Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja, Mexico
© 2018 Dale Smith
Twenty-one year-old Bahia de Los Angeles fisherman Marcito backs his 21 foot skiff down the ramp between two boats like a seamstress threading a needle. He brings the boat around and beaches it so my camping neighbor Noel, whose idea this fishing excursion is, can haul ourselves ungracefully over the gunnel and into the boat. The radio crackles. It is Marcito’s older brother, Angel, telling Marcito that there are yellowtail where he is fishing, near Guadalupe, a few miles north of our position in Bahia de Los Angeles. Of all the fish available in the Sea of Cortez, it is the yellowtail that fishermen seek most. The fishermen who have braved Baja’s narrow roads to get here, have driven down from points north to fish for yellowtail do so because of the thrill of the fish’s no-nonsense strikes and the fight they put up on the way to their arid graves. Fishermen like Marcito and Angel, real fishermen, who live in Bahia and fish the deep waters of the bay for a living, covet the yellowtail because their tasty deep vermillion flesh brings $40 a kilo back at the dock.
The sea this morning is without ripples with a slow undulating swell and the deep shadows make it seem almost black, like a sea of rolling crude oil. Fifteen minutes from the launch ramp I spot a blow where a whale has surface to expel a breath before taking another. I point this out to Marcito and Noel. “Do you want to move closer?” says Marcito. “Yes, but not too close,” I tell him. There seem to be four or five whales, a small pod, more of a podette. Their appearance at the surface is so brief it is difficult to determine what species of whales they are. “Fin backs?” I say to Marcito. “I think so,” he nods in agreement. They could also be blue whales, who are only slightly larger than the fin backs, the largest animal to ever live on the earth. I secretly hope they are blue whales as it would be a sad privilege to see one before they go extinct. The problem facing blue whales is not that there are so few of them, but rather that they can’t find other blue whales outside their immediate pod with which to mate. In a sense they are the living extinct. When they are gone, either from old age or manmade aquatic disasters, there will be no others to take their place.
We leave the whales and head north. Soon four or five small fishing boats come into view. Angel radios that they are sitting on top of a school of yellowtail and that someone in one of the other boats has already hauled one into the boat. Marcito cuts the gas to the big Yamaha outboard and we drift. Marcito quickly catches a cabrilla, which looks a lot like a cod you’d pull up from the waters off the coast of California or Oregon. He quickly mutilates it on his Ikea cutting board, tosses the head and guts to the gulls who have somehow gotten word that this would be happening, and baits Noel’s and my hooks with a super fresh filet. The flesh of one fish becomes the bait for another. Very cannibalistic.
Doesn’t take long before I pull up a cabrilla of my own. Then another, and another. Marcito lands a couple as well, but Noel just sits there with his line in the water, the ball of fish flesh impaled his hook unmolested. I soon catch what Marcito calls a whitefish and it joins the cabrilla in the iceless ice chest fish coffin that sits forward of the wheel. I am stuck by the differences between the two species of fish. The cabrilla appears prehistoric with old bulging eyes, spiny fins and multicolor spots, while the whitefish is sleek with the profile of an experimental race car, a pale gradient paint job, fading white to pink, as if created by the finest custom shop in L.A.
Every ten or fifteen minutes we pull our lines up and Marcito follows Angel’s lead to another spot a mile or so away. The radio crackles. “Yellowtail!” squawks the speaker. We head to the new fishing grounds to try our luck. Then a powerful strike causes Marcito’s rod to bend unnaturally. Then Noel’s rod starts leaping around as well. “Yellowtail!” shouts Marcito. “Yellowtail!” echoes Noel. “Ooooh, baby, sweet baby,” Marco croons, in the universal language of fisherman. “Ooooh, stay there, that’s my girl.” As quickly as the yellowtail engages the hook, it disengages the hook. “Oh, she’s gone. She was a big one, a big fish,” laments Marcito. “Mine’s gone, too,” says Noel. But unfortunately the phantom yellowtail were too deep to see. No silver flash before the fish dove to safety of the deep, trailing a thread of blood from its lip. So far two yellowtail have been reportedly hauled aboard neighboring boats, but I’ve not laid eyes on either. And then the two that provided Marcito and Noel with their few moments of orgasmic excitement, might it have been that their lines tangled and their brief battle with the yellowtail was only with themselves?
