Monday, September 15, 2014

Our Underwater World
By Michael

The first day we used the camera case,
we jumped in the water at Los Islotes,
small islands that comprise a sea lion rookery
near La Paz. This bull swam right up to me,
but he didn't bark or anything, I think he was
simply curious.
We used to have an underwater point and shoot camera, an Olympus Stylus that flooded in a Costa Rican water park a few years before we went cruising. It never took good pictures before the flooding. It left me underwater camera leery.

But now that we’re in the Sea, snorkeling all the time, it killed me that I wasn’t documenting any of it. So when Windy was in D.C. a few weeks back, I got on eBay and found a used $100 Ikelite underwater housing that fits her $100 Canon point and shoot. I didn’t spend too much and I wondered what I would get, picture wise. They say disappointment is a product of expectations. I don’t think I’d be disappointed even if I’d expected much more than I did. I leave you with some of our recent photos.
And if you want to see really nice photos of underwater life, check out those taken by Andy, a cruiser and professional underwater photographer aboard s/v Savannah. They're in Borneo now.


Windy at Los Islotes.
Frances beneath me at Islotes.

Snorkeling around Roca Solataria, near Agua Verde, this
moray eel emerged just as I was passing over. We surprised
each other and my heart raced as I snapped pics and tried to
slowly back away from him, all the while hoping he
wouldn't strike me.

Frances, Windy, and Eleanor--my snorkeling companions.

We got buzzed a lot at Los Islotes, especially from younger sea lions.

This harem was just hanging out, I steered around them.

Isn't this fanciful? All those tiny air bubbles sparkled in the sunlight.

Haven't identified this guy yet.

Embarrassed to say I haven't identified many of them yet.
She is about a foot long.

I coaxed this urchin into remaining still long enough
for me to snap this picture.

Eleanor with a big sea star.

Sargent majors are probably the second-most common
fish we see in the Sea. They range in size from less
than an inch to about eight inches and always
swim in groups.

Hard to photograph, but the outline on these big fish
is an iridescent blue.

I snuck up on this orange urchin.

I call this the ghost fish.

We see all kinds and sizes of brilliant sea stars.

Each of these angel fish is over a foot long.

I like urchins.

Eleanor holding a long-expired urchin. These delicate
remnants are all over the beaches.

Eleanor diving down to look at something.

This is an un-puffed puffer fish, by far the fish we see the
most of here in the Sea. The girls love them.

Eleanor took this picture of this crazy beautiful thing.

The girls snorkeling ahead of me in Pyramid Cove
on Isla Danzante.

Eleanor's self-portrait.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Big Fish
By Michael

Our dinghy on an Isla Espiritu Santos
beach at sunset.
A couple months ago, motoring into La Paz from a trip up north, Windy pulled the throttle back. “What is that?”

I stared ahead, seeing what she was seeing, but unsure, “Rays?”

“I think so. I think those are mantas, big mantas. Oh my god.”

We see rays all the time in the Sea. We see round stingrays on the bottom while diving our anchor and spotted eagle rays sometimes swim by us while we snorkel. Underway, we see the larger mobula rays, black and white and the size of trash can lids. They are especially fun to watch as they leap and flip five feet out of the water, flapping furiously as if in a bid to join the birds above. But none of these rays we see are mantas, the giant, majestic rays of the Sea that can develop wingspans up to 18 feet across.

I took the helm and Windy ran forward to get a better view. “Girls! Come look!”

Then she yelled aft from the bow, “Whale sharks!”

And there were whale sharks too, the creature countless tour boats zip out to see and which we’d tried to do ourselves, but had failed in our anemic dinghy*. Now, they were here, all around us, at least four of them, swimming with mantas.

Eleanor was frantic. “PleasecanIjumpin! PleasePleasePlease!”

Though it usually takes the girl twenty minutes to put a life vest and her shoes on when we’re heading ashore, in about three seconds she’d stripped down, donned her suit and vest and was standing on the edge of the rail. “Now?! Now?!”

“It’s a shark you know, a big one.”


