10 Rules of Spearfishing with Sharks in Tuamotos

After missing a shot with my speargun, I’m surprised that within 10 seconds there are a number of reef sharks clustering around the scene to see if they can take advantage of an easy meal.

The Tuamotos (French Polynesia) are full of fish, but they are also full of reef sharks. This is one of the archipelago’s wonderful attractions: observing these magnificent creatures from up close, on a daily basis. Fortunately, according to the locals, the sharks are 99% harmless to humans — except if you are spearfishing.

Some background: Reef sharks spend most of their time cruising right next to schools of fish without giving them any grief. The reality is that fish are really fast and are quite difficult for sharks to catch. Like us, they don’t want to waste their energy chasing things they aren’t likely to catch. Sharks need a competitive advantage — hunting at night, hunting in packs, or finding vulnerable fish. Speared or hook caught fish qualify as the latter option. In their excitement, sharks can inadvertently take a bite at whatever happens to be next to the dying fish, such as the spearfisher’s arm, so special attention is needed.

Kristian and Ethan diving down for a shot at some fish. You want a good shot to ensure the fish is immediately put down and ideally does not struggle, so you can get the fish out of the water as soon as possible.

Last year, after our arrival, we spent several weeks in the Tuamotos before even trying to spearfish; and then still we proceeded very cautiously. The turning point for us came when we met Bruno, a Tahitian spearfishing champion who now lives in Faaite atoll.  Bruno taught us much about both lagoon reef hunting and pelagic pass hunting in a series of memorable dives. Since then, we have cross-checked that knowledge with a few dozen spearfishers in Tuamotos.

Eventually, we came to understand the principles of when it is safe to spear fish, and how to do it.  Our experience culminated in our spearfishing sessions in Makemo’s north pass, which has the highest abundance of reef sharks we’ve seen in Tuamotos– along with Fakarava and Haraiki atolls. Here is what we have learnt, digested into 10 handy rules:

Rule #1: “Always dive with a buddy”. Here Sabrina demonstrates the technique of grabbing the (spear)gun and fending off sharks, while Ethan the shooter has the fish which is still held in the actual spear. It sure is nice to have two sets of eyes in this situation!

Another view of the above photo: Ethan holds the goat fish above the water while keeping an eye down below.

 

10 RULES OF SPEARFISHING WITH SHARKS

Rule #1: “Always dive with a buddy.” Your buddy should grabs your gun and act as the ‘bouncer’, to make sure no toothy guests enter your party uninvited. This is mainly accomplished by maintaining eye contact. Don’t jab them or make sudden movements — unless absolutely necessary.

Rule #2: “Show no fear.” Sharks sense fear & anxiety. They become excited especially if your movements are erratic and involve splashing. If you’re afraid, don’t spearfish. You will profit from diving with them (sans gun) several more times to get comfortable, and realize they are not dangerous unless you have an injured fish next to you.

Rule #3: “Shoot smaller fish; and get them out of the water quick.” Once the fish is held out of the water, the sharks are no longer sure where it is, and the feedback mechanism instigating their excitement slows down. Smaller fish fight less than bigger fish, so are easier to handle.

 

If fish parts are discarded off the back of the sailboat, it  no longer remains a friendly, attractive swimming environment.

Rule #4: “Get a kill shot whenever possible.” Sharks respond more to the vibrations of a flailing fish in the water – and the excitement of their fellow shark friends – than anything else. If the spear paralyzes/kills the fish with a head shot, you reduce the chances of attracting predators to the scene and creating a mob effect.

Rule #5: “Look before shooting – especially for Gray Reef Sharks.” Like crossing the road, look both ways!  Ideally, there should be no sharks within sight when you swim down to shoot fish, in particular for Gray Reef Sharks, which are considered aggressive and unpredictable. Other reef sharks, like black tips and white tips, are much milder and pose no significant threat.

Rule #6: “If you just had a recent fight and are upset due to a quarrel, spearfishing is not recommended.” Although I can’t validate the theory that a disturbed frame of mind due to an argument adds to potential hazard of sharks… however, many locals have mentioned this to me. In fact, they didn’t just say spearfishing in such a condition is unrecommended, they said “c’est interdit” (it’s prohibited). Clear words of wisdom!

 

Reef sharks chasing our fish scraps. It’s true that reef sharks aren’t considered “dangerous”, but it is also true that when they are very excited / in mob behavior they could make mistakes. As the locals say, “The sharks are polite. But be attentive.”

Rule #7: “If a shark is going for your fish, let them have it.” Seems like an obvious one, but a number of spearfishers hug the fish in an attempt to paralyze it and “hide their catch” from the predators. And you guessed it, that is the most common way that spearfishers get injured by sharks!

Rule #8: “It’s usually safer to spearfish inside lagoons.” Shark populations are usually more sparse deeper in the Tuamoto lagoons, compared to the reef passes and on the outside of the atoll, where sharks are most abundant (and it’s typically deeper, which adds to the amount of time it takes to get the fish out of the water). Plus, currents are usually milder inside the lagoons, which makes it easier to return to your dinghy.

 

“Shark-infested waters”? The truth is that the sharks seen in this picture are black-tip reef sharks, which are very mellow creatures. However, if you see gray reef sharks, keep a sharp lookout; they are curious, fearless, and occasionally aggressive. Hence the importance of identifying the different types of sharks.

 

Rule #9: “Wait for good visibility.” The incoming current and lack of wind chop can greatly increase the water clarity and your ability to scan for sharks. Obviously, don’t spearfish around sunrise or sunset as nighttime is their active feeding time.

Rule #10: “Discard fish parts in non-swimming areas!” We learned this the hard way, after filleting fish on Aldebaran at anchor.  An enormous congregation of 20+ sharks began swimming around our boat, and they took a long time to dissipate. This made showering in the ocean at night much more nerve-jarring than it should be!

