In search of the Humboldt squid
How we arrived to Baja.
By Lorna Hill
It was June 2015; We, Rodrigo and Lorna, had already met in Playa del Carmen via our chance encounter of ending up living in the same house share / apartment.
Rodrigo had been working on his MayanSmartGuide app and I had finished my divemaster training in Playa del Carmen and had just returned back there after a 3 month travel stint around Mexico.
We were on a trip around the Yucatan peninsula, once I got back, and we had spent about a week in Merida already when we received an interesting phone call from England. It was my Sister, Sara, who works for a tv production company in Bristol, a city in the West country, famous for its role of producing Natural History documentaries for the BBC.
It turned out the company she worked for was making a programme for Discovery channel, and they were searching for the Humboldt squid… or Diablo Rojo, in Baja.
“We need you guys to go to Baja to do some research for us, can you leave right away?“
We dropped tools and jumped on the first plane to Baja California Sur, landing in its capital, La Paz.
We had left some things at the apartment in Playa del Carmen, thinking we would be returning in a couple of weeks.
I had just come from Baja California Sur, where I had spent some time diving and exploring with friends, however, the recce we were about to do for the tv company meant we were to travel North, along the peninsula and see what and who we find there.
So we hired a car and set off on our journey. Little did we know that this trip would be the one to change our life trajectory, both as people and as a couple.
We fell in love with Baja
The first thing that took our attention were the beaches of Baja – remote, white sand, glistening crystal water. We had just been living in the Caribbean, we had seen this “beach-profile” a lot there, however these beaches just had a rugged beauty about them, with the rocky landscape in the background, and the feeling that we really were the only people who had set foot on their sandy shorelines.
AND then the cactus …. AND the mountains!
After coming from the Yucatan peninsula, as beautiful as it is yet flat as a pancake, we fell in love with those wrinkly peaks and the gorgeous cactus that stand proud and tall, reaching up for the blue skies above.
Of course, we couldn’t get more than 5 miles down the road without having to stop and take a photo, we were just so amazed by the beauty and serenity of this peninsula
We did have a plan as to where we were to go, which was the dusty old mining town of Santa Rosalia, however this was 500km North of where we started, in La Paz, so this gave us several stopping points along the way to document our trip and absorb the incredible vistas.
One place in particular that captured our hearts was the famous Bahia de Concepcion, the most beautiful bay situated about an hour (an hour and a half for a campervan!) North of Loreto, and half an hour south of Mulege.
— There and then was that my famous line “Baja reminds me of home” was coined.
We couldn’t believe our eyes as we rounded the corner to see the glistening water, to our right sides, as the road scaled the mountains to our left.
Our favorite beach in Baja
We started to pass more incredible beaches: Playa Buenaventura, Playa El Burro, Playa El Coyote… until we came to what is now our favourite spot in Bahia Concepcion – Playa Santispac.
The tranquility, the colours, the cosiness of being tucked away in between the mountains, we felt like we had found heaven. Our only neighbours that we could see were in an old campervan on the other side of the beach and a little restaurant called Armandos, all lit up like a Christmas tree.
We made camp beneath a little palapa and fell asleep whilst gazing a star filled sky.
Waking up the next morning was utopic; the only sounds to break the tangible silence were of the birds fishing and the water lapping at our feet. We rolled out of our sleeping bags and slipped into the water, so careful not to shatter the delicate stillness.
We wanted to stay there forever but we had to make a move. We had a meeting to get to, with a local fisherman in Santa Rosalia by the name of Rafa and we didn’t want to miss him. Promising that we would return, we left this little haven and carried on North.
Our first impression of Santa Rosalia
When we arrived at Santa Rosalia, we were immediately taken aback by the sudden contrast of the previous towns and beaches in which we had been discovering and exploring and bathing, to the unkempt and unclean state that we found Santa Rosalia.
An old French mining town (The French company El Boleo founded the town in 1884 and exploited copper mines there until they closed in 1954), it is evident that the money that came from the mining production never went back into the upkeep of the town.
The mines are now owned and operated by a Korean corporation, using newer technology to re-mine old minerals.
However, if you head a little deeper into the town, you begin to find the charms, most apparent is the friendliness of the people. It was also my first experience of the Mexican second hand shops, or “segundas”, which appeared to me more like little junky-treasure troves, and, appealing to my magpie-like ways, I couldn’t resist going in for a snoop around.
The town has grown and changed over the years but not by much, still sporting it’s French style wooden houses and even claiming to have the best French bakery in Baja.
The quirkiness of the town is exaggerated even more by sporting its very own pre-fabricated iron church, Iglesia de Santa Barbara.
Allegedly designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel in 1884 and first exhibited at the 1889 Exposition Universelle of Paris, it was acquired by the Boleo Mining Company when it was sent from Brussels, thus installing it in Santa Rosalia in late 1897.
The fisherman from Baja
Our first meeting with Rafa left us with an innate feeling of intrigue and awe. 83 years old Rafa (at the time) fished all his life out of Santa Rosalia; hard laborious work, night and day, mostly in intense heat and even at night amidst the mighty east winds known as “toritos“.
The production company back in Bristol had already tracked Rafa down as the best man to help us find the Humboldt squid, and if necessary, boats and equipment.
We had met other fishermen in the area, but Rafa seemed different, wiser, calmer; as he didn’t have anything else to prove to anyone anymore.
As part of the documentary, we were trying to find out why such low numbers of Humboldt squid remained in Mexican waters.
Overfishing in Baja
Overfishing has been a huge problem in Mexico and other developing countries, with weak fishing policies, along with poor families who need to survive, resulting in depleting numbers of key marine species.
