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Shoot Out In Mexico Part II

John Boyle is making an underwater documentary on location in Mexico. But the critters aren't playing ball. In the second of a three-part series he tries to film mobula rays, whales, leatherback turtles and the mass spawning of grunion

Part II - A bumpy ride

There are three subjects I need to film to make this underwater documentary on Mexico stand out: mass aggregation of mobula rays; mass spawning of grunion; and leatherback turtles nesting and their eggs hatching. I’d been assured all of these would be happening in February so I allocated the whole month to filming.

We’d filmed Olive Ridley turtles on our first trip to Mexico, but wanted to see leatherbacks too, as they’re so spectacular. In the breeding season, the females come ashore on Mexico's beaches to nest roughly every two weeks. The shoot should be a dead cert, if I stayed in contact with Francesca at Tortugueros Las Playitas in Todos Santos, who would let us know when the turtles arrived. 

And the mobula and grunion were equal certainties. Apparently. 

I guess I should have realised the fates were against the trip as soon as cameraman and filmmaker Fionn Howieson and I arrived in La Paz. The rental car rep apologised that the Jeep Wrangler 4x4 we’d booked hadn’t been returned. ‘Maybe today, maybe tomorrow,’ he said. So we made the three-hour drive to our first destination, Cabo Pulmo, in an ordinary rental car, only to be told as soon as we got there that our Jeep was now ready. So we made a return trip to pick up the right vehicle.  I was chilled about it, that’s Mexico I thought.

We were in Cabo Pulmo at exactly the time the mobulas have congregated for the past few years, but there wasn’t a ray in sight. Our French guide Thierry Lannoy, whos lived in Mexico for many years, explained they always arrive when the water turns green and colder – but freak weather conditions resulted in the ocean remaining warm and clear blue even in February. We spent five days heading tens of miles north and south through the Sea of Cortez, spending hours on the boat every day, without spotting a single mobula, let alone the telltale dark cloud below the surface made by thousands of individual rays massing or the co-ordinated splashes of dozens leaping.

There was an unexpected bonus – a huge splash on the horizon of a very different kind: breaching humpback whales. For five days we had countless close encounters with mothers and calves and though the sea was choppy, making it difficult to film steady sequences, the spectacle was thrilling.

We’d been calling Francesca almost daily, too, but the leatherbacks hadn’t turned up, ‘…but any day now!’ she said.

After five days we had to face reality – if the mobulas were there we would have found them, and enquiries of fishermen and dive operations for 100 miles up and down the coast drew a similar blank. Rather than waste more time, we headed to Bahia Magdalena on the Pacific side of Baja California, where in addition to filming Gray whales, we planned to dive in the mangroves and mount an expedition by boat and 4x4 to offshore islands to film at a fishing camp. 

A happy convoy left Cabo Pulmo: Fionn, Thierry and I in the Jeep and a whole contingent of Cabo Pulmo locals towing the boat we’d be using for our expedition. The guesthouse in Bahia Magdalena – the  Happy Shrimp – was basic. A large family had set up a trestle table right outside our door and were getting stuck in to a mountain of food and booze.

The first sign that all was not well was a sombre-faced entourage arriving in the guesthouse dining room just as we were starting to eat dinner – the harbour master wanted to see us. It was after 8pm but the harbour master was still at work and we all trooped in, cramming the tiny office with bodies. Did we know we needed a permit to use our boat there? I’d been assured that we didn’t, but after previous experience of Mexican cops I could sense a shakedown. So – how much would a permit cost? The nice round figure of 100 US dollars. 

Ok. But could I have a document please? I explained I needed it for the taxman back in Britain. After a while a wonderfully official document covered in all sorts of stamps was produced. 

Back at the guesthouse, the kitchen had closed while we’d been gone, but the family party had gone into overdrive with singing and dancing and a mountain of booze still to go. No early night for us!

Next morning, there was no entourage and no boat. Old friendships had been revived, much tequila consumed, and the planned early start didn’t materialise. We sat on the dock in the hot sun waiting, unable to get any answers to our phone calls. Around 11am the entourage arrived with the boat still on its trailer. But they had forgotten to refuel or pick up life jackets. So off they went again. 

We eventually launched at 12pm and headed north into the lagoon to film nesting pelicans and rafts of ducks that had migrated in for the winter. After two hours we’d seen not a single pelican and only two solitary ducks who flew off when we got close. My laid-back ‘that’s Mexico’ attitude was wearing thin.

But on our way back, an encounter with a particularly friendly Gray whale and her calf cheered me up, and we got some great footage.

At the dock a welcoming committee was waiting for us that didn’t look very welcoming. There was a fat man with a clipboard, several others, even the local policeman. Lots of shouting and gesticulating from both sides ensued. We watched as our permit was
waved in the air… then as it was ripped up!

Finally, our guys came back to us. ‘We have to leave town – immediately,’ they said. Apparently the local co-operative were not happy with a boat from another village being there. 

‘What about the island, the fishing camp?’ I asked. 

‘No island. No fishing camp. We must go now.’ 

‘Well, we'll stay to film the whales.’ 

‘No, they want you out of town too – right now.’ 

It was no-one’s fault – the crew from Cabo Pulmo could never have anticipated such a hostile reception from the locals – but our plans for the next week’s filming were in tatters.

I never quite found out what had gone wrong, but we were unceremoniously kicked out of town. The local cop even parked outside the guesthouse until we left. 

We made a quick call to Francesca – still no leatherbacks. 