 

Ethan gutting a white goat fish at the dock, instead of the back of the boat. It pays to take a dinghy ride to shore for fillet duty! Note the parrot fish on the left side of the picture — the parrot fish is a staple of the diet in French Polynesia for many reasons. There is a conservation concern about their over-fishing, since parrot fish contribute significantly to the health of coral reefs.

There is an added complication to fishing (in general) in the Tuamotos: ciguatera poisoning, a toxin from algae that bioaccumulates in reef fish. In every atoll there are different types of fish that may or may not be consumed; along with a number of fish which are always safe. Always ask locals before eating fish to confirm that particular type of fish is safe in the area.

The Great Dog-Tooth Tuna Hunt

 

 Johnny and Alex were sunburnt, sweaty, and tired of the outboard’s whine; and still no fish to show for the long day’s efforts of trolling the pass for tuna. They were getting a little… “fish-trated”. 

Solution: Ask the locals! 

Folks in the village of Faaite told us to meet Bruno. Turns out he is a champion spearfisherman from Tahiti who moved here two years ago. On their first outing, Bruno took the fellas to coral bommies inside the lagoon. Michael and Ben speared several beautiful groupers, without much problem from the blacktip sharks patrolling the area. 


 

Chef Boy MC hunting for grouper in the lagoon.

 

The real prize, however, was in the pass: Bruno took them to his favorite spot to hunt for the powerful dog-tooth tuna. The tide was perfect and they got lucky: there were no dangerous gray reef sharks (raira), and big tuna were spotted; although the fish were coy and kept their distance at first. 

 

Underwater perspective of the anchored dinghy and the crew taking turns spearfishing. In the tuamotos the rule is to spearfish with a buddy always to help disable the fish with a second shot (if its big) and to help haul in the float line that’s attached to the speargun. The spearfisherman moves away from the wounded fish in case sharks come to chase it down.

 

Then suddenly Alex saw a big tuna split from the school and circle back. He dove down and was incredulous: the tuna had approached and turned sideways, as if “presenting” itself for the hunter. Alex took a long shot… it hit the target!! Using his experience, Bruno had seen the situation evolve and was diving close behind Alex; within a few seconds he took a secondary shot to make sure the fish was quickly killed. This was important because the wounded fish would otherwise run and fight, attracting sharks from far and wide. 

The two spear guns tips,

now firmly embedded in the tuna 30 feet deep, were attached to the dinghy, which was anchored in the pass. Ben jumped aboard and hauled up on the lines with Johnny’s help, getting tangled in the chaos, but nevertheless with the team’s efforts the fish was landed within 25 seconds. Huge success!!!  

 

a solid fish!! Ben, Johnny, Alex, and Michael celebrate putting food on the table

 

“You got very lucky, no sharks!” said Bruno.  Yes, we got lucky… did I mention Bruno was a restaurant chef and filleted the fish in record time, with sashimi being cut before sunset? 

Now we dined with Bruno, who had never visited a cruising sailboat, or taken foreigners spearfishing for that matter… for the next few days we ate like kings and queens on sushi, grilled fish, seared tuna salads, and fish cakes for days… 


 

Bruno and Alex with the prize dog-tooth tuna

 

Thanks to Bruno for helping to re-stock our fridge and breaking our dry spell!!

 

Feeding ourselves from the sea: Big tropical fish of Mainland Mexico… Part 2

The cove at Isla Isabel, a Mexican National Park. Fishermen have permits to fish here, "grandfathered" due to years of fishing. They come from San Blas on the mainland coast.

The cove at Isla Isabel, a Mexican National Park. Fishermen have permits to fish here, “grandfathered” due to years of fishing. They come from San Blas on the mainland coast.

Catching dinner has surprised us with some of the most cherished memories of our adventure.  Cooking from scratch for 4-6 hungry crew means that we are all eating better than any other times of our lives. Luckily we have plenty of fresh fish, and time to make homemade yoghurt, oven baked bread, kim chi, and ahem…. brownies!  

The vast coast of Mainland Mexico provided the fish stories for Part 2; you can read about Baja fishing in Part 1.

Sabby was reeling in a skipjack tuna but he got away. Many sailors use heavy duty hand lines to catch their meals, but rod and reels with lighter duty line gives the fish a better fighting chance... we think it's better sport!

Sabby was reeling in a skipjack tuna but it got away. Many sailors use heavy duty hand lines to catch their meals, but rod and reels with lighter duty line gives the fish a better fighting chance.

The incomparable Isla Isabel... Aldebaran is anchored in the far right side of the frame.

The incomparable Isla Isabel… Aldebaran is anchored in the far right side of the frame.

One of the most special places we’ve visited was Isla Isabel, known as the Galapagos of Mexico.  This small volcanic island has a Jurassic vibe with rivers of birds continually flying above.  A national park protects large populations of nesting frigate birds and blue footed boobies, and abundant iguanas and other colorful lizards skitter about.  Underwater is a thriving ecosystem, with schooling fish galore and large predatory jacks patrolling the depths.  In this abundant zone we speared an incredible pelagic predator: Pacific crevalle jacks, 16 pounds of darting fish to handle. (Check out the rest of our visit to the gorgeous Isla Isabel in our post.)

Still dreaming of large tropical fish like yellowfin tuna and dorado, we talked to local fishermen in Mazatlan and discovered they likely wouldn’t show up until later in the summer.  They also mentioned that as we headed south we’d have a better chance of finding these warm water species.  They explained that Cabo Corrientes, south of Puerto Vallarta, is kind of like the Point Conception of Mexico, a geographical dividing point; upon passing it tropical game fish might be found.

ryan yellowfin tuna

This is one of the most prized fish for the dinner table: yellow fin tuna. This is the “ahi” sushi that you are familiar with at Japanese restaurants.

