Sunday, January 29, 2012

Island Time
By Michael

Gliding towards Del Viento at anchor. We bought this
kayak used from Maluhia in Puerto Vallarta. Our time
out at the islands confirmed that it was a good purchase;
we're looking now for a second one.
Windy's mom flew down to La Paz and spent a couple weeks with us. We spent most of her visit 20 miles away from La Paz, at the uninhabited playground that is Isla Espiritu Santo. We didn't even scratch the surface in terms of all there is to explore.

The girls especially enjoyed their time with Grandma. In fact, I think her visit will be more memorable for them than all of the natural beauty we were immersed in.

The weather was perfect the first few days, but then turned windy. Fortunately, we were in a protected anchorage until the last night, where Grandma Julie took her turn at anchor watch, bracing herself against the howling, chilly winds while we pitched like mad into breaking swells. It was a sleepless night, but afterward we returned to La Paz and finished up her visit in slip 207 at Marina Palmira, where we all slept soundly.


Grandma Julie and the girls eating breakfast in the cockpit at anchor
in La Paz. Specifically, they're eating toasted bagels and fresh
pineapple. We splurged and bought a toaster in La Paz. When I
say splurge, I'm not talking about the cost of the toaster, I'm
talking about the number of amps is sucks from the batteries
when we use it--that is hard to swallow, but toast is nice.
I took about 100 examples of this picture. I naively
figured I could sell it to a sailing magazine
as their cover shot. I had pretty much
already spent the large check I was
sure to receive, when I reviewed the
guidelines on the Cruising World website,
"Avoid shadows, large, dark areas "
Eleanor with about the 239,412th hermit crab she's found since we arrived in Mexico.
Grandma Julie's visit was like Christmas all over again. She brought gifts from
herself, other relatives, and some D.C. friends. She also brought our mail,
some Trader Joe's goodies, and stuff we needed from West Marine.
Grandma Julie and Frances headed to shore.
Having lived aboard in her 20s, Grandma Julie felt comfortable on Del Viento
and understands our lifestyle.

Windy, Frances, Eleanor, and Grandma Julie watch another amazing sunset.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Land Before Time
By Michael

Eleanor with her lizard friend. This little guy approached
the girls when we landed and he looked a little peaked.
Eleanor fed him water, dried cranberries, and banana
and he perked up and got greener. We had to shoo
him away when it was time to leave. 
At the start of the year, we sailed to this place teeming with birds, mostly blue-footed boobies and frigates. This place is a rugged, nearly deserted island about 25 miles off the Pacific coast of mainland Mexico. This place is a protected national park where Mexican biologists and their grad students camp for months at a time to study the birds. This place is host to migrant Mexican fishing families who arrive by panga to live part-time in the beach-front encampment owned by their co-op. This place is known by cruisers to have a poor, rock-strewn anchorage with little protection from wind in any direction, and where boats are wrecked, but a place that must be visited regardless. This place is Isla Isabel.

