The trip started with a map. Dad pulled it out and showed it to me, pointing to a tiny pinprick of an island labeled Isla Pato floating to one side of an oblong sea. “This is where it would be,” he told me. “This is the logical place for the pirates to hide their treasure.”
“Cool!” I don’t remember which pirates he’d been talking about, or exactly why Pato Island was the perfect place for them. But I clearly remember the thrill of hearing about pirates.
“What I want to do is go down there with a good metal detector and search around. I bet we come up with some Spanish doubloons!” He looked at me with a smile in his eyes. “How about it? Want to go?”
I was about 11 years old and in the mood for hunting pirate treasure. “Yes!”
“Well guess what,” he said. “We’re going.”
At the time, Dad had a big bronze 1964 Cadillac with 5-inch fins. He’d put a trailer hitch on it and hooked it to our boat trailer, on which sat the TI-KA II, a 25-foot Trojan cabin cruiser, all wood and heavy as a house. It was Dad, Mom, me, and Taffy our long-haired Chihuahua, and an 800 mile drive down to the Sea of Cortez. I couldn’t wait because I knew there would be new and wondrous lizards to catch down there. I didn’t really think we would find any pirate treasure.
The trip down was long and boring. I spent it as I usually did, stretched out in the back seat and trying to sleep, not wearing a safety belt (back in the1970’s it wasn’t yet a law). Instead of staying in hotels, Dad would pull over to the side of the road and we’d climb up an aluminum ladder to eat and sleep in the boat while it sat on its trailer. My most vivid memory of the drive was that during one of these stops I saw my first and only Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris) which was ten inches long with a green body, a blue-green tail, yellow feet, and a yellow and black head. Around it’s neck was a “collar” of black. I couldn’t catch it, though, because it surprised me and was way too fast. It disappeared down a hole in the ground, gone forever.
We had a moment of excitement while we crossed a checkpoint down in Mexico, as the Mexican customs agent decided to search the boat and found Dad’s .22 rifle onboard. I remembered sitting in the car behind my mom, frightened, and kept asking her, “Is he going to arrest us? Is he?” and my mom kept going, “Shhh! Shhhhh!” When my dad and the guy started smiling and joking my mom relaxed. My father had slipped the customs agent $20 and told him he wasn’t about to go anywhere without a gun to protect his family, and the custom agent said he didn’t blame him, and that he would do the same. He let us go, but kept the $20 of course.
We spent some time in Hermosillo, which I remember was hot, flat, and trashy. Then we went on to Guaymas which is a port town, and we launched the boat and Dad rented us a birth at a local dock. This place was cool. I loved it! I jumped in and swam around in the warm salty water, diving with my mask, snorkel, and fins. I would swim under the boat and check out all the fish in the clear water. On the dock there was a Fanta Soda machine that took 20 centavos for a bottle, and we got a 15 centavos refund for the empty bottles. The exchange rate at the time was 7 pesos per dollar, so the sodas cost a few pennies at the most. We stocked up the boat with food and supplies, and one clear, sunny morning left on our adventure. It was one that was going to last a lot longer than my dad anticipated.
Dad had taught me how to handle the boat, and so I was an all around junior swabbie. If I wasn’t piloting, I was riding up on the bow. I was also the one designated to jump off onto a dock, or onto a beach, or into the water if necessary, with the responsibility of “dogging” the boat. That was Dad’s sailor talk for tying it to something so that it wouldn’t float away. So I spent most of the trip on the bow, getting darker and darker with each passing day until I looked like a sun-bleached-blond Mexican native. As Dad followed the shoreline, and I peered down into the clear water and could occasionally see the bottom. Every once in a while a porpoise would show up and swim alongside, giving me a big thrill. They were camera shy, though, because every time my dad pulled out his super-8 movie camera they would disappear. They probably thought it was a gun.
In the evening we would beach the boat, and I would hunt around for lizards but found mostly land crabs. They were odd, silly-looking creatures with oblong eyes, and sometimes very sharp claws. To either side of the boat were miles upon miles of virgin beach and not another soul in sight.
When we entered the straight between Tiburon Island and the mainland it was like going from the ocean to a river. It wasn’t at all that deep, and so I had to keep a sharp lookout so that Dad wouldn’t run the boat aground. Also, the big island made me nervous because my dad had told me stories about the Seri Indians who lived there and how they used to be cannibals. The rumor was, he told me, some of them still were. So as we were traveling along this wide, shallow river, teeming with sea life and the bottom littered with strangely-shaped sand dollars, I would look up to see Seri tribesmen. They wading far out into the water off the island side, fishing with nets and spears, and staring at us with an intensity that frightened me.
The truth was, however, that the Seri Indians (they call themselves Konkaak, which means “The People”) were not and never have been cannibals. The rumor of cannibalism was a lie spread long ago by those who wanted to persecute them. I didn’t know any of this then, of course, and they scared me something terrible. Especially when we anchored at night.
At the north opening of the straight we could look out across the expanse of water and see Pato Island, which was nothing but a big white point. The island was so white because, as my dad put it, “It’s covered with bird shit.” But the water beyond the straight was so rough that we got sea sick and had to turn around and head back. It was decided we’d go find a nice sheltered place in the straight and recover, and wait until the seas calmed down before making our run to the island.