As we rounded Cabo Corrientes the water temps shot up into the 80s and that night dozens of 4 inch squid jumped onto our boat.  We collected them all, 40 in total and saved them for bait.  I awoke the next morning before dawn to shouts.  Ryan had woken at first light, baited a rod with our squid, and caught a gorgeous 20 pound yellowfin ahi tuna before sunrise, our first one! 

Sushi roll smorgasbord at Chamela Bay with the yellowfin tuna.

Sushi roll smorgasbord at Chamela Bay with the yellowfin tuna.

Leaving Chamela Bay we had a two night sail in front of us, and the second day, 20 miles offshore, I spotted some birds on a floating log.  A couple dozen turtles also lounged, and knowing that flotsam like this creates its own eco-system, I jumped in.  An underwater wonderland with 100+ foot visibility greeted us and for hours we dove what came to be affectionately known as “The Magic Log”. 

Schools of thousands of tropical fish swirled around, dozens of turtles visited cleaning stations, where scores of fish cleaned them, and small sharks patrolled below.  Hundreds of small dorado and skipjack tuna flitted in and out of the scene.  We couldn’t pull ourselves away until finally, sunburnt and cameras “full”, we departed from the wonderland of the magic log.

One of the turtles that clued us into

One of the turtles that clued us into “The Magic Log”

Our biggest fish story happens just south of Zihuatenejo at Rocas de Potosi, a chain of guano encrusted rocks which look like a herd of white elephants heading out to sea.  After a successful speardive, we sailed south at sunset when we heard yet again the cedar plug zinging.  The line pulled heavy and low and as I tightened the drag something kept pulling line off the reel with strong, regular pulls. 

Marlin struggle, as seen from the mast. We had a tough time removing the hook safely from this large a fish.

Marlin struggle, as seen from the mast. We had a tough time removing the hook safely from this large a fish.

The reel was getting hot with all the friction when finally I was able to make some headway, pulling line in and then 100 yards behind the boat we saw a full size marlin surface.  We all stared at each other in amazement and worked as a team to keep the marlin on the port side of the boat so we could tire out the muscles on one side, making it easier to bring him near.

300 pounds of marlin is a gorgeous sight I'll never forget

300 pounds of marlin is a gorgeous sight I’ll never forget

This is a prize fish that always deserves to be caught and released. We tried to remove the hook and release him.  I brought him to the boat twice over a half hour, each time we leaned over to try to get the hook out and release him he suddenly tugged away, stripping line with steady, rhythmic pulls.  Finally Kristian had a go and brought him to the boat a third time. 

tail view

Tail view of the marlin! We brought him to the port side of the boat each time because his muscles tire on one side of his body… but then he regains his energy with incredible speed.

As we tried to free him he broke the line and swam off into the depths.  He must have been hooked near a sensitive spot, the only reason we could have brought him to the boat so many times with 30 pound test line.  Marlin stun prey with a hit of their bills, so perhaps he wacked the cedar plug and by happenstance struck the tender flesh near his eye.  He was huge, and the hook was probably just like a splinter to him, released soon by the sea. It was a dignified ending to a cedar plug that had brought us so many memorable fish dinners.

The crew post battle... we felt privileged to have an encounter with such a magnificent fish, a true king of the ocean.

The crew post battle… we felt privileged to have an encounter with such a magnificent fish, a true king of the ocean.

We spent our last month in Oaxaca, and finally came across dorado (AKA mahi mahi).  These highly prized sportsfish gleam gold and green, leap acrobatically in the air and have a sweet white flesh which our fishing book proclaims “Food Value: None Better.” 

Colorful dorado jump acrobatically as you bring them in.  They are even more delightful in the pan

Colorful dorado jump acrobatically as you bring them in. They are even more delightful in the pan

The Mexican ones have been smaller than the 4 foot, 25 pounders I’d often catch in Hawaii and a local fisherman explained that in the winter they catch large ones, which he thinks come to mate off the coast.  Every February they start catching little ones, which just get larger and larger as the year goes on.  Dorado amazingly can grow to 20 pounds in one year and reach sexual maturity after 6 months.  They are highly fecund and are thus a very sustainable (not to mention great tasting) fish to target.

While we love to surf, dive, fish, and explore, the Green Coconut Run is also sailing to spread awareness of the importance of Marine Reserves and sustainable fishing.  In order to avoid the collapse of fish stocks, scientists suggest the use of marine reserves to provide habitat for mature fish to grow and reproduce plentifully. By ensuring fish can reproduce, it allows future generations to also enjoy seafood and sustains fishing livelihoods.

Check out our blog on a man who is crowd funding a new marine protected area in Mexico.  We will continue to highlight success stories like this throughout our voyage.

Angelica's first fish caught ever was our first barracuda - very tasty on the BBQ

We met Angelica in Mazunte, in the state of Oaxaca. This was her first time fishing… what a great first catch! 4ft+ barracuda – very tasty on the BBQ

Feeding ourselves from the sea: Un mas pescado, Baja California… Part 1

Our largest catch (and release), a 300+ pound marlin!

Our largest catch (and release), a 300+ pound marlin!

Three months in, and we aren’t tired of fish yet!  We have surprised ourselves with our trolling and speardiving success, and eat the freshest fish almost every day.  Fishing from a cruising sailboat is different than most recreational or subsistence fishing, and we’ve been learning as we go.  From free diving for ceviche to the catch and release of a 300 pound marlin, here I’ll tell our best fishing tales and break down how we fish on the boat.

Fish patrolling the reef

Hefty jacks patrolling the reef

Flashback to Fall of 2014, and due to my two years living in Hawaii and some modest experience big game fishing with an expert friend in Kona on the Big Island, I’m elected the one in charge of getting our fishing gear together.  After listening to my stories of hooking up multiple 5 foot hawaiian mahi mahi at the same time and catching a 103 pound ahi tuna, Kristian shows me his scant supplies.  A few handlines and random old lures indicate not much line fishing has ever happened on Aldebaran.  Hawaiian slings have been the main source of spearing California reef fish.

