I’ll never forget the time I met Sherbert the kitten. It was late afternoon and Brian and I had driven all day from Tucson, Arizona to reach our boat in San Carlos, Mexico. Our Sprinter van bounced into the marina parking area, which was just a dusty patch of ground adorned with a big green dumpster. This part of Mexico is pretty casual. There are no malls here, just the ocean, friendly Mexicans, and a kitten who needed a family.
We were elated to be here and anxious to see our boat. We opened the van doors to a wall of hot, humid air. We stepped outside and walked toward our boat, and then Sherbert appeared.
She was cute as could be with an orange coat and a furry white chest patch. She was small and painfully skinny, though, and kept her distance. She meowed loudly from a safe perimeter, around ten feet away, as we moved things from the van to the boat.
She must be hungry. What could I feed her? I searched my food supplies from the previous season and found several cans of Costco chicken breast. What kitten wouldn’t love that?
She did love it, especially the broth, yet remained skittish and ran away when I got within a couple feet of her.
My prediction was that Sherbert and I would be cuddling by the end of my 8 day stay and she would turn into a great boat cat. Brian wasn’t sure about that and called Sherbert “semi-feral”.
During the first couple days I would simply set Sherbert’s food a few feet away and sit with her as she ate. On the third day I set the food close to me and sat down on the dock next to our boat. Slowly Sherbert realized she would need to expand her comfort zone if she wanted to eat, so she inched closer.
She began to lap up some chicken broth and I reached out my hand to sneak a quick pet on her back. Instead of running, she stopped and peered at me with a confused expression as I withdrew my hand. I waited a second, and then petted her again in the same manner. She looked at me, eyes alert and watchful. Then, the third time I touched her she actually rose up to meet my hand!
It was an exciting moment, and soon Brian came out to celebrate Sherbert’s first petting by taking some photos of us and enjoying the loving scene taking place on the dock in front of the boat.
I grew to love Sherbert more as she took her first steps onto my lap and later let me pick her up. She came running when I called her name and enjoyed being petted as much as possible. Brian and I would walk to the beach with Sherbert trailing behind us. She played in the sand and we tried to teach her how to hunt crabs.
She would be a wonderful boat cat and I’ve always wanted a cat who would enjoy travelling on the boat with us. But we had plans to fly back to the US for the holidays and there are strict laws about crossing a border with an animal. We wouldn’t be allowed to bring Sherbert until she’d been vaccinated and then cleared a 30 day waiting period. We also plan to sail the South Pacific which is not pet friendly, either. Imported pets are subject to lengthy quarantines.
Sadly, Sherbert couldn’t become part of our family but she was starting to get a little plumper. She was getting pretty friendly, so I hoped someone would want her as a pet. I asked a couple people who walked by and they just laughed. Leaving her at the marina was a heartbreaking idea. One day she would come around looking for us and find only an empty dock, not a big white boat full of love. She would continue to meow at people, but no one would know she was more than just a stray. She had become used to sitting on laps and eating regular meals. I had given her a taste of what it was like to belong with someone, and now I couldn’t take that away from her. What was I going to do?
I started calling and emailing the local animal rescue organizations but none of them were taking cats. One lady I spoke with offered to list Sherbert in a newsletter, which was great, but then a couple quiet days passed with no calls or emails.
Then I got a very exciting phone message from a lady named Gwen. She wanted Sherbert. Her home was a cat sanctuary and it was just a few miles away.
I cried and felt so happy. Sherbert wouldn’t continue to return to an empty dock; instead she would have a better life. Gwen’s call came just in time since we were scheduled to leave the next day.
I prepared a fabric covered box for Sherbert’s transport, and cut several holes in the top. It was easy to get Sherbert into the box, and she was fairly mellow as Brian drove to Gwen’s home while I held her box. She poked her tiny nose out of the holes in the top of the box a couple times, but otherwise settled in for the ride.