Our friends aboard Wondertime used the apt description of Isla Isabel as “the Mexican Galapagos.” Iguanas approached us out of seeming curiosity. Booby couples whistled and honked at us from their nests at our feet, warning us not to step too close to their eggs on the ground. Frigate birds peered down at us from branches a couple feet above our heads, males inflating their brilliant red throat sacks in their bids to court females, undeterred by our wandering and starring.
Isla Isabel is what remains of a volcano. The island’s geography seems young, her features sharp and prehistoric, not smoothed out and tamed by the dulling forces of wind and sea. Rugged, magnificent spires mark the primary anchorage off the eastern shore and underwater pinnacles make the southern anchorage unsafe for more than one vessel at a time.
This guy was all alone, probably because his
feet weren't blue enough. Note the tag on his
leg. This was put there by the biologists who
camp on the island and study the birds.
As the biologists on the island maintain bird blinds on the eastern shore, dinghy landings are encouraged only on the southern beach where the fishing encampment is located. And from this beach are two trailheads, each promising a unique view of this natural wonderland. From behind the encampment, we hiked upward to the low rim of the volcano before descending into a caldera densely covered in low-canopied trees. Here the Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) nests on top of the low canopy, just 8-10 feet off the ground, and generally in clusters of nests that crowd the small trees (the colony here is the largest in Mexico, 35,000 to 53,000 birds). During our visit, fluffy, white-feathered chicks poked over the edge of their nests, watching us pass, in stark contrast to their coal-colored parents.
Anytime we were out from under the dense canopy, we watched a sky filled with soaring frigates. It is a sight to see, hundreds of birds moving through the air in different directions, hardly a bird flapping its wings, all riding invisible currents on their majestic, 7-foot wingspans.
Up over the other rim and across a field of tall grasses is the shore and thousands of blue-footed boobies, the frigate’s inelegant, pudgy polar opposite. Curiously, these birds nest on land--and not under the protection of some scrub brush or on the side of a rocky cliff, just on land. Ironically, they don't move especially well over land, just standing or walk in an ungainly fashion, sort of resembling a diver walking with fins on. But they are swift, strong fliers and good fishermen. The boobies pair up monogamously, male and female, to build, maintain, and defend their nests.
Three of the yong scientists we met who were
a few weeks into a three month stay, studying
the booby population.

The boobies' eyes are non-blinking and expressionless, their feet range from a brilliant pastel blue to a pale green. In the case of the male, their feet color changes with their diet, over short periods of time. The females observe this and pick their mates accordingly. Additionally, mothers check out the foot color of their chicks to determine to which she administers food.

A steeper hike from the beach leads through an area where hundreds of iguanas, in all sizes, wander under foot. From there it is up the rugged slope of the southern rock bluff where a stunning view of the bay and much of the island awaits.
Here is the view from that part of the island, filmed by the crew of Wondertime:


We happened upon this Magnificent Frigatebird in a dire state. He had dropped
down beneath the dense canopy. With his seven foot wingspan, it was impossible
for him to get back up, though the dense foliage. We watched him struggle for a
bit before Windy and Eleanor tag teamed to shoo him through a
gap in the canopy. They were successful, but he seemed pretty tired
or wounded from his ordeal and we left him wondering if he would make it.
I later read that falling beneath the canopy was a death sentence for these
guys and one of the leading causes of mortality. 

This is a couple making their nest on the ground.
Eleanor on the craggy coast of Isla Isabel.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Chacala Secret...
By Michael

The beach was packed to the gills with Mexicans on holiday. The same beach will likely be
much less crowded when you arrive. This picture was taken during the Christmas break.
We hear that the only time of year Chacala is more crowded is during Easter/Santa Semana.
Chacala is a gem, a tiny, picturesque cove on the west coast of mainland Mexico, between Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. This anchorage is described in every guidebook I’ve seen for this coast, yet none mention its best feature: the hike to the rim of the extinct volcano.

Chacala changed since I was last here in 1997. Where there was once only a spattering of modest homes and tiny businesses, and just a few palapa restaurants on the beach, now there is more of everything and several spectacular hillside mansions. But Chacala on steroids retains its natural beauty. And even though the volcano trail we hiked back then is long gone, erased by the changes, no worries, we found a way. To any cruisers planning to make landfall in Chacala, following is what we did:
Once you’ve landed ashore and checked in with the port captain, walk down the beach in a southerly direction until the palapa restaurants end. Now get on the inland side of the chain link fence and continue in the direction you were going, but on the dirt frontage road. Soon you will come to a sign and a gate marking the entrance to the Mar de Jade Holistic Living Center (where wealthy people come to do yoga and starve themselves). Continue in, you have our permission.