Some of our fishing implements get prime rafter space on the boat

Some of our fishing implements get prime rafter space on the boat

I explain to him that we need at least $500-$1000 worth of trolling gear and he gulps.  The Green Coconut Run boat repairs are already way over budget and this extra expense seems like a luxury.  It will pay off in protein I say.  Tropical waters are full of large pelagic fish we can catch and I’m willing to put in a couple hundred dollars.  Coop member Matt Dobberteen, a fellow fishing enthusiast, comes to the rescue with the rest and after scouring Craigslist, local stores, and online, I’ve put together everything we need. 

I scoured Craigslist for deals like these lures, known as feathers.  They came with an hour of advice from a salty Ventura fishermen

I scoured Craigslist for deals like these lures, known as feathers. They came with an hour of advice from a salty Ventura fishermen

We have two medium class 30-50 lb trolling set-ups, three casting rods, dozens of lures of all types, line, hooks, gaffs, and a net.  My last minute request for a fighting belt gets passed over in our final Westmarine order in San Diego and it takes a bit of convincing to assure the Captain it is a necessity, not a luxury.  Ryan and I both also purchase spear guns to add to the hawaiian slings already on board.

Sabrina's brother Pierre shows off the fighting belt

Sabrina’s brother Pierre shows off perfect form with the fighting belt

Fish On The Boat!

Our first fish comes on the second day of the trip, as we pass an underwater seamount near Santa Barbara Island.  The trolling rod zings and I pull in a five pound bonito – enough tuna to feed the entire crew. 

I’m a bit rusty on the fish filleting, but the bonito is pretty easy to cut up.  We discover an important thing about our designated fish cleaning station atop the aft cabin.  We must always ask Kristian and Sabrina to close their windows so fish guts and sea water don’t spoil their sheets….

Our first fish!  Feeding the Green Coco Run family begins

Our first fish! Feeding the Green Coco Run family begins

Trolling in the Channel Islands is somewhat frustrating with all the kelp, as there are many false alarms.  The first couple weeks we mostly catch bonito, and they seem to get larger as we head into Mexican waters where we catch a 20 pounder off of Ensenada. 

Me flleting our first big fish

Me filleting our first big fish

As the adrenaline of our largest catch wears off, we savor the freshest sashimi, thinking how this one fish will feed all five of us for several days.  The fighting belt comes in very handy – it makes pulling in a large fish much easier by shifting the strain of the end of the pole to the legs while avoiding certain bruising.

Sometimes you gotta just kiss your catch.  Ryan, stoked for his first bonito

Sometimes you gotta just kiss your catch. Ryan, stoked for his first bonito

Diving For Fish

The wilds of Baja prove to be plentiful grounds for spear fishing as well.  The kelp forests and sea life are very similar to California, but larger and more plentiful fish are found.  On my very first shot ever with my new speargun I manage to hit a nice opal eye and a couple weeks later end up getting a 12 pound sheephead off remote San Benito island.  Ryan is a more experienced diver and has great success with his new spear gun.  We catch fish every single time we go spear diving.

The fish of Baja are similar to California, but often larger.  This sheephead fed the crew for days

The fish of Baja are similar to California, but often larger. This sheephead fed the crew for days

In sparsely populated Baja, we are primarily passing through pristine ocean wilderness areas, and most of the other human contact we have are with fishermen.  They often stop to show off their catch or just chat it up for a while.  When we go on shore we sometimes pass simple fishing villages.  We have mutual respect for each other fellow seafarers.

Baja fishermen often stopped by to chat.  These guys had netted a huge white sea bass.

Baja fishermen often stopped by to chat. These guys had netted a huge white sea bass.

Sushi Time

Just south of Magdalena Bay, three quarters down the length of Baja, we are dodging lobster traps and our trolling rod zings.  The line feels so heavy it seems like we’ve wrapped up in a trap and I curse and ask Sabrina to put it into reverse.  Pulling, pulling, pulling and I feel some life on the other end and we catch our first non bonito on the trolling lines, a gorgeous 15 pound yellowtail. 

Sabrina with a nice yellowtail

Sabrina with a nice yellowtail

That night we pull into wild and mesmerizing Punta Tosca and celebrate with a Japanese feast including the fresh yellowtail, also known as hamachi, a favorite at sushi restaurants.

Sabrina is the sushi master

Sabrina is the sushi master

The fish was caught with a simple wooden cedar plug, whose action must drive fish crazy as so far it has been our most prolific producer.

The simple cedar plug, our most prolific producer.  The action drives fish to bite, here we've rigged it up with some squid.

The simple cedar plug, our most prolific producer. The action drives fish to bite, here we’ve rigged it up with some squid.

Finally In The Tropics

Rounding the tip of Baja, we are suddenly in tropical waters and all the sea life changes.  Clearer water, colorful fish, and 75 degree seas greet us as we meet up with Eric and Brian, two very enthusiastic spearfishermen, who proceed to show us how it is done.  The familiar fish of California are now replaced by a myriad of different reef fish and we continually have to consult the fish book to see what we’ve caught.  No matter the fish, almost all of them are delicious and as fresh as can get!

Eric surrounded by a baitball

Eric surrounded by a baitball

In these tropical waters we start catching lots of small tuna in the 3-4 pound range, known as skip jack.  They have a darker flesh and stronger taste, so often aren’t considered the prime tunas.  However we find they are excellent grilled with BBQ sauce and the captain shows off his Brazilian heritage by putting them in an amazing coconut stew.  The name “Sea Beef” sticks as we catch many of these small tunas, including four in one day that included an 11 and a 9 pounder.  Good thing we had Brian with us, with an appetite for three normal people!  Eric also brings down my mother’s luggage scale, which is the perfect implement for weighing fish.  We have a grand time playing the guessing game each time we catch a memorable fish.

