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Searching for the Rattleless Rattlesnake

Isla Santa Catalina, Baja Sur, Mexico

I can’t believe I’m actually on this mythical island. It has been a fantasy of mine for so many years to get here to try to find one of the rarest snakes (mostly because of its restricted range) on earth, the Rattleless Rattlesnake (Crotalus catalinensis). This island is so unusual that of the ten reptile species found here, eight are found only on this small island (about 7.5 miles long and two miles wide). And the plants are also very unusual. But it is the rattlesnake that has piqued my interest all these years. The fisherman who delivered me here, Ramon Murillo, has never even taken this two-hour journey before. And he admitted he would never set foot on it because of the “serpientes.” Actually, he did do so eventually, briefly, to help unload my gear from the boat. But all he saw was the beach, comprised of big pebbles of surprisingly uniform size.

My son-in-law Eddy and my 4½ year-old grandson Zen got up early with me (I’m talkin’ 3:50 a.m.) to get me to the malecón (or jetty) at 5 a.m. We were gone from land by 5:10. The Milky Way blazed in spite of the rising crescent moon, and though it was smooth “sailing” at first, within twenty minutes or so the boat, on its maiden voyage since an overhaul and brand new blue-and-white paint job, started bouncing over the waves. After an hour or so, I got tired of the kidney-punishing hammering and joined Ramon in the standing position while holding the left strut that supported the shade awning with my left hand.

We arrived at Isla Santa Catalina just before the sun rose, and we headed toward the south tip of the island to search for “Playa los Burritos,” which I had agreed to use as my landing spot. Elephant Point (Punta Elef) was nearby, with its distinctive hole in a prominent rock on the point in the background.

We motored around the southernmost point, expecting to see Elephant Point or the fishing camp. Finding neither, we continued around the next bend. We did see a lone small boat pulled up on a rocky beach, but this looked nothing like what we were expecting. So we kept going around the point and headed north.

We saw dolphins breaching shortly after the dawn, with their brief gleaming bodies flashing momentarily before disappearing. One was right in the front of the boat, and I worried that it would accidentally be hit by our propeller as we passed over it. I heard later that they are very adept at avoiding such a fate.

After fifteen minutes or so, we came across a group of six small fishing boats quite close to the rocky shore. Ramon headed over to ask them where Burrito Beach was and was told we had passed it some time back on the other side of the island. I could not see how this was possible; nothing we had seen remotely resembled the satellite images or photos I had seen of Elephant Point before I left on this trip.

As we turned around and headed south again, we passed a rocky beach which opened into a broad, gentle canyon. This was unusual, as most of the coast was comprised of mountains going steeply into the ocean.

I asked Ramon to drop me off on this nameless beach. It looked like I might find a level spot for a tent back up the wash and, most importantly, there were no people. (It was only later that I remembered the research I had done at home which indicated that the rattlesnakes were most numerous in the washes on the west side of the island.)

The rocks on the beach were striking in the early morning light, with at least three levels from the surf to the expanse that fanned out into the canyon beyond.

Ramon helped me unload my gear and, after making sure I knew how to use Eddy’s marine radio and telling me his brother Placido would pick me up at this beach at 7 a.m. two days from now and informing me that he would use channel 12, he waved goodbye and left me to my adventure.

I hiked several hundred yards along the northern margins of the broad canyon and located a small, flat spot. Over the next half hour or so, I carted all of my considerable gear there: tent, Therm-a-Rest, sleeping bag, large backpack, cooler (containing two frozen water bottles, six mangos, three avocados, celery, and nut butter), tripod, snake hook, two pillows, shaded camp chair, three gallon containers of water, probably 20 Lara bars, a bag of cashews, and backpack with my camera gear with various lenses and photographic accoutrement.

After I made several trips to set up camp, I climbed partway up a nearby hill and discovered another spot south of where I had set up camp and partway up a large wash in the distance that looked like it wouldn’t be visible from the beach and would have more room for my tent. So I hiked the ten minutes over there and confirmed that it was indeed a better spot. I spent the next hour or so transferring everything, and by the time I had set up my tent it was after 10 a.m. Because there was virtually no shade, I had to camp right in a wash.