Now eyes left. See the grassy parking lot where each space is defined by a palm tree? Good, walk left into this lot and continue on to the end. There you will see the start of a trail. Take it. If within 50 feet or so you cross a brook on a concrete bridge, you are in the right place. Keep going.
Just as you start to really enjoy this delightful jungle trail, say after an 1/8th of a mile or so, it will end where bulldozers created the road leading to those spectacular hillside mansions. If you can somehow pick up the trail on the other side of the road, more power to you, we could not. Instead, we followed the road up (to the right, or towards the beach). After about a half-mile or so, you’ll see the first gated entrance to a hillside home; keep going up.

Finally, the road will dead end at what must be the mother of all spectacular hillside mansions, judging by the entrance (I would be happy to retire in the gatehouse). The place is called Orofino, the gatehouse is up the drive. Walk up the drive, you have our permission.
Now, on your left, about 30 feet before the gatehouse, there is a depression in the low wall bordering the drive. Beyond that depression, there appears to be a trail going up the hillside, or at least a break in the foliage where construction debris is scattered. On our way up, we hopped this 12-inch wall and scrambled up the hill. We saw a lean-to and more construction materials off to the left. After about 150 feet, we came across another, very narrow fire road. (Now, it turns out--as we learned on our way down--that this narrow road actually intersects the Orofino driveway beyond the gatehouse. A much more civilized approach to the volcano would be to pass the gatehouse and turn left at the first intersection, about 100 feet beyond.)

This is a road that runs along the rim of the volcano. If you go left, you will ascend to the highest part of the rim. At that point, orchards of some kind of tree (I imagined them to be olive trees, but they’re not) will surround you. Off to your right, you will see grasslands down below, in the perfectly round crater, about a 1/4-mile in circumference.
All of the way up (and down), you will catch stunning views of the bay and of your boat at anchor. Once beyond the lush jungle, to where the orchards are, the neat rows of those olive-looking  trees juxtaposed against the deep blue water and mountains beyond, will make you think you’ve landed in the Med (not that I’ve ever been there).

Of course, we left the camera aboard for this hike. Doh!

In Banderas Bay, we enjoyed swimming in the water. Now in the
Sea of Cortez, cooler waters may preclude pictures like this until spring.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

La Cruz Retrospective
By Michael

This is the main artery of La Cruz,
calle Langosta. Note the wood
cross in the center of the roundabout.
This cross is made of huanacaxtle,
a type of hardwood. In the
distance, you can see some masts
against the blue water of the bay;
this is the marina.
We left La Cruz de Huanacaxtle on December 27, nearly four months after we moved aboard there, not an insignificant period of time. It is the kind of time that allowed us to become quasi members of the community, recognized and greeted by the people who live there. We bought sundries, we had our laundry done, we sought medical care—all the domestic stuff not associated with tourism or transience.

La Cruz is small, walkable. This accessibility is enhanced by the Mexican culture (and climate) whereby much of life is lived outside, literally on the streets. In the afternoon and evening, doors to homes are wide open and occupants sit outside, in chairs shooting the breeze, watching the world go by. And we become part of that world that goes by, on our way to the market, the bus stop, the paleteria, the lavanderia, or a taco stand (set up in the street). Over a short period of time, greetings became more familiar and we came to learn that the lady who made our tacos is married to the diver we saw on our docks every day preparing to clean boat bottoms. We came to know the names of the dogs we passed. We enjoyed long conversations about Mexican politics and local development with Claudia, owner of a local eatery. We long ago stopped telling the women at the lavanderia our boat name. La Cruz was our first home as a live aboard cruising family and it is well suited to that role.

