Dry Tortuga

Kayaking Day 8, November 5, 2018

I was greeted this morning by a smiling, distant moon and watercolor sky. As my eyes scanned the eastern horizon, I also noticed a planet (although I don’t which), just visible above the golden haze of morning. Lino, who, as I mentioned, sleeps on the panga, was already awake and fishing. Whether for food or for fun, I don’t know, but he is a born fisherman, so is there really a difference?

Before breakfast (machago con queso), I went for a walk in the desert to the west of camp, startling a jackrabbit and myself. There is little underbrush, just cacti and mesquite amidst sand dunes and drifts.

As the day brightened, we climbed aboard the panga for a second day of exploring south of Isla San José, this time around the smaller Isla San Francisco (Mario and Lino call it “Isla San Francisquito,” a reference to its size, I believe).

Near mid-channel, someone spotted a turtle and Lino veered over to it. The turtle appeared unable to dive, continually failing in the attempt. Lino said that it was a male green sea turtle and that when green turtles mate, the male can end up with air trapped under its shell, making it buoyant until the air escapes or dissolves, which can take hours. Lino was concerned that since the turtle was in a part of the channel frequented by local fishermen and yachtsmen from La Paz, it could get run over. So, he stopped and hoisted it aboard.

[Note: I tried researching Lino’s claim about the cause of the turtle’s buoyancy resulting from mating, but could find nothing on the internet discussing the after-effects of sex on males, other than that it makes them sleepy. Oh, wait, did I type in “turtles”?]

There are five species of sea turtle found in the waters surrounding the Baja California peninsula: Hawksbill; Leatherback; Loggerhead; Ridley; and, Green (also known in Mexico as the Pacific Black Sea Turtle). We have green turtles in Florida, too, but some think they are different sub-species.

At any rate, this dry tortuga was clearly exhausted, lying limply on the gunwale once Lino had him aboard.

We headed to shore, beaching on the south side of Isla San Francisco to release our turtle friend back into the wild. I could tell from the expression on his face that Mario was not comfortable with the whole situation. We were, after all, in a protected reserve and there could be rules restricting human contact or “interference” with wildlife, although none of us were aware of any. In the end, we all decided that erring on the side of concern for the turtle had been the better course and gently passed our lethargic friend from panga to shore.

It took Mr. Tortuga some time to recover his machismo, but he eventually warmed to the idea of returning to his gigolo’s life in the sea. And, so, with a nudge from Scott, he was off.

National Geographic has a good, concise write-up about the green turtle on its website:

The green turtle is a large, weighty sea turtle with a wide, smooth carapace, or shell. It inhabits tropical and subtropical coastal waters around the world and has been observed clambering onto land to sunbathe. It is named not for the color of its shell, which is normally brown or olive depending on its habitat, but for the greenish color of its skin. There are two types of green turtles – scientists are currently debating whether they are subspecies or separate species – including the Atlantic green turtle, normally found off the shores of Europe and North America, and the Eastern Pacific green turtle, which has been found in coastal waters from Alaska to Chile.

Weighing up to 700 pounds, green turtles are among the largest sea turtles in the world. Their proportionally small head, which is nonretractable, extends from a heart-shaped carapace that measures up to 5 feet. Males are slightly larger than females and have a longer tail. Both have flippers that resemble paddles, which make them powerful and graceful swimmers. Unlike most sea turtles, adult green turtles are herbivorous, feeding on sea grasses and algae. Juvenile green turtles, however, will also eat invertebrates like crabs, jellyfish, and sponges.

Having at last regained his sea-legs, Mr. Tortuga took flight, so to speak. I followed, underwater, hoping my iPhoneX really was waterproof.

Once our flippered friend had made his way out to deeper water, Lino took me and Dale out fishing while Scott and Barb snorkeled around the cove where they were at one point completely encircled by a school of sardines. I’m sure it was magical.

Out in the panga, we caught three Amberjack, then returned to the cove for lunch on the beach. We all snorkeled again before packing up and climbing back aboard the panga.

Leaving Isla San Francisco and heading north, we stopped at Isla el Pardito, home to the fishing village we had seen two days earlier when we had motored around the south end of Isla San José.

Mario and Lino promised to take us ashore to show us how salt from the salt ponds is used to preserve the fishermen’s catch. The salting process takes place in the thatch-roofed building in the lower-right of the photo, below:

If not preserved, bacteria will cause fish to rapidly decompose, making it inedible. For decomposition to occur, bacteria needs four things: moisture; oxygen; warmth; and, time. In order to prevent the growth of bacteria, at least one of those conditions must be eliminated.

The most common methods for preserving fish are: salting and sun-drying (removal of water); freezing (removal of water and heat); and, vacuum packing (removal of oxygen). In places like rural Baja California where electricity is an unavailable luxury, salting is the best, if not only, option.

According to Wikipedia:

Salting is the preservation of food with dry edible salt. It is related to pickling (preparing food with brine, i.e. salty water), and is one of the oldest methods of preserving food. Salt inhibits the growth of microorganisms by drawing water out of microbial cells through osmosis. Concentrations of salt up to 20% are required to kill most species of unwanted bacteria. … Salting is used because most bacteria, fungi and other potentially pathogenic organisms cannot survive in a highly salty environment, due to the hypertonic nature of salt. Any living cell in such an environment will become dehydrated through osmosis and die or become temporarily inactivated.

The fishermen of El Pardito fish with nets. They get their salt in bulk and preserve their catch by laying down alternating layers of fish fillets and salt, letting it dehydrate before packing it for transport and sale. They were happy to show us around and explain their process.

As we were leaving in the panga, we passed a group of teens in another boat, monitored by a friend of Mario’s, out on a field trip from La Paz to learn about marine ecology. Waving goodbye, Lino pushed the throttle forward and took us back to our camp where he cooked up the Amberjack we had caught earlier in the day.

After dinner, Mario took us for a walk along the beach, looking for turtle nests. We found tracks, but it looked like coyotes had dug up at least one of the nests and ruined the eggs. Mario was distraught.

That night, after everyone else had gone to sleep, Mario and I played dominoes and talked late into the night about Baja and island life, the past and the future, writers and books (his favorite: Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo [1955, English 1994]), and the meaning of life.

Such an interesting day.

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