When we arrived at Gwen’s house we knew we were in the right place. Several cats lounged luxuriously in front of a tall iron gate. Gwen stood in front of the gate, waving at us. Pink walls and green trees framed the front of the house, high on a hill near the ocean. We entered through the iron gate and then walked in the front door. A gentle rottweiler and a smaller, elderly white dog greeted us, along with three cats. The entry way had high walls painted with a brightly colored jungle scene.
We handed Sherbert’s box to Gwen and she gently lifted the lid, cooed at Sherbert and placed her in a kennel. Sherbert immediately began eating dry cat food from a small dish. I sat down next to her and said goodbye. A friendly cat rubbed against me, welcoming me immediately into the fold.
We walked outside and chatted with Gwen for awhile as cats rubbed against us. Brian enjoyed watching a very acrobatic black cat who jumped skillfully from a tree to a fence to a car and back again.
Gwen said she wants a kitten and may keep Sherbert as a permanent resident in her home. Gwen also sends cats to the US to be adopted and Sherbert may be adopted in the US someday. Either way, Sherbert is in loving, competent hands and is hopefully being petted and fed at this very moment. It was sad we could not keep her but I helped her find a better life, and I can’t remember feeling better about anything.
Gwen was absolutely lovely, a bundle of blonde energy with a thirty year history of helping animals. I still get misty eyed thinking of our conversation about providing dogs and cats with vet care from the back of a car in the desert, Gwen’s battle with cancer, and her desire to be well and travel the world with her daughter.
Bless you, Gwen, and may all your dreams and wishes come true. You deserve it. Meeting you reminded me of the vast amount of good just one person can do in this world.
And thanks for helping someone I love. I’ll never forget it.
Sometimes the pinball would hit good things and lots of happy lights and sounds erupted. Other times, it missed its target completely and fell down the chute, feeling lost and not sure where to go next.
This summer was a mixture of these two pinball states, and we remained in motion nearly the entire time. I lost the balance and simplicity I enjoyed about nomad life. My life lacked stability and there was no element of simplicity anymore. Somewhere I crossed a line I did not even know was there, and I felt it deep in my bones.
A sense of belonging is a basic human need, and I moved around too much and spent too little time with loved ones to feel like I belonged anywhere this summer. I need a community, at least part of the year. I need to belong to something larger than this isolated, nomadic, fervent life. In the past, I always found a balance between relaxing and adventures. But this summer we tried to play catch up from six months on the sailboat, and had a very long list of things to accomplish. A few of the items: buying investment property, taxes, mail, preparing for the biggest sailing trip of our lives, attending my 20 year high school reunion, selling a van, and then buying that van right back because the sale (to a friend) was a miserable failure.
We lost the simplicity of van life. Instead of enjoying peaceful time in nature, we grabbed zealously at big dreams while living in a tiny enclosure. Sometimes we stayed in short term rentals or hotels, but they always had problems and we never felt truly comfortable. We had two work trips, both of which required driving and flying. Exhausting, those trips were.
We did it, yay, and supported and loved each other along the way. But it was difficult. And the van was full of stuff and never clean. That really stressed me out, and there was no good way to fix it because we had a big life raft riding with us, waiting to get serviced. Also, part way through summer we got some things out of storage to move to a fourplex we thought we were buying, but the deal fell through.
Oh, we’ll always remember that fourplex deal which fell through. It was a heartbreaker at the time, but we’re happy now that we walked away. It was contaminated with meth, had a rodent infestation, termite problems, structural problems in a couple areas, a tenant with a huge emotional support pitbull, 100+ year old plumbing and electric and no crawlspace or attic access. It was a hot mess and a real drain of our time and resources to inspect and try to come up with a plan to rehabilitate this poor building. In the end, it was overpriced and the rehab was too costly.
A good realtor would have been an asset, but I was in a hurry and picked a bad one. He showed up late and acted silly, laughed way too much, pointed out the strangest things, and took nothing seriously. First I gave him a “dad speech” via email about what we expected from him, then he blatantly screwed up again, and I fired him. I felt bad about it because he was a nice person, so we sent him some goodbye money and decided to represent ourselves in the deal. As you can probably predict, that didn’t go well.