The modern marina on the banks of La Cruz was both a stark contrast to the town, and a tightly integrated member of the community. And the marina is filled with pleasant, helpful employees and cruisers who arrived long before us and who helped us to transition. The crews of Ballona, Cactus Tree, Happy Nest, Katrina Liani, Kenta Anae, Maluhia, Sababa, Sourdough, and Ulalena were our first neighbors in this new life, and became our first friends. And finally, there was Tami on Andiamo III. She was the resident den mother who somehow found the time and energy in the summer heat to organize a La Cruz Kid’s Club event every other weekday. Her sense of humor and enthusiasm was welcome and always appreciated. She and her family are headed to El Salvador for a season and eventually to the East Coast; we wish them fair winds.
This is the billboard outside the marina advertising its snazzy rooftop restaurant. The
Spanish is nice, it roughly translates to, "Where the seasoning enhances the view!" How
could so much money be spent on a sign without employing a better translator? You see
this all over Mexico, and it makes no sense, given all the English speakers.
While in La Cruz, I had the opportunity to play a minor role helping the crew
of  Nylon Nyon re-step their mast after they lost the top five feet during a sail
in the bay and their subsequent repair. Nyon was one of the many boats that
arrived very late in our stay and added to our La Cruz experience.
In our final weeks in La Cruz, the number of cruising kids grew and grew. This is a gaggle
of giggling girls on the foredeck of Convivia. Frances is among them, in the turquoise shirt.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Whale Follow-up
By Michael

Mexico is just different. Every supermarket I've been to
sells this stuff: Jarabe de Maiz pasteurado para Bebe.
This translates to: pasteurized corn syrup for babies.
On the back are instructions for adding it to the
bottle, adding it to porridge, using it to make fruit
appetizing, or dabbing it on the pacifier.
In my first post about the whale incident, I wrote:

[immediately following our failed attempt to free the whale] We made a call to the fleet. One of the three boats in the anchorage answered, as well as a vessel in distant San Blas who heard our call and who had recently helped cut the net away from a mother whale and its calf. Wendaway didn’t have any additional advice, but did strongly advise against going in the water next time. It sounded like their whale was tangled such that the lines could all be cut from the dinghy, and they had two adults in the dinghy, a real advantage. I felt better about the difficult decision we made.
Turns out that Mark aboard Wendaway was underway with two crew when they spotted a mother and calf, tangled together, the day before we spotted our tangled whale. Mark was apprehensive about putting his boat and crew at risk to try and save the whales, but his crew, Frank and Mary, were determined to try and do something. They came up with a plan and some rules of engagement and went forward. There are three interesting posts about this encounter on Wendaway’s blog:

·         A detailed account of the rescue, written by Frank, who cut the whales free from a dinghy over a two-hour period.

·         A clear account of the incident from Mark’s perspective (owner and captain of Wendaway).

·         A postscript by Mark that includes information about his own subsequent investigation into drift netting, Mexican law, and crew safety.
And below is a fascinating video that Wendaway put together about their encounter. After seeing how matter-of-factly the fishermen behave in this video, my conclusion is that these entanglements are not uncommon.

On the back of a whale: a rescue from Mark Schneider on Vimeo.

And finally, the following video by experts who discuss whale rescue responses. In short, Del Viento and The Rose broke all the rules in our save, but all’s well that ends well.


Frances watches her big sister sew, in the cockpit, at sunrise--the last sunrise of our
three-day passage across the Sea, from Isla Isabel to Ensenada de los Muertos.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Whale Saved, Part II
By Michael

In this picture of a whale swimming around us, you can see the flaps
open at the top of the body, aft of the head. These are the nostrils for the blow
hole, as this guy had just blown. They closed immediately after I snapped
this picture and the orifice nearly disappears.

