The Way It Was, Baja - By Marc S.

Some recent posts on this board made me think about one of my old dive trips, when I went scallop hunting in Baja California. The trip was during spring break, in my junior year of college.

I borrowed my father's Volkswagen bug. It was a 1974 model, yellow, with those round headlights and curved bumpers that gave VW's an appealing, almost human, smile. The beige interior got hot in the Mexican sun, but I loved the little car. It wasn't very old, and it was in great condition.

Victor, James and Ted packed Dad's car with everything we thought we needed for a long trip in rugged, isolated, foreign terrain. We took tanks, weight belts, wetsuits, abalone irons, spear guns, spaghetti, pancake mix and lots of good, cold Mexican beer. Victor followed in his Datsun, and we drove with two guys in each car: One to steer, and the other to open beer bottles.

We pointed our two cars south, down the "Trans-Peninsular Highway," out of Ensenada. I led, with Victor and Ted in the Datsun, following. My buddy James rode shotgun in Dad's car, opening cervezas as I drove.

From Ensenada, the road curved inland a bit, and then followed the coast down the Pacific side of the slender strip of land. We camped the first night on wind-blown sand dunes near a place called San Quintin.

In the morning we all piled into the 'Dub and drove it over the dunes down to the beach. We dove the breaking surf with just snorkels, since the waves were so big that we didn't feel safe going out through the white water with tanks on our backs. The water was savage enough that we could tell a spring storm was coming in. Visibility was only about 5 feet, so we couldn't even see the tips of our fins as we bobbed in the swells. We free dove down to the sandy bottom, and swam almost a mile offshore, looking for a reef. Victor brought his spear gun, but couldn't find a thing to shoot. After an hour of swimming in the sandy surf, we bodysurfed back to shore and walked to the car, without a single fish in our hands. The tide had come in a bit and threatened the car, but the three other boys pushed it along the beach as I fired it up, and they jumped in the open passenger door, one-by-one, as we rolled back towards the highway.

South of San Quintin the geography of the land vividly changed from a verdant rolling pasture landscape to a rugged desert, with huge cactuses sprouting among boulders. Some of the cacti were at least 50 feet tall, so we stopped to take pictures and eat lunch. We camped the second night in a dusty patch near the road north of Guerrero Negro, worried about both banditos and Federales. San Diego had been full of stories about the crime in this rough and isolated part of Mexico, and supposedly the Federal police, known as Federales, were cooperating with the bandits to rob unsuspecting tourists. We didn't like being close to the highway where we could easily be seen by such bad guys, so we slept fitfully.

The third morning we drove over the top of the mountain range that ran down the length of the peninsula. The going was slow. Deep potholes dotted the road for a stretch of at least 50-60 miles, and semi-truck trailer rigs roared up the highway perilously. We had to drive in zig-zag fashion to clear the ravines created by old potholes. Sometimes the entire right lane was rutted, and we swerved into the left lane on narrow mountain passes to avoid ruts.

"Watch out!" James screamed at me as a huge truck-trailer rig roared at us , with a ravine blocking our passage in the right lane. "Wow," I could only reply, sweating from the narrow escape, "I guess we need more beer!"

When we finally got down to the Sea of Cortez, we hunted for a campsite along the water, away from the highway. A half-hour's drive south of a fishing village called Mulege, we spotted one: A beautiful, isolated strip of sand down a long road, sheltered by a deep bay that promised calm water and possibly good diving.

A few fishermen lived on one side of the bay. We drove to the other side, where a salt water lagoon formed a sand bar near a rocky promontory. Helmet shaped crustaceans scuttled about the lagoon, which we fantasized looked a bit like Gilligan's island. This lagoon was at the base of a rough, rocky promontory, dotted with cacti. We stopped our cars and pitched Victor's tent. Food supplies were running scarce, but we had plenty of beer.

The next day we tossed our tanks over our backs, the way we used to see Mike Nelson don his scuba gear. Black rubber fins in hand, we walked to the edge of the promontory. I wore my new, bright yellow, horse-collar BC over my 1/4 inch wetsuit. James and Victor had Jet Fins.

We picked our way out to the end of the point and donned our fins in the water. Offshore about 200-300 yards was one of the many tiny islands which dotted that part of the Sea of Cortez, and I led the swim out to it. We submerged about halfway to the islet, after taking a compass reading, and swam underwater to the small rocky island and back. We stuck close together in buddy pairs, because the visibility was limited.

Visibility was about 20 feet, and the water was warm by Pacific ocean standards. (God only knows the temperature. We didn't have thermometers with us in those days.) I immediately noticed how much more buoyant I was in this water than in the ocean. Apparently the Sea here had a much higher percentage of salinity than I was used to, so it was hard getting down to the shallow bottom, only about 30' deep there. We saw no fish that looked edible, no abalones, nothing to supplement our pure pancake and beer diet.

