It’s not often that you wake up, have your morning coffee, step in the shower and come face to face with a pod of razor-toothed predators ready to eat you for breakfast.
Colin and I tend to live a pretty clean life on Pristine, bathing every morning in the world’s biggest bathtub, scrubbing ourselves down in the cockpit, then rinsing off the salt with a spritz of fresh water that we’ve dubbed our bird bath. Surprisingly, this regimen has made for silkier hair than any grooming product I’ve ever paid ridiculous amounts of money for.
Turns out there is a downside, however.
While we’ve been thrilled to share our bathtub with turtles and humpbacks, angelfish and pelicans, we know there are other things lurking out there too. Before we dive in we usually do a quick scan for stingrays, jellyfish or sharks, but in a year of ocean bathing, neither of us have experienced a reason to fear.
Thus, killer whales were definitely NOT on Colin’s mind when he took his au naturale plunge into the bay of Timbabiche.
The water was pleasantly lukewarm so he took his time, swimming around the boat for a little exercise. He scrubbed the algae from the boot stripe and double-checked the depth by standing under the keel. He’d just climbed the ladder to the deck and was still dripping wet when I heard: “Chey! Whales!” We were hoping to finally catch a blue whale on film so I grabbed the camera and joined him in the cockpit.
“It was ten feet off the starboard beam,” he said. “I’m not sure kind.” While he was fumbling with the lens cap, we saw the second spout twenty feet off our bow. A creature surfaced with a tall, jet black fin and a wide, ebony colored dorsal arc that suggested it was around 25 feet long.
Too big for a dolphin, too small for a blue whale. Humpbacks weren’t smooth and black. Our minds tried like mad to process what were we looking at, what leviathan was swimming under our bow. Just before it dove, we glimpsed the telltale black and white eye pattern that you’ll recognize as quickly as we did: Orca.
The word orca comes from the Roman god of hell, and is associated with the English word ogre. In Spanish, one name for the species speaks to their unique skill: ballena asesina, the Assassin Whale.
To say our jaws dropped is to understate the event. Every muscle in our bodies went slack as we tried to process the impossibility of what we were seeing.
Several four letter words were first breathed as whispers, then loudly emphasized as it became clear that a killer whale had been within striking distance of Colin the whole time he’d been in the water. There’s a reason that swimming with dolphins is a relatively common tourist activity while swimming with orcas is definitely not.
“The killer whale is quite capable of snapping a seal or porpoise in half with a single bite.” - Bruce Halstead, Dangerous Marine Animals
As we watched, there were more fins. A small pod of possibly five killer whales, moved to a rocky point two hundred yards away from us and hung out about ten minutes, likely chasing the sea lions we’d seen there earlier.
Unfortunately, the bulk of their hunting was underwater, and when they finally surfaced far away, our Olympus’ auto-focus decided the foreground waves made for a better artistic composition than the freaking pod of freaking killer whales a few meters farther away. Thus, all we have to share are more of those blurry Loch Ness monster-like photos—just clear enough to confirm our identification and prove to ourselves that we hadn’t gone loco in the Mexican heat.
After checking the reference guides, it turns out the Sea of Cortez is a totally valid place to encounter an Orca. (Um, maybe we should have read that page sooner.)
While killer whales are more commonly seen in a few places such as the Pacific Northwest, that’s only because certain groups stay in one place. In reality, killer whales are the world’s most widely distributed cetacean species. Transient groups of perhaps 50 or 60 small pods can be found all over the planet, it’s just that they range over such a wide area they are rarely spotted in the wild. But rare apparently doesn’t mean never, especially if you’re on (and in) the water every day. A fisherman in Timbabiche had seen them while a rancher in the same spot all his life never had.
“The LA Pod (of killer whales) is small, but infamous, because a member of this group killed a Great White Shark in plain sight of a whale-watching boat off the Farallon Islands in 1997, with the episode caught on videotape. The LA Pod ranges south to the upper Sea of Cortez in Mexico and north at least to the Gulf of the Farallones.” - Allenson, Mortenson and Webb, Field Guide to Marine Mammals of the Pacific Coast
Somehow every year we watch shark week with utter terror while the true apex predator of the seas is beloved as the smiling Free Willy. To be fair, everything has to eat, members of orca pods often stay together for life and killer whales are technically the largest member of the dolphin family. Most experts don’t think they go after humans on purpose—at least not most of the time.
They are truly amazing and majestic creatures. But just to be safe, I chose a sponge bath that day.
Four weeks in Twelve photos
We spent most of the last month in isolated places without a hint of humanity—just cacti and sagebrush and red tinted mountains that would have you believing we sailed right into a Clint Eastwood movie. We tucked ourselves into empty coves that seemed unchanged for millennia, with snorkeling reefs like we’ve never seen.
The couple lightly inhabited places we visited didn’t have electricity, much less any other services. In fact, the one time we found a tiny little market with a propane refrigerator, we did a little dance of dairy product excitement.
Occasionally, we also got to share these splendid bays with a couple other boats, which gave us the opportunity to meet some truly fantastic people.
Where are we now?
Getting to experience such unique places has been an amazing experience and we’re excited for more, but we are also coming closer to a necessary provisioning stop in Loreto. So after a personal record of 23 days entirely off the grid, we are anchored off a swanky resort in a place called Bahia Candeleros, and (for a day or two) are making use of this crazy newfangled thing called WiFi.
Mary and Rich of SV Chatelaine heard us mention we were running low on a critical supply and the next thing we knew, they’d motored up with the incredible gift (out here at least!) of a stick of butter. You guys are way too kind to share such precious provisions.
We were also thrilled to meet Derek and Allison of SV Arielle who not only took us ashore for a great walk when we were too lazy to launch our own dinghy, but invited us aboard the mother ship and treated us to a proper English tea (Earl Grey from Marks & Spencer no less). Porcelain cups and biscuits even. We absolutely love the way that even though they’ve cruised 14 years, from the South Pacific to the Med to the Caribbean, they remain curious and engaged and respectful at every turn, without the opinion-itis that can so easily go hand and hand with experience. And in one of those awesome ‘Wow, what a small world’ moments, it turns out Allison is from Colin’s hometown of Bangor, Northern Ireland. Clearly we were meant to meet these wonderful people!