Home»Adventure»BOATING IN THE SEA OF CORTEZ: A Drug-Smuggler’s Yacht in Baja

BOATING IN THE SEA OF CORTEZ: A Drug-Smuggler’s Yacht in Baja


Story by Ed Wetschler

One third of the world’s species of marine mammals reside in or regularly visit the Sea of Cortez, that long, narrow body of water separating Baja California from mainland Mexico. An impressive statistic, when you consider (1) Cat Steven’s stunning insight, “Oh baby, baby, it’s a wild world,” and (2) the fact that many marine mammals from extreme climates or locales will never find these waters inviting. Or even find them at all.

I found them aboard Ursa Major the boat, not the constellation. That said, there was a time when the boat got almost as much attention as the constellation, certainly more than its owner would have liked. I’m referring to one of the previous owners, Ben Kramer, nephew of the late Meyer Lansky, that great innovator in the business of bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution.

In the 1970s Lansky’s acolyte bought the boat, a handsome, 65-foot wooden trawler with teak and mahogany trim, and hired a carpenter to create secret compartments for guns, marijuana, and cocaine so he could use Ursa Major for running drugs. A rather dangerous vocation, which is why Mr. Kramer is now a permanent resident in a tiny room with steel bars, bad food, and unruly neighbors.

Ursa Major changed hands several times after the entrepreneurial Kramer reluctantly parted with her, and in 1995 Joyce Gauthier, a Washington State rheumatologist and kayaking addict, acquired her. After giving Ursa Major a thorough, and thoroughly expensive, overhaul, from its engine to the galley to the three guest cabins, Dr. Gauthier and her sister Cami hired a crew and started offering charterboat trips in Alaska and, more recently, the Sea of Cortez.

Cortez will never be confused with the Caribbean, and that’s not just because it’s on the left side of Mexico. Whereas I once had to curtail a summer swim in the western Caribbean because the water was just too warm, the Sea of C. gets cool currents from the Pacific Ocean. That, combined with a rather significant barrier known as the Americas, explains why its 875 varieties of fish include sea forms that this veteran snorkeler had never seen before.

For example, it was in the Sea of Cortez that my wife and I spotted our first chocolate chip starfish. The thing is so aptly named, I had to restrain my normally rational bride from diving down and taking a bite out of it.

Just as the water and wildlife are distinctive, so is Baja itself. Its 700 or so miles of sand, stone, and stark desert appear all the more dramatic by this arid land’s juxtaposition against the sea. And the part of Baja Ursa Major visits is especially stunning. Sailing between La Paz and Loreto, she stays clear of Baja’s better known outposts, the Tijuana-Ensenada strip in the north and the Cabo condo collection in the south. Almost all of Ursa Major’s cruising area lies within two national parks that boast a pristine confluence of land and water where the food chain is still dominated by birds, fish, and mammals.

About ten years ago my friend Scott, one of the most level-headed and successful businessmen I’ve ever known, was out on the water with a guide when a 60-foot whale surfaced next to their little panga and looked right at Scott with one eye.

“His eye was huge, and profoundly intelligent,” recalls Scott. “This whale seemed to instantly understand everything about me.”

Scott was so transfixed that the guide had to physically restrain this ultimate pragmatist, this consummate family man, from leaping out of the panga.

“The whale was like my brother, and I wanted to join him,” Scott sheepishly recalls.

Some guides in Loreto tell me other visitors have reacted the same way. I don’t know what kind of whale had hypnotized my friend, but I can tell you that we saw whales breaching every day of our trip, and this without even trying to track them down. The Sea of Cortez hosts the largest number and the widest variety of whales in the world: blue and fin whales, humpback and Bryde’s whales, pilots and orcas, minke and sperm whales. Moreover, the dolphins, who love to play alongside boats, appear to be almost as big as the whales. Giant rays regularly vault out of the water like silver, airborne ping-pong tables.