Those were some of the stressful times. You already know about the happy times, because that stuff is fun to share on social media. We did have fun this summer. We went to Alaska, learned to hike on glaciers, and did some great backpacking, sea kayaking and mountain biking. Those were the highlights of our summer. And when these things were happening they were truly glorious.
The rest is just sort of a blur. A blur of dream-grabbing, moving, doing, working and craving a place to rest.
We needed a solution. So, we’re buying a house to enjoy a couple months per year! Our closing is scheduled for Halloween, October 31.
Don’t worry, we’re not selling out or giving up. If anything, we’re turning up the intensity of our dreams. We’re global citizens now who spend half the year outside of the US on our sailboat. We need a peaceful place to go when we return to the US, and that is where the new house comes in. It will be a place to pursue dreams, store things, and cultivate a sense of belonging in a wonderful city where we already have so many friends.
There we were, camped in front of a giant glacier, next to the ocean, in a place of indescribable beauty. I looked around and started counting waterfalls. 36. I could see 36 waterfalls from where I stood.
We weren’t exactly roughing it. We had three sleeping bags, a down comforter and two pillows, as well as two sea kayaks and all of our mountaineering gear. We planned to explore the bay by kayak and do some mountaineering or glacier trekking. We were loaded with both adventure AND comfort gear.
We were most definitely glampin’!
Lawrence Glacier loomed behind us, a steep, bright white hunk of ice. We took a glacier travel and crevasse rescue course a week before this trip, and it gave us the confidence to walk around on dry glaciers, that is, glaciers without snow. We were ready to try our new skills.
First we explored the bay by kayak. Two tidewater glaciers tumbled all the way down to the sea. We enjoyed the gentle sounds of our paddles plying the icy water, punctuated by a loud boom every now and then when the falling ice from a glacier crashed into the sea.
Thankfully we were never too close to one of the glaciers when a large chunk of ice came off, which can create a dangerous wave!
One snow white glacier was perched atop a cliff, slightly overhung, with a waterfall flowing from its base. It was breathtaking. Holy. This place was holy. We paddled over to see the waterfall and a small group of Kittiwakes (birds) flew by, loudly protesting our presence. Nearby we also found a large colony of Kittiwakes, chattering among themselves.
We returned to camp, blissed out by the wonderful paddling. We took a short nap, picked some berries and then decided to scout Lawrence glacier. We walked around, waded an icy stream, and eventually found a good way to reach the side of the glacier.
It was a reasonable hike with no unstable ice or exposed climbing. When we reached the glacier I felt hesitant, so Brian climbed on it first and started walking around. After awhile I decided to join him and we enjoyed a little bit of the glacier together. When we reached the first steep section we decided to call it a day and return tomorrow with more time and energy. We were both excited by the easy access we found.
The next day we returned to Lawrence Glacier. We quickly made our way onto the ice. Soon we had our crampons on and were covering new territory. We reached the first steep section and Brian climbed it without protection, then built an ice anchor to belay me. I climbed after him, and now we were high on the glacier. Its curves glittered in the sun and blue crevasses regularly sliced into its depths. The surface rippled with what mountaineers call “sun cups”.
We climbed around on the labyrinth of ice and eventually reached an obstacle Brian wanted to cross and I didn’t. It involved a step over a crevasse with a deep hole (moulin) next to it. I didn’t like the deep hole, which would be difficult or impossible to escape from. I practiced building ice anchors while Brian stepped across the crevasse and explored higher. He soon returned and we decided to descend. I rappelled off my own ice anchor and then Brian climbed down after me.
Brian was confident on steep slopes in his crampons. I really appreciated that he could lead our climbs on the glacier, since Lawrence Glacier was even steeper than the glacier where we took our class. I felt comfortable following him and enjoyed building my own anchor and rappelling off it.
We even found an ice cave! Exploring the glacier was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. We both had a fantastic time.
The next morning was our last in Blackstone Bay. We wanted to make the most of it and left early to get in one more paddle.