I drank some water and ate one of my fabulous mangos. Using a timer and tripod, I took a photo of myself eating the sloppy fruit. (While in Australia forty-five years ago, the Aussies told me the best place to eat a mango was in the bathtub.)

Even though by this time it was quite hot, I decided to take a little hike farther up the wash before I sat in my shaded camp chair (Thanks, Eddy—and my daughter Melissa, who asked Eddy to get it for her and who suggested I take it). I had gone less than 200 yards when I made a detour to the right to take a look at a stately old cardon cactus. I read later that these are the largest cacti in the world; unlike the closely related saguaro, they are not frost resistant.

I walked fifteen yards or so off the wash to admire the old patriarch and was returning to the wash when I noticed a rattlesnake right at my feet beneath some dead palo verde sticks in the patch I had just traversed. It was 11 a.m.

I couldn’t believe it. When I jumped through the hoops to get my permit from the Loreto Bay National Marine Park to camp on the island, the official issuing the permit was stunned that I wasn’t taking antivenin or snake-proof leggings (or gaiters). I assured him (through Eddy, who translated) that I had almost 50 years of experience with rattlesnakes and would be very careful. I guess that magnificent cardon distracted me momentarily and I had stepped right over the silent serpent. He easily could have bitten me if he had so desired. What a wake-up call!

And what a beautiful snake. The photos of the species online had reflected two main color variations, and this was not one of the very light, almost white, snakes. Instead, it had a pale sand-colored background with chestnut blotches. I read later that they are most closely related to Crotalus ruber, the red diamondback rattlesnake, a species I had seen for the first time in Cataviña only five days before.

He was quite active, and as my camera was in my backpack, I had to let him coil beneath a dense bush of some kind, after which I was able to get a few not-so-great shots. It was eerie to watch such an active rattlesnake remain totally silent, without the characteristic vibrating of an elevated tail. Most biologists who speculate about the reasons for the evolution away from the rattle for this unusual snake are in agreement that it is probably because of the absence of large mammals on the island. The fact that there is a rudimentary button strongly suggests that once in the distant past they did have rattles. It seems to me a pretty strong case for evolution: Without the need to warn those large mammals, the snakes gradually lost the ability to add a segment to the rattle string every time they shed their skins (as do traditional rattlesnakes with rattles).

I spent the next hour or so going a ways up the canyon (the highlight being a large, beautiful specimen of the famous Giant Barrel Cactus, Ferocactus diguetii, found only on this island and four others in the Gulf of California). Using my timer and tripod, I got a shot of myself standing next to it for scale.

The barrel cacti here were just on the verge of blooming. I found very few that had blossoms, so when they showed up, these unusual plants were that much more intriguing.

On my way back to the tent, I stopped and saw the rattler again, who had not moved. I took a few more shots before returning to my camp, including one of the tail with its single button as it moved to the other side of the bush.

Well, it’s now 5:25, and I spent all but the last couple of hours exploring my canyon, from the rocky beach (where I scared a gull lfrom a nest containing two green eggs in a stick next on the bare beach) to the top of the nearest hill. The last was quite a scramble, and I was super careful descending; all I need is to break an ankle, a la my friend Erik, in this remote place with no hope of communicating with the outside world. Talk about being marooned on a desert island!

And what a desert island it is. I am completely enamored with the elephant trees that are so plentiful. There might be more than one species, but I am sure of Bursera microphylla, known in Baja as the torote. They seem to be the anomalies of the plant world here: no spikes or spines or thorns. Some have glorious white bark more reminiscent of the fig trees I saw almost 30 years ago near Cabo Pulmo, north of La Paz. Other have yellow, papery and peeling bark. Some are quite large, but, as is the case with many of the trees here, they flex their muscles horizontally rather than vertically. Some of the elephant trees are small and delicate: babies of the other two? Who knows?

