Escaping from San Diego and 4th of July weekend that was destined to be as exhausting as it was epic, my husband, Francisco, and I jumped in the car – destination, Sea of Cortez as far as Bahia de San Luis Gonzaga (“Gonzaga Bay”). We confirmed we had our camping gear, snorkels, and passports and headed straight east to the Calexico/Mexicali border (where it was a brutal 111 degrees in the shade) and then due south, stopping in San Felipe before making our final push to Gonzaga Bay. We’d heard that the landscape would become increasingly impressive, but we were still in awe of the craggy mountains that led us from the border to San Felipe, and literally “ooo”-ed and “ahh”-ed over the turquoise sea set against the giant Saguaro cactus that marked the last leg of our drive. In addition to incredible beauty, the drive is filled with a lot of funky touches – improbable homes, cheeky signs – of the sort that seem to unify out of the way desert places.
Turning left after one of Gonzaga Bay’s two local runways, Francisco and I were hoping to snag some shade on beach and were lucky to find that a few of the palapas rented by Rancho Grande, the general store, were still available. We settled in for glorious days of rest, relaxation, and time spent in the water. (Actually the first night we settled next to an extended family that had a raucous sing along until 3 a.m. and then were back at it with the sun three hours later – exactly the kind of weekend we had bowed out of in San Diego! They were very welcoming to us, but the next day we made our excuses and moved down the beach.) Thankfully the recent heat wave had broken and temperatures were down to a workable 90 in the day, 75 at night. It was still hot, but I love to camp in the heat – you can live in your swimsuit and stray from the fire without bundling against the chill. We were only uncomfortably warm each day at 6 am when the sun rose over the water, straight into our tent (a plan to hang a tarp from the palapa never made it past the concept phase).
Aside from the Rancho Grande the only commercial enterprise in Gonzaga Bay is a hotel and restaurant called Alfonsina’s, where we lunched each day. The fish tacos are solid, the shrimp a la diabla is no joke, and they show shaky broadcasts of important soccer matches (we caught the Confederation Cup final). They also rent kayaks and stand up paddle boards and arranged for us to go out on a boat tour with two other couples. In front of “Lovers’ Beach,” as our captain called it, Francisco and I followed a fever of maybe fifty rays around in circles (yes, the group is called a “fever” I just looked, I knew it was something cool). We dove down and swam above them until we could no longer keep up to them with our borrowed fins and our full bellies. In an improbably beautiful cove, we crossed paths with a naval operation (there’s a base right next to Alfoninsa’s). One of the naval boats waited patiently for us because our boatmate was swimming directly in front of it. He was snorkelling for the first time ever, completely oblivious to everything except the magic of being underwater.
We were headed home along the coast, looking for whale sharks, the first of which had reportedly been hanging around for the season. Francisco and I were beginning to think we were whale shark repellent, as we had narrowly missed them at various spots over the years. At that point our three-hour tour had become almost four hours, and – although I was still looking ahead, actively searching – I had resigned myself to heading home after a blissful, but whale shark-less day when we saw the telltale fins.
Francisco and I pulled our fins on and pushed our masks onto our faces. We dropped in to the water and watched two gargantuan fish swimming parallel to us, until they noticed us, and turned slightly away to the right. I wanted to give chase and stay close enough to watch their movements, but was mindful of maintaining my distance and keeping away from their tails, per the Captain’s orders. I kept my trajectory, hoping the whale sharks would head back my direction. All of a sudden the larger shark turned left and continued on its original course, but then turned slight left again, and was making a diagonal directly to me. I know many people have swam with whale sharks, many times but – at the risk of being ridiculous – I have to say that although I realize whale sharks are filter feeders, when that giant gaping mouth was coming at me I couldn’t help but think about how many times over the body would fit inside of that shark.
Eventually the whale sharks (including the one who obviously pivoted away before it reached me) grew tired of us and we rejoined our new friends on the boat and headed in. We shared a drink and a sunset, and then settled in to listen to the waves from the almost deserted stretch of palapas. In the morning we rented paddle boards and spent a peaceful hour all alone out on the water (aside from one curious sea lion) before reluctantly making the return trip north. Next time we’d love to make a trip farther down the coast and keep exploring.
Bobbi-Jo is an ocean-obsessed diver, writer, painter, and budding marine conservationist. The world’s wild places bring her joy and awe and she hopes to inspire respect for and protection of those places. Relentlessly curious, Bobbi-Jo has an insatiable appetite for travel, art, and hot sauce. Follow her @BobbiJo_Dobush.