... without my students! This is the island that is the home of the famous rattleless rattlesnake which some naturalists think lives on "our" Catalina. Don't worry, Randy & Mary, as you know there are no tiger sharks in Catalina waters... are there? Wishing all of my readers a very happy holiday season!

© 2003 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Image caption: The future Dr. Bill and student Kevin Moore on makeshift marine lab, Bahia de Kino;
teaching assistant Barry Aires and Bill enjpying coconut; kayaker with Pelican Island and larger
Tiburon (Shark) Island in the background; Barry collecting from tidepools on Pelican Island

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia