The Wild Spirit Of Espiritu Santo
I leaned over the side of the small boat, slapping the surface of the water with my hand. A large eye blinked back at me as the massive animal it belonged to approached the panga, sliding under my hand like a dog looking for a pat. I tentatively rubbed the cheek of the gray whale baby as my brain tried to parse what it felt like. The baby whale’s skin felt like a spongy pickle or perhaps a rubbery wetsuit.
I turned to my fellow Wild Women sisters as they watched in awe, huge smiles spreading across our faces. There were no words, just a high-pitched squeal of joy that escaped my throat. I had no doubt they deeply shared in my excitement, whether or not they were able to experience their own whale encounter that day. Our group of six women, plus guide Leah Blok, had travelled to Puerto López Mateos on the Pacific side of Baja California Sur, Mexico. This small fishing town is transformed into a whale-watching mecca for several months during winter when gray whales migrate to the lagoon at Magdelena Bay to calve in the shallow, safe waters. They use the currents at the inlet entrance to train the babies in preparation for the 5,000-mile migration to Alaska beginning in March.
The four-hour drive back to La Paz was uncharacteristically quiet as we each reflected on our week together. It was coming to an end the following day. We would all say farewell as we headed back to our homes, our careers, our families. Yet we would be forever connected—and forever changed—by our nine days together kayaking in Baja on the Wild Women Expeditions .
Single travel can be scary. Often it costs more, and you worry that you won’t know anyone. Will you have anything in common with your fellow travellers? Will you get along with them in fairly tight quarters for a week or more? I’d been on the Iceland a couple of years ago, so thankfully I had a good idea of what to expect, though this was a whole new group of women. But I also knew that women travelling solo could have just as much fun as those who came with friends.
I flew into the San Jose Del Cabo airport the day before our group was set to meet and stayed at the hotel adjacent to the airport. As I sat in the hotel lobby waiting for the van to take me back to the airport to meet my trip members, a message popped up in our private Facebook group from one of the members-Alia saying she was at our meeting place and describing what she was wearing. I replied that I’d be there shortly.
I didn’t see Alia at first among the crush of tour operators waiting for their clients and was searching for a WiFi connection to contact her when I looked up and there she was standing next to me! We greeted each other almost like old friends and immediately started forging our bond. Over the next hour or so, the rest of our group trickled in. I can’t really explain it, but somehow we were able to pick each other out from the throngs of arrivals even though none of us had met. As each person arrived, we made a quick introduction and continued searching for common ground. The excitement was palpable, and by the time we met up with our driver I had no doubt we’d get along just fine.
We arrived at Rancho Santa Rita, a privately owned ranch inside the Santa Rita Ecological Park, just over an hour later. We immediately claimed our tents, sleeping bags, and inflatable pads—provided by our local outfitter—and started learning how to set everything up. Leah showed us where to find the snacks and explained how the kitchen was organized. We changed into our swimsuits and headed down a rocky path to the nearby hot springs. Located about an hour from San Jose Del Cabo, the springs are popular with local families who come to relax and cookout. Dipping into the warm water was the perfect way to unwind after our travels and further get to know each other. The sound of the waterfalls helped carry away the stress of our everyday lives and put us in the right frame of mind for the coming days.
The powerboat sped away from La Paz with us and all of our necessary supplies aboard. But before we arrived at the island as “castaways,” the boat stopped at Los Islotes, a rocky outcropping inhabited by sea lions. As we cruised around the rocky shore, we could see hundreds of pinnipeds sunning themselves on the red rocks carved and smoothed by centuries of waves and wind. While the captain snagged a mooring, we donned our snorkelling gear and slid over the gunwale into the chilly water. I looked down through the water’s surface and saw a variety of coral, brightly coloured fish, and orange-red sea stars below me. I reached out to the fish and they darted away. Not long after, I caught movement in the corner of my eye and turned around to see two sea lion pups playing behind me. I nervously held my breath as I waited to see what they would do and whether they might interact with me. One darted underneath me, making eye contact with its huge eyes. Another spun around in front of me. I could see Shannon trying to play with one—the pup dove to the bottom picked up a rock, and threw it, trying to entice her into a game of fetch. Leah spun herself around, and one of the pups mimed her acrobatics. I was enchanted.