The water was flat and gray, dotted with small white iceburgs. We got in our kayaks and paddled toward one of the glaciers. Soon I began spotting seals in the distance floating on pieces of ice. We fell silent and slowly glided over to them, being sure to give them plenty of space. Imagine my excitement, and the conflicting need to stay quiet and still so as not to startle them. I was *bursting*! They were incredibly cute and blubbery.
We took many, many photos. When we were back at camp later the seals floated by on their pieces of ice out in the middle of the bay, riding the tide, looking relaxed.
At the termination of this dreamy trip we knew, looking at our giant map of Prince William Sound, littered with islands, bays and glaciers, that we would be back. Next time we’ll be prepared to see more of this glacier-filled paradise. Maybe we need a small boat for Alaska. We need another tiny floating house.
Decommissioning a boat sucks. It’s hot, dirty and you know you won’t see your beloved boat for a long time. There are dozens of tiny bits of canvas to tie on the windows to protect them from sun damage, piles of ropes to wash and dry, and many things which must be somehow stuffed inside the boat or cockpit so they don’t blow away during a hurricane.
And, to top it all off, at the end of the decommissioning process we had a rather memorable overnight bus ride back to the U.S. It was one of those bus rides where the time to your destination is doubled because the bus stops at so many places along the way. Plus they kick you off the warm bus and into the cold night several times to clean the bus and go through customs. Basically, they torture you as you try to sleep. But the grande finale was after nearly 12 hours on the bus we were dropped off at 5 AM in an empty parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. There were no open businesses. Everything was dark and quiet.
Then things improved. We took a taxi to the most wonderful AirBnB in Tucson where I got to pet a dog, bird and cat when I arrived. The backyard was a peaceful sanctuary with bird feeders outside the window and the sounds of chickens clucking from a large pen. The cat, Chico, was beautiful, loved to sit on laps and came when called. He was a dreamy cat. Animal therapy worked and I felt better right away.
We went to get our Sprinter and Jeep from storage and found the Jeep had a drained battery which was too old to accept a jump. We got a new battery and Brian tried to install it. The wires attached to the battery were too corroded and they fell apart. Back to the auto parts store we went for a second time.
Brian was able to get the Jeep working pretty quickly after we got the parts. We went off to tackle errands, one of which was getting Brian a nice outfit for an upcoming family trip to New Jersey to celebrate our brother’s graduation from Princeton.
We shopped at REI and found a very nice outfit for Brian, one he may actually wear for occasions other than the graduation. However, we were both so sleep deprived that we somehow left the outfit sitting on the bench in the shoe department. We purchased other items at REI, and neither of us noticed the outfit was missing until we drove to the airport the following morning. By then it was too late to buy anything else. Luckily Brian’s family understands his casual nature and no one batted an eye when he turned up in board shorts and a tech tee.
I purchased a couple dresses online beforehand. Luckily, one of them was perfect so I did not have to do any shopping in Tucson. Whew! I was really not rested enough to go solo dress shopping at the mall.
The trip to New Jersey was awesome. We enjoyed lots of good family time and the graduation events at Princeton University were well done with great food. Also, the campus is beautiful and we loved walking around everywhere. We once again lucked out with a great Airbnb next to a forested area with hiking trails.
After the trip to New Jersey I was exhausted. Our plane landed in Phoenix and it was nearly 100 degrees and forecast to get even hotter. It was way too hot for van life. The van wasn’t really ready for living either, with no food, water or organization. No way could I move into the van that day. I fired up hotels.com and by a stroke of luck, saw a room with a jacuzzi tub for only $14 more than the cheapest room I was about to reserve.
It may have been the best $14 I ever spent. We spent two days in the motel room and I practically lived in the tub. The body wash the hotel provided foamed up into huge clouds of bubbles. I could hear the bubbles popping softly all around my head. I floated motionlessly in a soft, warm bubble cloud and all my stress melted away. I ate breakfast in the tub. I watched tv in the tub. I wrote emails in the tub. I did everything possible in the tub!
We also found a fantastic Thai restaurant nearby and ate there twice. I went shopping, did laundry and organized the van. Now the van is a peaceful, pleasant place, and we are living happily in it at a free, forested vagabond spot near Sedona, Arizona.