Kristian and Sabrina and some nice Skip Jack Tuna, AKA “Sea Beef”

Fishing has been a fun surprise for most of the crew.  Everyone leaps with excitement and adrenaline when hearing the reel zing.  The wonder of pulling in the line and seeing what kind of jackpot we’ve won each catch is addicting.  Feeding ourselves from the sea is a magnificent way to experience the fathomless and beautiful ocean and we give thanks to the fish that feed our adventure.

To Be Continued.…. Part 2 finds us in the tropical waters of Mainland Mexico where we encounter the 300 lb marlin, our first ahi tuna, and abundant dorado of Mainland Mexico.

Scoring City Waves and Boobies (Blue ones): Mazatlan to Isla Isabel

Mazatlan's waves were a very pleasant surprise

Captain was looking forward to Sinaloa’s lefthanders, but he was happy on this backside ride.

“I’m going to stay on the boat,” sighed Kristian, as we loaded the skiff to surf. Fifteen foot swells jerked violently at the anchor snubber. We were 1.5 miles offshore but the depth sounder still read 30ft. Huge rolling swells whipped Aldebaran around like a toy.

We had just finished a 2 night crossing of the Sea of Cortez, complete with a fantastic show of spinner dolphins doing tricks over the azure blue water. Strong seas had blown out one of our beloved nets, which gave the boat a battle-worn, haggard appearance. To top it off, early May’s so-called “Platinum Swell”, one of the largest of the year, greeted us at Sinaloa’s famed left points. Scanning the horizon, Ryan lamented, “Looks big and unruly.”

While the captain looked after the mother ship, we took our trusty inflatable, Lunabel, to the inside of the point. It didn’t take long before a rogue swell pulled Lunabel’s anchor and we almost lost her as she drifted helplessly towards the shore pound!  We frantically paddled back and called it quits on surfing.

After an anxiety ridden night in Barra de Piaxtla, which under those conditions felt like a washing machine on super cycle, we sailed to the city of Mazatlan. We had to deliver Eric and Brian, our diving buddies with whom we had just shared an amazing 10 days in the famous islands of the Sea of Cortez.   

Mazatlan at night

Mazatlan at night

With the moon high over the grand Pacific and crowds promenading on the malecon (waterfront boardwalk), we danced in the back of the taxi pickup truck, and marveled at being in a city after a couple weeks of ocean wilderness. We had given up on surfing this historic swell… but the next day we had the most unexpected surprise…

Kristian woke us up early with uncharacteristic excitement. You see, the captain is notorious for dismissing all but the best conditions.  His late night research had revealed an amazing wave which only breaks every blue moon, accessed by boat.  

The “rare bird” decided to smile for us. It was a perfect, powerful righthand reef peeling off a picturesque island.  Only one surfer was out and we surfed the best waves of our trip for six hours that day… with only a few urchin spines to remove from our feet. With a city of half a million people, we couldn’t believe we were getting these waves mostly alone. The hoots of stoke were sweet song to our ears, redeeming our Herculean anchoring efforts during the last few days.

Kristian usually rides 80's boards, but put him on a potato chip shortboard and an orange wetsuit and he'll do his best pro impression

Kristian usually rides 80’s boards, but put him on a potato chip shortboard and an orange wetsuit and he’ll do his best pro impression

The next day it was gone… the rare bird shone for 24hrs. We worked hard on Aldebaran, installing temporary replacements for the net that blew out in the passage. Filling propane tanks required three different visits – nobody had American valve connections – but eventually a screw driver got the job done.  Filling diesel was also a task, as it was unavailable in Old Town harbor; we motored an hour north to Marina El Cid and struggled with the crowded dock.

We were preparing for an overnight passage to a remote island 60nm south. Isla Isabel, known as the Galapagos of Mexico. It is a square mile volcanic island in a National Park, with stories of crazy birds, bountiful fish, and amazing craggy views.

A river of birds continually circled Isla Isabel

A river of birds continually circled Isla Isabel

Approaching in a musky grey sunrise, rivers of birds flew through the sky. They never ceased the entire time we were in Isla Isabel.  We jumped in the water to freedive a half submerged crater islet, reminiscent of Molokini crater on Maui, where we encountered a phenomenal underwater world. Around the crater swam an endless number of fish, probably the most complete marine ecosystem we’d found so far on our voyage: from huge schools fish of reef fish to large predatory Jacks skittishly eyeing us. 

Isabel underwater magic

Isabel underwater magic

The island is open to fishing and the spearfishing was excellent. Everyone got out of the water except Ryan, who then had a magical encounter with a friendly whale shark, which rubbed its body on his before swimming away.

We each shot a hefty Jack and our freezer was packed with fish!

The boys each shot a hefty Jack and our freezer was packed with fish!

That night, we anchored in the lee of bizzare offshore rocks called Las Moñas. White sand beach spilled into a gorgeous cove with fantastic snorkeling in shallow water. On shore, vast numbers of blue footed boobies nested in scrubby underbrush.

Las Monas at sunset, truly a magical place

Las Monas at sunset, truly a magical place

We anchored next in the southern cove, and SCUBA dove along an underwater cliff pockmarked with caves. Here were by far the largest eels we’d ever seen — with the girth of a human being, but twice as long, they looked like dragons, receding into their underwater caves.

Wondering, “what next??”, we paddled our SUPs to the main fishing camp on shore.  A short walk revealed a crater lake.

The crater lake at Isabel

The crater lake at Isabel

A gigantic colony of frigate birds was the next jaw-dropper. They nested in trees as prolifically as salmon running up a narrow Alaskan river. Iguanas crawled along the paths in the derelict national park center, evidently abandoned for some time.