Whale sharks are sharks, but more like whales or mantas in that they filter feed. But they do have a shark profile and they’re big—the largest living fish (some grow to more than 40 feet long and weigh more than Del Viento).

Here, surrounding us and swimming close, were juvenile-sized rays and sharks. The rays had a wingspan that looked about 10 feet and the sharks were about 20- to 25-feet long. I was impressed that Eleanor was eager to jump in alone.

“Alright, now.”

And off she went, into the water less than ten feet from a shark that swam near. Windy jumped in after her and they delighted in watching the huge, gentle giants swimming at the surface near them. After about ten minutes, Frances was chomping at the bit and she and Eleanor traded places.

These are the episodes I love most about cruising, the encounters and situations that come out of the blue when we least expect them. It’s the same in a conventional life, but here the serendipitous events seem to happen with greater frequency and in ways they never could back home. Too, they’re not always positive (gales and rough seas and breakdowns come to mind), but no matter because in their whole, the good and the bad that happen out here invigorate our life with a dynamic richness that leaves all of us wanting it never to end.


* Don’t get me wrong, love our dinghy, wouldn’t trade the Portland Pudgy for another, but fast she will never be.
Sadly, this was the best picture I could get from this
episode. This is a whale shark with his mouth
parted, swimming towards us. They live to be
over 100 years old.
Frances standing eagerly at the bow while a shark
swims by. That's his dorsal fin sticking out of the
water and his tail smacked our hull a few seconds later.
Right after Eleanor jumped in. The shark is the dark
shadow, just in front of her, stretching from the
upper left corner of the picture towards her.
She and Frances and Windy all had much closer
encounters, but I never got a shot off.
So this is the best pic we have, hundreds of miles
north in Loreto, Frances standing next to a whale
shark sculpture.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sea Bees
By Michael
Bahia Candaleros, Mexico

Eleanor was brave when there were only
a few bees. There are no such pics of
when there were several hundred here.
They were the same bees that all the summertime Sea of Cortez veterans warned us about. We’d been told about or read about the bees at least a dozen times.

Yet, for some reason, as we headed north in to the Sea of Cortez to anchor off a few of the more than 200 islands, islets, and coastal areas identified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the idea of bees on our boat—lots of bees on our boat—seemed abstract. I mean, what’s that even like?

Apparently, the islands or unpopulated coastal areas of Baja have extensive resident bee populations. (Which blows my mind because, why? What’s there to pollinate? I guess cactus…and shrubs…and post-rain wildflowers. But the place just seems inhospitable to anything other than rattlesnakes and scorpions. Bees?) Apparently these insects are ravenously thirsty and will seek out the slightest bit of fresh water aboard yachts anchored a hundred yards from shore and who-knows-how-far from the hive.

Usually the bee warnings we got came with a favored approach for dealing with said bees.

“Kill the scouts, the first bees you see, kill them—kill, kill, kill! The others will never learn you are there.”

No, not going to kill bees.

Our summers-in-the-Sea veterans aboard Eyoni offered a more thoughtful approach, with a dash of bee psychology: “You see, bees are cleithrophobes, they have a real fear of being trapped. When you see any bees in your cabin, don’t shoo them, lock them in, close the companionway and ports and watch them. As soon as you see that they realize there is no exit, as soon as you see fear in their eyes, open everything back up and they’ll take off and not return. Works every time.”

Others insist it’s about the control of water. “You can’t have a drop aboard, not a drop. Make sure your boat is no more appealing than the dry, dusty desert they came from. If you wash your hands in the sink, follow with a salt water sink rinse, dry your hands completely, and then put the now-damp towel you used into a Ziploc bag—and hide it.”

Others insist it’s about providing the water the bees are after, but in a controlled way. “Put a sponge in a bowl of water and leave it on the bow, that’ll draw all the bees up there and away from you.”

None of this advice was reassuring, the sum of it left us all rather wondering what was in store for us, how bad would this be?

We were anchored in Puerto Ballandra, on Isla Carmen, near Loreto, when the bees found us. It was one, then two, then more and more and more, down below, invaders, hunting for water along every surface, all around us, the numbers increasing and increasing. “Sit down—carefully!—if you keep moving, you’re bound to step on one.” Windy cautioned the girls. Fortunately, all of us are pretty bug and insect savvy, we all kept our cool.