To add to the already dire circumstances, the money being paid to these families for their long hours of fishing the already dangerously low numbers of sharks, squid, and fish, was close to a pittance.
Is it worth it?
What is the value of a dead shark, with a temporary, momentary low profit, vs a living one in the ocean, with its crucial importance to the ecosystem and maintenance of species below them in the food chain, from large fish to the seagrass and coral reef habitats?
We asked Rafa whether he knew of fishermen fishing for sharks outside of the allocated schedules, he replied, diplomatically, that he didn’t know of any, however, he did know of a “shark dumping ground”, where the fishermen who fished the sharks, when they weren’t supposed to, dumped the unwanted carcass and heads in a remote location, further up the peninsula, in order not to be discovered and fined.
We asked Rafa to take us there, Rafa agreed.
Road trip to the "shark cemetery"
We would be leaving early in the morning of the following day, in Rafa’s old pick-up truck. I was curious to see the things that Rafa would “pack” on a trip like this.
We were, after all, about to venture into the desert, a territory unknown to me, having grown up in the West coast of Ireland I’m used to hard weather, but the back of our trucks is filled with things you need for a cold rainy day, in the bog.
In the back of his truck, I spotted a 5-gallon container of water, a long rope, two spare tires, a jack, pipes, and bicycle innertubes amongst other undefined junk.
This seemed a bit too much, however, I had no notion of the type of terrain nor the distances we would be traveling that day. Armed with a camera, a bottle of water, and a pair of walking shoes, I felt ready to take on the day.
The morning was chilly, the cool ocean wind keeping a chill on the air at 5 am, we set off for the wilderness.
Our several hour-long-trip into the Vizcaino desert, which comprises most of the Biosphere Reserve with the same name, was filled with stories of Rafa’s long life, the brutality of the roads was muted by Rafa’s humor making this a memorable trip.
We entered that desert not knowing then that we would be returning the following year to work as whale watching guides in the same reserve for Baja Ecotours; I’d say that desert had an eye on us.
As we drove further into the mountains, the road became windier, as we drove past the volcano, Las Tres Virgenes, a complex of volcanoes, still active to this day, it’s last eruption still disputed however thought to have been in the range of 30,000 years ago.
Turning off the main highway, we followed a dirt road for about 30 km, where I caught my first glimpse of real “off-road” Baja.
I was becoming more and more entranced by the variety of desert plants that we kept passing, I couldn’t believe how many shades of green, brown, yellow and oranges I was seeing, something that I never thought I’d see in a desert.
However, it was the majestic Cardon cactus towering way above its other plant associates that were the most impressive.
We drove those desert dirt roads for what could’ve been hours to finally approached the clandestine “shark graveyard”, and after all the lightness and freedom that the adventure had brought to us, a heaviness descended upon us.
Shark skeletons and flat tires
Sharks heads scattered around everywhere, carcasses, spinal columns…. It was a graveyard and a symbol of what’s wrong in our twenty-first-century society.
Poverty, undereducation, and a lack of regulations are just symptoms of a much worse disease. It certainly was an eye-opener.
We took the photos we needed and we did this fast; Rafa was keen to get back on the road as soon as possible as it was not all safe; according to Rafa, it was a “mas o menos” situation.
I sat in the back this time and just gazed out the window, in contemplative silence, while Rafa and Rodrigo conversed in the front.
My thoughts were interrupted by a loud noise, followed by Rafa swerving the car to the side to stop and jumping out to have a look.
We had a flat, and instantly Rafa got to work, pulling the necessary tools out of the back, including one of the two spare tyres.
Rodrigo jumped out to help Rafa and I wasn’t even pulling my second foot out of the back when I felt the truck being jacked up.
Instinctively, I grabbed my camera before jumping out and, deciding that I was a much better help if I stayed out of the way, I got to work too, in my way, taking the photos and documenting the process.
I was very aware of the fact that we were in the middle of the desert in the afternoon heat, yet I felt like we were in safe hands, with this man that we met less than 24 hours ago.
Something was reassuring about being with Rafa. His age and experience resulted in knowing exactly what to do in a situation like this and his calm manner of getting it done.
Also with the most basic of tools. Just a practical mind and experienced hands. It reminded me, as I said before, of the people from back home.
I also took it as an opportunity to study some of the plants that we had been driving past all day.
After a while, we were back on the road. I sat in the front again and felt pleased when I recognized a landmark; Las Tres Virgenes.
My gaze had veered off to the right side this time, absorbing the view of those incredible mountains when another loud noise came from underneath the car, accompanied by more swerving. Another flat.
I felt relieved that we were back on the main road as I thought we would need to flag for help when I remembered the second spare tyre. Of course! I couldn’t imagine someone like Rafa not learning from the experience of this happening before.
Rodrigo later informed me that the heat expands the air in the tyres and, after driving all day on the hot road, can result in the tyre exploding if even the smallest thing on the road punctured the tyre.
That and second-hand tyres which are what most people in Baja drives due to a slow economy amongst other factors.
Either way, Rafa was well prepared and I got back in the car this time crossing my fingers we don’t get another flat.
It’s needless to say that we returned to our accommodation that night very tired and dusty, yet full of feelings of adventure from our day of exploring.
I felt so fortunate to be in the position I was in, and inspired by the fact that each day was bringing us something different and providing an opportunity to explore, not only this incredible place but also ourselves, our reactions to situations and the things that we discover and learn.
I also felt, and still feel, lucky to be able to document these trips and make me even more dogged to keep my camera by my side. Here’s to many more adventures in the desert and remember, always be prepared for whatever life throws at you and always, always bring a second spare tyre.