Isla Isabel – an avian paradise

7 frigatebirds flying overhead against a blue sky

While the rest of the world was celebrating kicking 2020 to the curb, shortly after midnight on January 1 Sonrisa set sail for our next southbound destination. Isla Isabel is described in the cruisers guides as a beautiful and remote bird sanctuary where the nesting frigates and boobies are so unafraid of the rare presence of humans, visitors can really do some up-close bird watching. The entire island is a national park and is often referred to as “Mexico’s answer to Galapagos.”

We departed the Stone Island anchorage in Mazatlan and started our evening watches motoring in calm conditions. It was a stark difference from the strong winds that lashed the Mazatlan beaches the night before. Even though there was not enough wind to sail, we were thankful we weren’t getting beat up in the wind and waves.

Before leaving Mazatlan Kristin had texted with S/V Atalya as they had recently posted on Instagram that they had been to Isla Isabel. We had questions about anchoring. According to the cruising guide the bay on the south side of the island which offers the best wind protection is also rock-strewn and has permanently claimed many anchors. The east side of the island has some sandy patches good for anchoring, but no real protection from the wind and the waves. Atalya recommended the east anchorage, but I was concerned about the exposure to the northwest winds which were predicted to shift to the east which would make the that anchorage a dangerous lee shore. Kristin wanted to follow Atalya’s recommendation but thoughts of the wind event of the night before lurked in my mind. I worried a bit about getting chased out of our anchorage by bad weather or worse.

After an uneventful series of 3 hour watches, by mid morning we were nearing Isla Isabel. I took advantage of the calm conditions and the fully-charged batteries to switch on the watermaker and top up the tanks before we arrived. I’m always looking for good opportunities to run the watermaker. Because the intake is only maybe 18″ below the waterline if the boat is heeled over or rolling too much the intake will suck air and the pump will lose pressure. I also don’t like running it when the water is murky which is often the case close to shore at anchor. Finally, while our watermaker is efficient enough to run entirely off of solar power, we still need enough reserve electricity to top up the house batteries along with all of our various digital devices. Motoring several miles offshore in clear, calm water is the perfect time to fill the water tanks.

I was below checking the gauges on the watermaker when I heard the VHF in the cockpit crackle to life. A moment later Kristin called down to me, “Greg, I think someone’s calling us. I think it’s this sailboat just off our starboard bow.” Kristin still hasn’t gotten over her bashfulness on the radio.

I turned up the volume on the radio at the nav station below (I had turned it down to sleep) and grabbed the mic.

“Vessel hailing, this is Sonrisa. Go ahead,” I said, not knowing the name of the vessel hailing us.

“Yeah, I was wondering if I could bother you for a weather report. I’ve been on Isla Isabel for a week and haven’t seen a weather report since,” the voice responded.

I peered out the starboard porthole and saw a classic green hull sailboat with loose flogging sails passing by us in the opposite direction.

“Sure, just a second. You’re heading north, right?” I replied.

“Yes, trying to make it to Mazatlan and I’m wondering what if theres a break in the winds tonight,” he confirmed.

“Just a sec,” I said as I pulled up the most recent weather I had downloaded from PredictWind for our passage south. I scrolled through the timeline to see what was going to be behind us later tonight.

“Yeah, it’s going to be 5-10 out of the north all night. No real break in it but it’s light. You should be fine. You say you’re coming from Isla Isabel? Did you anchor on the south side?” I asked.

“Yeah, spent an entire week there.”

“Ok, some friends of ours recommended the east side, but I’m worried about the winds over there. Were you able to find sand there on the south side?” I asked.

“Yeah, I found sand basically right in the center of the bay in about 24 feet of water. Had no problem there. You’ll have the bay to yourself. Much better than the east side. There’s no protection there at all,” he confirmed.

We thanked each other for the info and signed off.

“Did you hear that?” I asked Kristin as I returned to the cockpit. She was able to listen in on our conversation from the cockpit radio.

“Yeah, sounds good but we don’t want to lose our anchor! Let’s just anchor on the east side.” Kristin worried.

“Ok, let’s check out the east side and if we don’t like it we’ll try the south side, OK?” I negotiated.

“Sure. Let’s check it out.” Kristin agreed.

By noon the rocky peaks of Isla Isabel broke the perfect line of sea and sky on the horizon. My excitement mounted as I imagined what it must have felt like for ancient mariners to make landfall on a remote island in the endless expanse of sea and sky.

“Land ho! Land ho!” I yelled while flailing my arms about in my best Klaus Daimler impression.

“I can’t wait to see some boooobieeesss!” Kristin joked.

“Are you going to take your camera and get some booby pics?”

