Day 3 – Isla San Francisco

One fish, two fish – Oarfish

Like the creature from the black lagoon, our Un-Cruise adventure in the Sea of Cortes introduced us to a rarely-seen fish: the Oarfish. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Like the creature from the black lagoon, our Un-Cruise adventure in the Sea of Cortes introduced us to a rarely-seen fish: the Oarfish. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

March 3, 2014

Our second full day aboard Un-Cruise Adventures’ Safari Voyager, began this morning off the sheltered waters of Mexico’s Isla San Francisco. The small island is located between the Baja California Sur peninsula and the Sea of Cortes and only required a few hours of sailing to reach last night from our previous anchorage at Ensenada Grande.

Un-Cruise Adventure's Safari Voyager at anchor off Isla San Francisco. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Un-Cruise Adventure’s Safari Voyager at anchor off Isla San Francisco. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Preparing to embark our zodiac from Safari Voyager's swim-step at the stern. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Preparing to embark our zodiac from Safari Voyager’s swim-step at the stern. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Today is all about getting out and enjoying the stark beauty of Isla San Francisco. All around the Safari Voyager is a sea that radiates between cyan blue and emerald green, becoming even more vibrant as you get closer to shore. It’s also astonishingly clear, completely lacking in sediment and flotsam.

A whiteboard in the passageway between the Reception Desk on Deck 2 and the staircase highlights the wildlife we've seen up until this point. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
A whiteboard in the passageway between the Reception Desk on Deck 2 and the staircase highlights the wildlife we’ve seen up until this point. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

This morning, guests could choose to participate in a ridge hike that would take them up to the tops of the hills surrounding the bay for a postcard-perfect view. They could also choose to take a beach exploration walk, or go snorkeling, kayaking or skiff paddling.

Coming ashore at Isla San Francisco... Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Coming ashore at Isla San Francisco… Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
...and setting out on our journey to explore the island's salt flats. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
…and setting out on our journey to explore the island’s salt flats. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Additional snorkeling was also offered after lunch in the afternoon, along with the option to utilise the ship’s Zodiac rafts to go ashore to spend some free time kayaking, wandering, or just simply relaxing and enjoying a cold cerveza on the beach.

This morning, I opted to take it easy after yesterday’s boulder scramble and participate in the beach exploration walk. Our shore landing today was a lot drier than yesterday’s kneecap-soaking experience, serving as another lesson to need to be ready to adapt and roll with the punches. Yesterday I was unprepared for the depth of the wet landing; today I was prepared for another kneecap soaker but didn’t even wet my toes!

Guests photograph their reflection in one of the pools of salt that have been carved from the earth by local fishermen. The salt is so fine it almost has the appearance of an ice rink. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Guests photograph their reflection in one of the pools of salt that have been carved from the earth by local fishermen. The salt is so fine it almost has the appearance of an ice rink. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

From the beach, we set out for the salt fields located in the middle of the spit that separates the Sea of Cortes from our secluded anchorage. Our Expedition Guide LIA explained to us that the Sea of Cortes has two high tide and low tide cycles, and that sometimes during high tide these salt flats become flooded with water.

Life here has no choice but to adapt. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Life here has no choice but to adapt. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The water apparently doesn’t stick around: the salt crunching underneath our feet was largely bone-dry, save for a few damp patches that showed signs of recent moisture. Off to our right, three large pits had been dug to encourage the water to become trapped and remain in the pit after the tides have receded.

Lia explained that, in all likelihood, local fishermen had dug these pits in order to salt and preserve their catch, much as they have for centuries.

The desert landscape of Isla San Francisco is, by and large, inhospitable to humans. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
The desert landscape of Isla San Francisco is, by and large, inhospitable to humans. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Yet it's starkly beautiful in its own way. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Yet it’s starkly beautiful in its own way. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

But the salt fields were another reminder of how inhospitable this part of the world is to humans. Despite having a shocking array of marine biology and other wildlife, it seems the one creature who is most ill-equipped to deal with the soaring temperatures and harsh sun that is the signature of the Sea of Cortes is man himself.