Isla Isabel protects the largest population of nesting Frigate birds in Mexico

Isla Isabel protects the largest population of nesting frigate birds in Mexico

We climbed past the iguanas and frigate birds to climb to the lighthouse, where a panoramic view swept 360 degrees. Waves crashed on the west side of the island, its wild, windy side; separated by a thin ridge of land, Aldebaran bobbed peacefully in the east side, the smooth, lee side.

Kristian and some boobies

Kristian and some boobies

On the hill top, we found more boobies!  Here were lime green footed boobies, with more slender necks, sharing the territory with their blue footed cousins. They clucked angrily and refused to move if we approached their nests, which were directly on the ground. It was hard to pull ourselves away from this magical place, which had an aura of the Jurassic era.

Michael ponders a lime green footed booby

Michael ponders a lime green footed booby

We eventually left because the odor of bird poop got the best of us. It reminded us of our anchorage at Mazatlan, which got potent wafts from the sewage treatment plant with the afternoon seabreeze — another reason we wanted to keep moving.

Iguanas abounded

Iguanas abounded

Aldebaran sailed south of Isla Isabel late that afternoon, heading back for the mainland and the waves of Chacala on the coast of Nayarit. The late-night, graveyard shifts went by smoothly — we had learned to download new podcasts in advance, like TED, This American Life, and audiobooks, and time simply flew by! 

Dawn revealed strange shapes on the beach… “what are those things?” we wondered for some time.  “Trees!” someone cried. After a month and a half of cactus, we were finally in the land of trees, just around the corner from Puerto Vallarta.

Tropical lush-ness enveloped us. We thought about sitting on this beach for days, drinking coconut water, and relaxing in the spirit of mañana. But whispers of a mystical, forbidden island reached our ears… and we knew the Green Coconut Run must keep going.

Las Monas, where Blue Footed Boobies nest on white sand beaches

Las Monas, where Blue Footed Boobies nest on white sand beaches

The geographically rich Isla Isabel -- note the crater lake and the half-crater on the north side of the island, called Islote Pelon.

The geographically rich Isla Isabel — note the crater lake and the half-crater on the north side of the island, called Islote Pelon. For the Google Map link, click here and select “Isla Isabel” in the menu. 

100 Ft Visibility, One Eye Open: Sea of Cortez Leg

An epic sunset at Los Frailes

Guest Author: Eric Lohela
 
And the Mexican doctor says, “You’ve got an eye infection and you’re not going to be able to scuba, swim or even touch water… Probably for your entire trip.” We’ve been in Cabo for 12 hours and a poorly timed eye infection threatened to reshape my trip before my wounded eyes.  This trip was going to be interesting in more ways than I expected.
Eric and Brian stoked to join the Green Coco Crew

Eric and Brian stoked to join the Green Coco Crew

Brian and I flew down to join the boat from Cabo San Lucas through the sea of Cortez to mainland Mexico.  We came for the famed warm clear waters and noted spearfishing. How often do you get to watch your friends take a trip of a lifetime with your support and then climb aboard?!
Brian caught lunch.  And dinner.  And making a good candidate for the

Brian caught lunch. And dinner. And making a good candidate for the “Men of Aldebaran” calendar…..

As we left Cabo San Lucas, the decidedly American beats wafting from the flotilla of party boats subsided and we soon entered what is the real norm for Baja Sur: quiet, desolate, uninhabited, and beautiful coastline.

Michael and Eric enjoy the beaches of Cabo Pulmo National Park right after hearing Eric was cleared to dive.

Our days simplified immediately around boat tasks, chasing adventures, and preparing the next meal.  My days simplified around eyedrops every three hours and encouraging our divers from the deck.

SUP paradise in the sheltered bays with dramatic red rock cliffs, white sand coves, and turquoise waters

Having a painful event like this forced me to reset my priorities and ask myself… What do we have without health, how would I deal with adversity?  The resounding answer I came to was asking myself was striking balance and cultivating community are everything. I had simply been too busy in my life to be fully healthy,  and was only through the grace of our amazing group of friends that I was able to find care and be nursed back to health. I’m indebted to them for being so loving and supportive and everything looks bleak through the one eye I could use. They even dressed me up as a pirate so my handicap could bring laughter!

Kristian and Sabrina and some Sea Beef

The idea of crowdsourcing real adventure is a fresh concept to me. In a world where it seems like there are 100 television programs about chasing your dreams and adventure, we all seem to have but two weeks a year to find it for ourselves. The Green Coconut Run on the Aldebaran is a living example of chasing a big dream that we can all jump aboard. It inspires me and I hope many more people feel the desire to bite off something just slightly uncomfortable in scope. I found myself dreaming bigger because they did.
So.. Back to my eye. We had a minor engine issue that forced us to anchor for a day. I managed to take the skiff Lunabel to shore with Michael. After consulting the local fishermen we found the one spot on the deserted beach in the middle of nowhere that could connect a call to my doctor in Cabo. After solid discussion he agreed my progress could allow me back in the water in two days.
Eric made up for lost time with some epic dives

Eric made up for lost time with some epic dives

This was a magical moment, and in the next week of diving didn’t disappoint as we visited island after island and watched an aquarium of beauty swam around us.  I shot very few fish overall because we didn’t need to more and no dorado graced us with their colorful presence.

Isla Espiritu Santu was like the landscape of the American Southwest meets a calm, tropical sea.

Isla Espiritu Santu was like the landscape of the American Southwest meets a calm, tropical sea.

As our last dive came to a close we sailed away from a scorching red sunset into night where winds pushed us across the Cortez. 38 hours later found us in the massive swell the plowed into Sinaloa and tricky waves to navigate on boat and boards. We finished our leg with a dinner in Mazatlan laughing over beers as I got to see a friend from high school living in Mazatlan.
Diving the chain to the El Bajo Seamount, 7 miles out in the middle of the ocean.