We made the transition! But I always forget how hard it is, and next year I’ll remember I need a really big bathtub during times like this.
For years I did the tiny house swoon. Now I finally live in one! For me, living tiny means more time and resources for the best stuff of life: adventure, exploration and growth. And let’s not forget FUN.
Our tiny house floats and has four bedrooms. It makes its own power and water like a little off-grid cabin, but is a 39 foot long sailboat; a catamaran with two hulls. Sailors around the world know the tiny house movement began centuries ago at sea. Boats are designed to be as small as possible and to utilize every nook for storage.
We split our time between living in a sprinter van in the U.S. and cruising aboard our catamaran in Mexico. I never really liked van life in winter anyway. Winter is the perfect time to go to Mexico. Plus, these two unconventional “tiny houses” provide unprecedented flexibility. These homes are doing something for us, not just sitting there sucking up a paycheck!
Our boat is named Magic. She is designed with miniature, dollhouse-like rooms. She is rectangular in shape with dimensions of 39’ by 21’. Several hundred square feet is taken up by boat stuff (mast, anchor lockers and trampolines), leaving about 500 square feet of living space.
The designers found a way to squeeze four bedrooms and two baths into 500 square feet without sacrificing a full kitchen, spacious pantry or dining table for 8. What I like most is that every room offers plenty of storage to reduce clutter. We keep an extensive inventory list of the items in each cabinet, a must when there are this many!
We enjoy spending a lot of time in the salon, which is similar to a living room. Our LED television and stereo system provide for our entertainment needs. There is plenty of room for both of us to stretch out.
The four bedrooms each feature a full sized bed, a sink and storage. Skylights help these rooms feel bigger. My husband and I live on the boat with occasional visitors, so we turned one of the bedrooms into a storage room.
The bathrooms are meager, with only a toilet, shower and single cabinet. Our toilets pump the waste directly overboard, which is typical in Mexico. That’s a dirty little secret I’ll bet you didn’t know about boats.
One of our bathrooms houses our magical watermaker, which turns salty seawater into high quality drinking water. This intricate machine uses a high pressure pump to force salt water through multiple filters and membranes until it emerges salt-free and delicious on the other side. The watermaker’s guts are on full display in this video.
Unlimited water is wonderful. It opens up all sorts of possibilities…like taking regular showers and washing dishes. We also have a diesel water heater made by Webasto, which sips a small amount of diesel and heats water in a tank in the engine room. This means HOT SHOWERS. Now, that is luxury. We also have a total of 630 watts divided between four solar panels. There are two 215-watt panels on the back and two 100-watt panels on top. Free utilities galore!
The pantry includes shelves and drawers from IKEA. We stock up on food and then enjoy remote places for weeks at a time. Our grocery trips are often dramatic events where we purchase hundreds of pounds of provisions and it is great to have a place to put all that food. It is easy to find food when cooking, too. No more digging through cabinets looking for ingredients!
Magic’s outside decks are the best place to spend time, where sails fly and the sky lights up with gorgeous sunsets. Each whale splash, dolphin jump and manta ray flop reinforces the feeling that this present moment, and making the most of it, is what matters. There are beanbags and pillows in the cockpit and trampolines at the front of the boat. This is our front yard, only without a lawn to mow (thank goodness, I never liked mowing the lawn anyway.)
There is always room for a garden, though. Here is our herb garden which is mounted on the back of the boat. Brian found a teak box and built a custom plexiglass box to fit inside. The plexiglass box can be removed if big waves threaten the plants.
I love gardening and it is great to have fresh food. Some boats have complex hydroponic gardening systems to grow more food, but we are keeping it simple for now.
There are many places to live at marinas around Mexico, but we prefer to drop our anchor in the white sand of a secluded turquoise bay. These dreamy places are the stuff of fantasies, and I feel grateful to be living tiny.
Want to see our boat, Magic? Check out my video tour below and you’ll feel just like you’re aboard!
