Sea Kayaking the Baja Peninsula [Part 3]: The Liquid Desert

Sea of Cortez cacti

Join us for Theodore Tetrault’s final installment of his 3-part series on sea kayaking in the Baja Peninsula of northwest Mexico…

The Desertous Sea

The desertous sea—a liquid desert surrounded only by terrestrial desert. Even the islands that lay closest to me have no fresh water. No creeks or rivers, just arroyos—dried-up riverbeds, the historical marking on the land of freshwater flows.

Looking around me, the water was still, stirring the baby-blue sky and white clouds into a nearly blinding silver mirror reflection. Oh, the irony of being bombarded with thirst-inducing heat, surrounded by water you cannot drink.

I stopped paddling, submitting to the throbbing warmth and monotony of the 13-mile crossing between Monserrate and Santa Catalina. I was a desert explorer, except instead of riding a camel through endless sandy dunes, I was paddling a kayak through seemingly endless saltwater.

Aside from the boat-based trudging, I was thankful for such conditions. The weather was stable and paddling an 11-13 mile crossing each day for 4 consecutive days solo would be much scarier with big winds, currents and seas.

Isla Monserrat and Isla Santa Catalina are the lesser visited islands of Parque Nacional Bahía de Loreto. They lie much farther offshore from their sisters Danzante, Coronados, and Carmen. And the additional open water crossing requirement makes them all the more tantalizing for a paddler.

Sea of Cortez map

Kayaking and Camping at Isla Monserrat

From the southern tip of Danzante, Isla Monserrat requires an 11-mile crossing, and then from the eastern side of Monserrat, Santa Catalina an additional 13 miles. These distances, of course, are accurate if you can keep your boat on a perfectly straight line—not always possible in practice.

Weather permitting, there are two small islands 2.25 miles north of Isla Monserrate worth exploring. A large sea lion colony (less-accustomed to humans than those on Coronados) congregates on the eastern one and their barks can be heard for the approaching mile or two.

The beaches are rocky and sharp, requiring calm water or a deft landing, but are rewarded with a greeting from Sally Lightfoot crabs. They dance back and forth, a vibrant red ballet, animated with wide eyed stares.

Monserrate has many beaches that are designated sites for camping all around the island. Tailed distantly by a handful of inquisitive sea lions, I landed on the north beach. Countless pelicans dove violently all around me, bombarding the schools of fish below, piercing the water at neck-breaking speeds, an invigorating aerial display of Jurassic wildlife.

dolphin jumping sea of cortez
(Do you see the dolphin?)

Kayaking and Camping at Santa Catalina

Though the island is beautiful in its own right, one can’t help but look forward to Santa Catalina. To go to this island requires a specialized permit. It is home to seven endemic species of reptiles (including a rattle-less rattlesnake) as well as the largest specimens of the Ferocactus, the barrel cacti endemic to the islands in the Gulf of California.

With a permit, kayakers are only allowed to camp in the southwest corner at a place called Elephant Rock. Another 13 miles into the Gulf from Monserrate, the trip out to the island is very committing.

After a couple more hours of paddling I made landfall on a western rock beach, about midway up the island. Barrel cactus of all shapes and sizes draped the beach and its supporting hills.

At first, I felt as though I was on a stage in an amphitheater of cactus, each watching me as I entered their realm. After a few quiet minutes, this feeling dissolved and transformed. I felt like I was walking through a museum—each cactus an exhibit with its own expression, message and story. Motionless, to be observed, but prickly, not to be touched. One could spend days examining these pieces.

sea of cortez cacti

The odds of coming back to such an island are slim to none. Especially coming back to the same place with enough time to spare, the motivation to gruel through the crossings, matched with the weather to do so reasonably.

So with persisting fair weather and a still-positive mindset, I decided to circumnavigate the island that day, tacking on another 15 miles.

On the north end of the island, I floated through a strong current, weaving among rock channels laden with oystercatchers, frigate birds, pelicans and sun-bathing sea lions. A paddle down the east side of the island revealed few places to stop other than a small sand spit that would be exposed during a strong north wind. I continued to be thankful for the clear weather.

Rounding the southern tip and reaching the southwest end, I recognized Elephant Rock immediately. The large rock formation, a circular gap in the side distinguishing the trunk from the mouth, glowed yellow from the final rays of the evening sun setting in the west.

elephant rock, baja
Elephant Rock on the southwest tip of Santa Catalina

A pod of dolphins escorted me the remaining distance to the beach for camp, welcome company on a day alone on the water.

Returning through Electric Blue

After another long day and paddling 11 miles back to Monserrate while suffering an upset stomach (understatement), I received a message on my InReach unit from a friend back in Loreto that the winds were set to pick up earlier than expected.

I woke at 4:00 am to break camp, chug coffee, inhale some cookies and get moving to beat the afternoon winds and escalated seas. The sun was still sleeping, the morning was still dark.

There was just the slightest perceivable difference in shades between the sky, island, and sea. After paddling briefly to get offshore to avoid hitting rocks I could not see, I turned my boat toward my compass heading, shut off my headlamp and allowed my eyes to adjust to the dim light as I continued toward the peninsula’s coast.

Suddenly, bioluminescent neon blue electrified the water. Each stroke of my paddle sent sparks through the air and bright streaks through the water. The further my kayak ventured out into the straight, the darker the water and sky became, blending into one. But the darkness enhanced the vibrancy of electric blue around me.

Mesmerized by the fascinating and unexpected otherworldliness, I paddled swiftly into the early morning in a state of bliss. Over the 11 mile return, the sun slowly revealed my destination. I arrived at a beach on Danzante in late morning, just as the winds began to pick up—perfect timing for a sun snooze.

pelicans on baja

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