Exploration Science Part II

Mexico! Having niftily skirted the worst of the weather systems
dumping copious amounts of rain onto everything around us we tied up
in Ensenada on Friday evening. We even managed to get some sailing in!
Since leaving Catalina Island we have been blessed with whales during
sunrises, bright yellow moonrises and dolphin companions on night
watch.

Sea Dragon at anchor in Cat Harbor

Our first encounter on departing Catalina however was a little more
sombre, coming across the carcass of a (presumed) grey whale calf. The
sharks had already been at the rich blubber and a few tenacious gulls
continued to peck even as Sea Dragon approached. Despite the sad
circumstances it was a good opportunity for the group to inspect a
specimen like that and speculate on possible causes and times of
death. We concluded it can’t have been too long ago, considering we
could still bear the smell of it, even downwind… What types of shark
had been nibbling was of particular interest to the shark expert on
board!

Dead Whale Calf off Catalina

We covered the rest of the 85 miles north to Santa Cruz Island over
night, timing our arrival at the Painted Cave beautifully just as the
sun started to peep over the horizon. As if in greeting the sea was
astoundingly alive with activity. The sea lions were out in force,
basking on their backs and facing the new day flippers up. Groups of
dolphins flitted around them, initially masking the presence of a pod
of humpback whales in amongst the fray. They had politely waited for
every crew member to make their way on deck before revealing
themselves. After a few minutes they decided we had better get on with
our day and stop distracting us, so with some magnificent waves of
their flukes they dived into the depths.

Sunrise in the Channel Islands

We launched the dinghies and headed into the gaping maw of the Painted
Cave, California’s longest cave. To give some perspective, we could
have reversed Sea Dragon into the entrance with her 96 foot mast,
although that would be inadvisable… The cave quickly narrows and
winds, so when we turned off the flashlights we were left without a
hint of sunlight. The intimidating roar of the swell and rather a lot
of indignant sea lions reverberated through the thick air. Definitely
a close quarters dinghy driving experience that left my heart in my
mouth. The intensity is somewhat increased by the pungent wafts of
what according to Eric could only be sea lion farts.

The entrance to the Painted Cave

Over breakfast we processed all that had already happened that morning
and continued to  motor the last few miles to Pelican Harbor for the
next adventure. We deposited the group on the pretty pebble beach to
investigate the different terrestrial flora and fauna found in the
northern Channel Islands, most importantly the adorable and endemic
Island Fox. Meanwhile Eric, Shanley and I took Sea Dragon further
along the rugged coast to Prisoners Harbor, our rendezvous point. The
afternoon was dedicated to the water, exploring the bay by snorkel and
then by ROV, once the water had been declared decidedly too cold.

The next morning we rose with the sun, accompanied once again by
whales, whose presence made the chilly start to the day immeasurably
more pleasant. The objective for the morning was to find the wreck of
the Winfield Scott which had sunk off Anacapa in 185(?). This proved
quite difficult, not least because there were various conflicting sets
of coordinates for the site alongside a rather imprecise map.
Nonetheless, the siting of a hornshark and some tiny octopi amongst
the kelp in the sunshine made up for the lack of distinct wreck.

Anacapa Island

With that our time on the islands had come to an end, so we headed
south past the spectacular spines of Anacapa and set course for San
Diego. The crew quickly settled back into the watch rhythm. The
weather was doing its best to avoid monotony becoming an issue,
blessing some watches with non-stop rain, others with some proper
sailing (apparently we even hit 11 knots at one point!), some with
neither and others with a nice variation. The dolphins playing
alongside Sea Dragon though were enjoyed by all. A few curve balls
were also thrown in, such as a Navy carrier conducting flight
operations without navigation lights, distinguishable only as a
hulking silhouette agains the horizon.

We arrived in San Diego rather damp but in good spirits. The
introduction of music to night watches were a revelation. Setting Eric
ashore in his best shirt to impress the customs officers, we danced
and dodged around the frigates and tugs coming into the busy harbor
whilst we waited. Having been suitably charming, Eric returned and we
were free to continue south toward Ensenada!

It was a very pleasant last day of sailing, the wind even stayed
around for the whole passage, from a favorable direction as well!
Sporadic whale sightings continued all day. Some were definitely
humpbacks and greys, but possible fin whales and risso’s dolphins were
also thrown into the mix. We beat the sunset into port, leaving the
evening free for the crew to enjoy the shore luxuries which had been
missed most sorely over the week; ice cream and showers which didn’t
require body contortion and advanced balancing skills seemed to top
the list.

Dolphins as we sail into Ensenada

Suddenly we were onto the last day of the trip. It had snuck up on us.
After breakfast some time was dedicated to identifying some of the
many species that had been spotted and photographed over the course of
the week. In the afternoon we thought we’d make the most of being
right by a whale migration route and see if we could spot some more.
We were met with astounding success. The highlight was a pod of 5 or 6
humpbacks heading straight toward the boat and treating us to some
spectacular breaches. There were spouts and fins in almost every
direction we could look, so close often that we could hear them
exhale. Exhilarated and rather in awe of these beautiful and majestic
creatures we left them to it and headed for shore a last time.
However, watching the practices of some of the whale watching tour
operators out of Ensenada left a slightly bitter taste in our mouths
as they harangued the whales, getting far too close and following them
with deafeningly loud engines.

Breaching Humpback

We finished off this wonderful trip at the local craft brewery with
some excellent beer and fish tacos in the sunset. So now it is just
the three of us on board Sea Dragon again, waiting for the next crew
to join and be able to set sail for Hawaii. Having had a such a
brilliant start to the season, it is now looking like that wait might
be a slightly longer one. The Coronavirus chaos is catching up to us
too. For now we will be here in Ensenada, making the most of the 6
weeks by which we have postponed our crossing. With plenty of boat
projects to see to, lots of excellent Mexican food to eat and much
exploring to be done, that prospect doesn’t seem too daunting!

Thanks to our wonderful group from this voyage for the photos – it was a great start to the season, and we look forward to sailing again once the Coronavirus is past.