Getting there wasn’t mellow, though. We went into the wind and the motion was pretty unpleasant. Brian went below to work and I watched the boat as she slammed up and down on small waves. Several hours later we were stoked to see the island with pretty orange walls rising high in a pyramid shape above a pebbly gray beach.
This was a secure place to stay; we anchored in 50 feet of water well away from shore. We settled in and soon went for a dive. It turned out to be beyond dreamy and one of our favorite dives in Mexico. Every now and then one of those peak experiences in life sneaks up on you when you least expect it. This was one of those times.
This dive site looks like nothing special from the topside. It’s a small, flat rock with sea lions lounging on top. Underwater treasures await below the surface. My friend Leanne told me about a beautiful, coral encrusted cave here, and now we were about to find it. There were no words that could do this cave justice. It needed to be seen and felt. We dropped into the water and descended.
The cave had three openings large enough for a person to swim through. The cave entrances were at depths of 20-30 feet. One curved entrance was decorated with orange and purple sea fans, a foot wide, lined up in what seemed to be a somewhat organized fashion. Small orange cup coral, puffy and soft, was sprinkled liberally on the walls.
I swam slowly into the entrance lined with sea fans, the largest one, and smiled as I saw lobsters poking shyly out of a hole in the floor. Small fish peered at me from holes in the wall. This cave was like a giant block of swiss cheese with many holes to offer sanctuary to small creatures. Now there were two big black diver fish in the cave! Light filtered in from the openings, providing enough light to see as I moved further inside the cave.
The coral was in good condition and we were careful with our movements in the confined areas. I drifted toward a colorful wall and found it completely encrusted with many corals competing for space. Everything was orange, yellow and purple, twisting together in the most grotesque and beautiful shapes.
I’ve never been diving in a cave or a cavern. Swimming through this lovely cavern was an exhilarating moment. A first. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
This was a fascinating place which felt safe to enjoy. I felt pretty hesitant about the large sea lions lounging on the rocks above the cave. Sea lions and caves seem to go together, and encountering those beasts in the small cave was not my idea of a good time.
The sea lions did not appear while we explored the cave, but we saw one swooping through a school of fish later on in the dive. He wasn’t interested in us.
This island adventure, along with Las Animas, has turned us on to some new and stunning diving in Mexico. We’ve spent a lot of time exploring during our last two winters of cruising in Mexico, and this winter we are finding the most incredible places!
Mostly we’ve been curious about Las Animas, which was described as one of the best dive sites in the entire Sea of Cortez by the book “Under the Sea”.
First we visited Isla San Jose and explored a mangrove lined river. It cut across the entire island, with gorgeous turquoise water and fascinating birds. This island was nice but busy. We decided to move on to Las Animas the next day, where we hoped to find solitude.
We had a good-enough weather forecast and departed early. Soon our next island was visible on the horizon. It was merely a chunk of rock jutting out of the ocean far offshore. Our guidebook described the other small islands in that area but was silent on Las Animas, merely marking it on the map. Was it an unknown treasure waiting to be discovered, or a place boats don’t typically go?
We arrived to find a dramatic coast. No sandy beaches here. How will we anchor? We approached the island carefully and Brian guided Magic into a spot with a small amount of meager protection – two rocks jutting out of the ocean.
We lowered the anchor in 90-100 feet of water. Our entire chain was out, all 225 feet. Magic was being pulled away from the rocks by the wind and current, so the rocks felt a safe distance away. Later on, in the middle of the night, the wind would shift and start blowing Magic toward the rocks instead of away from them. Not good.
Never mind that for now. It was one of those golden days where conditions were perfect and anything seemed possible. We were loving the exceptional visibility in the water, too. The 70 foot visibility was the best we’d ever seen in the Sea of Cortez and the marine life was fantastic.
We saw impressive schools of fish and I will always remember the turtle we met. He was trusting and friendly, and allowed us to follow him around for a long time as he fed. We swam around a small pinnacle together, fast friends, this turtle and we.
Usually turtles are shy and the ones I’ve met fled the moment they saw me. This was my first time observing a turtle doing “turtle things”. Feeding, diving, breathing, existing. Fantastic.