But it felt like a train robbery. One minute, everything is normal, the next we’re sitting still, at the mercy of these smart, stinging insects. Just do what they say and give them all your water.

Del Viento made
the cover of this
month's Good
Old Boat
I didn’t realize how much water we had down below. There was the glass of the stuff sitting on the table, buried in bees. There was the damp sponge sitting next to the sink, now a big, black bee rectangle. There was the drop hanging from the tap from which several bees nursed. There were more drops in the sink and a ring of moisture around the drain. There was water on the galley sole where one of the girls had dripped after washing her hands. Our cabin was a bee oasis and word spread quickly because they kept coming, hundreds and hundreds of bees sharing our small space.

“Girls, we have to get outside. Follow me, carefully. They aren’t after us, they just want water.” Windy led them topsides.

I grabbed a dry cereal bowl, folded a napkin inside it, and slowly, deliberately pumped water into it at the sink. Bees flew all around me. With about a cup-and-a-half of water in the bowl, the napkin saturated and acting as a wick, and already at least a dozen bees settled onto it, drinking, I made my way to the aft cockpit coaming, careful with every foot placement and hand hold not to come down on a bee. By the time I reached the back of the boat, more and more bees surrounded me and I realized I was these guys’ Pied Piper, the water my flute.

We dried up down below and I added a second bowl and when they were filled with water, hundreds of bees covered each, quietly drinking. But after only 20 minutes, the mass around one would begin to buzz very loudly and become more animated. I soon figured out this was a sign the bowl was bone dry and the cloth nearly so. I would then pour another cup-and-a-half of water slowly from a pitcher, right on top of the buzzing mass. It was magic, like turning down the volume on a stereo, the bees would go nearly quiet and move much less.

I repeated this process until just before sunset when the bees vanished. Within a five-minute span, we went from thousands of bees to zero bees. It was a coordinated exodus back to the hive before dark, like chickens heading for their coop.

“They’ll be back in the morning you know.”

“We don’t have enough water for us and them.”

“No, we’ll get an early start.”
Looking through my hatch, these few bees kept
seeming to try and communicate, forming
Kanji-like characters. I'm no expert, but this
clearly reads, "We'll find your water."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Pineapple Secret
By Michael

July 30. It's 11:06 a.m. It's 101F outside
and 100F inside. Can you imagine your
house that temperature? We run the
fans a lot. Fortunately, the refer is still
going strong, keeping the pineapple cold. 
For all you pineapple-loving cruisers in the tropics, I’ve discovered the way to eat it perfectly sweet, every time. All you need is a pineapple, a knife, some tupperware, and refrigeration.

I’d heard before about choosing a ripe pineapple based on the ease with which a leaf can be plucked from the center of the head. But this knowledge has never been of much help to me in terms of choosing the best time to cut open this fruit. Sometimes I’ve been lucky, but more often than not, no matter how that leaf is to pluck, what I get is either not ripe enough or too ripe.

That was then.

Now I no longer fret. I buy a good-looking pineapple in the store, one that is more green than not, bring it home, and cut it up. It’s usually a bit tart or a bit bland, not quite ready for eating. I put it into the tupperware and into the fridge where, surprisingly, this fruit will continue to ripen at a good clip.

Two or three days later, I pull out the now refreshingly chilled and perfectly sweet pineapple.

In the same vein, we’ve learned to use our fridge to increase the lifespan of our avocado supply. We love avocados, but how long can you enjoy them aboard when in the tropics and away from grocery stores? We’ve gone a month.

We used to buy them hard and green and then they’d be ripe after three days. Then we’d stick them in the fridge and get a couple more days out of them—but no more than that. Like bananas, ripe avos never seemed happy in there.

But then we discovered this: hard green avos will live happily at the bottom of the fridge for as much as 25 days. We stick a bunch in there, removing two or three at a time as needed, to ripen as normal. In this way, we plan to enjoy a batch of fresh guacamole at the end of our future Pacific crossing.

