Capt. Bill and his wife explore an uncharted island in the Sea of Cortez.
It was a warm January morning in 2010 when my wife Laura and I dropped the Iron Maiden’s anchor in a remote cove on an undisclosed Island in the Sea of Cortez (reasons will become apparent). The anchor chain and anchor were clearly visible through the crystal azure waters reflecting off the white sand on the bottom 20-feet below. We had arrived at what has become one of our favorite anchorages in the Sea of Cortez.
The bright blue sky was contrasted by the silhouettes of high desert plateaus and mountains that surround this very special place.
Cacti and amazing bands of color decorated the massive rock barriers that provided a nearly perfect all-weather anchorage that was protected from the winds and seas.
This was just one of several visits to this little paradise on earth, which we claimed as our own. We actually discovered this amazing island during our first sailing expedition with our children back in 1991. And amazingly it was just as pristine in 2009 as it was back then, thanks to its remote location in the middle of the Sea.
Maybe a quarter mile from where we dropped the hook is a gorgeous half-mile long white sand beach backed by a large V-shaped canyon that is filled with ancient cacti and huge boulders that have come down from the cliffs high above. We decided to take our shore boat into the beach and do some exploring, foraging for cactus fruits and general ‘chillaxin’.
As we approached the beach in our shore boat, I was reminded of the movie ‘The Beach’, it was perfect! Studying the cliff walls above the beach as we closed with the sandy beach, we could see several caves halfway up in the cliff walls that looked very interesting. After we got the shore-boat unpacked, we put on our hiking boots and headed up the canyon to check out the caves. One trick that we used to stay cool when hiking in that climate was the use of a wet towel, worn around our necks. As water evaporates from the towel, it cools the large blood veins in your neck, which cools your head nicely. And with an occasional re-wetting of the towel, you can remain relatively comfortable all day long, even in very hot conditions. Of course a hat is absolutely required; I like the airy straw hats as opposed to baseball caps.
Hiking through a forest of ancient cacti that are hundreds of years old is somewhat transcendental…some of the cacti were in bloom and there were other smaller blooming flowers and shrubs filling the air with a delicate sweet fragrance.
The terrain was very rugged as we followed what appeared to be a goat trail through huge boulders that were distributed throughout the forest of cacti and brush. When we’d stop to take a drink off the canteen or to take a photo, we could hear sounds of birds calling to each other. We studied the tops of the cacti and trees and finally spotted a beautifully colored Oriole. Occasionally as we hiked a lizard or jack rabbit would dash across the trail just ahead of us beckoning us on as we continued up the canyon.
We finally arrived at the entrance to one of the smaller caves that we saw from the beach. It went back into the cliff about 15 feet, where we discovered shell debris scattered on the floor of the cave. These shells were in an advanced stage of decomposition, which gave me the impression they were the very old discards from meals that must have been had more than a hundred years past. As we studied these remains it was clear that these shells had been carried high up the cliff wall by someone (local Indians?) long ago as a source of portable food. Many shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels, etc.) can live for more than a day out of the water if their shells are undamaged and they are kept in the shade, so they are in essence, a source of portable fresh food. It was clear from the blackened roof in the cave that a fire had been used in the cave, possibly for cooking and heating (it gets cold, even in the desert!)
But who lived here? And when? Our minds were filled with questions as we hiked up from the small cave to a larger cave about 50-feet higher on the cliff wall.
The panoramic view from this larger cave-abode was tremendous! It overlooked the sugar-white beach two hundred feet below and out through the cliff-lined cove to the sea and beyond. From this lofty perch we discovered that we had a totally new perspective on the cliff wall on the opposite side of the canyon. Hidden from our view down below, we could now see an even larger more interesting cave, and decided to hike over there to check it out….
We began our descent down the tricky rock-face of the cliff into forest of cacti and boulders. Instead of retracing our path back down to the beach, we initiated a new approach to the cave on the opposite-side of the canyon, so we decided to try to cut across the canyon. As we hiked it became apparent that it looked easier than it was. In many places the goat trail was downsized to a path better suited to the ground squirrels that lived under the boulders.
Finally when we felt we were nearly across the canyon we discovered we had gone down a dead-end path. We turned back and headed down a different fork off that path, at which point we were a bit disoriented in what was essentially a maze. Using the cliffs above for direction, we headed toward the beach, hoping to get back into an area where the forest was not so dense. As we walked down the tiny goat trail, Laura called to me…”hey what’s that over there”. I turned back to see what she was pointing at. I could see an old ironwood tree that looked as if it had been hit by lightening and was deformed with all of its branches bent-over in one direction giving its canopy the shape of a dome. Underneath the dome of branches was a rock that seemed out of place. As we drew near, we could see some angular structure and what looked like some old wooden boards. Much to our amazement there was a group of three graves laid out under this ancient and deformed ironwood tree. Two of the graves had crudely formed wooden crosses and the center grave had a carved stone slab laid into the ground over what looks to be a tomb with an inscription that said:
“ENERO II DE 1808
EL NAUFRAGO JOSE OLIVAS
ANTONIO LUCERO C.”
Roughly translated; Jose Olivas was shipwrecked and died on January 2, 1808 and was buried by Antonio Lucero.