When I got back from the top of the hill (without breaking my ankle, though I had a scare when I hyperflexed my left foot, resulting in a sharp but mercifully brief episode that passed in ten minutes or so) I was so hot and dehydrated (why didn’t you take water, Glenn!) that I almost threw up. Luckily, I had two cold liter bottles with ice left over from being pre-frozen solid the night before. I drank and drank, then ate and ate (corn tortillas with avocado, corn thins, dried apricots, a Lara bar, and celery with nut butter).

Then near disaster struck. I decided to try lying down in the tent (though it was way too hot in the sun-struck tent), but when I tried to zip the mosquito net closed on the one side, the zipper kept separating when I tried to close it. I had had this problem before on this trip, but when I went back to the end of the zipper track and tried once or twice again, it usually closed. This time it wouldn’t close at all.

I thought again of the official who was alarmed that I didn’t have snake-proof gaiters or antivenin. Eddy had also assured him that I would be zipped up tight at night, as the rattlers are also very much nocturnal.

I sat for a time in my shade chair in a stupor, unable to even think, let alone move. I finally got up and took another hike in the slightly mitigated heat. When I returned, I tried it again from the outside. On a lark, I tried zipping it shut by applying outward pressure as I went—voila! It worked enough to shut. That door is now off limits. I will in the future clamber over my pack and gear in the portico to exit to pee or whatever. Now I won’t have to spend the night sitting in my chair or perpetually wandering around with my headlamp looking for snakes until dawn.

It is almost 6 p.m. and is finally starting to cool down a bit. There is a nice breeze as I sit here partially under a palo verde tree next to what may be species #4 of the elephant tree. This one has gray, knobbly bark and short, club-like bumps about 5 cm long protruding in profusion along the branches. Most are naked, but a few have pale green or yellow elongated, heart-shaped, bilobed leaves that look like they are about to join their many fallen fellows at my feet.

This desert has a superficial resemblance to the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, but the saguaros are cardons here and the organpipe cactus look-alike is surely something different.

Both deserts have palo verde trees, these being in bloom right now with dazzling yellow flowers, but the incredible profusion of elephant trees immediately screams out to me, “This isn’t Arizona, Dorothy”—or Glenn, in this case. And I can’t forget those amazing giant barrel cacti, of course.

I am often plagued by earworms (from the German “ohrwurm”), songs that just persist in my head, and today it is the alphabet song. It’s been going on all day. At first I was mystified, but then I remembered our drive the twenty minutes or so from our hotel to Loreto early this morning. Zen piped up from the back seat, “Dad-dee, I can sing the alphabet song with my eyes closed! Do you want to hear?” And then he does it, in typical little-kid fashion, making “LMNOP” sound like the “P” has some sort of exotic adjective describing it.

He is such a delight. He is a genuinely happy boy, and his ready smile and bright eyes melt my heart over and over each day. Yesterday, Eddy put his boat in the water for the first time at Villa del Palmar, our hotel south of Loreto, and we went out for about an hour late in the afternoon. We stopped on an island where gulls were nesting—a simple stick nest on the rocks with spectacular speckled green eggs (like the one here today).

After we pulled the boat up on the sand, we headed to the hotel and ran into Jesus, one of Eddy’s new best friends. Eddy is so good at making friends, and this one, a security guard at the hotel, owns a bit of beach just north of the hotel. He invited Eddy to come and stay on this property whenever he wanted, and as they talked, Zen went off by himself and started yelling, at the top of his lungs, “UNO! DOS! TRES! TARTRO! (or something like that) CINCO! SES!” and then he repeated it. The complete unselfconsciousness and the incredible volume were just magical as the late light bathed the scene and preserved it for me forever.

It is 9:15 p.m., and I just got back from a very long hike up the canyon. I followed the main wash, and it just goes and goes. Right after sunset, I went down to the shore and took a quick photo of the seagull eggs. Mom wasn’t happy, but I deliberately waited until the sun wouldn’t hit the eggs when she flew briefly away at my intrusion.

I then started slowly making may way up the southern edge of the wash. I had gone perhaps 400-500 yards from my tent when I started to head off the wash to the left to explore an old standing cardon skeleton. My eye suddenly picked out a juvenile Crotalus catalinensis in a perfect coil tucked under a bush.