The night of our failed whale rescue, the crew aboard The Rose felt anxious about the whale out there drifting through the night, entangled. They were distressed when they heard us tell our story from that day, and they weren’t willing to give up hope, even after their failed search at dusk. Before retiring for the night, John and Pat and their two friends decided they would raise anchor on their Peterson 46 and head out for another search in the morning.
That night aboard Del Viento, Windy and I were also consumed with the unsettled events of the day. Lying in our berth that night, Windy studied the iPad and our track on the Navionics app, wishing there could have been a better outcome. Then she sat up with a realization, “That whale isn’t drifting south with the wind and swells, he’s drifting north, against them.” Indeed, the squiggly yellow line on the screen showed us approaching the whale from the south, moving all about it and around it in circles, and then leaving the whale from a point north. Without any sense of the currents, this was exactly the opposite of what we all assumed, earlier in the evening studying the iPad track aboard The Rose. It was counterintuitive because it seemed that anything without a motor would have been pushed south. It makes sense that she saw what we all didn’t see, given her 10-year stint making maps for National Geographic. Unfortunately, our dusk search had been in the wrong area.

Eating breakfast aboard Del Viento the next morning, we heard The Rose hauling their anchor. We went up on deck. Across the water they told us they were headed back out to search for the whale. We shouted to them that they should search in a northerly direction from the coordinates we gave them the day before. “The whale isn’t drifting south!”
“Really?!” It didn’t make sense to them either, but Windy told them about our new perspective based on the iPad track. Full of new hope, we told them we were right behind them and began raising our anchor to join in the search.

This pod of whales swam around us for twenty minutes off Isla Isabel while
we stood off a half mile from the whale in distress, having finally freed our anchor.

But our anchor was fouled. We spent 30 minutes pulling at it with the boat from four different directions, no luck. We were stuck. On the radio, we heard the excited call from The Rose, “We found the whale and it’s still alive! John’s going in the water and we could use assistance.” At this time, Mark from Three Hour Tour came by in his kayak to ask if he could help us in any way to retrieve our anchor. Three Hour Tour arrived in the anchorage after all of the drama from the day before and wasn’t monitoring our working channel; he had no idea about the situation nor our anxiety to get out there and help The Rose. We filled him in quickly and Windy urged, “Please don’t help us, help them!”

A ray up close. Yesterday we
saw rays doing acrobatics
for the first time, full loops.
Within minutes, Mark and his wife and their two college-age children stopped their day, raised their anchor, and were headed out to sea. Close behind him was the other boat in our anchorage, Boomer.
Aboard Del Viento, I pulled off my shirt and put on a mask to solve our own problem. Twenty-five feet down, I found our chain wrapped around a short rock pinnacle and beyond that our 66-pound Bruce anchor tucked neatly under a rock shelf. I unwound the chain and then stood on the bottom and dragged the Bruce out onto a clear sandy patch. I shot to the surface and asked Windy to raise it quickly, before it fouled again. She was distracted by all of the traffic on the radio.

Pat aboard The Rose was worried about John. He is roughly ten years my senior and had been in the water with the whale for a while. He was tired and cold. She was requesting that other boats contact the Mexican navy for assistance, or whether other cruisers were in the area and were willing to dive into the water with the whale.

Windy looked at me, “I totally understand if you don’t want to, but do you want to?” I felt trapped between really wanting to and really feeling it wasn’t a good idea. I thought hard and even reasoned that with more boats and support (John’s friend was near him in their dinghy, with mask and fins on, ready to jump in if he needed help), things wouldn’t seem as dangerous as they did to me the day before. John was in the water without a life vest too, which made the task much more doable. I went back and forth in my mind, “Let’s motor out there.”
As we started out, radio traffic from The Rose urged the two boats out there then to stand off and asked that other boats avoid the area to avoid spooking the whale. Then we heard that Mark’s 20-something son from Three Hour Tour was going into the water to assist. We hung back about a half-mile away, eager for information as the story unfolded and ready to assist.

Underwater with the whale, John heard the same squeaking I heard and felt the same fear that I felt. But after a while, and after getting spooked a few times by erratic movements by the whale, John finally got angry. He said he felt like one of those doctors on TV who begin screaming at their ER patients, “You will not die on me man, not on my watch!” Something clicked and he became resigned to whatever might happen, pushed his trepidation aside, and went for it. John began swimming deep, underneath the belly of the whale, at least 15 feet below the surface. He could then see there was no heavy weight holding the fluke down as I reported. He saw that the whale was hogtied, lead-weighted polypropylene and monofilament stretched tight between its tail and snout, ensnarling one pectoral fin. This made it difficult for the whale to breath, having to raise its head against the restraining netting to catch a breath.

