Back to Isla Ángel de la Guarda

By Graham Mackintosh

Last November I kayaked around 42-mile-long Isla Ángel de la Guarda. Many days I launched in the dark, paddled for 8-hours, spent close to two hours setting up camp, then returned to the kayak for up to an hour to hand-pump desalinate half-a-gallon of water. Being constantly on the move, and often exhausted and ready to sleep, didn’t leave much time to hike up canyons and enjoy the wildlife and some of the wonderful views.

I returned to the island in January to do a little less kayaking and more inland exploring. As in November, a boat ride took me across the Canal de las Ballenas. Friends dropped me off in a protected, shallow bay, and I engaged a panga to take me back. My sit-on-top Cobra Fish n’ Dive, although incredibly stable and capacious, was not suitable for the dozen mile crossing to the nearest part of the island from town. A boat ride allowed me to bring more than enough food and water—and almost enough beer—for the trip.

I set up a two-tent base camp around the southern tip of the island, in the southeast corner, near Isla Estanque. The second tent was for the extra gear and provisions I’d brought. My intention was to enjoy one area of the island for a week or so, and then when the weather allowed to kayak north to explore some palm canyons I’d seen on my previous trip.

I was excited to be back, and delighted that there were no no-see-ums, and hardly even an ant or a fly. In November, without repellent, you’d be almost eaten alive on a still evening. Some days were sunny and warm, others were gray and cool and brought rain. Nights typically dropped to the 40s and 50s, which ruled out rattlesnakes and probably scorpions. I didn’t hear another human voice in two-and-a-half weeks, though occasionally I’d see pangas in the distance.

Exiting by kayak from my bay I enjoyed numerous sightings of sea lions, turtles and dolphins. Fishing was easy. Everything I caught I released. As long as I had a can of tuna all fish were safe. The sea glowed with phosphorescence every night, and if there was surf breaking, the waves looked like they were lit by searchlights. And, of course, the dark night sky was awesome with satellites and shooting stars. For two or three days, patches of the sea were orange with thick oily “red tides.”

Osprey nests abounded… many right on the ground. There were no coyotes on the island. It seemed more than half the ospreys I saw had fish. Gulls and ravens did their best to harry these heavy flying ospreys to drop their catch, but the ospreys were adept at getting fish back to their nests or landed on top of cardón cacti. Most ospreys were paired, as were the many oystercatchers. I could have spent all my time bird watching. Strangely, I didn’t see a single vulture; it was the same in November.

With a little patient stalking I managed to photograph three endemic spiny chuckwallas—Sauromalus hispidus. They are native only to Ángel de la Guarda. These big herbivorous lizards are preyed upon by the equally large endemic rattlesnake: Crotalus angelensis. Fortunately, January is a good time not to see them.

I also managed to photograph what is almost certainly the island endemic collared lizard. It was shedding and probably reluctant to move till it had to.

I came across feral cat tracks and unburied scat just about everywhere. And 2-3 kilometers west of my camp was the probable epicenter of their invasion of the island. A large scallop camp, called La Vibora, was set up on a north facing beach in the 1970s. It was huge, bigger than Bahía de los Ángeles at the time. About 1,500 people were living out there in 1973. There were streets, stores, a clinic.

Attracted by good money, divers came from all over the Sea of Cortez region to gather the scallops from the sea floor. Many were barely trained. Decompression injuries were rampant, and a tragic number of divers died or were permanently maimed. A two-place decompression chamber was brought to the island in August 1973 after six or seven divers died and their bodies were taken back and laid out on the porch at Papa Diaz’ resort in Bahía de los Ángeles. Eventually, the scallop beds were over-exploited and exhausted, the camp was abandoned… and presumably some of the cats were left behind. Several of the cement slabs bore readable dates from 1973.

There was an obvious hill opposite Isla Estanque which I climbed. From on top one looks down on the causeway or reef almost connecting Estanque to Guardian Angel Island. Seeing an extreme tide racing across that causeway is truly sobering. It looks like river rapids. I kayaked over one day when the tide was slack.

Also, from on top one gets a great view of a large enclosed lagoon heading west from the point. And at the eastern end, near Isla Estanque, an old rusty fallen sign reveals the special nature of that lagoon. In Spanish and English, the sign reads: “On the bottom of this lagoon there are stromatolites, ‘carpets’ of blue-green algae. They are very ancient and primitive forms of life, with fossil records up to 3,500 million years old. They are rare and found in very few places on earth. Please do not walk in the lagoon, it can destroy these rare organisms.”

After eight or nine days, I was ready to paddle 10 miles north and investigate those larger canyons near Punta Rocosa. I hid what I couldn’t carry including the spare tent and several gallons of water. While I was packing, I could see belts of rain where I was heading. I launched anyway as the wind was moderate and a friend had sent me a weather forecast suggesting the sky would clear.

It did, and I carried on till about halfway to my destination when sudden gusting winds forced me to land and make camp. In a loaded kayak I was rarely more than 50 yards from shore. The next day remained windy so I concealed and secured the camp, knocking down my tent and covering it with rocks, and explored a canyon a couple miles inland. It was colorful with butterflies and nightshade and mallow, and everywhere I looked was green with emergent lupines. Although highly unlikely I’d run into a rattlesnake, I exercised my usual caution, going slow and focused just a yard or two in front of me.

Sunshine and calm returning, I continued north in my kayak towards Punta Rocosa. A single blue palm on the beach at the mouth of a broad canyon promised a fascinating hike. And so it was, one of the best canyon hikes I’d taken in Baja. I encountered several blue palms, and after the rains we’d had, there were numerous tinajas and pools of water. It was a sample of what awaited the adventurous explorer on the island.

Eventually, before it got too late, I returned to my camp on the beach. Next morning, and another couple of hours taking pictures, I jumped on my kayak to head south with the tide. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day. A score of canyons to my right will bring me back. There were maybe 4-5 occupied osprey nests every mile. Apart from a few jellyfish, the sea was blue and inviting… at least until I ran into patches of red tide. But I was able to put those behind me, surprise a few “sailing” sea lions and land to spend the night at the old scallop camp.

After picking up a gallon of water I’d left there, I returned to my bay to find no new prints, nothing had been touched, and I was soon able to set up camp again.

From that point on, apart from a catamaran sheltered for the night in the lee of Isla Estanque, I didn’t see anyone or another boat. I could have been the last person on earth.

Using my SPOT two-way satellite communicator, I sent a text to my panguero friends in Bahía and arranged for them to pick me up early one morning and take me back to the peninsula.

To make it easier, I kayaked out of the shallow bay and moved my camp to a long, steep beach on the other side of the headland that formed its eastern side. I erected my tent with an old turtle nest at each corner.

The ride back was eventful. Halfway across the Canal de las Ballenas we found ourselves surrounded by 40 or 50 dolphins, many riding our bow wave and racing beside us. And as we approached town we were treated to one of the biggest fish boils I’d ever witnessed. Hundreds of noisy excited birds were attacking the great school of fish visible beneath our panga… even sea lions and dolphins were joining in.

It was a fitting end to another fascinating Baja adventure.


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One thought on “Back to Isla Ángel de la Guarda

  1. Alex says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article! Im a huge fan of Baja, mostly doing south baja and cave paintings at San Francisco de la Sierra. We love hiking (my wife and I) and this story of yours is awesome. So much adventure. We are planning on walking througj the canyons at the central valley maybe in April or May. Hopefully one day we can meet you and hear about your stories. We live in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Cheers!

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