So pineapples and avocados are taken care of. Now I’m off to solve a more important food problem: how do we stow ice cream without a freezer?


Big afternoon thunderstorm coming, our view from
the La Paz anchorage. We are seeing this every
day now. Sometimes they pack quite a punch, in
terms of wind and rain.
And this is how summer in the Baja feels. Fortunately, when
the beer is gone, I've got the next best thing: cold, sweet pineapple.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

An Herbal Tale
By Michael

This is how I used to shop for basil.
We grew basil in our D.C. backyard garden. The plant was like a weed in that climate and for a few months every year, we ate basil on everything and made pesto by the quart.

And we didn’t take our basil bonanza for granted. For years before we owned our own home, we harvested our basil in grocery stores, a few non-organic sprigs packaged in thin, clear-plastic containers and waiting patiently with other, like-packaged fresh herbs. It was barely enough for a garnish and would set us back $2.50 a pop.

Long-immersed in the flavors of Mexico, I’d not given basil a thought for a while. Then I saw it. In Chadraui (one of the big-box stores here in La Paz). In the produce section. A large wicker basket bathed in fluorescent light and brimming with dozens of big, fresh bunches of basil.

My pulse quickened as the necessary components of a new meal came together. We had dried oregano and rosemary aboard. Pasta is widely available. Many of the bland, white Mexican cheeses could stand-in for mozzarella…onions, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, parmesan—check, check, check.

But how much was this bunch of fresh basil the size of a baseball mit gonna cost?

I looked for an Albahaca shelf tag, but there was none. The tag beneath the basil read Epazote: 4.50 c/u. This meant they sold epazote for four-and-a-half pesos a bunch. But this tag was misplaced, because while epazote is an herb, it’s nothing like basil (albahaca).

I decided to go for it. Surely this mammoth bunch of albahaca would cost an arm and leg, but it would be a nice treat.

Chadraui doesn’t have stickers on their produce with four-digit identifying codes. The cashiers just have to know them. Unloading my cart that day, I missed the cashier ringing up my basil and so I didn’t note the price. But outside, I scanned my receipt and found it. She’d charged me 4.5 pesos for epazote. How could this Mexican native confuse the two herbs? It didn’t make sense, but it didn’t matter; I’d just scored about a quarter-pound of beautiful basil for the equivalent of 35 cents U.S.

Over the next few months, I bought increasing quantities of basil. Each time I was charged for epazote. It was so consistent, I began to wonder if it was a La Paz thing, that everyone here just took a vote and decided to call albahaca, epazote. It’s what I needed to believe to ease my conscience. Because if it wasn’t true, I was a thief and the amount of money I’d cost the store to date, walking out with pounds and pounds of basil for pennies, was nearing the threshold of grand theft.

Then I found myself in Chadraui with Carla, another cruiser on her Big Shop before sailing north.

“Do you guys like basil?”

She answered enthusiastically in the affirmative.

“Oh my god, have I got a secret to share…”

Summer was dawning and I walked Carla over to the football-sized leafy bouquets and showed her the Epazote shelf tag beneath them. I encouraged her to buy half-a-dozen bunches. “Pesto will keep forever,” I said.

I tossed a couple into my own cart and when we checked out, Carla was several registers away. I watched my basil move along the conveyor belt until the cashier plucked the bag up and held it to her nose. With her eyes closed, she took a deep inhale before a serene smile brightened her face.

“Ahhh,” she moaned, her eye lids fluttering in ecstasy, “albahaca!

I swallowed, on the verge of yelling out to contradict her: This is epazote! Don’t you remember the vote?

The gig was up. Now in a panic, I worried about Carla paying god-knows-what for an obscene pile of this expensive herb I’d promised her was almost free. I missed the price of my albahaca that flashed on the display. When the cashier was done, I paid and slowly wheeled my cart outside before looking at my receipt. Carla was right behind me and I’d already started apologizing before I saw it: Albahaca 2@ 3.25……6.50—or about fifty cents U.S. for my two bunches.

I’d been ripped off for months.


Eleanor in her spot, ruins in Puerto Escondido.
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