John cut from the snout, dove and cut line repeatedly from the belly and under the pectoral fin until…the whale literally sprung out of its restraints and the remaining netting and lines fell away.

And then we heard the call over the radio, “He’s free! They did it! The whale is swimming away, free from the netting!” Jubilation from the four boats boomed over channel 77. Windy said she felt a tremendous emotional load lifted.

It occured to me later that all 15 crew aboard Boomer, Del Viento, The Rose, and Three Hour Tour can rest easy knowing that, for the rest of our lives, no matter where we are, we never have to spend a dime on one of those whale watching tour boat trips.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Later that day we all heard another call over channel 16: another tangled whale was spotted and a cruising boat was standing by, but looking for assistance. I jumped aboard The Rose with my mask and fins and we headed out for the two-hour trip to that location. But en route we learned that the whale was dead—and had been as the cruiser that spotted the whale reported that they never saw it blow. From the smell they described, we reasoned that it was the same dead whale spotted a day earlier on the same drift path. We turned back.

So, over a three day period, four whales were found by cruisers trapped in nets. Three were saved and one was not. How many were not found? How many are never found? Looking across the huge expanse of ocean, that we nearly ran down the whale we came across, is incredibly unlikely. Even if we’d seen him blow from a distance while under sail, we would not have gone to investigate, it would have been just another whale sighting and we would have continued on, unawares.
There is no way to feed seven billion people by rod and reel, but nets are indiscriminate and this situation wasn’t right. Can nets be monitored? Can they be designed to prevent these kinds of unintended consequences? Should there be a moratorium on nets deployed during the time of year whales transit an area?  

The second day of the whale save was a coordinated effort. Boomer (on the left) and
Three Hour Tour both shared in the triumph. Inexplicably, I don't have any pics
of The Rose, a Peterson 46, nor her crew. In this picture, everyone is returning
from the whale rescue but stopped short to observe a pod of four whales cavorting
around us. The whales did barrel rolls and seemed to slide over the tops of one
another in play. There was a calf too. Notice everyone standing on their decks
to observe, though the whales didn't come out in this shot.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Heartbreaking Decision, Part I
By Michael

Here I am trying to calm myself down, to breath slowly.
The whale could present only a small portion of its body
above water because of the netting. Seeing the entire
whale underwater was overwhelming and made me
feel tiny and vulnerable.
Three-and-a-half hours into the new year, Windy woke up, started the engine, raised the anchor, and drove us out of the anchorage off Chacala while we all slept. By late afternoon, Del Viento was about 50 miles north, under sail, just abeam Isla Isabela. We tacked and headed for the anchorage, about four miles distant. The autopilot was on and we were all up near the bow. I saw it first.

“Wow! Whale! Strait ahead! Wait, we’re gonna hit it!”
The dark body of a whale was about 25 yards in front of us. I sprinted back to the cockpit to disengage the autopilot and steer us around it. It looked like the top of a submerged Boeing fuselage. Windy came back to say it might be dead. Then it blew. Then she saw it was trapped in a net.

We doused the sails, started the motor, and turned around to assess. We were looking at the top of a humpback whale. Only a relatively small part of the whale was above the surface, a portion from aft of the head to just before the hump. The whale raised the top of its head to blow and then submerged it again, otherwise it didn’t move. A string of net buoys trailed about 40 feet behind.
I lowered the dinghy into the water, Windy handed me a knife, and off I went to see what I could do to help this animal. As I neared, the whale seemed to get bigger and Del Viento seemed to shrink and get further away. I shut off the dinghy motor as I approached the net buoys behind the whale. The only sound was of seas breaking over the whale’s back.