We reel in our lines and Marcito says, “We go see some sea lions now.” A few minutes later we pull into a cove on the east side of Isla Ventana where there are a dozen female sea lions sunning themselves in shallow turquoise lagoon. Many of them have one flipper pointed skyward. Why? Maybe to shade their eyes from the sun. We keep a respectful distance and they don’t seem annoyed at our presence. We motor around the island, past a triangular rock formation with a weather-worn hole in it. “La Ventana” says Marcito when I ask if it has a name. Around the point, in the channel between Isla Cabeza del Caballo and Isla Ventana we drop our lines once again. “Yellowtail?” I ask Marcito. His expression is vague and he replies with a shrug. “Possibly,” he says. We immediately start pulling up fish. The largest fish of the day, another cabrillo maybe 20 inches long, dangles from my line and Marco immediately sets upon it with his Leatherman tool, disengaging the hook and tossing it into the fish coffin. Noel gets pulls up a six inch cabrillo. Marcito laughs, “Ha-ha, a baby! Throw him back.”
It’s noon now and a westerly has kicked up, spilling foam over the tops of the waves. “Time to head back,” says Marcito. Which is fine with me, we’ve already gone past our agreed upon four hour limit. Marcito opens the throttle and we skim the top of the chop, each slap of the hull sends a sharp pain up my spine.
An hour later, we are back in Marcito’s yard behind Camp Archelon. He offers to filet our catch, but I am fine with giving my fish to Marcito to sell in town. But then I change my mind; if I’m going to kill these fish, I have an obligation to eat at least one of them. Marcito reaches into the fish coffin and pulls out a ling cod. His eyes are bulging out his skull and his stomach, like an inflated orange balloon, protrudes from his mouth. His gills are still gasping for air; he is still alive. Marcito slaps the ling cod on his plastic Ikea cutting board and starts carving it up with his 12 inch filet knife. “You want skin, or no?” he asks. “No... sin skin.” There is a ripping sound as the skin separates from the flesh. “Do fish feel pain?” I ask Marcito as he carves the fish. “Pain?” he says. “Dolor” I offer in Spanish. He shrugs his shoulders as if he has never considered this. As he works, I look at what remains of the ling cod, his head attached to his spine surrounded by bloody gruel. His black eyes are bright, still full of life. He is watching as his body is separated from itself. “You want two filets?” asks Marco. “No...one is bastante.” Marcito puts the filet into a baggie and hands it to me. My neighbor Susan, a painter-turned-jeweler from Oregon whose RV has been parked near mine for nearly two weeks, is stringing beads when I arrive back to camp. “How was the fishing trip?” she asks. “As advertised,” I tell her. “Hey, Susan... how about a filet?”
So now it is the following day. I am sitting sitting at my computer at the back of my RV, which is now configured as an office, writing this dispatch. I am staring out the front window, wondering how I will wrap up this story, which has taken a dark turn, when I see Susan hurry past. Then someone else runs through my field of vision and then there are raised voices and the sound of Cooper barking excitedly. I squeeze past my table and out the door and onto the beach. Everyone is looking out toward Isla Ventana. I walk up to Susan. “What’s up?” “There’s someone out there yelling for help.” I listen, but all I hear is the lapping of the waves on shore and the piercing screeching of gulls. “You heard someone?” “Yes,” says Susan. “See out there, see that red thing in the waves?”
