Canadian boating stories: A Canadian gets lost in the Sea of Cortés
This is a story about a Canadian boater getting lost in the Sea of Cortés (also known as Gulf of California), a body of water located on the western side of Mexico. Separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Baja California peninsula, the Sea of Cortés has a surface area spanning in excess of 60,000 square miles with depths surpassing 3,000 metres. The views here are absolutely breathtaking, and with so much to see and explore, you’ll soon find out how I went from enjoying an innocent side-trip to lost at sea.
The Sea of Cortés hosts an abundance of sea life and is home to hundreds, if not thousands of species of fish and majestic marine animals such as whales, dolphins, whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, bull sharks, sea turtles, oceanic giant manta rays, Mobula rays, sea lions. and seals. It’s no wonder that marine explorer and conservationist, Jacques-Yves Cousteau nicknamed the Sea of Cortés, “The World’s Aquarium.”
How it all started
Our family was introduced to La Paz, Mexico, and the Sea of Cortés around 2008. We had the opportunity to take a boat ride to Balandra Beach, located just 26 nautical miles from La Paz. Our first experience of the Sea was a beautiful bay, with crystal clear turquoise water, a fabulous sandy beach, and the famous Mushroom Rock. Bahia Balandra and its beach gave us a small taste of the serene nature of this unique part of the world.
Over the last 12 years, we’ve had the chance to motor yacht many times throughout the islands speckled along the Baja, visiting the various remote anchorages, fishing, and watching sea life along the way. Each island – although similar – has its own unique ecological system both in the sea and on land.
How it all started to go wrong
After several trips, and feeling pretty comfortable boating in this location, I decided I wanted to jet ski around the small island of Isla San Francisco. The island is only 2.5 km long and 2.5 km (1.6 mi) wide, so what could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out a lot!
In my family, I am known as “Safety Sam”. Wear your life jacket, put on your sunscreen, and don’t go without a hat. Do you have the radio? A bailer? The list goes on. On that very fateful day, I left the boat with what I thought was the right safety gear; I had the radio, I had water, and I wore my hat, sunscreen, and life jacket. But what I didn’t have was a clear plan communicating where I was going, no flares, no radio beacon, and no supplies for a longer trip.
I left the yacht on the jet ski at about 10 in the morning. I headed out south, with the plan to go around the island in a counterclockwise route. What I didn’t know was that the tide was low, and as I made my way to the more eastern part of the island, the small outcroppings of rocks looked like they were part of Isla San Francisco. Thinking this was all the same Island, I crossed the straight not knowing I was now exploring a different island, Isla San Jose, a very large island covering an area of some 70 square miles and is the 6th largest island in all of Mexico. It is possibly one of the most diverse in terms of biology and landscapes.
I was mesmerized by the rock formations, the mangroves, and rocky shores unique to the Sea of Cortés until I realized that I clearly was no longer on the right shoreline of the right island. As I did not have a watch or my cell phone with me, I had no idea of the amount of time that passed since I left the boat.
Navigating a big body of water
Well, I thought to myself, this is not difficult, I will just turn around and head back to where I came from. However, by this time the tide had changed, the sun was in a different spot, and I clearly had no idea where I was. As I was putting together my game plan to camp out on land, I got a quick, “Eight Large to mom”, “Eight Large to mom” message on my radio. Relief washed over me. But the next question, “where are you”, could only be answered with “I don’t know.” And then I lost contact. The challenge with the Sea of Cortés is for the most part it is very deserted. You can go days with only seeing a handful of boats, and often no people on the islands, especially the windward side where no one moors.
Rescue on the Sea of Cortés
As I was slowing down to troll a good landing position to sit tight until rescue, I was amazed to see three people on the beach – but not a boat in sight! When I approached them, I asked, “What Island is this?” but they did not know! However, they were with a captain, so I asked them where their boat was. On this particular island, there are some places where you can walk across a spit. They sent me in the direction of their boat and ran across the spit to let the captain know I was lost at sea (so to speak). He was so kind to immediately put up a flare as he knew my mates were looking for me. They brought me aboard their sailboat, handed me a towel, and a cold drink of water. My legs were shaky from being on the jet ski for so long.
Reuniting with family
Moments later my family came around the corner in our tender. Never had I been so happy to see my teenage kids! They were frantic, relieved…and mad. They told me my “Safety Sam” badge was being revoked. Luckily, my husband just gave me a big hug.
We thanked our newfound friends and headed back to the boat. What I thought was a few hours, turned into an almost full day of my family searching for me in the Sea of Cortés. I was sheepish and a tad embarrassed. I pride myself on knowing the safety rules around boating, but my lack of experience in navigation led me to make the wrong decisions.
Go with someone more experienced
In beautiful BC we often hear of Search and Rescue needing to rescue people off our local mountains. And I often think, why were they not more prepared? But I have learned a valuable lesson and that is to go with someone more experienced than you and check all the safety boxes before you step out on a big adventure.
In Canada we are fortunate to have a robust search and rescue system and a coast guard. In the other countries, like Mexico these resources may not be available, which increases the risk to venture out on your own.
We recently returned from another Sea of Cortés adventure. But I stayed safe, and I did enjoy its bounty – whales, dolphins, flying rays, flying fish, birds galore, and the fabulous fishing at El Bajo, a seamount in the Sea of Cortés located near Los Islotes, known to be one of the best fishing and diving locations in all of Mexico. How lucky am I!
Andrea, Vancouver, BC
Resources for the Sea of Cortés – also known as Baja California, Gulf of California and Sea of Cortez
Resources for boat safety