There were ten in our group who all met a year prior on a guided paddling trip in British Columbia, Canada. On that trip, we encountered a pod of orca whales our first day out. The experience we shared with the orcas inclined our paddle group to keep in touch. Kathy was the core member who kept emails flying until we all agreed to reunite for another group paddle. This time, we decided to exchange the drizzle and gray of Canada for the sunny warmth of Baja California, Mexico.
With several solo trips already under our collective belts, we felt like old pros and decided to head over to Danzante for two days and then paddle south from our put-in at Puerto Escondido to wherever we ended up after ten days on the water. We had no idea the best part of the trip would begin and end with the first two days.
Baja’s Danzante Island is a speck of volcanic rock that breaks the surface of the Sea of Cortez no more than a half mile offshore and 25 miles south of Loreto. It is a reminder of a prehistoric volcanic upheaval that separated Baja from mainland Mexico, and has gradually become a popular starting point for kayakers heading south into the cerulean Sea of Cortez.
We launched our boats into the mirror-like, air-temperature waters of Cortez near Puerto Escondido, Baja California Sur, and decided to head north a ways to see the landscape before circling out and back to Danzante Island. Within an hour we had surprised a small herd of wild burros drinking at a river mouth. Had we been on land and not in our silent kayaks, we would have spooked them long before we saw them.
When we finally turned south, we passed a flock of brown pelicans sunning themselves on a downed tree lying just offshore. Right then, six dolphins sliced through the water with thick, gray dorsal fins.
Like most dolphins in Mexico, these were a bit larger than the ones we see off the coast of Southern California. We set a leisurely pace with the plan of spending our first night on the beach at Danzante.
Halfway to the island we were surrounded by at least a dozen dolphins. They raced past our boats in tight formations of threes and fours, like precision flying teams.
They eyed us from just below the surface, then sped ahead as if to show contempt for our slow pace. They soon came back in a group, surrounded us and adjusted to our speed, making us feel a part of their pod. They zipped in and out of our boats and when we landed on Danzante, Kathy said she had put her hand in the water and felt one nudge her with its rostrum.
Danzante was so covered with shells that it was hard to take a step without walking on one. Many shells housed live hermit crabs and moved about. I almost got vertigo trying to walk on a beach that appeared to be moving.
During a brief exploration on the beach, our feet were lacerated by the sharp shells piercing through our sandals. We decided to circumnavigate the island by kayak before setting up camp, and this pleased our dolphin friends to no end.
Once again they jetted around our boats as though we were standing still and led us around the island. We floated over beautiful sea stars and deep purple urchins while schools of triggerfish darted by. Whenever I stopped paddling, schools of dainty damselfish, glowing with yellow backs and vertical tiger stripes, gathered around my boat, staring at me with large, curious eyes.
From the water, the large, green cardon cacti stood at odd angles, with upturned limbs like arms waving to us. A lone osprey swooped low over our boats carrying a fish in its talons.
On the backside of the island I paddled farther out into the open sea in hopes of sighting a whale, but had no luck. I let the slow current carry me for a while and then remembered what a seasoned Baja paddler told me about the afternoon chubasco or “devil winds” that can appear and quickly churn a calm sea into a life-or-death situation. I turned back toward land just as a large school of skipjacks flashed past.
As we began to unload the evening’s gear, a lone dolphin began lobtailing only a few feet offshore. We all gathered at the water’s edge, and a large dolphin sprang fully out of the water in a perfect arch, followed by a second and later by another in the opposite direction. We cheered and clapped, and this seemed to feed the egos of our watery performers.
Before visiting Danzante, I’d only seen this behavior in theme parks and found it hard to believe people keep such happy-go-lucky creatures confined in tiny, overcrowded pens. At Danzante the dolphins were performing stunts in their natural environment. If anyone was a captive it was us, as we watched, transfixed, while these intelligent mammals entranced us with their water ballet.
At first they jumped solo, then in pairs, sometimes in sync, other times in opposite directions, almost forming a heart-shaped arch as they passed each other in midair.
All of this was happening in water no more than five to ten feet deep, which revealed to me the tremendous power these animals could generate in a limited space to lift their entire bodies skyward.
They were not more than 20 feet from us while we whooped and hollered, in awe of this natural phenomenon. The dolphins jumped and spun, doing backflips and somersaults, and the more we cheered the more they threw themselves into their acrobatics.
The afternoon passed slowly, but the pace of our performers never slackened. The sun began to sink, bathing the land in a velvety yellow.
As my wife and I crawled into our tent the dolphins were still jumping but by now had lost their entire audience. We just couldn’t stand there all night, no matter how great the show. They were doing it for themselves, out of sheer joy, with no signs of stopping. We fell asleep listening to their splashes.
We awoke at sunrise with plans for a long paddle that day. I began the day by stepping into the water, slowly inching out till it reached my chest, and waiting. I hoped the dolphins would be curious about me.
In just a few minutes they returned and circled me, slowly and warily. I could sense the echolocations as the dolphins bounced them off of me. After several minutes a large male approached, almost close enough for me to touch him. He sprayed me with his blow, did a quick flip that drenched me, then darted away. I never got to touch him.
We put in and the pod followed us for about a mile as we paddled south. Two of the dolphins came close enough for us to touch, but we refrained. They timed their breathing to surface directly underneath my raised paddle. The dolphins disappeared as quickly and silently as they had appeared, apparently not willing to leave their island home to accompany us.
While the rest of the week was a paddle to remember, the dancing dolphins of Danzante Island were a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
James Michael Dorsey is a marine naturalist who has kayaked or canoed most coastal waters from Alaska to Baja, Mexico. He’s worked in the gray whale sanctuary of San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja for 16 seasons and spends his spare time documenting remote tribal cultures in Africa and Asia.