Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Catching Up - More Stories From Isla Cedros

Meeting Victor and Carolina (described in an earlier blog post) was certainly the highlight of our visit to Isla Cerdos but it was not the only interesting thing we did during our stay. Our guide Jose had several days of activities lined up for us while we were there.

On the first day, Jose picked us up in his panga (Mexican fishing boat) at 6:30am. Our goal was to make the 30+ mile trip from Cedros to the San Benitos, a group of 3 small islands west of Cedros. The islands are ruggedly beautiful and have a resident elephant seal colony. Elaine and I visited the islands back in 1999 when we went down the coast with our friend Celina, but due to sea conditions at the time, we were not able to make the dingy trip from our anchorage across to the elephant seal colony. We were looking forward to this visit with Jose to see the elephant seals, nesting sea birds and to do some hiking. Alas, it was not to be. Despite two attempts to make the crossing, the wind and sea conditions were too much and we had to give up on making the passage.

While we did not make it to the San Benitos, the first part of the boat ride before poking out into the unsheltered ocean took us along the south eastern and southern shores of the island which were interesting in their own right. Since we had time to kill on the way back, we took the slow route, exploring the coast close up.

First, we stopped at the island’s southwestern most point where there is small fish camp with stunning views of the island’s southern coast and across to the Baja mainland and Isla Natividad. We walked around the camp and took some short hikes in the immediate area. We saw lots of sea birds, interesting desert plants and some cool sedimentary rock layers that had been turned completely on their sides and were eroding to form delicate parallel layers in the soil. We also hiked to the other side of the fish camp where there was a really beautiful little bay with clear water headed on one side by a dramatic, large black lava dome. It was so nice, we joked that if it was in California, it would have yoga retreat resort with a 4 star organic vegetarian restaurant and massage studios overlooking the bay. We all had fun pointing out where we thought each of these facilities would be placed along the bay’s edge.

After the fish camp, we got back in the panga and took the slow, up close tour of the large sweeping and unspoiled bay that makes up the island’s southern shore. The bay has 8-10 miles of wide empty beach backed by rugged desert. The contrast of the sea with the desert in the background is always fascinating to me.

Reaching the island’s south eastern corner, we passed the island’s huge salt processing facility. Salt from the estuaries of the Baja mainland near Guerro Negro is shipped via barge to Cedros for storage and for loading on to ocean going ships since there is no deep water port in that part of the mainland. The amount of salt stored in gleaming white piles at the facility is mind boggling. Huge systems of conveyors and earth movers move the salt around from the barges to the appropriate storage site and from the storage sites back to the ships at their loading pier. It was quite an impressive operation which we later saw from the land side as well.

Finally, a short 15 minutes ride later and we were back at the boat…in time for lunch !! Since we had the afternoon free, Jose suggested a ride back to the southern beach to explore it from land. It was this afternoon that we did our tide pooling and met Victor and Carolina as described in an earlier blog post.

Day 2 of our trip started with a lazy morning after waking up at 5am the day before. Jose picked us up at 1pm and we drove over to the “salt town”. It is a clean and orderly company town where the worker’s housing is provided as part of their compensation. Among the facilities are a grocery store, gym and a nice church with stained glass images of the salt works (and a few of Jesus) and a sculpture of a salt crystal outside with a cross on top !! As we left, we swung by the exterior fence of the salt facility, took photos and marveled at the masses of pure white salt in front of us.

After the salt town, we headed over to the island’s abalone hatchery. Abalone harvesting and processing is one of the islands largest industries. Sometime in the 90’s an El Nino weather pattern destroyed much of the island’s abalone. Not wanting to lose a valuable industry, the island’s fishing cooperative decided to start an abalone hatchery, modeled after those in California, in order to provide a source of abalone into the future.

At the facility were Lupe and Paul, who gave us the grand tour. The place was filled with bubbling tanks in all directions. In one area were tanks with the adults of 4 different abalone species. They were responsible for making the baby abalone. In another area were tanks with the microscopic babies. Since they are too small to see with the naked eye, Lupe took us over to the lab to see the little critters under a microscope. The largest tanks running in rows across the facility were for the teenagers. These tanks were filled with kelp and on each piece were dozens of abalone the size of a dime to a quarter. These were the abalone that would soon be spread out in the prime abalone habitat around the island. Lupe and Paul said that there is no good way to know but they estimated that between 10 and 25% of the island’s adult abalone catch today can be traced back to abalone hatched in the facility. 

On the way out of the hatchery, we were taken by an enormous mound of abalone shells stretching over 250 ft. After being processed, the left over shells are stored behind the hatchery for later sale. Paul and Lupe told us to take a few as souvenirs and they even showed us how to polish them up for when we got back home.

Following the abalone hatchery, we headed over to the lobster and abalone processing plant. The plant is certified by the EU and several other countries and strict cleanliness protocols were observed. Upon arrival at the plant we were greeted by an enthusiastic young woman named Nirvana who is in charge of quality control for the entire plant. On the tour, we watched as lobster was unloaded and sorted for live and frozen shipment as well as saw the fish and abalone processing lines and the canning facility. The tour was most interesting and the pride and care that everyone took in their jobs was obvious.

