Ask anyone sailing to distant shores what their favorite aspect of the experience is and you will get a plethora of different answers. For me, one of the most rewarding parts of cruising is the interaction with new landscapes and wildlife. Every time I see a new animal, I am 5 years old again – filled with the same wonder it held for me then.
I saw my first gecko when Lauren B and I were eating at a small restaurant in La Cruz. I was having a bite of pozole (a pork stew) and there on the chair across from me was a tiny gecko about the size of my pinky finger. We caught sight of it just before it changed color to completely blend in with the dark brown wood of the chair he was on. My eyes were fixed on its tiny, deliberate movements – slow as they were, like a spy trying to sneak through undetected. It moved out of a shadow onto the top side of the chair. Cue the color change! I had always expected that watching a gecko change colors would be obvious, but it is so sly that it happens before your mind can catch up with it. When it finally reached its way up to the top of the chair, it turned its tiny head around and proceeded to clean its toes with its tiny tongue, just the way a cat would.
Of course the bulk of the wildlife we live with now is a part of the ocean’s ecosystem. Here in Banderas Bay, the rays are as plentiful as the fish and it is not uncommon to see tiny ones in the marina, like the ones to the right. We were crossing the bay a while back and saw creatures doing flying flips on the water. We got closer and saw that they were manta rays; about 5-10 of them. When we’re in the ocean, sometimes we will see what looks like a large coconut floating in the water. Those are the sea turtles. They are always alone and very skittish. If they see they are too close to our boat, they will frantically try to turn in the other direction. It’s the only time you will see a fast turtle. Whales are everywhere down here as well – I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would see so many. Most often they are far away when we see them. Occasionally they are close enough for us to get a better look. One day when we were sailing from Barra de Navidad back up to La Cruz, I heard a bizarre sound – “Rrrrraaaaauuuuggghhhh” and called to Lauren to come up to see if he knew what that was. There had been a whale way off in the distance and I asked him to bring up the camera. Then suddenly a whale breached on our port side, about 50 yards away.
It is amazing the amount of sea life that is underneath our keel at any given moment. The dolphins still swim with us every time we make a passage. When we dive the boat to clean our bottom, there are often small schools of fish that like to hang out right at our keel. Tropical fish are even in the marinas – they like the growth underneath the docks and at the rocks near the land. If we stay perfectly still, they will come right up to us and swim as if we belong there.
We stayed in the La Cruz Marina for a week while we were having stainless work done for our solar arch, and we were about 20 yards from the dock that the flocks of gulls and pelicans live on. Every morning they get pretty noisy and the gulls get worked up into a roar of what sounds like laughing. Something has to be very funny to get me to laugh out loud when I am alone, and for some reason the sound of those gulls tickles me to death. They hang out with the pelicans and another bird that is mostly white with a small tuft of hair on its head – sadly it is not in my bird identification book, so I am not sure what it is. The reason the birds like these two docks is because every morning the fisherman come back with their catches and it is a free-for-all for the birds. The docks are equidistant from where the fishermen unload and the entrance to the breakwater, where the pelicans like to dive and the gulls tag along.
There are many rivers that connect with the sea down here, and thus saltwater crocs are a part of everyday life in some parts. In marinas like San Blas and Paradise Village in Nuevo Vallarta, the crocodiles swim next to the boats. It’s really not a big deal as long as people don’t feed them and are smart about being in that water.
In Tenacatita, there is a small river that flows into the bay that we took our dinghy up – hoping to see a crocodile. We didn’t see one, but this river trip was one of my favorite times so far in Mexico. Due to high swell and rocks, we couldn’t drive our dinghy directly into the river and rather had to land the dinghy on the beach and then drag it 100 feet to the river.
We motored up the river for about 30 minutes, and then we turned the engine off, laid back and drifted down the mangrove flanked river for an hour or so. In those moments, the only sounds in the world were those of birds rustling in trees and the water nudging its way past our boat. This is the life. We saw many birds and there were tiny speckled crabs that hung out near the trunks of the mangrove trees. As for insects, if there were mosquitoes they barely bothered us. There were huge ant colonies that lived in structures hung from trees. I was content not to get a better look at those. A large quarter sized spider hitched a ride with us at one point, and Lauren B gracefully returned it to the water. We watched as it skipped along the surface of the water back to the mangroves. This is the life.
Every coin has two sides however, and since sailors are so entwined with the wildlife, there are aspects that can be a big nuisance and even very dangerous. Just yesterday, a sailboat had to be towed into the marina because they had a close encounter with a whale that damaged their boat. Unfortunately, it happens and sometimes there is nothing you can do to prevent it. We all remember the story a couple of years ago of the whale that breached right onto a boat “attacking” it. What the media did not readily tell is that the boat had been closely following and chasing the whale trying to photograph it – thus agitating it. Sometimes the whales sleep near the surface and wake up too late to move swiftly.
A less dangerous, but incredibly annoying and tiresome interaction is with the booby birds that like to land on mast heads. On the top of the mast is a windex that tells us what direction the wind is coming from. Our instrument transducer is up there as well, which tells us our wind speed and direction. It is a very important piece and pricey to replace. For whatever reason, the boobies like to try to land on the darn thing while we are sailing. The boobies are so heavy that if they make a landing, they will break it.
One night, around 12am, I was on watch when I looked up and saw two boobies lit by the moonlight in the sky. It didn’t hit me until a couple of minutes later that they were both trying to land on the windex. Ugh. The sea was calm, so we were motoring pretty straight which meant they would have an easier time making a landing. There was only one thing to do – drive erratically so that the mast would swing everywhere and they couldn’t land. Of course this woke up Lauren B. He took over the maniacal driving for a while and then went back to sleep. So there I was with these two boobies in the night – a madwoman trying to drive them to exhaustion.
It occurred to me that they had been there so long that they were going to do their business at some point. Now… I’ve grown accustomed to many of the unglamorous aspects of the cruising life, but I am still civilized enough to draw the line at bird poop on my head. I retrieved my wide-brimmed safari hat and considered myself armed against their bombs. My timing was perfect because 2 minutes later and I would have been nailed right on the head. After about an hour of this, the swell picked up a bit and rocked the boat so I didn’t have to anymore. The boobies left after a couple of hours.
Persistent boobies aside, I love being so close to nature. I love listening to dolphins swim with us at night and watching their trails glow in the dark from the phosphorescence. I love being so far out from land that the night sky is bright with stars as we sail under the milky way. I love feeling like a child in my heart. Like I said, this is the life.