The turtle sliced through the schools of fish, surfaced for a quick breath of air and then swiftly dove down 30 feet or so, scooping up prey items along the way. We guessed his prey items were small jellyfish. We saw a lot of them at Las Animas; luckily they were not the stinging variety.
What a fun day! We enjoyed a calm evening and went paddle boarding around the bay. It was like we were the only ones in the world out there. We felt the special-ness of being able to stay overnight in such calm conditions.
At 11:45 PM we heard the wind start. It was easy to ignore at first, hopefully it will just go away. But then our wind generator started up and big waves were beginning to rock the boat. I got up to take a look at conditions and found a disturbing sight.
The moon was full, and the white waves crashing on the rock wall behind Magic were illuminated brightly. And the wall was much closer than before. The wind had changed direction and was now blowing us toward the rocks instead of away. I wanted to have faith in our anchor. I really did. But the rocks were uncomfortably close and this was the deepest overnight anchorage we had ever used. I started to think of the “what ifs”.
There I was, at one o’clock in the morning searching for my PFD which I haven’t worn in months. Liveaboards are notoriously bad about PFD use. Yes, I know, I need to be better! Found it. Then there was nothing else to do but sit in the cockpit with my PFD close at hand and watch frothy waves pass under Magic and roll on toward the wall. First they would crash into the bottom of the boat with a loud thud, then a minute later crash into the nearby rocks with a big splash, and then finally a shower of little white moonlit streamers shot up from the base of the rock.
How did we get into this predicament? We should have been choosier about the weather forecast. There were winds in the teens predicted for tomorrow and they came early. We should have only come here when there was no wind predicted at all. And spending the night at such a marginal anchorage was not a good idea. We could have gone diving here for a day and then gone somewhere else for the night. Could have, should have. Will next time.
After an hour conditions stabilized and the wind speed decreased. When ocean drama is threatening, I sit around fantasizing about a decrease in wind speed. I hope for it, watch for it, anticipate it. When it happened my relief was great.
I tried to go back to sleep. In the morning we rejoiced over the calmer conditions and prepared for a scuba dive, but the wind built and little whitecaps formed out on the sea. We were both nervous and decided to move on to our next destination. We left the anchorage swiftly and traveled a few hours to Isla San Diego.
I felt victorious, energized and humbled. We visited a dreamy place, pushed the envelope and tasted risk. My entire body was buzzing.
Garden Eels live in the sand. They are long, skinny, active and fascinating, as well as ubiquitous at our current spot near Isla Cerralvo. We dropped our anchor here and then looked into the water to find thousands of Garden Eels waving gently back and forth on the sandy bottom below Magic.
Of course, we soon went scuba diving under the boat to get a closer look. I mean, these eels were everywhere, how hard would it be to see them?
We descended about 20 feet. The water was clear and calm. Webs of light danced on the bottom just like a swimming pool. But there were no eels. This was very strange. Why would they be everywhere else but not right here? I swam toward a large group, waving gently in the water. When I got there they were gone.
“Oh wait, there’s a bunch of them over there”, I thought, and swam in the other direction. When I got closer every single one of them slowly withdrew into the sand. When I arrived all I saw was a field of dime sized, empty holes.
We lay on the sand at the bottom, waiting for them to end the tease and finally show themselves. We waited several minutes. Some eels were braver than others, and tiny heads began to emerge. They were still at least 6 feet away. By crawling on my hands I was able to get a little closer, but they soon retreated. Any fin kicks would send them right back into the sand immediately.
We surfaced and a couple minutes later saw them again waving wildly all around the boat, back out of their holes again, celebrating that we were gone.
Determined to get a close look at these little teases of the sea, Brian set up our GoPro camera with a scuba weight and pointed it right at one of the little holes under the boat. He got all the photos you see here, plus a great video of a puffer fish surprising the eels! Check it out here:
There I was, scuba diving next to a dark gray pinnacle in the Socorros. I hovered in place, kicking my fins gently to counteract the pushy current. I peered into a crevice full of pale yellow coral. Tiny fish fluttered around it, and then suddenly everything became dark. What was happening?