Diving the chain to the El Bajo Seamount, 7 miles out in the middle of the ocean.

I’m back in the States now, and my eye is fine. I reflect often about the places we visited and how magical that experience was. I’m thinking about adventure more and more now… And what my version might look like.

Ryan finds a power spot for some beach yoga

The boat sails on and I’ll continue to follow them online. I feel lucky to have had a taste of what the next generation of adventurers are exploring with healthy happy eyes wide open.
The crew and Aldebaran at the Mazatlan anchorage

The crew and Aldebaran at the Mazatlan anchorage

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Impressions from Matt, visiting crewmember

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I certainly wasn’t expecting to eat as well as wedid — every meal seems to be a production aboard Aldebaran

By Matt Hendren

Coming off a week and a half of constant movement, newness of friendship, exciting adventures, and bonding through challenges… it’s been hard trying to reintegrate into the world that doesn’t pitch and heave but moves non-stop.  Reflecting back on time with the Coco crew, I was amazed at how well everything came together, how well we functioned, and what camaraderie we created in such a short while.

I’d known Kristian and Sabrina for a couple months as their vessel eeked its way through the Ventura Boatyard.  There was a call for volunteers to help get things moving and so I showed up to lend a hand… after seeing that I had some real world skills to offer in building storage and shelves and getting things organized, Kristian asked me to put in more time.  I’d show up, work hours in cramped quarters, drinking warm C- (coors light), and dream about the voyages that would fill the spaces I was creating with memories.

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Organizing and cleaning the dive gear in Ensenada while waiting for our ship papers to clear

I instantly grew to respect Kristian’s gentle and trusting way, and Sabrina’s no-nonsense and whimsical  balance – great new friends.  As we finished up the last touches in Santa Barbara, and enjoyed the evening together at their launch party, Kristian off the cuff suggested I meet up with them in San Diego in a week and jump off somewhere down in Mexico later.  It was a question I’d fondled in my mind for months, but here it was … a plan that could happen.  I cleared it with work, with my family, and then just thought to myself, why shouldn’t I be doing this?

Sailing downwind was a real treat

Throwing caution to the wind, I loaded up diving fins, a conch shell, and attempted to ride my supposedly fixed motorcycle to San Diego.  With 4 battery charges and multiple push starts later, I joined the crew just as they were getting started on another 10pm session of boat organization and repair…  we’d intended to leave the next morning, but there was still hours of work ahead. And so it goes with Aldebaran – never a gentle task master.  Waking in the San Diego harbor, everything felt right about this and I was excited to be heading on another trip south of the border.

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Our first adventure on the skiff: diving a pinnacle 1 mile offshore in remote San Benito Island. No big deal!

I’d spent little time with Michael and Ryan, but here we were, getting real cozy, sleeping in rotating bunks, starting each morning with a hug.  It felt like I was just shoved into the middle of a new world where adapting and listening was crucial to sharing space, keeping peace, and embracing what life was offering me.  The crew had been together a week by the time I’d arrived, and had spend the last two years doing trips to the Channel Islands.  Though at times I could sense I might be an odd man out – lacking some experience in surfing and diving –I felt welcomed and celebrated from day one.

On a boat, there is nowhere to hide.  All the ugly non-zen feelings you have come out somewhere or somehow.  I wasn’t expecting to deal with my own ego on the boat, and really appreciated the patience people had with me learning to adapt with how life functions on a boat.  For example, that it’s tough to remember not to flush the toilet paper (despite multiple signs I know!)

Sabrina was on sanity patrol aboard the boat (making sure we were clean and tidy), and always down for adventures, including shore landings chock full of elephant seals.

There are lots of good ways to do things, but from day 1, I decided that I would make it my goal to fit in, accommodate, and try what was working before offering any suggestions for how our trip should go.  This attitude wound up working out great and I adapted to their systems and helped refine some things for the next guests who’d fill my shoes.

My expectations for the trip were few.  I’d expected to be pushed in water sports, see a nice beach or two, and spend lots of time on the boat.  Yes, all this and so much more … diving, surfing, paddle boarding… all relatively new experiences – to which I said, yes please, and drank from the firehose of life.

My last night on Aldebaran, we went to shore at Isla Natividad and were treated to lobsters at the island’s restaurant, aptly named “El Restaurante”. They asked us to pay for the beers only.

Cutting my surfing teeth at open doors, stand up/kneeling paddle boarding out around breaking reefs in the middle of the night, free diving on a pinnacle in the middle of the ocean floor… It took courage and trust to try new things in new ways, but coming away from the experience I learned to trust myself a little more, keep my head down when the boom is coming through, and gained some great memories with new friends.

Looking back, I feel like more than just learning and the adventure I took with me, I felt like I was really able to contribute and share the journey. Manning the helm on overnight passages, teaching knots, installing last minute hatch closures… this was not the typical sign me up for a fun time and pay to have experiences.

No, it was a cooperative adventure – putting in work days on the boat, taking turns with all the chores, being one of the decision makers that helps chart the courses and group activities.  It was not only this, but the chance to see the work that I’d put into the boat really make life function there– that too was a satisfying, and what started off as unfamiliar waters with the Coco crew soon grew to include me as one of the family – miss you guys. 

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At Turtle Bay, where I got off Aldebaran, and began the journey overland north to San Diego, back to “real life”…

 

Coronados: The Mexican frontier islands

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Sailing is the best border crossing ever.

No traffic, no officials; only our cel phones bling bling indicated we had crossed into Mexico, sometime during the 3 hours passage from San Diego to the Coronado Islands. We basked in the relief of leaving the dock and its never ending projects!

