Swimming With Stingrays in Bahia de los Angeles
A travel essay I wrote a few years ago about a trip to Baja California in Mexico.
In Bahia de los Angeles, on the gulf coast of Baja California, there are no signs to warn you about the stingrays. In the United States, a ubiquity of signs alert one to the variety of dangers faced in daily life: deer crossing the road, doorway steps, speed bumps. In Mexico, such signs are extravagant. The day Dakota and I arrived in Bahia de los Angeles, we spent the afternoon splashing, swimming, and wading in the warm water of the bay, concerned only with avoiding sunburn. It wasn’t until the next day, walking into town along the beach, that we noticed the stingrays in the shallows, right against the waterline. Lots of them.
“Hey, look! A stingray!”
“Oh, cool! Hey – there’s another one!”
“There’s another one over there!”
We both have biology backgrounds, and enjoy discovering new plants and animals in places we’ve never been. So we were excited, if not a little surprised, to see so many stingrays so close. But it slowly dawned on us that we had perhaps been lucky the previous day not to end up pinned under a dogpile of angry stingrays, all viciously going at us with their stingers: Two more gringos vanish in the wilds of Baja California.
Actually – although we didn’t know it at the time – most stingray species are non-aggressive, and “attacks” are usually the result of someone accidentally trodding on one, being stung as the surprised stingray tries to escape from underneath the unexpected foot. And you can’t really blame him for that. Besides, the Urolophus stingrays of Baja California are rarely fatal, and will typically only give you a painful gash in the leg (requiring stitches), vomiting, a bit of breathing trouble, some paralysis, and a good story to tell friends back home.
But we weren’t that adventurous, and spent the rest of the trip doing the “stingray shuffle” – shuffling our feet when in the water to give the small aquatic landmines plenty of warning and time to glide into deeper water.
Like the gracefully lazy stingrays, which will strike only if bothered, Bahia de los Angeles (Bay of the Angels) is a study in contrasts. In the mudflats near town, the high tide line was marked with hundreds of dead rotting squid, but the ground among them was alive with thousands of fiddler crabs, the males frantically waving their enlarged claw up and down, up and down, trying to attract females and repel rivals. The faint “ticking” sound of tiny crab feet on mud merged into a white noise of vitality, and was an audible counterpoint to the putrid smell from the squid. Gulls, too, ambled among the squid, picking at the freshest casualties, leaving older ones to dry in the sun.
The slim beach curved around the bay for miles, dividing the beautifully clear bay, packed with sealife, and the rugged, barren desert mountains. The chocolates, tans, and salmons of the mountains intensify the blue of the bay. As we continued into town, we could make out with binoculars a few scraggly bushes on mountainsides, but little else. And the more we stared the more we realized how empty it all was beyond the thin town. There were no houses, no power lines, no water – just rocks, cactus, and sky for miles in all directions. Exploring such a wilderness is not for the idly prepared. But it was easy to enjoy the stark view while shuffling through the warm bay waters, with no worries about heat stroke or thirst.
We were nonetheless parched by the time we reached the bay’s namesake town. We strolled along the dusty main street lined with small grocery markets and taquerias; proprietors lounged in plastic chairs and hammocks in the shade, waiting for customers. Occasionally a rusty pickup would slow at the lone stop sign in town, and stray dogs kept to the shadows as the afternoon heat approached. At the school, a large dirt area held a soccer field and baseball diamond marked out with half-buried tires. We stopped at one of the groceries, where a back room was lined with a bank of DSL-wired computers and a satellite phone. We continued through the dusty, anemic town clutching ice-cold Gatorades.