This island group is known for its large population of sharks. We’d already seen a few, so that was my first thought.
I slowly tilted my head to look up. Instead of a shark I was being pursued by a friendly, curious, Giant Oceanic Manta Ray. The huge, diamond shaped creature wanted to play and continued to glide in slow circles near the pinnacle until I gave it the attention it deserved.
With a couple gentle kicks of my fins I slowly swam up and away from the rock into open water. Now there was enough space for the 15 foot wide ray to approach me at all angles. He seemed to enjoy this, and I was mesmerized by the sight of his thick wings gently flapping as he swooped closer and closer to investigate. After a couple circles he came so close I could see his eye twitching in its socket, following my movements, with wrinkles surrounding it to give the ray the appearance of wisdom.
Sure, it would be easy to think I’m making this up about an animal that is merely acting on instincts. But mantas visited us intentionally, over and over again. They are intelligent marine animals and have the heaviest brain of all fish, with enlarged cerebellum and telencephalon brain regions. These areas of the brain may be involved in higher functions, as they are in mammals. It is easy to see from diving with them that they are curious and have distinct personalities and moods.
They were genuinely interested in us, which is rare in a marine animal. These mantas see divers often, and maybe divers are a fun part of an otherwise uneventful day. So why not say hello?
They tend to be very fair creatures, and in a large group of divers the mantas would be sure to visit each diver as they flew around. These charismatic mantas did not play favorites and instead seemed interested in meeting everyone. When we would dive with a group of two we would receive all the mantas’ attention. These dives were the best of the trip! It feels very intimate to share the water with several mantas who are playing with only you and your partner.
Mantas can swim more than 15 mph and they can choose where they want to be in the water. It felt like such an honor when they chose to come alongside me, gaze at me, and play in my bubbles.
We stayed eighteen days at Isla Benedicto, long enough to observe their moods and natural rhythms. We enjoyed seeing them in different settings and would often ride around in the dinghy near our boat to search for them. Most times we searched for them we would be lucky enough to spot a few at the surface, and often they would swim up to our dinghy like old friends before we even got into the water. We also saw them at a dive site called “The Boiler”, where mantas, sharks, lobsters, huge tuna and a multitude of fish swirled around a pinnacle at the west side of the island. The Boiler is a cleaning station where Clarion Angelfish and other fish nibble on the skin of the manta rays, removing parasites and dead skin. The mantas seem to enjoy this. We always saw friendly mantas at The Boiler and an abundance of diverse marine life. It was a spectacular site and definitely my best scuba diving ever.
The time of day made a difference in the mantas’ behavior around the anchorage. Early mornings meant business for the mantas and they swam with purpose. They would pass close to us and then continue on into the deep blue water. At these times they were usually swooping around with their huge mouths open, cephalic fins scooping plankton inside. When we saw them in the late morning or afternoon, they would often cavort around us and spin in playful somersaults. Sometimes the mantas would furl their cephalic fins into a more aerodynamic swimming position.
The mantas were especially breathtaking in the natural sunlight at shallow snorkeling depths, and would come up to swim just below me or alongside me when I was at the surface. One manta somersaulted over and over while I snorkeled right next to her. I’ve read mantas are indifferent to divers and merely enjoy their bubbles. I don’t think so. When we snorkeled with the mantas they remained just as friendly and curious.
There’s a reason the Socorros are on so many top 10 dive sites in the world lists. The giant mantas are the most charismatic, beautiful and intelligent marine animals we have ever met. And don’t forget huge! I cannot wait to visit them again.
Mantas are being heavily fished and their numbers are declining. You can help mantas by making a donation to the Manta Trust to protect these magnificent animals. Mantas are valued for their gill plates, not meat. These gill plates are prized in the Chinese medicine market. Thankfully Mexico has laws to protect mantas but many other countries do not have these laws in place yet.
These are our favorite manta photos from our recent sailing and diving trip to the Socorro Islands in Mexico!