I began pulling net aboard the dinghy, filling it with leaded polypropylene line, buoys, monofilament, and dead fish. But pulling the net also pulled me closer to the whale and its massive fluke that I could nearly make out, deep below the surface. When a portion of the net became too heavy to pull up, I plunged my arm down and cut the ½-inch polypropylene. I did this until all of this net visible from the surface was piled high in the dinghy. The whale didn’t move, but continued blowing. I was having a hard time keeping from getting tangled in the netting I was now sitting on.
I drove away from the whale and summoned Windy on Del Viento. We agreed I should try to do more from the water. She handed me my fins and a mask, I side-tied the dinghy to Del Viento, and she motored upwind of the whale. About 25 yards away, I rolled off the dinghy and began swimming towards the whale.

This was a new experience. In the water with the whale, I felt small and vulnerable. The smooth top of its body was now above my head. Treading water about ten feet away from a wounded wild animal, I felt scared and stupid. I inched closer.
Here I am sitting on the net I hauled and filled our 11-foot dinghy with, telling
Windy that I can't get any more and need to go in the water. What is cool about
this picture is that you can see the whale's brilliant white pectoral fin about 6
feet underwater.
Curiously, when the whale blew, it sounded like the threatening noise of a big cat. Not the roar of a lion, but the noise Hollywood dubs in when a tiger is cornered. It wasn’t a reassuring noise and startled me every time. When my head was underwater, I heard a cacophony of high-pitched squeaks.

Putting my mask in the water was surreal, seeing all that was down there, the size of a city bus, next to me. I let the swells move me closer until I bumped up against it, just abeam its hump. They body felt firm and the skin slippery. I quickly began stroking it like Windy advised me, hoping that would help the whale to distinguish friend from foe. Then I grabbed a polypropylene line about 18 inches down and cut it. My pulse raced and I felt jittery from adrenaline.
I pushed myself away and could see many more lines, lower and towards the fluke. The fluke itself was maybe ten feet underwater and covered with barnacles along the leading edge. It looked massive, and I was concerned about being near it, but it never moved the entire time I was with the whale; I reasoned it was weighed down by netting, catch in the net, weighted line designed to submerge the net, or all three.

With my life vest on, I couldn’t dive far below the surface. Even with fins on, I struggled to control myself in the surge of the two- to three-foot swells. At once, my fin snagged in the monofilament and pulled at my leg with the surge. I thrust my leg away in a panic. I put the knife back in my pocket and removed my vest, looping it through just one arm and letting it drag behind me. I could now get a bit deeper, but not down to the fluke, about 12 feet below the surface. I swam this way to the front of the whale. Line and netting were wrapped around its snout and on the pectoral fin on this side. This fin was white and about the size of a surfboard, an old longboard, and also covered in barnacles. I recalled the power exerted by the whales we saw a few days prior, slapping these giant fins repeatedly against the water. I opened my knife, dove underwater, and reached for some netting at the tip of the fin and started cutting quickly.
I cut a piece of the polypropylene and some monofilament when the whale abruptly moved the fin out of my reach. This startled me. I backed away and swam towards the head for the first time. Before I realized it, I was staring at a blue-gray, human-like eye the size of an orange. This was unsettling and I looked away and continued forward.

At this point, I've taken my life vest off and hooked it loosely around one arm.
I knew going in that this was a baleen whale, meaning no teeth, but a large filter apparatus for trapping plankton. So I knew I wasn’t going to get chomped up here where the mouth was, but thoughts of getting sucked against the baleen ran through my head, along with a bunch of other irrational fear-inducing thoughts, like that whatever distress signals this guy was sending are probably drawing sharks for miles, due to arrive any minute. Or, that maybe another whale would come to assist, see me as the threat, and ram me or Del Viento.
And then the rational fears occurred to me, compounding my anxiety. What if I am underwater (or above), he moves, I get tangled in this mess all around, and drown? What if I dive down and successfully cut something heavy and get tangled and pulled down with it? Meanwhile, seas were making the operation difficult despite the risks. I made a few more successful attempts to cut away parts of the net from the badly tangled whale, and then swam away and waved Windy over.

