[This is part 3 of a series of 3 articles. Part 1  and part 2 published recently.]

As we continue southward toward La Paz, Isla San Jose lies across the channel to the east. The sun climbs, illuminating rugged mountains that rise from the island’s interior. Isla San Jose is perhaps the most diverse island in the Sea of Cortez. Dramatic rock pinnacles, steep granite cliffs, sea caves, white sand beaches, and a large mangrove estuary are all features we’d read about and had hoped to explore. Those we can see from a distance look appealing, and we begin to discuss our next Baja adventure. We all agree to make Isla San Jose the main focus of it. A light breeze begins to blow, and one of my companions hoists his sail.

Sail on kayak – Approaching Arroyo Verde ©Diana Vann

It will be a short paddling day. Our destination, only four hours from where we’d launched, is too special to pass by without taking the time to linger. Before noon we round Punta Mechuda, and Arroyo Verde comes into view. It’s one of my favorite stops along the way, and when I land and step onto the beach, it feels a bit like coming home. Large, pink boulders and the rocky green-banded cliffs that give this location its name offer shade and wind protection at the far sides of the beach. It’s large enough to accommodate the commercial groups that sometimes stop here, but today we’re lucky enough to have it to ourselves. After a leisurely lunch, we set up our tents, then go snorkeling. Today’s highlights turn out to be a giant moray eel, large yellow and orange coral beds, and spectacular fields of lavender, purple and red sea fans. When we arrive back on the beach, we’re extra cautious. Swimming back in, we’ve noticed a sting ray buried in the sand.

Cliffs of Arroyo Verde ©Diana Vann

In late afternoon we hike up the arroyo. Trees, shrubs and cactus, some in bloom, grow intertwined. Fast-moving water has exposed the roots of some of the giant Cardon cacti that grow here in abundance. Others have been completely undermined by the water, and they lie on the ground in various stages of decay.

Cordon cacti in Arroyo Verde ©Diana Vann

When we launch the following morning, the wind is blowing, and the sea state is rough. The wind continues to blow for the next two days, and the waves build, becoming large rollers that demand our close attention. Some of us find these exciting and fun. Others find them a bit unnerving. But along this stretch of coastline there are places to land if the sea becomes unsafe, and we all agree that the conditions are within our paddling abilities, so we continue southward.

Then the wind dies, and gradually the waves subside. We’re elated, because we’re on the lookout for whale sharks, which are difficult to spot when the water’s surface is troubled. The last time we made this journey, I had paddled over the top of a whale shark without knowing it. On that occasion, the water’s surface was mirror-like, and the sun was about to set. As I glanced down, the light perfectly illuminated the gigantic creature, which lay motionless just beneath the water’s surface. It was wider and longer than my 16.5 by 2 foot expedition kayak, which seemed small in comparison. At the time I was unfamiliar with whale sharks, and a thrill of terror shot through me as I contemplated what one flick of that giant tail might do to me and my kayak. The reflection of the setting sun was dazzling, and it had prevented my companions from getting a clear view. We still needed to make camp, so we did not linger that afternoon. The following day as we’d journeyed farther south, the wind had begun to blow. The resulting waves made it difficult to see beneath the water’s surface, but the image of that magnificent creature had lingered in my mind.

Storm Clouds at Sunrise ©Diana Vann

Today the sea is calm and conditions are ideal for spotting whale sharks, which we know will become more abundant as we near La Paz. Since our previous trip I’ve researched whale sharks, and I no longer fear a close encounter. They reach lengths of 40 feet or more, and weights of over 10 tons, but they don’t eat people, or even sample them. They filter large quantities of sea water, capturing plankton and small fish in their enormous mouths, while swimming close to the water’s surface.

Several large schools of bait fish leap from the water as if trying to escape from something big, but we can’t see what’s chasing them. We spot a pod of porpoises, then a sea turtle, then more porpoises. The sun grows softer, and we continue scanning the water’s surface. Toward the end of the day we spot a patch of troubled water, where dark fins splash on the surface. As we draw closer, we see the form of a whale shark, feeding in the shallow water near shore. We watch until it moves off into deeper water, then continue on and make camp. This will be the last night of our journey.

The next morning our excitement builds. The water is still glassy, and we feel sure that we’ll encounter more whale sharks. Eventually we spot dark fins close by. A whale shark is heading right toward us, appearing unconcerned that we’re here. It glides under my kayak, and this time the thrill I experience is that of pure joy. Two companions quickly don masks and snorkels and slide into the water. The other two of us stay with the kayaks.

Whale shark passes under my kayak ©Diana Vann
Whale shark ©Diana Vann

When we encounter another whale shark, I prepare to be one of the swimmers. My companion is in the water quickly, but I stop to pull on dive fins in addition to my mask and snorkel. As I enter the water, the whale shark turns toward me, and with a start I see that its open mouth is much wider than I am. It’s closing the distance, and I’m suddenly face to face with gaping jaws. I veer as it glides by, then turn to swim beside it. A small eye on the side of its massive head looks outward toward me, and I wonder how I appear to this amazing creature. Sun mottles the white dots and stripes that stand out against the dark body, and a side fin barely moves as the behemoth gathers speed. Grateful for my own fins, I’m able to keep up, as we leave the others behind. Water that enters the mouth flows back out through crescent-shaped gills that pump like giant bellows. I could reach out and touch the whale shark, but decide against it. I feel as if I could remain here, swimming alongside it, forever. Finally I know it’s time to let it go, and I stop swimming as the powerful tail propels the gentle giant away. We regroup and paddle into La Paz, still high from our experience with the whale sharks.

The distance between Loreto and La Paz is about 150 miles as the crow flies, but we have followed the coastline. When we land on the beach, a GPS record of our journey indicates that we have paddled 182 miles.

Sunrise over Pelican Camp ©Diana Vann
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