Kayaking the Sea of Cortez

This story first appeared 
in the Marin Independent Journal
We are all hunters here. Above, in the windless blue air, gulls soar and watch for opportunities. Below, in the still and absolutely clear emerald Sea of Cortez,
thousands of fish of seemingly infinite colors and shapes, dart through the coral to attack or escape.

I glide between those planes, moving silently on the calm surface in a kayak. The water is so clear and calm that the sensation of hovering is unsettling–-as though there were no water at all and my vessel and I were weightless.

From this vantage I scout the fish–-their numbers, locations, depths, size, habits–-they don't know they are in peril. It seems unfair. But I remind myself that, in the business of hunting, only men considers it a sport; only man debates fairness.

My three companions fish a mile or two away exploring another reef. This is the first full day of a primitive, four-day fishing odyssey on Carmen Island, 10 miles into the Sea of Cortez off the Baja Peninsula. We carry everything we need, including water, in our boats. What we eat (with the exception of Power Bars) will be what we catch.

Carmen is a narrow, 20 mile strip of mountainous uninhabited desert–-dry, baked, red ridges, cactus, salt flats, and sun-bleached, rattlesnake bones. But pressed against Carmen's edges is the rich liquid abundance of the sea; 500 different species of fish populate the water. Across the straits, the jagged, 5,000-foot mountain walls of Baja form of a surreal curtain to this stage.

The reef below me wraps about 100 yards off Carmen's north coast, three miles from our camp. I beach the kayak in a cove among the cliffs and snorkel out to the reef. I take a simple Hawaiian spear.

Color flurries below me-–huge, turquoise parrotfish, small yellow butterfly fish, tiny iridescent-blue damsel fish, eels, and schools of large silver fish with vertical black bars–-sargos. I select one sargo from the pack and follow him as the pack sails through a coral canyon. I glide over the canyon-top to cut him off at the opening. With a surprisingly quickening of my pulse, I set the spear, take a deep breath and dive toward the prey...


Our fire that night, in the quiet, sheltered cove of Puerto Ballandra, roasted an island sampler of fish. Dean Williams, a San Anselmo environmental engineer and author of this expedition, had taken a Rock Bass that afternoon within the first minute of his first cast. I had shot four or five sargos in 20 minutes of diving.

The bass tasted sweet, like lobster except more tender and moist. Perhaps some of that taste came with the satisfaction of the hunt.

“Early man was a hunter/killer,” said Jake Kiefer, who in civilized life is an editor for Sausalito-based, Hippocrates magazine. “There was a clear relationship between who he was and what he did for a living. That's not true anymore.”

“Part of men's problem is that we were built for that (hunting/killing), but society has little use for that skill today,” said Lars Stromberg, an environmental consultant and friend of Dean’s who had flown in from Kansas City to join the hunt.

“Does that mean that testosterone and adrenaline are obsolete?” I asked him.

Lars savored a bit of sargo. “Well, it doesn't serve you well when negotiating with the EPA, does it?”

No. But the instinct remains nonetheless and after denying it for too long we are here to let it run wild.

Jake and I walked to the darkest corner of the beach to look at stars. With no cities, no ambient light, no air pollution, the stars crowded the sky, but did not twinkle. Instead they lighted the placid bay with their myriad reflections, making the ocean an extension of space. Somewhere farther out in the bay fish surged to the surface, driven by some frenzy so intense it mimicked the sound of a river.


The next morning we break camp, laboriously stuffing everything into one double- and two single-kayaks and paddle south along the coast. The idea is that, after about two hours of paddling, we will come to a beach at the island's midsection. We will camp there, then proceed the next day to the southern tip of the island where we will eventually be picked up.

It is another day of glassy seas-–ideal for the movement of kayaks and for gazing into the depths of the underwater grottoes and canyons. Dean sets up his pole to fish from his kayak.

Gliding along the edge of the desert and an ocean can evoke surreal sensations–-two opposite worlds so closely meshed seem an impossibility. The glassy water reflects the sky and the desert and, after two hours of rhythmic paddling in the hot sun, the reflections almost become reality: we are gliding not on glassy seas but on desert hillsides and painted rock canyons.

We pull into a rocky cove, to rest before setting out again. We are confident that we are near our destination–-probably just around the next point.

Two more hours later, after having rounded many points, we find Marquer Bay, a great expensive half-moon of shallow blue water with a sandy bottom. We can see at its far edge an enormous black sand beach. But as we get closer, black sand turns out to be huge rocks, impossible to camp upon. But we are all tired. I hear my friends seriously discuss pitching the tents on rocks. I decide it's time for a desperate act.

I get in my kayak and continue south, forcing my friends to follow or do without the necessities I carry on board. They are angry, I know, and I am wrong to do this, but they'll thank me later, I’m betting. I am hunting again, this time for a home–-something soft and beautiful, a decent beach upon which to justify my desertion.

It is late in the day and a headwind begins to blow. Down the coast, as far as the eye can see, are cliffs. An hour of steady paddling goes by. Behind, my comrades are nowhere in sight; ahead there are no beaches. It gets more difficult to paddle into the wind. Another hour goes by. Six or seven distant points have been rounded and still there is no beach. A frightening thought; what if there is no beach?

There is no choice but to continue. We will paddle until we find what we need. I see it in my mind: it is a long beach with white, powder sand, out of the wind, a lagoon sheltered by reefs, a view of the mountains and the sea, a place with good fishing and no other people, a place that welcomes the Hunter. Then I see it in reality.

After 17 miles of steady paddling, we find our place. When the others catch up, a tent will be set--a home offered by way of apology for breaking ranks. Then we will rejoice together because the ordeal is over and the beach is paradisiacal.

Here we will sleep on soft sand just above the water line, listening to small waves and peaking at a dome of stars that will make us feel weightless. Here we will hunt for fish and for things more elusive–-for whatever may have escaped from us while we tended other lines.