“Lots and lots of boobies!” Kristin chuckled. Apparently one symptom of isolation on a sailboat is reverting to adolescent humor.

From a distance, the island looked like a small rock being swarmed by gnats. As we go close, however, the gnats revealed themselves to be regal frigates and sleek boobies constantly circling, swooping and diving all around the island by the thousands.

We approached the island from the northeast until we were past the two large detached rocks known as Las Monas just off the northeast end of the island. We then turned west and ever so slowly approached the turbulent rocky shore watching the depth gauge and eyeing the water to see if we could see a sandy bottom while checking to see if we could get any wind and swell protection from Las Monas. Everywhere we looked there were rocks. Rocky shore, submerged rocks, Las Monas rocks, nothing seemed appealing about this spot as an anchorage. I called out the depths as we approached the shore, “61… 48…” We still were barely behind Las Monas so we crept closer. “14!” I exclaimed as I threw the transmission into reverse and quickly backed off.

“Maybe try a little closer over there. They said to tuck up close to the rock islands.” Kristin said, gesturing closer to the rocks.

I tried a different approach closer to Las Monas “35… 16!” I exclaimed as I backed off again. “I don’t like this at all. All I see are rocks and we’ll either be totally exposed if we anchor deep out there, or have no room to swing if we anchor in here and the wind shifts to the east. The shore seems to get shallow really fast. I don’t feel comfortable here,” I stressed. “Let’s try the south anchorage. We can use the trip-line and buoy like we did at Angel Island back home,” I reasoned.

Kristin agreed and we motored around Punta Bobos to find a perfectly sheltered bay with no other boats anchored. We motored to the center of the bay and dropped the anchor in 20 feet of water. As we backed down on the anchor I could hear a little bit of scraping of chain on rock. Peering over the side I could see the dark shadow of rocks below, but a bright patch of sand just a bit further over to our right.

“This is probably ok, but lets try again a bit more over there. I think that’s clear sand over there,” I said, pointing to the brighter water to our right.

We moved over a bit and dropped the anchor just as the depth fell from 36 feet to 24 feet. This time when we backed down on the anchor there was no scraping noise and I could feel the anchor catch as Sonrisa’s bow nodded down as the chain pulled tight. I gave the anchor a minute to settle, then progressively increased the engine RPM while in reverse to dig the anchor into the sand. Finally after a full minute in reverse at 3/4 throttle I declared, “That’s good. We’re set.”

Greg on the bow setting the snubber line.

We had arrived.

When arriving in the afternoon or evening, we typically celebrate our arrival with a hearty dinner and a beer or glass of wine and just soak in our new scenery. There would be much to do tomorrow to launch the dinghy and explore the island by foot.

Isla Isabel beach at sunset with fishermens shacks
Rocky point with sunset in background

After a very good night’s sleep in the calm and peaceful anchorage, we were in the middle of our morning coffee and breakfast routine when I heard a “thump” up on deck.

Coffee in hand, I slid open the companionway hatch and peeked up on deck to see if something fell.

“Well hello there,” I said in a gentle voice. “It looks like we have a visitor.”

Kristin popped her head up from the companionway stairs as I pointed to the deck just under the mast where a brown booby had probably misjudged a landing on the mast or railing and was resting on the coachroof as if it was nothing unusual.

brown booby sitting on deck

He made himself comfortable all morning until we had to go forward to set up the dinghy. We were relieved that he wasn’t injured and flew back to the rocky shore just fine and imagined that maybe he just wanted to hang out with us for a while. Did I mention we’ve been isolating on a sailboat?

beach at Isla Isabel with dinghy on shore in the foreground and Sonrisa in the far background
dinghy and pangas on the beach. Kristin is rinsing her sandals in the water. Fishermens shacks in the background

We took the dinghy ashore and landed on the steep sandy beach next to a couple of tourboat pangas and a couple of fishing pangas that had arrived earlier in the day. As we approached the line of trees bordering the beach we were greeted by a cacophony of calls from hundreds of birds representing multiple species of frigates and boobies.

5 adult and 3 juvenile magestic frigatebirds in a tree

It seemed that each species had its own ‘neighborhood’ on the island. The Magnificent Frigatebirds seemed to enjoy the low-lying trees near the shore, clustering in groups of boisterous males, juveniles, and nesting females. The trees along the shore were at most 20 feet tall, so many of the perches and nests were either at eye-level or at arm’s reach making for great photo opportunities. As we meandered along the trails we often had to duck to carefully walk under nests that were perched in branches above the trail. The frigatebirds seemed completely unfazed by our presence.