I was carrying the 70-200mm lens with a flash, so I took a couple of shots. I decided to take a chance with a lens that would enable me to get closer, so I went back to camp and got my only “normal” lens, the 24-70 mm Tamron. This time I used the flash diffuser.

The shots were good, but I felt I could do better, so I once again returned to camp and got my trusty 180 mm macro lens. This was the ticket, and I got a series of real close-ups.

The shot below in particular I found fascinating when I finally got to look at it closely; it shows very clearly the "pits" below and to the midline that characterize this pit viper and which are used as infrared heat detectors to enable these consummate predators to seek out warm-blooded prey in total darkness.

Unfortunately, he was coiled in such a way that I couldn’t see the rattle—just like the adult I had seen earlier—so I waved my hand around in an effort to make him move and, hopefully, reveal his rattle. He moved alright, but he just slowly stretched out at the base of the rock.

As he crawled away, I did get an isolated close-up of his tail.

I have a theory that would account for my lack of success with either snake in getting the classic shot of the coiled rattler with the elevated rattle. Because these snakes did not evolve to use the specialized tail-vibrating appendage, they have no reason to isolate and elevate the rattle so it can be better seen and heard. So, like many harmless snakes that are coiled, the tail is often as not buried beneath the coils. Thus my having to resort to getting shots of the tails as they fled.

I then continued a long nocturnal hike using my new, bright, hand-held flashlight (with Eddy’s headlamp in my pocket as a back-up).

One final thought before I turn in for the night. As I was hiking up the wash, I was suddenly struck by what makes this place unique. Not only are there no cars or airplanes or man-made sounds or trash of any kind, there is not the least trace of cattle. Now that’s unusual—and refreshing. As the moon isn’t due to rise until probably 3:30 a.m. or so, the stars are just amazing.

April 15, 2015

It’s noon, and it’s hot. Actually when the breeze blows and I’m in the shade it’s not that bad. I know the forecast for Loreto was about 86 degrees Fahrenheit, so that’s probably about right. But it’s amazing how soon after the sun comes up that it’s aggressive with its rays. By 8 a.m. this morning the direct sun was uncomfortable. I ate a hearty breakfast of two mangos and an avocado with corn thins—like thin rice cakes only comprised of corn. I was up the wash by 8, and I slowly made my way up and past where I went last night. This spot shouldn’t be too hard to locate using Google Earth; this broad system of washes that goes west and then northwest from the beach is distinctive, and from our cruise along the coast it’s unusual in its extent. I wonder if this is the elusive “Arroyo Mota” referred to a couple of places on the internet where C. catalinensis have been encountered. Eddy laughed when I told him the name of the arroyo; in Spanish it means “Marijuana Wash.”

As I saw no snakes, I spent the morning appreciating and photographing the amazing plants. I swear I’ve seen two small boojums (“booja?”) here, but very common and very appreciated are the elephant trees. I took several photos with my new 14 mm lens with me next to them to show perspective. One must have been 50 feet in diameter (that’s tiny me to the left of the plant).

This tendency for the plants here to have multiple trunks and to spread out horizontally rather than rise up vertically is not confined to the elephant trees. I found and photographed a large palo verde of some sort exhibiting the same adaptation t these hot, dry conditions.

I used the wide-angle fish eye lens almost exclusively this morning because it was perfect for these vast, weird vistas. Even when the photos are a bit distorted, they convey the grandeur of the landscape.

Though I saw many lizards of various species, all were unusually quick to be spooked, especially given their long isolation from large land mammals. Usually such maroonees are quite tame and trusting of big mammals like humans because they have no negative experience with them.

At any rate, I could get no photos of the whiptails and side-blotched lizards and desert iguanas, all of which I saw as they flashed by in the distance.

More than anything this trip reminds me of my trip to Australia and New Zealand in 1970. The environment is obviously different, but the solitude and inability to count on a bed and hot shower at the end of a hot and sweaty day are similar. Most similar of all, come to think of it, was my excursion to Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand on Christmas day of that year. I was all alone at a gannet sanctuary and spent the day walking among and photographing the nesting Australasian Gannets, birds related to boobies with wingspans of six feet.

