Sunday, July 4, 2010

Into the water with wolves

The highlight for many visitors to La Paz is a visit to the legendary Isla Espíritu Santo, a jagged island just off the peninsula replete with innumerable turquoise coves rimmed with white sand beaches. John Steinbeck spent weeks exploring the waters in this area just prior to World War II in a trawler with a scientist friend creating a collection of marine life that formed the basis for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Among the hundreds of species of marine life discovered, captured and preserved was a small fish that spent its entire life with its head up the anus of a larger host fish. (You can’t make this stuff up!)

Yet, bio-diversity not to be outdone by fishy perversity, the abundance of life on and around the island would thrill even the most experienced travelers. On our one-day sojourn, we watched bottlenose dolphins frolic in our wake, a manta ray heft its enormous belly into the air, handled intricately decaled sea snails and vibrant starfish, and observed, from a safe distance, lolling puffer fish and a black and white stripped moray eel. Countless sea birds dotted the skies, rocks and beaches to add a touch of feather to fin. Yet the most compelling reason to venture to this absurdly idyllic island rests at the northern most point, Los Islotes. Draped on the rocks and bobbing in the surrounding sea are the island’s largest permanent residents, a colony of sea lions or sea wolves as Spanish-speakers would have you believe.

We tie our guide boat to an anchorage on the leeward side of the rocky crag jutting up from the seabed below. On our tour there is just Celia, me and one Japanese tourista who will be diving while we snorkel. As we tug on our wetsuits and fins, the lobos marinos bark from the rocks and pop from the water all around us. Carlos, our guide, tells us that we will not be going off to the right of the rocks because the colony is recently blessed with many new pups which are being tightly guarded. He got no argument from me. As Carlos drops into the water, and I prepare Celia to do the same, my mind momentarily evaluates the logic of the situation. There is a reason, I assume, that our esteemed swim mates carry monikers of lion and wolf. Afterall, they are not Sea Dogs or Sea Bunnies, now, are they? But with a splash my one and only child is bobbing just a few yards from a curious whiskered snout so I have little choice but to join her.

I have to confess that while the schools of tropical fish, rock walls teaming with life and silvery towers of itty-bitty chum were something to behold, it was all scrim for larger thrill of a silky brown torpedo gliding by you just feet from your chest. Black inky eyes playfully scanned my floating form with curiosity that seems equivalent to my own. I was so enraptured by the novelty of the experience that all rational fear vanished, replaced instead by surges of adrenaline triggered by closer and closer near-contact with the lobos. Even with teeth chattering and toes blue as the water, Celia and came back aboard the boat with wide-eyed perma-grins on our mask-lined faces.

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