El Norte is a strong wind that periodically gallops down the coastline of the Sea of Cortez like a runaway bull. (4)
From December to March the winter northerlies, which are the strongest winds and are called “El Norte,” come up very quickly at sea. The worst winter wind storms make paddling impossible for three days at a stretch. In the desert they can cover a truck with sand in less than an hour. (1)
At the little seaside fishing village of Loreto we met up with Ginni Callahan of Sea Kayak Baja and her local guide, Ramon Elias Arce Espinoza, who would be accompanying us. Sea Kayak Baja not only provided us with local knowledge, but nice equipment including NDK fiberglass boats and carbon paddles.
On our first day we had a few hours in the morning to walk around the town to see the sights and have breakfast together in a local restaurant where I enjoyed dining with a local Chihuahua that sat near our table while I caught up on the local news in the “Gringo Gazette.”
The Sea of Cortez is too small to have much of a real lunar tide of its own, but the sea does produce a very strong tidal flow. The lunar tides of the Pacific cause strong currents in the sea which actually occur as a lifting motion. The speed of these currents is determined in part by the width of the shore, the depth of the water, and the contour of the bottom. The long narrow shape of the gulf creates a dramatic effect on the northern Cortez where two highs and two lows race with impressive speed each day. A funnel-like effect can be caused also, depending on the bottom and the currents.
The waters around Loreto and the beaches of its nearby islands are part of the Loreto Bay National Marine Park. The Park was established by the federal government in 1996 to help preserve the area biosphere. There are concerns today as tourism and populations increase, as to how there can be significant development allowed around the shores of a marine park when there is a symbiotic relationship between the land and the water. A big push was made to get commercial fishing trawlers out of the area; it was successful for awhile, but the directive isn't always obeyed.
The shoreline at our first campsite on Isla Coronados was a gorgeous aqua-marine blue and very shallow with white sand and it seemed like a perfect protected spot to explore. Our local guide, Ramon, thought I could find starfish by the volcanic boulders that bordered our campsite. I stayed back to explore while everyone else began emptying their boats to set up camp. Soon, I spotted black crabs scrambling across the boulders and then some beautiful red colored ones that are called Sally Lightfoot crabs. It wasn’t long before I found the starfish, too! What a great first campsite.
When I hiked over to the west end of the beach of Los Metate I discovered a lot of dried-up heads of hammer-head sharks, trigger fish, and manta rays. There was what looked to be a fish camp there and, sure enough, later that night a fishing boat came up and camped there. After bringing a few of the interesting dried “teethed- specimens” over for the group to see we all began to lay out our tarps and sleeping bags on the beach for the night. Just as we were about settled, there where spouting noises echoing across our small bay as about a dozen large dolphins began to jump and entertain us. We sat on our tarps and enjoyed the show!
After a quick hike we had fresh sea bass for dinner and then settled in our sleeping bags for the night. A strong wind began to pick up—even in our protected bay. We decided to turn our kayaks sideways and lay beside them for some protection.
About half way through the crossing we began to spot dolphins surrounding and circling us. It was really fun to be paddling along with them.
We had four campsites on the mountainous Isla Carmen. The 19-mile-long island is privately owned, at least in part by the salt company that built the small town on its east side and mined the flats there. Isla Carmen's long north end is comprised of three distinct points: Puntas, Cholla, Tintorera, and Lobos. These points and the distance between them create a potential navigational hazard if the weather comes from the north. (2, p. 160.)
According to a local wind surfing website, the strong El Norte wind patterns pack gusty winds in the 20-30 kt. range every several weeks in winter. These winds occur after a storm passes over California and high pressure that follows the storm settles for a day or two in the four corners (where all the square states meet in the US). This creates a strong pressure gradient from the four corners to low pressure south of Baja. This high pressure is strongest at night when the frigid airs of the four corners strengthen the high pressure. Typically, you will first notice huge blasts of wind in the middle of the night that announce the arrival of El Norte. These winds roar down the middle of the Sea of Cortez. A lot of the force of El Norte is from winds just aloft that make the surface wind up and down. Sometimes the wind just aloft is NNW which tends to blow the El Norte surface wind away from shore. This often means on and off wind at the beaches. (4)
Punta Baja Norte, our last campsite on Isla Carmen, was the most sheltered and the warmest. We actually got hot in the mid-day sun and played and practiced rolls and rescues that day until the wind started up again. In the morning we had a fairly calm crossing over to Isla Danzante.
At one time the Baja peninsula was thought to be an island where, according to legend, gold and pearls were controlled by Amazon women and men were only used for procreation. After conquering Mexico, Hernan Cortez set out to conquer this island but was unsuccessful.
When early missionaries to Baja inquired about the cave paintings in the area, the native people answered that they were painted by an ancient race of giants...
Just prior to his travels in the Sea of Cortez, novelist John Steinbeck wrote "The Grapes of Wrath" which portrayed the farm families from western Oklahoma who went to California in search of jobs. Most families, however, did not experience the hardships that he presented in his novel. Although the Hollywood movie version was an attempt at showing the sufferings of the "typical" American, it backfired. Rather than believing that free enterprise in America had failed, Russians left thier theaters envious of the poor Okies because they all had cars and trucks. Far from being starving refugees, the Okies even had money or found work along the way to pay for the gas needed on their long trip to California.
As you paddle and explore in the unique beauty of Baja, you will be infused with awe and have the opportunity to learn more about the world. Stay thirsty my friend....
- Romano-Lax, Andromeda; Sea Kayaking In Baja; 1995.
- Eckardt, Dave; The Guide to Baja Sea Kayaking; 2008.
- Washburne, Randel; The Coastal Kayaker’s Manual; 1998.
- Wind and Weather and Some Baja Rules; I Wind Surf.com
- Expert Reveals Reasons Behind Recent Shark Attacks, Brianne Randle, 12/5/12.
- Surfer Injured in Shark Attack on Oahu's North Shore; Brianne Randle, 4/3/13.
- Great White Shark Circles Fishing Boat Off Oahu, Hawaii. Huffington Post, 1/14/12
- Hawaii Shark Encounters
- Shark attacks in Hawaii may be on the increase because of spear fishermen
- Encountering Predators While Kayaking, Athena Holty. Topkayaker.net