Over the water I told her about my safety concerns. I told her I was going to give it one more good try to cut the netting around the snout, and that she should stay close. I swam back to the whale.
Up near the head, this time on the leeward side, I again met the animals gaze about a foot underwater. I could see that this pectoral fin was not as tangled, but did have a single polypropylene line passing underneath it, pulling taught from the snout. It was about four feet underwater. I dove down to cut it, but the line was pressed against the body and the fin moved and spooked me. I was at an odd angle in the water, struggling with the life vest wrapped around my good arm. I would have been more effective with it off completely, but I didn’t think that was the right thing to do. I swam forward. I again dived to cut a single line that I thought might make a difference, if I could reach it. But then this massive head bowed down even lower and underneath me. I was over the top of it and could feel my body pushed around by the current created by the whale’s movement.

I’d had enough. I wasn’t physically spent, and I even figured I could keep my fear in check long enough to make some real improvement to the situation, but I felt it wasn’t wise. I wanted to help this suffering mammal, with eyes, but I couldn’t accept the risks I perceived.
I motioned Windy closer and swam back and boarded Del Viento. It was difficult to motor away, but we felt there was nothing more we could do. We could see it continue to blow as we got further away. We both were uneasy and troubled.

As I pulled on the net early on, I was pulling myself closer to the fluke, submerged
deep below. In this picture, I am probably 15 feet from the exposed back, pulling, cutting,
and keeping an eye on my position. The seas seemed much steeper and rougher than they
appear here. I was really rocking and rolling and getting tossed about.
After setting the hook off Isla Isabela, we brainstormed ideas. Windy proposed we motor out again, find the whale, and spend the night shadowing it. If it wasn’t dead by morning, maybe it would be tired enough to no longer pose a threat. I countered that the threat of being perceived as a threat by the whale was only part of the danger, and how could we assess whether it was more docile? We decided that with a smallish anchor and line, we could motor up to the whale’s tail, toss the anchor beyond it, and perhaps snag the bulk of the net that must be holding the fluke down, haul that up with the windlass, and cut when we could no longer pull it closer. We both liked the idea, but don’t have an anchor aboard less than 40 pounds.
We made a call to the fleet. One of the three boats in the anchorage answered, as well as a vessel in distant San Blas who heard our call and who had recently helped cut the net away from a mother whale and its calf. Wendaway didn’t have any additional advice, but did strongly advise against going in the water next time. It sounded like their whale was tangled such that the lines could all be cut from the dinghy, and they had two adults in the dinghy, a real advantage. I felt better about the difficult decision we made.

But the other boat that answered was in the anchorage with us and had been with Wendaway and was eager to assist. Before we knew it, The Rose took our coordinates and pulled anchor to go see if they could find the whale and assist. Windy motored me over to them, I jumped aboard their Peterson 46 and went along. It was about 20 minutes to sunset. Fortunately, I had the iPad with us and it showed our GPS track with the whale encounter. The wind and swells were moving south and we traced a line through the circles Del Viento’s path made while I was in the water. We estimated the approximate drift of the whale during the 90 minutes that had passed since our encounter and made our search along a southerly trajectory—to no avail. We had a lot of false alarms, spotting other, non-tangled whales and dolphins, but decided that our tangled whale was either too hard to find, or sunk.
In retrospect, Windy and I should have stayed with the whale when we could think of nothing else to do, radioing for assistance from where we were. We also should have spent more time brainstorming before leaving this whale. We felt sick about the whole thing and now so did the crew of The Rose.

But tomorrow would be a new day…stay tuned for an uplifting Part Two...

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Frances suited up in her bid to be a whale rescuer too.
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