One interesting side note to our days visit. Paul from the abalone hatchery and the Nirvana at the processing plant were born in Cedros. Both had lived in the states and had traveled to other parts of Mexico. Nirvana has a university degree and has traveled to Hong Kong. On a small, remote island like Cedros, with exposure to the broader world through satellite TV and internet, one might assume the first thing a young ambitious person would want to do when they grow up is to get off the island. In the case of these 2 smart and very capable young folks, they had gotten off the island and despite their experiences or maybe because of them, they both chose to come back and make their lives on the Cedros. It is very inspiring to see and it bodes well for the future of the island.

Our third day of touring got off to another early start. Jose picked us up at 7:00am for an 18 mile panga ride up to the north end of the island. On our agenda was a swing by the elephant seal and sea lion colonies along the way and a 6 hour hike (round trip) to a 100 year old abandoned copper mine where one can see not only the remnants of the mine but also the indigenous pine trees the Spaniards thought were Cypress, thus naming the island Cedros or Cypress in Spanish.

About an hour’s boat ride from the village, we came across the elephant seals and sea lions. There were not that many elephant seals but the ones there were quite large and impressive creatures but also pretty sedate and quiet. The sea lions on the other hand were just the opposite – numerous and quite boisterous and loud. We floated off the beach taking in the scene when a very large group of juvenile sea lions, maybe 80 to 100 strong, all approached the boat and watched us with great curiosity. As the boat drifted along the shore, the entire group followed us, all the while barking, coughing and grunting. It was a tremendous sight seeing all these animals romp around us. We could have stayed for hours watching them but we had a long hike ahead of us so we moved on.

After another 20 min in the boat, we came to the fish camp at the north end of the island and our landing spot for the hike. Due to an earlier storm from Oregon and California, the seas were up and the landing looked pretty dicey with some big waves crashing on the beach. Elaine and Barry were quite skeptical that we could pull off a landing but Jose and Dengue, our driver, seemed confident that with a little patience and timing we could get on the beach without killing ourselves. After a couple of false starts, Dengue went for it. Jose and I jumped off the boat right away but Elaine and Barry were hesitant. After a little emphatic encouragement, they both jumped onto the beach, just in time for Dengue to turn the boat around and head outside the breaker zone. We walked up the hill to the fish camp to change into our hiking gear with that “we cheated death” buzz.

Our hike started simply enough. From the fish camp, we followed a trail along a flat plateau above the beach with the ocean and the north point light house in the background. Along the way we saw a rattle snake and several interesting desert plants including elephant trees with their bulbous trunks, flowering agave plants with their flower stalks dripping sweet nectar and a prickly pear cactus with its fruit in full bloom. Jose picked a prickly pear off for us to taste. Its flesh was bright red with the consistency of watermelon and a taste reminiscent of a kiwi fruit.

About 30 min into the walk, we came upon a deep arroyo that cut across our path and headed up into the island’s center. Following Jose down into the arroyo our walk quickly turned more challenging. First, there was no more trail, so we had to pay close attention to our footing on the rocky arroyo bottom. As we proceeded, the arroyo became steeper and a bit of climbing became necessary as well. Also as we moved inland, first the fog then drizzle closed in. Not only were we getting wet but so were the rocks. Worse, the normally dry and powdery soil between the rocks was damp in places and wet in others turning the dirt into a really thick, sticky and slippery mud !! Now as we proceeded, it was necessary to only step rock to rock lest your shoes get caked with slime and you lose all traction. We soldiered on and up the arroyo this way for two hours. While the hike was pretty demanding, we were being rewarded with fantastic scenery, that is when we took the time to take our eyes off the next rock we were going to step on.

Just as we were reaching the point of “what the hell are we doing this for”, we scrambled over a small rise onto a large flat area that contained the ruins of mine. There were lots of interesting artifacts strewn about. Carts used to move the ore, old engines, giant pulleys and gears and a large brick water tank. Elaine found an old numbered clay crucible used for extracting copper from the ore and an old glass insulator from a power line. The only bummer of the mine site was the enormous piles of green, yellow mine tailings. I am sure they were toxic in several different ways. It is sad to think that these piles will never be cleaned up, leaving a permanent scar in an otherwise beautiful area.

Also at the mine site were some of the Cedros pines that the Spanish mistook for Cypress. After seeing so much desert all around the island, it is pretty amazing to see these bright green pine trees there. They seem like they were beamed down from another planet. There was a larger grove about a quarter mile further along up the hill in a place unspoiled by the mine ruins, but it was really foggy and drizzly, we were wet and tired and our slow progress up the hill due to the mud meant it was getting late so we headed back down.

The trip down was uneventful. We were all quite happy when we got back down to the sun and the dry flat trail. We were all quite tired but feeling good about the effort and reward of a challenging hike. Although we made it back to the fish camp, we could not fully enjoy our accomplishment since in the back of all our minds we were worried about what the conditions would be like at the landing site and could we even get back on the boat. To our relief, the seas had calmed down over the course of the day and getting into the panga was no issue. Two hours later we arrived at the boat completely beat but already savoring another Cedros adventure.

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