In Baja, Mexico's Lower California, the sun-broiled, mountain-spined peninsula that stretches 800 miles from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, there are two worlds. This long morning Nick, Olto and I had spent in the first of them, riding the swells of a sea so mysteriously deserted that it might have figured in the log of the Ancient Mariner. For mile on mile inshore of us ran white, surf-battered beaches with, very rarely, lonely white ranchos behind them, half-hidden in the mesquite and the high cactus. And always, behind the surf, hung a backdrop of brown, baked mountains shimmering in 110° heat. Sometimes a reel would screech when a bonito or a sierra mackerel hit one of the trolled lures. But nobody walked on the beaches or came out of a ranch house door to stare at us.
Then, at noon, the long beaches dwindled suddenly, and the dark mass to the south resolved itself into monstrous fangs of rock that broke down the power of the huge Pacific swells we had been riding. Los Frailes, the Friars, Hernando Cortés had called them when he first passed this way in 1535, and there was surely the look of cowled religious heads about them. But a less pious man might have found a harsher name: These were the carious teeth of giants, the spiked hats of witches, rocks that, if they hadn't existed, Hieronymus Bosch would have had to invent.
It was at this point that, with a yell, Oltd Scholnik, probably the only fishing guide of Polish blood in the whole of Mexico, hit high revs as his panga, a slim-beamed, open Mexican fishing boat, dipped suddenly and drunkenly into a trough, then shot through a tunnel in the rock that took us out of the Pacific Ocean and into the Sea of Cortés.
In seconds we had passed into Baja's second water world, one utterly different from the first, into a deep, natural harbor filled with such hysterical noise and color, with so many chaotically handled watercraft, that it made Long Island Sound on Labor Day seem a haven of peace and silence.
With the ease of long practice, Olto dodged the lanchas that screamed up and down, ferrying passengers from the cruise ship anchored off the beach and putting up wakes that threatened any second to swamp the glass-bottomed sight-seeing boats that rolled up to their gunwales in tourists. Windsurfers howled happily alongside us as their boards collapsed under them, and hard rock drifted out of the big white motor yacht registered in Newport Beach, Calif., now riding just off the tuna canning factory.
And, as Olto ran our panga up to the slip, one could pick up, from the brashest of the shoreside bars, the one that called itself The Giggling Marlin, the merry sound of margarita glasses shattering on hot concrete, mingled with a Mötley Crüe number being squirted out at high decibels through the four 1984-sized TV screens fed by the oversize satellite dish in the bar's dusty backyard.
BIENVENIDOS A CABO SAN LUCAS, BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR!
So what did we expect? The Nature Conservancy?
Well, yes, we had, Nick and I, having somewhat naively based our general research concerning Baja on John Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez, which came out in 1941.
Nevertheless, we were not daunted. By now we had learned to live with the two faces of Baja and, with Olto on our side, after a week of false starts, we felt we were closing in on the quarry that had brought us there—Nematistius pectoralis, in Spanish papagallo, in English the roosterfish. A magical fish, I thought it, one with all the élan of a light cavalryman of Napoleon's guard, one that wears, like a badge of courage, a spectacular dorsal fin, seven long rays in black, green and silver that stand erect when it attacks—the comb, in fact, that gives it its name. It's a fish with the tough-it-out quality of an amberjack and the speed of a sailfish. A fish of the surf zone and the shallows, moreover, one that we could go after from the beach or from small boats.