Behind the gravel and cacti gardens of the town plaza sits a tiny volunteer-staffed cultural and natural history museum crowded with exhibits and trinkets of Bahia de los Angeles. Through displays of artifacts and faded, uncaptioned photos, the museum walked through the history of the area: Arrowheads and baskets of the early native inhabitants transitioned into leather saddles and mining tools, and finally photos of past town councils and sea turtle harvests. After serving as a supply port to the inland mission of San Borja, the town was mostly defined by ranching, gold mining, and fishing. Gringos began showing up for the sport fishing in the 1940s, but the remoteness kept it off of most tourist itineraries until only recently. In the museum’s display on local natural history, we saw more hints of what awaited the careless visitor: sharks, toxic sea urchins, venomous stonefish, scorpions, rattlesnakes. Skeletons of a sea turtle and baby whale hinted at the gentler side of the Bay.
Walking along the beach later that evening we were reminded of the dance between beauty and danger. We ran into a retired American hauling a red Zodiac out of the water, his dinner still flopping on the bottom. He must have noticed my tripod.
“What’re you taking pictures of?”
I swept my hand around in a grand gesture: “Anything and everything – it’s a beautiful place.”
“They say this is one of the 25 places you need to see before you die.”
Like many of the gringos here, he had a modest and slightly ramshackle place on the beach, and spent much of his time snowbirding down here, even in the summer. He was a large man, with a shock of white hair contrasting with his fiery red face and torso; his tanned, leathery skin reminded me of the photos of sea turtles we had seen at the museum. He squinted out over the water, staring almost vacantly at the horizon as he described the abundant delicacies of the bay: “Take one of those squid that’s just washed up on shore, dice it up and fry it in a little butter – best thing you’ve ever tasted.” He gave us directions to a hidden cove where “you can fill a five gallon drum with butter clams in an hour.”
He described the whales among the islands offshore, and the docile 70-foot whale sharks that breed in the southern end of the bay.
“But you’ve got to be careful – it’s a really dangerous place.”
“Yeah, we saw some stingrays this morning.”
He ignored our recent brush with death.
“The wind will pick up out of the west in the afternoon, and can make it tough to get back to shore. I’m not just talking about swells, but goddamned three-foot chop that’ll swamp your boat.” The swearing increased as he grew more intense. “If you’re out there and you see that goddamned dust coming off the mountains to the west, you better fucking head in right away – that wind comes up and you’re out on the water, you’re fucking dead.”
He hammered his point home with a story about an ecology research team led by Baja veteran Gary Polis from UC Davis in California. On a day in late March 2000, the group of twenty researchers took two boats to one of the islands guarding the mouth of the bay, looking for spiders and scorpions. Returning that afternoon, the wind picked up out of the west. Reaching speeds of at least 30 mph, it whipped the sea into swells of up to six feet; the boats became separated in the surf, and one barely made it back to port. Polis’s smaller boat was quickly swamped and capsized, leaving the nine researchers aboard clinging to the boat in the growing waves. But slowly some lost their grip and drifted off; Polis apparently suffered a heart attack, and disappeared under the waves. After 3½ hours, the remaining four swam for a nearby island and were later rescued. Five of the nine, including Polis, drowned.
The local running our campground tried to assuage our newfound terror.
“No, it is fine – the winds are very predictable this time of year, it is only really bad during the winter and spring.” We remembered the howling gusts that had kept us awake the last few nights. “No, no, it is fine. You just have to be careful.”
And the stingrays, too, seemed less malevolent compared to our first encounter. We’d see them while snorkeling – their eyes seemed to be narrowed threateningly and they appeared ready to pounce, but would instead casually glide away when we came near. They are beautiful, graceful animals, and swimming with them was a vicarious thrill. I had an impulsive desire to reach down and try to pet one, not as a masculine test of nerves, but rather as a way to acknowledge the innocent danger they posed; to let them know I understood.
Later, as the setting sun began warming the color of the islands, I sat rocking in a kayak among the gentle swells above the stingrays. I gazed back at the desert shoreline covered in cactus and spiny trees, and thought of the scorpions and coyotes that were beginning to stir. As I began heading in a light breeze picked up out of the west, raising the swells a bit, but I knew I’d be fine. As long as I shuffled my feet when I got to the shallows.