Greg posing in front of low tree with frigatebird nest
male firgatebird inflating his large red throat
juvenile frigatebird perched alone on the top of a tree
male frigatebird with red throat

In addition to the resident frigatebirds and boobies, the island also has a large population of iguanas. They were a bit more shy than the birds, but if you played the game of pretending not to see them, they often often remained still enough to get good photo.

group of 5 iguana in the grass
iguana perched on a rock
iguana in the dry grass

From the beach we took the trail to the top of the hill on the west side of the island. As we climbed higher we noticed that we were entering the boobies neighborhood on the island. At the higher elevation there were few trees and the blue-footed boobies nested in the rocky crevices of the grassy hillside. We made our way to the top where we spread out a beach towel and had a little lunch while we watched the boobies swoop by, riding the wind created by the hillside. I admired how sleek the boobies were in flight compared to their awkwardness on the ground. On land they tend to waddle around on their large webbed feet and look somewhat comical. But once airborne their bodies transform into a missile – a sleek unbroken line from the tip of their beak to the end of their tail with straight, narrow wings. I marveled at their effortless flight and strafing runs along the hillside.

blue footed booby
blue footed booby on a cliff with Sonrisa below in the background
booby in flight
pair of nesting boobies

From the top of the hill we has a panoramic view of the island and could see Sonrisa safely anchored in her sandy patch in the bay below. It’s funny how we seemed so close to shore when dropping the hook when in reality we were just inside the bay. Low tide later that day would reveal many more rocks obstructing the inner portions of the bay, justifying our choice to anchor further out.

view of bay from hillside with Sonrisa anchored in the middle

After lunch we made our way back down to the beach and behind the fisherman’s sheds we found a stone stairway that lead up to a marked trailhead for the trails on the east side of the island. There were several trails, each marked with colored ribbons tied to trees. The orange and yellow trails went down into the cone of an extinct volcano which had turned into a freshwater lake that supplies the local birds and iguanas with an ample supply of fresh water. The blue trail climbs the rocky cliffs around the south and east side of the island.

volcano cone crater lake

We followed the blue trail through the woods and emerged on the edge of the cliffs hovering over the east side of the island. The further we hiked the more apparent it was that this portion of the trail was seldom used, but was still, perhaps even recently, clearly marked.

“Watch your step,” I said as approached a cliffside clearing. “There’s an egg right on the trail.”

light blue egg resting on the ground with twigs surrounding

“Look at that!” Kristin exclaimed.

“I doubt many people come up this far on the trail. Either that or boobies aren’t very good parents,” I quipped.

We carefully made our way out onto the rocky ledge above the cliffs for a magnificent view of the bay and shore below. From one side we could see the bay below and Sonrisa anchored in the distance.

Kristin standing on top of cliff overlooking the water with Sonrisa in the distant background

Continuing further along the trail we climbed a bit higher where we could see the entire island in one view. While we could see that the blue ribbons continued even further around the east end of the island, the trail was becoming much less defined and more difficult to make our way over the rocks and through the trees, all the while watching every step for potential nests.

two eggs on the ground at the edge of the cliff

“You can see the lake from up here,” I commented. “That must be on the yellow trail, you can see there’s a path down on the opposite side of the lake.” We had started down the blue trail thinking it would close to the south side of the lake, but it stayed on top of the rim and followed the cliffs instead. “Should we start back?”

“Still would like to see a frigate chick.” Kristin commented. Friends of ours who posted about Isla Isabel the previous week had great photos of a white fluffy baby frigate.

“Yeah, I wonder if maybe we’re a bit too late in the season?” I wondered.

We backtracked down the following the blue trail ribbons until the junction where we found the yellow ribbons to make a short side-trip to the lake shore. We were a bit paranoid about bugs in the late afternoon on the lake so we didn’t stay long. The water was very still and murky likely highly fertilized by the birds and iguanas – just right for bugs and algae.

As we circled back toward the beach we encountered another low-lying frigate nest we had passed before.

“Wait,” I said in an urgent whisper. “Look there.” I said pointing at the middle nest.

There just above eye-level was an adorable frigate chick nuzzling up to its mom. We probably spent a half-hour crouching quietly taking photos and watching the baby try to monopolize its mother’s attention.

“So cute!” Kristin whispered excitedly.

fluffy white baby frigate with mother
baby frigate looking at mother
baby frigate looking at camera
baby frigate nuzzling mother

Having seen everything we had hoped to see and more, we finally returned to our own nest, Sonrisa. We had postponed our New Year celebration until tonight, so we treated ourselves to champagne and homemade nachos as we watched the sunset from the cockpit. In the calm protected bay we settled in for a satisfying night’s sleep amongst the birds of Isla Isabel.

Sonrisa at anchor

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