The things we noticed again and again were the large rock scallops along the bottom. We pulled at them with our hands, and pried at them with our knives, but these scallops were not like our Pacific ocean varieties; these held steadfast, their shells attached to the rocks. We couldn't take a single one of them, and we were low on food. We had burned our tanks swimming out to the island and back, so it was time to swim in and think things over. With only one tank left each, we needed a plan for the second dive.

The next day, we had figured things out. Victor and I took our abalone irons, and again went to the end of the bay with our tanks. We dove shallow that time, only about 10 feet deep. The two of us stuck close together and hammered away at the scallops, chipping their shells from the rocks. It was hard work, and our arms were sore when we finished. But, by the time we had exhausted our air in that shallow water, we had two bags full of fresh bivalves to lug back to camp! We posed for a picture, with the hood of Victor's car covered with scallops.

I had long hair, down to my shoulders as I smiled at the camera holding two of the big mollusks. They were each about 8-9" in diameter, and fat. I had been doing construction work on weekends and summers, so my arms and shoulders were bigger than they are now. Damn, it was nice being young! Too bad I didn't appreciate it then. As they say, youth is wasted on the young.

Once we cleaned our catch, we immediately noticed the problem with this food source: These scallops were not only tough to get off the rocks, but they were tough to eat! We wouldn't be cooking these in a light butter sauce. So, we chopped up all of the scallop meat and threw it in with the spaghetti sauce. The dinner tasted great, as one's own catch always tastes better than store-bought food. And with a liberal amount of beer before, during and after dinner, I still remember how nice it felt to have full bellies that night. We listened to hard rock music on Victor's car stereo, and slept on the beach under the stars.

Having exhausted both tanks (and no dive shops in site) we moved on. Another 2 hours' drive south, we stopped at the ferry terminal, trying to get a ride over to the mainland so that we could travel home on the east side of the Sea of Cortez. A nice woman greeted the four of us in our grubby clothes and long hair. Vic, who spoke the best Spanish, explained what we wanted. The woman answered in Spanish that the ferry wasn't there, and although we couldn't quite understand everything she said, we gathered the boat was broken and wouldn't be fixed until "manana."

We camped that night in a grove of palm trees inland from La Paz, that I think was named San Ignacio. We pulled in after dark, threw up the tent and quickly fell asleep. I awoke in the middle of the night, and grabbed the speargun at the sound of someone rustling around the campsite as Victor snored loudly. I stayed in the tent, and footsteps receded. The following morning we left early and drove as far north as we could in one day.

Driving as fast as we safely could, we got all the way up to San Quintin before nightfall. A storm had pelted the area with rain while we had enjoyed clear weather further south, and the roads were wet. The "Trans-Peninsular Highway" was a 2 lane strip of roadway, poorly maintained and seldom policed.

North of our first campsite, the entire road was awash. A river swept across the highway. We wanted to go home and we needed to get back to school for the start of a new quarter, but we got out of our cars and stared at a broad flash-flood that blocked further progress. I considered trying to drive across the stream; Volkswagen had been running advertisements about how their cars floated. But I could see that if this car floated it would be carried downstream, and out to the ocean. In spite of youthful vigor, discretion got the better part of valor, and the four of us stopped.

James stared at a map, looking for alternate routes. Of course, there were none. "What are we gonna do now?" I muttered.

A Mexican farmer drove up to the river in a large tractor, and gestured to us. For twenty dollars, American, he'd tow us to the other side. I negotiated in broken Spanish, and talked it over with Vic. For ten bucks apiece, we agreed to have our cars towed at the back of the farmer's ancient tractor.

The farmer towed Vic's car first, and then wrapped a steel cable around the struts at the bottom of the bumper of Dad's Volkswagen. He pulled us out into the stream, and water would have overflowed the running boards if the car hadn't floated. The advertising was right! The car floated behind the tractor, and as we came out into the full force of the stream the water swept us down current, against the tension of the cable, for just a moment, before the tires again struck earth. The bumper was twisted just a little by the tension of the cable as the car was swept into the stream, so that the VW's smile was just a tiny bit lopsided, although not really damaged. The bumper was not really twisted, but the car's smile was just a bit tweaked, as if the 'Dub was drunk. Vic took another picture as we crossed midstream, with James leaning out of the passenger door, and water all around.

After the tractor ride, we got back to the States, and finished our junior and then senior years of college. I got good enough grades to get into graduate school, and I always kept those photographs of me with the scallops and James hanging out of the window of Dad's car in the middle of the river.

After I finally got out of school, I had my father over to my apartment, and we laughed about all of the good times I had enjoyed, which made him blanch. My photo album was open on the table, and Dad leaned over the book, and pointed. "Damn!" He exclaimed, "So THAT'S what happened to my bumper!"

Drive safely,

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