We were once again warned to be careful not to step on old piles of driftwood or poke and prod underneath the shady areas of cacti or upturned rocks, as these are favorite daytime hiding places for all sorts of unpleasant critters. While there aren’t many – if any – rattlesnakes here today, scorpions are still a concern, as are other small creepy-crawlies.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Yet, even amongst this desert, there are vibrant signs of beauty: purple flowers that bloom from small shrubs that cling low to the ground, almost like in the high arctic; and vibrant red flowers that sprout dramatically from some species of cacti.

The salt flats gave way to a rocky shoreline with two visible tide layers as we neared the end of the spit facing the Sea of Cortes, with its deep royal blue seas that cascaded like a gradient from the shoreline.

The moulted shell of a crab still retains its overall shape and appearance. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
The moulted shell of a crab still retains its overall shape and appearance. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Here, the largest black crabs I’ve ever seen scrambled over wet boulders, somehow managing to hold on despite the relentless pounding of the surf against their perch. We also discovered the beach on this side of the island is something of an aquatic graveyard, with skeletons of two balloon fish that had washed ashore.

Expedition Team member Lia and the skeleton of a balloon fish. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Expedition Team member Lia and the skeleton of a balloon fish. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Similar to a puffer fish, the balloon fish puffs itself up and spreads its scales when threatened, though unlike the puffer fish, these are largely for show. But this has an unintended consequence: when puffed up, the balloon fish becomes buoyant and rises to the surface, where it is vulnerable to being plucked from the surface by birds of prey.

One skeleton we saw still had its spikes folded against its body, suggesting it perished underwater – or, at the very least, without feeling it was in imminent danger.

The beach on Isla San Francisco, as seen from the ridge above. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
The beach on Isla San Francisco, as seen from the ridge above. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The other skeleton, however, was still puffed up, spikes spread outward. It appeared to have died in the past two days, as there was still some flesh attached to the fish. It was most likely attacked on the surface, as birds had plucked the eyes out and deposited the carcass farther inland than the surf would have washed it.

Something to consider the next time you hear Elton John belting out The Circle of Life on the radio.

Strolling back to the Zodiac that would whisk us to the Safari Voyager for Lunch. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Strolling back to the Zodiac that would whisk us to the Safari Voyager for Lunch. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Also notable on the beach were the number of crab shells. Unlike their fishy counterparts, these weren’t dead; merely the moulted remains of their former shells that were shed by the crab at some point in the past. I didn’t realize that the entire crab shell was discarded during this process, right down to the eye sockets. The end by-product looks just like a deceased crab lying on the sand, but a close inspection of the eye coverings tells the tale: if they’re clear, it’s a moulted shell. If they’re cloudy, well, grab some garlic butter and hope the gulls didn’t beat you to it.

The dining room aboard Safari Voyager, as seen before dinner. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
The dining room aboard Safari Voyager, as seen before dinner. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Food quality is one of the strong points aboard Safari Voyager, with excellent taste and quality. Again, dinner is showcased here. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Food quality is one of the strong points aboard Safari Voyager, with excellent taste and quality. Again, dinner is showcased here. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

As we ventured back across the salt flats to our waiting zodiac after two hours of exploration, I was struck how otherworldly this area of the world is. It’s so inhospitable to humans that it may as well be the surface of Mars. To become stranded – or shipwrecked – here would be its own special kind of hell. Yet, to visit aboard a vessel like the Safari Voyager is the exact opposite: an incredible journey that really does defy words.

Except for a few boats and a lone Mexican fisherman enjoying a quiet siesta on the western side of the Sea of Cortes side of Isla San Francisco, the only people here were those guests aboard the Safari Voyager. This is, quite simply put, part of Mexico that even some Mexicans have never seen.

Safari Voyager at anchor as we head back ashore for an afternoon on the beach. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Safari Voyager at anchor as we head back ashore for an afternoon on the beach. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

After another delicious lunch in The Restaurant on Deck 1, it was time to go back ashore for an afternoon of relaxation on our little beachside paradise here in Isla San Francisco. As it turns out, our afternoon would be one for the record books.

One of two massive Oarfish that beached themselves in Isla San Francisco. After just minutes on the beach, the birds had begun to do their work. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
One of two massive Oarfish that beached themselves in Isla San Francisco. After just minutes on the beach, the birds had begun to do their work. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Guests kayaking in the water spotted two massive fish swimming erratically toward shore. The fish were massive, spanning at least 15 feet in length and perhaps a foot in diameter. It turns out these were Oarfish – rarely seen on the surface, and even more rarely ever seen outside deep waters.