On my excursion up the wash earlier, I came across the most fascinating tableau. It looked like a cardon had taken a header and died there upside-down. I can’t imagine what natural process would result in such a bizarre scene, but there it was.

Before he dropped me off here, Ramon the fisherman told me his brother Placido would pick me up tomorrow at 7 a.m. If he doesn’t show up by 9 a.m., Ramon said, that means the seas were too rough and he’ll come the next day. If he’s not here by 9 on that day, he’ll come the day after that. As fascinating as I find isolation with strange plants and animals on this desert island (considered, along with its fellow islands in the Sea of Cortez to be the “Mexican Galapagos”), I am ready to be picked up tomorrow to head back to a shower and a nice bed.

If there were more shade here and I had plenty of water to drink, I could stay a week. There is no lack of large trees here, but without exception their size is demonstrated horizontally rather than vertically. It’s darn near impossible to find shade under one of these weird trees unless you’re a reptile.

The tent is not an option because it sits in the direct sun, and as soon as I get inside during the day, I start pouring sweat.

So, yes, I hope Placido picks me up tomorrow. I will have to get up an hour before dawn and pack everything up to be ready to go at 7. If Placido doesn’t show up, it means carting everything the quarter mile or so back to my camp site and setting up the tent again.

I must mention a bizarre seed pod that I noticed right away here. They have recently split open and released their seeds, so many are joined at the base and open on the other end. They are soot black (or reddish, after I rinsed one off), as though they were burned, with a cracked surface. I have no idea what plant produces them. It looks a bit like a catclaw or some other prickly bush.

5:35 p.m. The middle of the day has all been about surviving the sun. I took a walk down to the beach looking for rocks. I first strolled to the north end and then all the way to the south end; I’d been to the north end before, but not the south. The rocks that attracted me were those with bands of some other rock than that comprising the body of the rock. I found one for Deborah, one for Zen, and one for me. I know Deborah and I appreciate rocks and the memories they hold for us of the places of their origins. Perhaps this special rock from Isla Santa Catalina can be Zen’s first such memento, albeit one of Grampy’s.

I was surprised to discover that when I passed the gull nest, which was pretty much the other side of my canyon as delineated by cliffs almost reaching the shore, there was another beach and broad canyon on the other (south) side. I continued on to the end, and just before I reached it I found a short sandy stretch of beach (all the rest of the beach was comprised of smooth rocks) that hugged the cliff. One of those sandy bits had a small cavelet consisting of a pocket with an overhang. It was late enough that it was all in shade, so I stretched out and took a break (with a bit of a nap) that lasted almost two hours. I even considered sleeping there tonight so I could pack up everything tonight instead of in the early dark tomorrow. There were two catches, though. It would mean transferring everything from my camp’s current location (which is probably over a mile away), which would entail several trips. Also, it was right on the beach, and I’m not sure how much sleep I would get with the waves breaking about 30 feet away. (I’m not worried about getting hit by the surf; the cave is at a considerably higher level.) It’s tempting, though.

When I got back to camp it was still quite hot (at 4 p.m.), so I decided to have my dinner early in Melissa’s shaded chair under the partial shade of a palo verde. I had another (my last) mango and the last two avocados with the last of the cheese and the remainder of my first bag of corn thins. That should simplify packing a bit.

As I was eating, I started thinking about how I came to be camped here. It began when neither Ramon nor I, both novices to this island, could spot Playa Burritos, which was my destination and where I told the official who issued my permit I’d be. When I saw this beach, with the broad canyon leading up into the steep mountain, I told Ramon he could drop me here. He had been pointedly looking at his watch for a while, which told me this was taking longer than he had expected, and that was a factor in my decision. In retrospect, though, I completely forgot at the time that I had read that the best places to find the rattlers were the washes on the west coast of the island. By the time I remembered that bit of information, Ramon was long gone and I was ensconced on the east coast.

So I went through an interesting process of beating myself up for not remembering that fact in time. Though I had found two rattlesnakes, how many more would I have found had I been on the special west coast?