Suddenly Marcito is sprinting through the dirt parking area from his home behind the camp. The German man in the adjoining palapa has brought his boat with him and it is quickly hooked up to his truck and Marcito backs it down to the edge of the water. The rear tires disappear into the waves. The boat floats off the trailer. Marcito and a couple of other men jump into the boat and with Marcito at the helm (there is no question who should be piloting the boat), the boat tears across the water toward the bobbing red lifejacket a mile offshore. The crowd on the beach watches. Everyone starts making up stories about what is happening. A man in his mid-seventies, a recent arrival who I do not yet know, stands alone with binoculars pressed to his eyes. There is talk that the person in distress may be his wife. She put her kayak in at the north shore of the bay and had planned to camp overnight on Isla Coronado before rendezvousing with her husband at Camp Archelon. No, no, someone says that’s not her. That’s her yellow kayak, now knifing toward the scene from Dagett’s, another camp north of Camp Archelon, but that’s not her paddling it. Someone else says that they heard on the radio that there were two kayakers missing since yesterday... could it be them? But there was only one person thrashing around out there. What happened to the other one? And where is their kayak? No one knows. We watch the aluminum boat reach the red PFD, and someone else says, they’ve hauled the distressed swimmer aboard. Then the boat takes off around the east side of the island, and the discussion returns to its speculative nature.
Twenty minutes later the rescue boat comes into view. As it draws closer, we can see a man wrapped in a towel, his arm draped over the shoulders of woman sitting sitting beside him. She is wearing a light blue life jacket over her clothes. The beach crowd rushes the boat as the bow creases the beach. The two rescued people are helped to shore. The man, the person who had been doing the thrashing in the water, seems dazed and cold, but ambulatory. The young woman, tall with small Siamese cat eyes and blondish hair, is helped out of the boat, none the worse for the wear. Everyone wants to know what happened.
“We are staying at a motel in town,” says the woman.
“Which one?” someone asks.
“The one with the sign out in front that says ‘Free Kayaks,’” she says. Then she says, “Does anyone here smoke?”
I tell her I have some cigarettes in my van and she follows me like a starving dog.
“What’s your name?” I ask, lighting her cigarette, watching he drawing the smoke deep into her lungs.
“Fina?” I ask. “Like ‘finish?”
She nods. “I guess.”
“Where are you from?” I ask, unable to determine to origin of her accent.
By now others have joined us.
“What happened?” someone asks.
“The motel we were staying at... they did not even take our names.”
“Are you experienced kayakers?” someone else wants to know.
Fina gives up a little laugh. “First time.”
“Tell us what happened.”
“We took a kayak out in the morning. The sea was calm. We paddled out to the island. About 1:00 the wind came up and the sea got very rough, so we decided to head back. The farther we got from the island, the rougher the water became. So we paddled back to the island, and stayed the night.” Fina lit another cigarette. “We built a fire with driftwood and wet seaweed, making as much smoke as we could. We waved to fishermen who passed by and they waved back, but no one stopped.”
“Probably thought you were campers,” someone said.
“Whatever,” said Fina, adjusting the curved bone she wore through her nose. “So we spent the night on the island. Fortunately we had water and a little food. The next morning the wind was still blowing but we decided we would try to paddle back. We got a few hundred yards and the water started coming in the kayak and the kayak started getting lower and lower in the water and then we were suddenly in the water. I was freaking out. I was sure we were going to drown. Reynaldo helped me swim back to shore.”
“What happened to the kayak?”
“The sea took it away,” said Fina. “We didn’t know what to do, no one knew where we were... the motel didn’t even take our names.” Fina bent to scratch her heavily tattooed leg just below her knee. It was then that I noticed she wore huge rings through her ears large enough in diameter to pass a good sized marble through. “So we decided our only chance was for Reynaldo to swim back to shore.”
“That’s a mile and a half through rough water with swift current,” said someone, a little incredulously.
“Yes,” said Fina, “but we didn’t know that. We thought we would die on the island.”
At this point Fina is joined by a still shivering Reynaldo. He looks a little blue, but that’s because he, like Fina, is tattooed head to toe. His ears are distorted even more severely than Fina’s... a pingpong ball could fit through the holes in his lobes. There are some words in script tattooed across his chest, but they are unreadable. Probably his favorite Bible scripture, I’m thinking.
Someone offers to drive Fina and Reynaldo back to the hotel. I am standing next to Marcito as we watch them drive down the dirt road in a cloud of dust.
I turn to Marcito and say, “Yellowtail?”
He smiles and nods his head. “Si.”