Dad chose a secluded stretch of beach and Mom threw the back anchor out, and as the bow slid into the sand I jumped off with the line and ran up the beach. I found a boulder to tie it to and quickly secured it. Dinner was prepared while I explored the beach and the desert beyond. Later, after the lights were out and we had settled in for the evening, I remember staring out the window and seeing nothing. It was absolutely black outside except for the stars. There were no lights on the shore anywhere.
The next morning when we woke up it was obvious something was wrong. The boat was leaning far to one side, and my dad started laughing. The tide had gone out and the boat was nearly all the way out of the water.
It turns out that the tide is extreme between Tiburon Island and the mainland, because an immense amount of water is funneled in between the island and mainland shores, and also because it’s so shallow. So this water will vary up to 25 feet between high and low tide, and as the tide is changing the current is so swift it literally looks like a river flowing. We propped the boat up and then my dad had to dig a hole in the sand under the propeller so that the shaft wouldn’t get bent under the weight of the boat. When the tide was completely out, the boat was six feet away from the water.
There was about 20 minutes when it was safe for me to go out in my little rowboat. At low tide there was no current, and I paddled around with my face nearly in the water checking out all the fish and sea life. After fifteen minutes or so mom and dad started yelling for me to watch out, and I looked up to see two large fins breaking surface. At first I thought they were porpoises, but as they went past (and they were close) I saw they were too thin and both were longer than my little boat. No doubt about it, they were sharks.
My parents decided it was time for me to paddle back to shore.
Land bound, I wandered around through the desert looking for lizards and watching out for snakes. This region had the only known “rattleless” rattlesnakes, who don’t give any warning at all before they strike. I’d read all about them and so was on sharp alert, but I didn’t see any during the whole trip. I did see a lot of very interesting lizards, mostly whiptails (family Cnemidophorus) and some funny little guys with striped tails that curled up and over like scorpions, called Zebratails (Callisaurus draconoides). The Zebratails were exciting to me because I had never seen them before.
There’s another creature that lives down there that I discovered, but it was not a pleasant discovery. As we were waiting for the tide to come back in, I was walking up and down the beach in about a foot or so of water (well out of reach of the sharks) and I stepped on something squishy. Split seconds later I was being electrocuted so bad it was like I’d stuck my toe into a power socket. My whole body vibrated with exquisite pain, and I screamed and yelled and danced around the beach thinking I’d lost my foot. Looking down into the water, I saw a flat thing go swimming away. It turns out I’d stepped on an “electric ray” which was lying buried in the sand. I really believe that, in the second or so I was in contact with the creature, my 11-year-old mind thought I was going to die. I ran screaming and crying to the boat and my parents thought I’d been bitten by a snake or something. No, not a snake. I can handle snakes … this was a little monster. After that encounter I no longer walked in the water without wearing tennis shoes.
When the tide finally came in and we could get the boat off the beach, we went back out a ways and saw that the sea between us and Pato Island was still far rougher than Dad wanted to face, so we headed back in again for another night. This time we anchored far offshore, hoping to avoid being stranded once again come low tide.
Mom and Dad woke me up late the next morning, acting all excited, and told me they’d seen the strangest rabbit on the beach. They told me it was huge, and pink, and went around laying eggs. I looked at them with first alarm, and then complete skepticism. They had to out-and-out tell me it was Easter before I realized what was going on. Easter had been the farthest thing from my mind, and it was definitely the most bizarre one I’d ever had. My parents, planning ahead, had stowed away a bunch of colored plastic eggs, filled them with candy, and gone and hidden them around in the desert next to the beach.
After my Easter egg hunt, we had breakfast and then pulled up anchor. The tide was coming in and my dad wanted to make one more attempt for Pato Island. We were stretching the gas very thin as is was, and so his plan was to ride the fast tide to the island, anchor and explore, then ride the tide back when it changed. So we were heading out there, and the current was indeed pushing us along quickly, and that’s when we saw the first whirlpool.
You’ve never seen a whirlpool until you’ve seen one in the Sea of Cortez. Of course I was only eleven, and to me it looked like it could swallow the boat. At least, it looked like it could swallow my little rowboat. In reality I don’t think it would done anything to even the smallest boat but make the occupants dizzy, but it’s definitely not something I’d want to be swimming around. I could imagine an ancient mariner seeing something like this, then telling family about it, and the family telling friends. After a week the story would go from “scary whirlpool” to some gargantuan maelstrom of water that sucked down entire ships.
That was just one strange side effect of the strong tide. The next one caused us to turn back and forget about Pato Island. As we were heading out of the mouth of the straight, there was this very strange looking wave that didn’t seem to be moving. It was just this steep hill of water, and the closer we got to it the more frightening it was. It was eerie, looking like something caused by a sea monster. My dad nosed up toward it and then shook his head, and turned the boat around.
I don’t think it really scared my father, I think he was nervous about how low our gas reserves were getting. The TI-KA II was not a sailboat, and we were a long ways away from any kind of gas station. We had what was in our tanks and also some 5 gallon cans, and we were approaching the halfway point. My dad had rethought our chances of getting back, took into account he had his wife and young son with him, and decided not to chance it.
I’ve since learned that this phenomenon is called an upwelling, where a strong current underwater hits some feature on the bottom that causes the current to turn upwards. They’re not especially dangerous, just disconcerting, and we could have gone around it. But instead we turned back, and sadly never did make it to Pato Island to treasure hunt. Our adventure, however, was far from over.