When my girlfriend Karen suggested that a road trip south to the Bahia de Los Angeles in Baja California early one November would be the best way to celebrate her birthday, my answer was a fast yes.
Midway down the length of Baja on the Gulf side, the Bahia de Los Angeles, or Bay of LA is a large, calm body of water set into a crusty desert-meets-sea landscape. Amenities include gas, a museum, hotels, restaurants, and a clinic, but the little village (population: 500) is housed in a paint-faded accumulation of squat buildings. Even though writer John Steinbeck complained in the 1940’s about modernization, the Bay of LA is decidedly un-touristy.
The air is redolent of sport fishing, the area’s major attraction. Home to an astonishing variety of game fish, dolphins, sea turtles, manta rays, and ten species of migratory whales, the Bahia is also one of the most predictable summer feeding stopovers for the mysterious Whale Shark.
The Whale Shark is no whale. It is actually the world’s biggest, if toothless, shark. An adult can reach 60 feet. Their slate-gray backs are spotted like stars in a night sky. With wide scoop-mouths, they feed on micro-organisms near the water’s surface.
We took a leisurely two days to drive to the Bahia from San Diego, with a stopover in the desert town of Catavina. Our guide book said gas was available there, and it was – from guys who sold it in glass bottles.
The next day, we drove through desert forests of elephant trees to rival anything from the creative pen of Dr. Seuss before reaching the Bahia proper. After spending a first near-sleepless night of windy tent camping near the famed sea turtle rescue facility, we headed across town to Camp Gecko. Tourist season had just ended, and it was (blissfully) empty.
“If you need anything,” Doc Abraham, the bronzed Camp owner called out from the window of his Bronco on the morning of our second day, “just take it from one of the other palapas” — small houses with white walls, tile floors, and thatch roofs. We picked a unit with a tiny kitchen that was clean enough, but that looked to be ideal for the drying of wetsuits or for the gutting and cleaning of game fish, both of which I was certain had happened there many times.
We put our inflatable mattress on the top deck of the palapa and slept under the thatch. Mornings, we were awakened by the sound of a lonely gull mewling from across the bay, or by the dry thrush of a raven’s wing flying through the camp grounds.
If Camp Gecko’s hot water supply was unpredictable, the plumbing was another story entirely. The town’s generator shut down every night, leaving enough water in the pipes for one morning flush – or not.
“Don’t go in there,” Karen would warn.
“Don’t worry. I won’t.”
Otherwise, our days were those Corona moments you see in commercials. When not snorkeling in the warm green soup that is the Bahia, pelicans cannonballing into the water around me, I lay in a string hammock on the porch while Karen walked or napped or did yoga on the beach.
Late afternoons, we eased our Civic down the dirt road, past a stand of cordon cactus where buzzards nested every night, crapping until the rocks beneath were frosted white like cupcakes from hell, on around the old hillside cemetery with the headstones all catching sunsets, and down into town where we found margaritas deep as tide pools, sweet breaded scallops, and fish enchiladas.
We met one of the locals, an old-timer named Herman. He had published a book called “Baja’s Hidden Gold.” He told long-winded jokes. He knew all about the whale sharks.
“Plankin is what they eat,” he mispronounced. “The bay’s lousy with it.”
But the whale sharks were late. There hadn’t been any in the Bahia all summer, and Doc Abraham was thinking out loud that maybe they weren’t coming at all.
Our last morning was spent kayaking on the salt. By noon, we noted that our two-seater had made little progress. The onshore chop acted as a sort of glue that kept us in place. We gave up and just floated, dangling our feet in the water. I dozed off.
But at some point, I became aware of the Doc’s Chris Craft burbling a few yards off our bow. He had spotted something, and the guests on his boat kept shuffling from one side to the other to see whatever the action was.
“Look! Look! See it?” Karen said. I did not. “There it is again – see it now?” No. Whatever it was, it was coy and only slapping the surface water now and then with the tip of a black flipper.
“Over there,” the Doc yelled to us from the bridge. “Paddle faster! Faster! Faster! It’s getting away!”
When I finally did see the Whale Shark, it was a few feet under our kayak — and rising.
Listed as a vulnerable species, boaters and divers are asked maintain a distance of at least 10 feet. However, when a 20-footer is under your kayak, you don’t think about the rules of engagement. You hang on and back paddle like crazy. But when the shark’s white head broke through the surface next to Karen, the cavernous mouth wide open, I thought it was going to bite the kayak in half.
Instead, it leaned into the whitewater we were churning. I heard the Doc laughing.
“Feed it,” laughed the Doc from the bridge. “It’s eating!”
It turns out that the Whale Shark was doing a tail stand in the Bahia while guzzling down our ‘plankin’ rich paddle wash. I felt small. I felt giddy.
And then, it was gone. It slipped beneath the surface of the water. We never saw it again.
Because eventual spasms in my back (from all that paddling) crippled me into the shape of a pretzel, Karen sat me on an ice pack and drove us home.
A postscript of the journey: we set up house together in a hundred-year-old cottage overlooking San Diego bay. Perhaps we were bonded by all that paddling, but I have to wonder if it wasn’t something else. After all, how many couples can say they had lunch with a Whale Shark?
What & Where:
Camp Gecko (Abraham Vasquez, owner; email@example.com)
2009 Travel Writing Contest: HONORABLE MENTION