It was an interesting lesson in how we are capable of diminishing our actual experience when we compare it to an alternative, fanciful one. Why couldn’t I just appreciate all I’ve seen and done here without a part of me aching for that grass on the other side of the fence?

Besides, the one thing I got here was absolute solitude. Before I got on the boat, Eddy (who had been translating and who learned from the official all about Playa Burritos) told me that there would be fishermen there and that I should be careful of leaving my possessions unattended. Well, I certainly don’t have to worry about that here. A small boat just went by (the second since I’ve been here), but my tent is not visible from the water.

After all these ruminations, I’ve decided I am lucky to be here even if I may have seen more snakes had I gone to Burritos.

April 16, 2015

I crawled into my tent by 8 p.m. last night after a short hike up the canyon. I guess the day before was my one day of seeing snakes. I’m just grateful I got to see two of the special serpents.

It was still light when I lay on Eddy’s slight sleeping bag on the Therm-a-Rest pad. I intended to get up at 6 a.m. so I could be packed up by my 7 a.m. rendezvous with Placido, but I slept fitfully and got up around 5:30. I knew there was a very real possibility that I might have to unpack it all and set up the tent again if my ride didn’t show up because of wind. And it didn’t bode well that the wind blew intermittently all night.

Our plan, as I mentioned before, was that conditions would determine if I were to be picked up today or the next day or the next. This was a problem on several accounts. I had done so much hiking in the relentless heat, especially that first day, that I had less than a gallon of water left. On top of that, in spite of my drinking more than I’d planned, I was dehydrated and sapped of strength to the point of nausea. I could tell I was pushing my body to its limit.

Consequently, contemplating another day in the heat didn’t inspire enthusiasm for more opportunities to see additional rattlesnakes. Instead, I knew that my only hope of making my water last was to find a spot in the shade (good luck with that!), lie down and sip water sparingly. My sea cave sounded like the ticket, though that would only work after noon or so. Melissa’s shade chair would have to suffice until then.

The point I’m making is that instead of another day being a blessing of serpentine potential, it would be a matter of trying to endure another 24 hours and making my water last.

I was packed and in place on the rocky beach by 6:30 a.m. An orange fingernail moon had risen as I broke camp, and I watched the sun rise as I contemplated my fate. Where would I be in 24 hours? I hoped to hell it wasn’t in the sea cave. As special a place as this was, I was ready for a shower and a nice mattress. The wind and the rough sea before me didn’t bode well. . .

I had Eddy’s marine radio, and I put out a call to Placido every ten minutes or so. Seven a.m. came and went, and then 7:30. A couple of minutes later I saw a little boat in the distance to the south. Almost immediately I heard Placido on the radio. I got my gear closer to the water’s edge and he pulled up as close as he dared in the choppy water. He indicated I should take off my boots and hand me my gear: How different from my arrival, when Ramon pulled his boat smoothly far enough ashore that I could hop ashore and receive my gear without getting my feet wet. I finally handed him the last item, though it took three attempts as he repeatedly had to pull back out 20 feet or so and try another angle. Finally, it was just my body that needed to be loaded, and as the boat drifted away from shore I did a pull-up on the side of the boat and flopped myself unceremoniously belly first onto the deck.

We made introductions, and I told him how grateful I was that he had made the trip today in spite of the rough seas. He told me the forecast for tomorrow was even worse. He also mentioned that this side of the island had calmer water than the other—where we were headed. I thought, “Uh oh. This could get intense.”

He gave me a pad for my seat, but I knew from my trip to the island that I wouldn’t be sitting. Later, I saw the spurned pad almost blow out of the boat.

As we rounded the southern tip of the island, I was determined to try to see Playa Burritos or the distinctive hole in the rock at Punta Elef. To my surprise that latter was clearly visible, and with that information at hand, the former was determined. My only explanation for our inability to find such a distinctive feature on our way in was the fact that the lighting was poor, as the sun had not yet risen.

Now that we were west of the island, Placido’s assessment of the severity of the chop proved accurate. This is where words just can’t describe the trip to Loreto. I thought several times, when I was capable of forming a thought, that I wish I had a waterproof GoPro to record what was happening to me. Nobody would believe it without proof.