So a week into the trip, we had no mobulas, no fishing camp, no mangroves, no bird colonies, no leatherbacks... and no plan where to go next.

Overnighting in San Juanico up the coast, known to surfers as Scorpion Bay, we made new plans. A few hundred kilometres to the north was another Gray whale calving lagoon at Guerrero Negro, so we decided to head there, as the Gray whale story was another important element in our film. Having time to spare, we drove along the beach and while I filmed pelicans, Fionn tried to do some filming with our newest piece of kit, a quadcopter. 

As we’d paid a fortune for a 4WD, we decided to get our money’s worth and take the coastal route north – a faint thin line on our map, but one we were told was easily done in our Jeep. ‘Take the track, follow the beach till you reach the salt pans then go straight across towards the mountains,’ we were told by our guesthouse’s owner.

It was fun driving across open scrub desert, through cactus forests and along sandy tracks. After a couple of hours we came across a small fishermen’s camp. They confirmed our directions, but the further we got  more the track forked and the fainter it became till we were just following our instincts and working on the basis that as the afternoon sun was roughly on our left we must be generally heading north. We hadn’t seen another vehicle for over two hours and I was starting to wish I’d topped up with diesel, when the track came to an abrupt halt alongside a dried out estuary. It cut inland further than we could see, but on the opposite side was a clear track leading into the dunes. It seemed to be the right way.

Had ours not been the version of the Jeep more suited to shopping, we might have made it, but with factory fit road tyres we started losing traction and swerved into deep mud after 50m. As we started digging and tried to find something to put under the wheels to add traction – not easy in a desert – I noticed a sheen in the estuary to the west. The tide was starting to come in...

It took almost an hour to dig ourselves out, with the tide creeping ever closer, thinking we’d be sleeping under the stars that night watching our car sink. So desperate was the situation that I forgot the first rule of journalism – take pictures! But eventually, with the sea just metres away, the bog reluctantly released us and we made it back
to firm ground.

A detour around the estuary took two hours and it was long after sunset when we eventually found a village to stay for the night.

Guerrero Negro was named after a Massachusetts-based whaling ship that was so overladen with whale oil that it sank in the lagoon. Over the decades, tens of thousands of Gray whales were slaughtered here, but today the whales are safe. Each year they migrate in their thousands from the Bering Strait to calve in the warm shallow waters of the lagoon.

Guerrero Negro is also home to Mexico’s largest salt production plant operated by Japanese giant Mitsubishi, and although conservationists have often expressed concern about conflict between the plant and the whale’s habitat, both currently appear to co-exist comfortably. Having made our base in the aptly named Cowboy Hotel, we set off to film the whales.

Our first experience was not pleasant. On a choppy afternoon, our taciturn boatman – who gave the impression he’d much rather be somewhere else –was speeding across the bay when there was a loud bang and the boat came to such an immediate halt that he fell flat on his face. We’d hit a whale. 

Fionn and I were horrified by the damage we might have caused. Fortunately there was no trace of blood, but the whale didn’t surface again so we couldn’t see if any harm had been done. I suggested angrily the boatman go slower from then on.

Over the next two days (with a different boatman) we enjoyed countless encounters with the more than 1,000 Gray whales and their calves in the lagoon, witnessing every type of behaviour – breaching, spy-hopping, pushing our boat – plus mothers with their calves approaching so close  we could stroke them. 

We also filmed the salt plant – the huge red and orange machines working on a snow white salt field made awesome footage to cut with the whale story.

As so often happens on a shoot, an intriguing but unexpected story came our way. On a restaurant wall where we ate breakfast was an advert for visits to a pronghorn reserve. The waiter’s sister worked in the office of the nature reserve, and so we spent an afternoon deep in the desert filming pronghorns – deer-like creatures that were once close to extinction on the Baja Peninsula but are now gradually clawing back from the brink. Unique creatures so adapted to desert life that they can survive without water, the species dates back to the days when sabre tooth tigers and mammoths roamed this region.

The other must-get subject for our film was the grunion run. These sardine-like silver fish are known for their unusual mating ritual. At very  high tides they cover the beach in their tens of thousands.  The females dig their tails into the sand to lay their eggs. The male then wraps himself around the female to deposit his sperm and for the next 10 days the grunion eggs remain hidden in the sand. At the next spring tides, the eggs hatch and the young grunion are washed out to sea.

Grunion runs can be spectacular and may stretch for several miles along the beach. They’re unique to the coasts of Southern California and Mexico’s Baja California. While grunion usually spawn at night, in the upper reaches of the Sea of Cortez they spawn by day. You can set your clock by them, the runs occurring two or three days after the full or new moon in February, March and April. 

Well, that’s the theory. A flight to Tijuana, a spectacular five-hour drive to San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez – a town that seems to be the Mexican equivalent of Blackpool – and three days sitting on remote beaches on every tide night and day resulted in not a single grunion sighting. I can only conclude that the guaranteed grunion are hiding out somewhere with the guaranteed mobula rays...

But one natural phenomenon at least happened as scheduled – the incredible annual migration of the monarch butterflies from as far away as Canada to Mexico’s high mountains. We took an overnight flight to the mountain city of Morelia – described by Lonely Planet as ‘the best place you’ve never been’ – and spent two hours on horseback in order to see millions of butterflies clustering in huge bunches, totally covering tree branches and trunks, until the warm morning sun woke them and the sky filled with their colourful wings.

As we were boarding the flight to London in Mexico City an e-mail arrived from Francesca – a leatherback had just arrived to nest on the beach...

Click here to read part I of Shoot out in Mexico

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