Crossing the Sea of Cortez


by Ric Gelman and Dan Heldenreich

first appeared in Canoe and Kayak Oct. 2006


There was no mistaking what we heard. The sound of so much air being expelled by enormous lungs was startling. How could a living, breathing creature be so huge? We were only 50 feet away from a massive finback whale in our tiny sea kayaks, and it was chilling to be so close. Finback adults commonly reach 80 feet in length, can weigh up to 120,000 pounds, and are second only to blue whales as the largest species on the planet. Then it dived and was gone. The encounter lasted barely 15 seconds.


We soon realized that the experience was not yet over. We had seen only the first in a whole pod of whales. One after another, finbacks surfaced, spouted, and dived all around us. We felt surrounded, looking right, left, forward, and over our shoulders to keep track of them. Just as it seemed they had moved on, one last maverick came straight at us. When it was just 60 feet away, the whale initiated a shallow dive, but remained fully visible in the clear water. A school-bus-sized silhouette passed directly beneath our kayaks. When it faded at depth, we sat motionless for several minutes, trying to absorb what had happened. Moments before, we had been quietly paddling along, mere specks on the vast surface, on the last day of our crossing of the Sea of Cortez. We couldn’t have asked for a more thrilling finale.



Visions of kayak-swallowing tidal maelstroms, shark encounters, gale-force chubasco winds, and huge breaking waves lurked in our minds.


The journey that led to the encounter had started four days earlier in the small coastal village of San Carlos, on the Mexican mainland. From there, the Midriff Islands look tightly spaced and not that far offshore. Rising beyond the islands, the rugged mountains of the Baja peninsula appear fuzzy on the horizon. From San Carlos, a hopscotching sea-kayak traverse of the Midriffs seems not only inviting, but even straight forward. That’s how the seeds of our Cortez crossing had been planted a year earlier.


Subsequent research produced only sparse information about kayaking along the mainland, and we found hardly anything at all about a Midriff Islands crossing. Maps show the islands as being well spaced for day trips in between, but are they cliffed out? Would we be able to find landings and campsites? How would we get back to our starting point? It seemed as if solving the logistical problems might be a greater challenge than the actual paddling.



Almost jokingly, we suggested that our friend Oscar should sail along with us and ferry us back after the crossing. A former Colorado climbing buddy, Oscar was retired and living aboard his 34-foot sloop Bombay in San Carlos. It didn’t take much arm-twisting to talk him into it. Not only did he help us over the logistical hurdles, but Oscar also shared a wealth of information about regional weather and sea patterns.


The Midriff group includes three large uninhabited islands—Tiburn, San Esteban, and San Lorenzo—fairly evenly spaced in the remote central section of the Sea of Cortez. Our route through them to the Baja Peninsula covered 74 miles measured point-to-point. In reality, the combined effects of wind and current would add at least another 25 miles of paddling to the total. Tidal information for the region is very unreliable. Huge eddies near the islands sometimes result in tidal currents that are just the opposite of what is expected. Early Spanish explorers named one ofthechannelswewouldcross Salsipuedes—leave if you can—because of its unusually powerful tide rips.



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Our expedition started in Baha Kino, 60 miles up the coast from San Carlos, where we lowered our kayaks off Bombay in rolling two-foot swells. To make the crossing complete, we first paddled to nearby Punta Ignacio, tapped our paddles on an offshore rock, then turned and aimed for Tiburn Island, the largest in the Sea of Cortez.


The symbolic gesture marked our official beginning. We were excited to be on our way, but we also knew there would be difficulties ahead. Visions of kayak-swallowing tidal maelstroms, shark encounters, gale-force chubasco winds, and huge breaking waves lurked in our minds. This uneasiness gradually subsided as we settled in and concentrated on our paddling rhythm and efficiency.


The 18-mile crossing to Tiburn’s Dog Bay started off well enough, with gently rolling seas and a light wind. Paddling in the open sea was a new experience for us. One of the first things we noticed was the increased stability of our fully loaded kayaks. We both had enough food, water, and gear to survive independently for a week. The other thing we noticed was the increased effort required to move so much weight through the water.

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