Each fish was approximately 15-16 feet in length. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Each fish was approximately 15-16 feet in length. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Oarfish typically cruise between six hundred and three thousand feet below the surface, in cold, dark waters. Their presence in the warm shallows of Isla San Francisco is all the more inexplicable. What wasn’t debatable, however, was their insistence on running themselves aground. Like a dying ship heading to the breakers at Alang, these massive fish ran themselves full-speed onto the shoreline. A few members of Safari Voyager’s expedition team tried to refloat them and send them on their way, but the fish came back and beached themselves again.

By mid-afternoon, they were both dead. Isla San Francisco’s natural predators began their gruesome work.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

When I talked to Expedition Member Lia about this, she seemed halfway between the ecstatic exuberance and stunned disbelief that so often accompanies an overwhelming experience. To see one of these fish alive is rare – the first recorded sighting, on film, was in 2001 – and few have seen them run themselves ashore. In fact, no one on the expedition team had ever seen these fish, period.

I arrived beachside in time to see the corpse, but not the living fish. Gulls had already pecked the eyes of the Oarfish out by the time I was on the scene, camera in-hand.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Even deceased, this is one formidable fish. At least 15 feet long, it has skin that is almost metallic silver in colour. Someone braver than myself reached down and touched it; rather than being slimy, its skin was reminiscent of sandpaper.

Before today, I had no idea what an Oarfish was. Today, I not only know what it is – I also know what a rare experience those of us aboard the Safari Voyager have had.

Evening activities were offered beachside tonight, including yoga. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Evening activities were offered beachside tonight, including yoga. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, we capped off our activities ashore on Isla San Francisco with Happy Hour on the beach. Hors d’oeuvres were brought ashore (figs wrapped with bacon!), along with plenty of cold Mexican cerveza. Margaritas were mixed on-shore in three different flavours.

Bartending beachside. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Bartending beachside. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Beachside cocktails, Un-Cruise style. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Beachside cocktails, Un-Cruise style. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Then, the guests of the Safari Voyager stood, sat, and chatted amongst themselves – alone – as the sun set over the rugged peaks of Isla San Francisco.

Sunset off Isla San Francisco, with Safari Voyager silhouetted. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Sunset off Isla San Francisco, with Safari Voyager silhouetted. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The Un-Cruise tagline is “Unrushed. Uncrowded. Unbelievable.” This evening, our Beach Happy Hour fulfilled every single one of those words. Because there truly is no way to describe watching the sun set on a deserted beach as you enjoy the company of your fellow guests as you munch on a bacon-wrapped fig and down the last of a handmade margarita.

Truly a special experience.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Un-Cruise, Safari Voyager: Mexico’s Sea of Cortes

PORTACTIVITIES
Day 1 - Embarking Safari Voyager in Los CabosEmbark Safari Voyager; welcome cocktail and dinner.
Day 2 - Hiking Ensenada GrandeBegin the week's adventure in this home to humpback whales, mobula and Manta rays, tuna, dolphins, and hammerhead sharks.
Day 3 - Isla San FranciscoSnorkeling and kayaking in Half Moon Bay; interpretive hike; possible post-dinner night swim.
Day 4 - Bahia MagdalenaGuided hike at Isla Santa Catalina to see the world's tallest cactus; explore the Bahia Agua Verde coast by skiff
Day 5 - Bahia Agua VerdeWildlife and marine mammal watching & scenic cruising; sunset bonfire (weather permitting.)
Day 6 - Los IslotesDon a wetsuit for a pre-breakfast snorkel; enjoy an afternoon of aquatic fun at Ensenada Grande; farewell dinner
Day 7 - Gordo BanksDisembark Safari Voyager; onward journey home
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2 Comments

  • Thank you for your beautifully done post. We are going on this trip in 3 weeks. What was the water temperature like? Do I need a wetsuit? Any other suggestions on packing? Thanks.

    Reply
    • The water was cold, and yes, you’ll need a wetsuit to go in. But the wetsuits are provided onboard, and the experience was tremendous. Temperatures otherwise hovered around 25C (77F) for most of the trip. Hope you have a great time!

      Reply

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