Too soon, we were back on the boat, everyone excitedly sharing their experiences. We dropped the mooring and sped toward nearby Espiritu Santo National Park, which is composed of two islands—Isla Partido and Isla Espiritu Santo—separated by a narrow channel. We shore anchored on the beach and unloaded all of our gear, water, and food that we’d need for four days and then waved goodbye as the boat disappeared around a rocky point in the distance.
Setting up our camp kitchen and tents went much faster than our first attempt back at the hot springs. Leah showed us how to dig in the sand anchors—small plywood squares with a piece of rope tied in the center—to help keep our tents from blowing away in the wind overnight. She then introduced us to our new friend Paco.
Who’s Paco, you ask?
Paco was our trusty commode. He has a little house, a room with a view—either water or mountain depending on the location. He has a secretary—a yellow dry bag filled with toilet paper that attaches to the tent stake when not in use to let you know he’s available. To keep him (and all of us) happy, he required some special care, which Leah explained in a monologue she could take on the road for a standup (or is it sit-down?) comedy routine. He even had his own special compartment in one of the double kayaks that allowed us to easily transport him.
While discussing bathroom habits isn’t high on the list of fun topics, it’s vital when visiting somewhere like Espiritu Santo, a UNESCO World Heritage site. These uninhabited islands are a protected biosphere with many types of sea life, birds, and unspoiled beauty. Wild Women Expeditions and its local Baja partner, are committed to ecotourism. This included following the strict rules of the area, including no open fires, packing out all waste, and not taking any rocks, shells, or other items. Basically, leave no trace.
“Float on your back with your legs facing front, hook your leg inside the lip of the kayak, straighten it, and lift yourself in,” explained Leah during our lesson on capsizing and re-entering the kayaks from the water. Easier said than done. I had to try several different methods before one worked. Each time I tried, I was buoyed by the encouragement I heard from my fellow Wild Women: “You got this!” “Get it!” “Woohoo!”
But I was most anxious about extracting myself from the kayak after capsizing.
“Run your hands down your sides until you get to the lip of the kayak cockpit opening. Then follow the lip around to the front and grab the release strap on your spray skirt before swimming out.”
First Leah rocked the kayak to get me using my hips to balance. Then she let go and left me to capsize. It didn’t take nearly as much rocking as I’d expected—maybe two or three. I took a huge gulp of air just before disappearing under the water. My first instinct was to swim out, but the spray skirt held me firmly in place. Leah’s words echoed in my head. I felt around for the release strap, pulled hard, and was rewarded with an easy escape. While it felt like I was underwater for at least 5 minutes, it was all of about 3 seconds. The capsizing was way easier than entering the kayak from the water, and Leah’s calm, confident demeanour gave me full trust that she would keep me safe. Hearing my new sisters cheering for me was exactly the encouragement I needed.
“There’s plenty of air at our next stop,” admonished Leah, referring to the state of our dry bags, which were too loosely packed, as we loaded the kayaks for our first day of paddling. “Use the stuffing method to take up all the little pockets, then squish everything down so it fits in the hatches. We have a lot to fit in, so you need to make everything as small as possible.”
We each had kayaks we were assigned to pack—both our own gear as well as essentials for the whole group, like food, kitchen supplies, and "Paco". We learned how to stuff our tent poles into the narrow point of the stern and how to be efficient with packing the rest of our gear. Moving the laden kayaks to the water required the strength of our entire group working together. “One, two, three, lift!” was a common refrain. But with all seven of us working together, there was nothing we couldn’t achieve. Leah reminded us of proper paddling technique: Use your core, and don’t grip the paddle so tight. We double-checked our pedal adjustments, attached our spray skirts, and set out for the 4-mile paddle south along the west coast (inside) of the island. We started by making circles and figure eights, getting used to rudder steering and paddling, and then headed out of the safety of our little cove. The water was calm, and I found myself falling into a meditative rhythm as we glided along. There wasn’t a lot of talking, though we each checked in with one another periodically. As we paddled around the bottom of Isla Partido, our accommodations for the night sat ahead of us—an expanse of sandy beach framed by rocky cliffs that beckoned toward the open sea.