Though indescribable, it’s the human inclination to try to find analogs. So after much rumination, I settled on a hybrid between mogul skiing and riding a bucking bronco. I had a death grip on one thin aluminum strut that with its counterpart on the right (which served as Placido’s hand-hold) supported the structure that in better weather served to shade the deck while squatting with bent knees to absorb the incessant pounding as the boat belly-flopped over wave after wave.

Sometimes the boat would fly up a swell and through the air before smashing into the next wave. It required 100% attention to try to guess the impact and adjust the give in my knees and back and ankles accordingly. Several times I misjudged and my left ankle would hyperflex with attendant pain. (Probably this ankle was vulnerable because it was the one that suffered a hyperflexion injury on the island two days before.)

The one constant was the pounding on my heels (I was barefoot because I had removed my boots to wade out to the boat), and very quickly they felt bruised. Actually, there was a second constant: Because I was semi-squatting to absorb the pounding, my quadriceps muscles were constantly contracted. I remember thinking that I won’t be able to walk for a couple of days after this.

By far the worst of it was the journey between the west side of Isla Santa Catalina and the neighboring Isla Montserrat. Whitecaps were the norm, and I estimated the larger waves to measure 6-8 feet between trough and peak. That was about the time Placido noticed that the two flimsy Phillips screws securing the mount of the shade stanchion he was clutching for balance (though he had the advantage of also holding the steering wheel with his left hand) had backed out with the pounding. He slowed the boat and got a screwdriver and tightened them, but five minutes later they were loose again.

He repeated this performance several more times and even searched his toolbox for a replacement screw, but eventually he gave up. I happened to glace over just as the forward screw popped out and over the edge into the water.

I yelled out, “Screw overboard!” I doubt that he understood the English, but one glance told him the story.

At this point, things looked bleak. I was being pounded so forcefully that sometimes my butt almost hit the deck, sometimes my head almost hit the box holding the gear in the front, and sometimes my feet would fly two feet off the ground. My death grip on the aluminum bar was all that kept me on board. Meanwhile, Placido ran the very real risk of having his aluminum support pole suddenly jerk free and pitch him overboard. Then what?

I didn’t know how to drive the boat and I didn’t know Spanish for him to give me a quick crash course. He was wearing no life vest, so should I dive overboard to attempt to save him? I had a thin neoprene vest Eddy insisted I wear which he said would keep me afloat.

Blessedly, the seas between Isla Montserrat and Isla del Carmen were marginally less rough, but every time I looked over at the single remaining screw, half out and flexing madly back and forth with every pounding boom of boat on wave, my stomach clenched. I finally had to just trust and let go, reminiscent of a harrowing nocturnal, rainy Costa Rican bus ride eighteen years ago. I want to live, but if I die, I die. There is literally nothing I can do about it.

Just shy of Isla del Carmen the water turned the most gorgeous tropical turquoise and the sea calmed significantly. Placido slowed the boat and somehow found a replacement screw. He asked me to steer the boat as we passed between Carmen and Isla Danzante to the southwest.

We were on the home stretch, and while the chop got worse again, it didn’t approach that memorable level between Santa Catalina and Montserrat.

I could see Loreto in the distance, and the thought of an end to the incessant crouching and pounding gave me the fuel to endure.

We pulled into the dock 3½ hours after we started. (Later, using Google Earth, I found out that we had traversed 54 miles each way to and from the island.)

Pelicans and terns dove just feet away from the boat as we pulled up to the dock. The outward-bound trip had been a shade over two hours. I paid each brother the same fee for the trip outward and inward bound, and I joked with Placido that Ramon should give him a third to account for the differing difficulty they faced.

When I stepped off the boat onto the dock while Placido steered it toward its berth so we could unload my gear, I stumbled like a drunkard for several yards before I got my land legs. I looked back at the boat, which was named “Cristhian,” (close enough for me) and muttered a “Thank you, Jesus” for that screw that somehow stayed attached against all odds.

I’m not a religious man, but that was a miracle.

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