Laura and I looked at each other wide-eyed…… wow! Essentially, we were standing over the grave of a fellow sailor who obviously came to be shipwrecked on this very island some 200-years ago! We imagined the Spanish Galleon that must have transported Senior Olivas to this part of the world, and what this island must have been like back in 1808. Certainly it was just as wild, hostile and remote back then. Even though this island was about 50 miles by sea north of La Paz, it might as well have been 10,000 miles back then, given its desolation and the fact that La Paz was nothing more than a small Jesuit settlement that was established to trans-ship gold and silver off the Baja en-route to Panama via Spanish Galleons. In those days there were still indigenous Indians who were known to kill invading outsiders. As we photographed our discovery our minds raced with scenarios of survival on the island. How long did they survive? How did Jose and the others die… we wondered? And what became of the ship he was on? Was it sunken in the nearby cove?
Some sailors today know about the potent Coromuel winds that occur in the waters north of La Paz, not to mention hurricanes that frequent those waters as well. It’s easy to imagine a gale blowing out of the west that could have driven a Spanish Galleon out of the La Paz Bay northward in an attempt to claw around and behind the islands to the north for protection. We formed a theory, that a Spanish Galleon was anchored off La Paz. During the night (as it often happens in winter months) a strong Coromuel wind built and drove the ship off its anchor. To the east side of the bay, was the Baja Peninsula and Espiritu Santo Island which formed a dangerous lee-shore, so the ship’s captain may have tried to sail north of these hazards in order to bring his ship under the lee of the east side of the islands further north. We imagined that as he sailed north, the strong westerly winds drove his cumbersome ship onto the rocks on the west side of our island before he could round the headland….so our theory went.
We paid our respects to Senior Olivas and then headed back down through the maze of cacti and boulders towards the beach. Our discovery had totally distracted our thoughts of visiting the second larger cave.
When we got back to the beach we kicked off our boots and walked barefoot in the cool water lapping gently on the sandy beach. We organized the cactus fruits that we had collected and then I began fishing with my cast-net. The small fish (3-6 inches) that are easily caught with a throw net can be pickled and eaten anytime thereafter, and some fish can be kept alive in a bucket of water and used as bait for the larger fish out in the deeper water a few hundred yards off the beach.
As I spent the afternoon fishing and collecting mollusks, I pondered on the sailors who had died on the island. By the inscription on the gravestone, it seemed that the captain of the ship may have buried his companions, and that took time and energy, so he must have had some source of water in addition to the obvious food sources on the island.
It made sense that they had been living in the caves we discovered which were littered with hundreds of shells from the various mollusks that had been eaten. Clearly from the soot blackened roof inside the cave, they had fire. But what did they use for drinking water? On our ship, we have water storage in huge tanks and a desalination plant that could make 300 gallons of pure fresh water each day, all of which could easily be augmented as needed with catchment water whenever it rained.. After all, we knew that just walking around in the 80 degree heat on the island required about 6-8 liters of drinking water per person. I was sure there must be a source of natural fresh water on the island beyond the cacti… obtaining water by tapping cactus plants will only get you so far, especially if the cacti are dry as a result of harsh dry weather conditions over the prior years. So Laura and I agreed that we would intensify our exploration of the island.
We spent the next few days snorkeling and spear-fishing, kayaking and fishing with our nets and rod/reel, as the charms of the island brought us back into a state of bliss.
It was about a week later that we hiked into a different valley that was narrow and bounded by steep mountainous cliffs on both sides. As we hiked in, we started noticing more life forms in other locations…lizards, small ground squirrels, rabbits and goats up high on the sides of the rocky cliffs. We came to an area that had a lot of green shrubbery and plants and discovered a spot where the ground was carpeted in a type of dense succulent plants, which were only a few inches tall and looked like moss from a distance. I pulled a hunk of the plants out to discover that the ground underneath was moist. I dug down a bit and after a while, water appeared on the bottom of the hole. I took a sample of this water back to our ship and using an electronic water tester, it tested out at 930 ppm dissolved solids. This water was similar to the water that could be found on some coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean, and even though it was brackish and bad tasting, and probably should be boiled before drinking, it would keep you alive. So the water mystery was solved; somewhere the shipwrecked survivors must have dug a well, which allowed them to survive for a time.
Of course when you are a ‘Nautical Prepper’ your home is your shelter, and your boat serves as both. So when we pull up to an island with our boat, the island serves as our backyard and also provides resources and a place to explore. I have to say that it beats living in a cave on the island, even though that is always an option in a serious survival situation. The drawback to living off the boat onshore, on these particular islands, are the various potential problems with poisonous insects (spiders and scorpions) and the rattlesnakes. The world’s only rattle-less rattlesnake is found on Catalina Island in the Sea of Cortez. On ‘our island’ we occasionally ran across the Baja rattlesnake (with rattles) that was relatively smallish (about 3 feet), which had light-brown and light orange (almost a pink) two-tone markings. These little pit vipers have particularly toxic venom, which I understand is just as deadly as the Mohave green rattlesnake.
There may be a few other expedition sailors who know this secret place and who also have kept it a secret to this day. I hope that the Mexican government will evaluate the site soon, and then possibly it can be made known. Until then, it will remain one of the mysteries of the Sea of Cortez.
Cheers! Capt. Bill
This post originally appeared at SurvivorBased.com. Reprinted with permission.
Feature photo: Capt. Bill negotiating a rocky trail on a remote desert island in the Sea of Cortez/Laura Simpson – copyright 2010