“Do we want to continue down the inside of the island, or do we want to try the open water side?” Leah asked us the next morning as we were once again breaking down our makeshift kitchen and tents. “It’s really beautiful on the eastern side, but we have had a lot of wind in the past two nights, so we could have some swell.”
We all looked at each other, trying to guess what they wanted. I think we were all up for trying the more challenging route, even though it was an estimated four to five hours of paddling with no safe beaches to rest along the way. But we also didn’t want to pressure anyone who wasn’t comfortable with that. In the end, the call of the outside track won us over, and we set out through the inlet between the islands.
Once we arrived at the northeast side of Espiritu Santo about 20 minutes or so later, Leah gathered the group and explained that we could either turn back now or finish the challenge. We agreed to keep going and immediately after, we began to experience the swells.
Up and down. It was gentle, and I tried to relax into it as I paddled the front of one of the doubles with Christina. I looked around at the jagged cliffs and looked for birds and sea life. Four-foot waves didn’t sound so big—I’d regularly experienced those in boats. But in a loaded kayak … 4-foot swells were much more significant! My stomach was not amused. Let’s just say that the fish enjoyed my breakfast that day. Christina was a stalwart, continuing to paddle and steer while counterbalancing the kayak as I leaned off one side.
A lot of the 11-mile paddle was a blur for me. I remember repeating to myself over and over, “Keep paddling! Just keep paddling!” I knew I had to dig deep; there was no other option. Leah instructed us to paddle toward a point of land that looked like a squirrel. It seemed like no matter how much we paddled, “Rocky,” as we dubbed the formation, was not getting closer. But we persevered and eventually arrived. As we rounded the point, we could see our final destination in the distance. We were still several miles away, but knowing the end was in sight renewed our resolve to keep going.
Leah opted to stop at a closer beach for a rest. I was sure I wouldn’t get back in the kayak afterward, but it seemed I had no choice. We paddled onto the beach, and Leah and some of the others helped me out on rubbery legs. I collapsed in a fetal position and remained there for some time. Bonnie stood over me using her spray skirt to protect me from the sun. Leah handed me a Gatorade and instructed me to drink it, which I eventually found the strength to do as my world steadied. Alia fed me from a stack of Pringles, and I quickly began to feel better. Despite joking that I’d prefer to swim the rest of the way, I got back in the kayak feeling refreshed and ready to make the final 20-minute push to our final destination—a 2-mile-long beach covered in millions of shells polished by time.
We sat around the table at a La Paz cafe on our last morning together, with sadness hanging in the air thick as fog. We would be going our separate ways very soon. But even more than that, we had been able to get on WiFi for the first time in a week and were reading reports about COVID-19 spreading at home and the likelihood that borders would be closing soon. We had heard from friends and family about the panic at grocery stores and possible mandatory quarantines. Emails from our companies were unsettling, and we realized our lives were about to change. Even so, we felt like we were in the safest place possible, and there were not yet signs of the storm that we knew was coming. We tried to push that out of our minds as long as possible as we reflected on the previous nine days. Each of us volunteered our personal highlights from the trip as well as what we took away from it. For me, it was the awe of swimming with sea lions and the joy of touching a gray whale. I found a whole new confidence and learned that I’m tougher than I often give myself credit for. The experience left me feeling prepared to handle whatever we were about to face at home and weather the uncertainty that would come with it.
But I think Shannon summed up the experience the best: “Looking out at the incredible beauty surrounding us, it made me realize just how trivial so many of the things we worry about every day really are.” Indeed, Shannon, indeed.