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We got a rebuilt alternator from an Iranian mechanic, new engine belts/ gauges with help from a Johnny Depp pirate look-alike, finished installing our watermaker, bought spare parts at four marine stores with discounts by local friends (thanks Eric!), new tools (thanks Robby!), shoved it all into the boat, and shoved off.

IMG_9287After one or two motorcycle breakdowns on Interstate 5, our friend and ship’s carpenter Matt managed to make it for this leg down from San Diego to Turtle Bay, halfway down the Baja peninsula. He joined Aldebaran’s four main crew members (Kristian, Sabrina, Ryan, Michael) who are onboard for the first 6 months of the voyage.

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It was Matt’s first time snorkeling in a few years and he stepped up to the challenging open ocean conditions on the Coronados, which are basically 3 huge rocks. We dove through caves and noted the iconic Garibaldi, no longer protected as our California’s state fish. Poor orange fish, lacking any manner of self-defense, targeted for fish tacos now that we’re south of the “border”.

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We awoke to chef MC’s amazing huevos rancheros a la Santa Barbara style, to celebrate our first day in foreign waters, and set sail heading south to Ensenada. By evening we were eating the freshest sashimi from a big 15lb Bonita that MC caught!! What a culinary beginning!

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(I should add that 3 weeks into the voyage, we have eaten better than anytime else in our lives- and the standards don’t seem to be waning just yet)

About an hour before dark, the wind picking up, we decided to veer course towards Todos Santos island, which began our first unexpected adventure.

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The Mini Magical Island of Santa Barbara

en route to SB island

At the end of the calm 40nm passage to Santa Barbara Island Michael hollered: Fish! Fish! The trolling line was buzzing out and the sparkling hues of the fish jumped above the water’s edge. A shining bonito was our first catch of the trip – we were stoked!

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A sashimi appetizer followed with green onions, wasabi, and shoyu. You should have seen all our faces as the freshness and deliciousness of the fish caused us all to unanimously raise our eyebrows, in a ‘holy-smokes-this-is-freakin-delicious!’ kind of way. It was the best sashimi I have ever eaten.

doesn't get much fresher than this!

doesn’t get much fresher than this!

It was my first time visiting Santa Barbara Island, the smallest of our local islands, and boy was I taken away by its magic. We pulled into the lee of the island late afternoon with enough daylight to go for a dive. The island was teaming with life.

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Numerous birds flew overhead, and the fish were bountiful below. We speared a sheepshead and an opaleye for a ceviche & fish taco dinner (respectively).

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The crew was aching for exercise, so the following morning just after sunrise, we launched our red skiff Luna-Bell and paddled to shore. The landing on the pier was challenging as the south swell churned the waters into a turbulent mess around us. But we were all able to safely clamber up to shore.

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Jogging around the island felt like the hills of Ireland – rolling, barren and dramatic. The view of Elephant Seal Cove and the giant cliffs in the North side are fantastic!

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At the National Park Ranger station, we met a biologist named Jim. He showed us the nest of a little tiny native bird called the Scripps Murrelet – it is so furry and cute! He said that about 200 years ago there were so many birds that it was hard to walk around the island – then cats and rats brought by ranchers made easy prey of these birds as they hide under bushes instead of flying away. Sheep grazing destroyed the native plants that the birds used as habitat, and in their place the ice plant took over.

Red ice plant covers the hills of SB Island

Red ice plant covers the hills of SB Island

We thought the ice plant looked so pretty in its red fields around the islands, little did we know it is a vicious little plant, which increases the salinity of the soil resultantly making it uninhabitable for other plants.

Biologist, Jim Howard, showing us some native seedlings

Biologist, Jim Howard, showing us some native seedlings

Jim explained the restoration process involved removing the exotic predators from the island as well as planting native bushes, all in the hopes of helping the seabirds find a home again. Great news is that their numbers have increased, especially on Anacapa island. You can support their efforts by checking out their website and visiting this magical island yourself.

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Next up: The Burly Military Island of San Clemente

Metamorphosis: a lot of work, a lot of play

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe great Aldebaran metamorphosis has begun.. from humble local island explorer to transoceanic craft… so you ask, what’s Team Transition been doing?

Just in time for that first Halloween cold spell, Sabrina and Kristian moved out of their comfortable pad in Mission street (ok, err.. they got kicked out by the landlord.. details, details) and are now full time aboard.

The harbor charges double after 2 weeks, so we had to skip town… Aldebaran set sail for Rosa and Miguel on Monday morning. Soon we realized Jimmy Ryguy had snuck aboard at 3:30 am as a “STOWAWAY”.

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He paid his dues making gourmet pasta and hunting uni like a japanese savage. Meanwhile we got blessed with some of the most beautiful surf and diving we could want.. Ah the joys of having no permanent slip !

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My favorite is to work at anchor… we did some fixes to the windlass bolt (which need refurbishing badly), net sewing (same), solenoid cleaning (might live a little longer). The newest addition to the boat, courtesy of Roach Refurbished Rides: Candycane the 5’10 dynamite 80s board, got her new deck pad.

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Since we were already way out there… we snuck into el rancho for a few days, with Adam Jersey Roach himself and friends, which required some major beach launching maneuvers, but paid off with clean and silky waves; tell me about it!

Sarah escaped to visit us for a longboard session and made an epic Roasted Veggie soup… in short time she discovered we had a propane leak. Dang girl I’m glad for your fine-tuned olfactory senses,

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Thus upon return we spent the last 2 days wrestling the stove and propane lines out of their hibernated locations, replacing the failed hoses. While our galley was a total disaster zone, we thought, hey, let’s make it a total catastrophe and change our fresh water plumbing. So now we have all new hoses to the sinks for clean drinking when we are cruising soooouuuuth~!

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AND tomorrow’s big news: installing a fridge! And hopefully getting confirmation on our haul out on Friday… ready the troops… work may get real soon.