No wonder Ursa Major’s crew includes a naturalist. It also features a superb chef and a skipper, Josh Haury, who absolutely loves this trawler.

“Ursa Major,” he says with undisguised joy, “cruises at 8 knots, idles at 8 knots, and runs like hell at 8 knots.”

We sailed out of La Paz, a friendly Mexican city–imagine, an authentically Mexican city in Baja–anchoring that night at the island of Espiritu Santo. Now, I’ve mentioned (some of) the whales, but it’s also worth noting that on just one barren rock we saw cormorants, brown pelicans, several varieties of gulls, frigate birds, blue heron and blue-footed boobies. Quite an aviary for a 10×30 hunk of limestone, but that’s Baja.

The humans we encountered near Isla San Francisco are almost as exotic as the boobies. About 25 people live on Isla Coyote, aka El Pardito, a barren rock settled by Juan Cuevas, a shark fisherman, in the 1940s. After a few hard and lonely years there, Cuevas returned to the mainland, found a comely lady, and took her back to Isla Coyote. Just one problem: When she caught that inevitable case of morning sickness, she no longer felt up to chores like preserving shark livers. What to do? Cuevas went off to the mainland again and returned with a second common-law wife.

When Number Two got pregnant, Cuevas set sail in search of Number Three. He eventually managed to lure nine women to Isla Coyote, and they all stayed with him to create a veritable menagerie of common-law wives and kids and grandkids. (Too bad we’ll never know the secret of this fisherman’s charms; it’s also too bad he didn’t leave the world a how-to book on conflict resolution.) About two dozen of his descendants still live on the tiny island, which they’ve decorated with whale skeletons. I bought a necklace ($7) from Manuel and Maria for my wife. It is not something you’ll see at Tiffany’s, but neither is Juan.

The uninhabited islands where we moored each night were as quirky as the Cuevas clan. For example, one side of Isla Carmen, in Loreto Bay National Marine Park, is the site of Bahia Salinas, an abandoned salt operation with spooky ghost town buildings and contraptions as well as vast evaporation pools that gleam whiter than winter snow. The other side of Isla Carmen is where you’ll find Arroyo Blanco, the bone-dry gully of a ghost river that briefly returns to life during rare heavy rains. To follow the ravine uphill requires strenuous hiking, hoisting and scrambling — well worth the effort, because this arroyo is filled with otherworldly rock formations, succulents, and perfectly preserved fossils of shellfish.

We saw their descendants as well as parrotfish, sergeant majors, cornet fish, orange stars, Beau Brummel damselfish, indigo wrasse, balloon fish, Cortez angelfish, and the aforementioned chocolate chip starfish–when we snorkeled near Solitaire Rock. Which explains why, when I went out on one of Ursa Major’s kayaks, I saw more than a dozen dolphins. Thrilling for me, and probably for them as well, because there sure is a lot here for them to eat.

But the strangest animal encounter occurred one afternoon when, while snorkeling, I heard Josh yell. Looking up, I saw him gesturing ahead at a rock full of immense, walrus-sized sea lions. I’m no fan of sea lions, having seen how they can decimate salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, so when Josh warned me to stay back, he got no argument from me. But then a huge one slipped into the water and morphed from clumsy behemoth to aquatic sylph. I swam closer. The sea lion looked right at me. I took a deep breath so I could dive down to it, because it seemed to know me, to understand me. Suddenly, I felt Josh’s hand on my arm, pulling me away.

To my thinking, that incident encapsulated what this stretch of Baja is all about. Scott would understand.

IF YOU GO: Ursa Major visits Baja from November through March and Alaska from late May through August. It is primarily a charterboat, which means that one family or group of friends hires the boat and crew for a six-day itinerary, dividing the three guest cabins any way the group wants. However, there are some weeks when you can book just one cabin. Repositioning cruises are also available. For further information call 206-310-2309 or visit www.myursamajor.com and www.alaska-adventure-cruises.com.

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