“WHAT’S. HAPPENING.” Josh says this not so much as a question, but a statement of semi-baffled irritation.
And for good reason. Blasting from shore at 8am at Playa El Burro is Amazing Grace—on bagpipes. BAGPIPES. The shore of this beach is lined with ‘temporary’ cabins and RV shelters, their two-story particle board exteriors all sandwiched onto a strip of white sand between the bay and the mangroves right behind them. These are the winter ‘homes’ of the people from the US and Canada who flock to Bahía Concepción, the beautiful bay only a few feet from the Transpeninsular highway.
These structures only a couple of feet from the water are not exactly legal: by law, all Mexican beaches are public (specifically, the twenty meters from the high tide mark.) So the fact that they are blaring music at us in what I imagine to be a chest-pounding declaration of owning their space strikes me as a blindly presumptuous. Especially because I can hear their American southern accents from the boat.
I don’t mind either bagpipes or Amazing Grace, but the likely intent of the music—to annoy us—was so incongruous with the rest of our experience in Mexico. The Mexicans have been kind, generous, and always welcoming. This morning prank by Americans seemed to exemplify how I hoped estadounidenses would not act in Mexico.
Josh and I have found ourselves at this beach after searching for protection from the southern winds. The night before, we stayed at Playa Santispac—almost exactly one year after we had been there by car. We first stayed there when we drove south to La Paz for my Fulbright fellowship. Playa Santispac sits on the edge of the Transpeninsular Highway, the first glimpse of the lovely Bahía Concepción, which stretches from Mulegé in the north twenty miles south. Steep islands sit only a few hundred meters off the protected coast. When we arrived at this beach, we felt like we had finally, truly arrived in Baja.
A year ago we were on the tails of hurricane Odile, so we had the beach all to ourselves. We ate delicious shrimp and rice at the restaurant shack, which we washed down with a beer and giant, icy margarita. We camped in the truck on the hard sand only a few feet from the edge of the water—and proceeded to get eaten alive by mosquitoes. Josh fanned the still, humid air in the back of the truck so I could fall asleep for a few hours, a gesture of selflessness that I will never forget. When we woke (or rather, got up) at dawn, we paddled out to tiny nearby island. The water was so clear we could see fish all over the surrounding reef wall. I can still hear the crackle as the fish echoing though my paddleboard as the fish munched underwater. Uly swam it all, in dog heaven.
This time, as we arrived by sail, I was surprised to see at least five different cars and families camped on the beach. We had motored into the bay after a long day sailing from Isla Coronados. Once in the bay, we had to visually dodge islands and an underwater reef because the charts were so, so, SO far off. Parked on the beach at Santispac, I could see a couple versions of our peers. A group of three young people sprawled around from their maroon van: a young man squatted at the shore, and a young woman slumped in a camp chair at the open passenger door. They emanated youthful wanderlust. One palapa south was an older couple in a VW camper van, seated at a camp table and chairs, eating dinner at their tidy setup. One more palapa south, a Mexican family with a wiggly brown puppy had a giant tent set up in front of a beat up blue sedan.
As we sat in the cockpit, enjoying the sunset after the slightly stressful entry to the bay (thanks to the inaccurate charts), I felt proud of our lifestyle. In exactly one year, we had managed to return to this spot in our boat, bringing it all the way around the peninsula to here. It was definitely the hard way, but as I swam around the boat with Uly, it felt like the rare mark of accomplishment over time. Last year, I would have been that person looking enviously at the sailboat from the beach. In only 367 days, we had found the funding and the safe passage to get ourselves back here.
But back in this moment at Playa El Burro, assaulted by bagpipes, my feeling of accomplishment at a beach a couple of miles north have been replaced by nagging irritation. Let’s take the dog to shore and get out of here, I say to Josh. He goes outside the boat cabin and drops the swim ladder to step onto his paddleboard.
“JjeeEEEESSSS,” I hear the rising note in Josh’s voice as he steps onto the paddleboard from the boat, and as I rush to the cockpit, he exclaims, “HOLY WHALE SHARK!”
As I fly out of the cabin with those three words, a perfect pattern of white dots on ridges of deep blue skin cruises slowly under Josh on his paddleboard. I look down into the water and directly into the wide, white oval of the whaleshark’s mouth. I can see its small eye behind and slightly above its smooth mouth. I do not go grab the camera, although I think of it. I want to absorb the graceful movement through my eyes, my skin, my breath. There is no sound, no breeze. The giant, boxy head arcs slightly to the side to propel the rest of body, which tapers dramatically in a ridged curve to the dark, narrow tail. In this moment, there is only a whaleshark, a dog, and two people, the later spellbound by a visit from this rare fish, the largest in the world. It moves just like I imagined it would, but more so: slipping so slowly and casually under the boat. Then it’s gone.
Whalesharks, Rhincodon typus, originated 60 million years ago, and they hang out in the tropics in water over 71 degrees. The average, average size is 31 feet long and 20,000 pounds. Like a school bus, but streamlined and painted deep blue with white dots and stripes. With its slow, deliberate movement and giant size, it reminds me of a modern, underwater dinosaur. Like so many massive animals, it subsists on a diet of tiny food, namely plankton and small fish. They have a lifespan as long as a human, somewhere between 70 and 100 years. There are both resident and transient populations in the Sea of Cortez, but in general the species is not well understood and is listed as threatened.
“Quick, the camera!” Josh exclaims, and I dart into the cabin to grab it, my heart pounding as the spell is broken. Josh takes off on the paddleboard to see if he can find it, and I hop onto the other board. Despite slowly cruising around the anchorage, we don’t see it again.
We are all transient visitors here, like a whaleshark gliding by. No amount of bagpipes can make it any other way. The same way that no one owns this spot, we ALL own this spot. Everywhere we go is a place for us to care for—even if we aren’t always welcome.
After we pull the anchor and motor into the glassy water on the bay, a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins deviates from their course, directly towards us. Uly and I run up to the bow as they spin into the wake and start to surf. We cheer and clap and wave, and they turn their eyes up at us. It’s very exciting to stare into the unblinking eye of a wild dolphin who is staring back at you. I can hear their sonar, the falling ‘wheeeees’ and clicks as I laugh and talk to them. Can they hear us? The way they move their noses slightly in the wake reminds me of the subtle shifts I make on my surfboard when riding a wave. I can’t help but think we are two species who enjoy a surf–and a party wave. Uly runs excitedly all over the bow, desperately fascinated by his buddies in the water.
The word ‘grace’ comes from the Latin ‘gratia,’ which means to give thanks. If I were to absorb the sweetness of Amazing Grace, I would give thanks for a visit from the world’s largest fish followed by the playful antics of our ocean cousins, the dolphins. Sometimes we don’t do the best job communicating within our species, myself included. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded to be graceful in my interactions and responses by those who surf the ocean. We humans are in the unique position to remember that we are all stewards of this water.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.