Saturday, February 20, 2016

Clipperton Big Migrations Trek onboard Quino el Guardian

It has been about a year since the idea was born: to go on an unique expedition to explore one of the most isolated and historic places in the pacific ocean.  The dream started in the restless minds of two couples: Michel and Julie together with Rocio del Mar & Quino el Guardian owners, Dora and Francisco (Lolo).

Their passion for the ocean and the need to protect it influenced Canadians Michel Labrecque and Julie Ouimet, co-owners of N2Pix, to initiate an expedition that would contribute to studies about shark migration in the eastern tropical pacific. 

1457 km/786 NM distance from San Jose del Cabo to Clipperton

The date of departure from San Jose del Cabo, Mexico finally arrived on January 28th. 2016.

This was one of the very few expeditions that have been made to remote Clipperton Island with special permits and authorization of the French Government.

Aboard was a team of three scientists who are particularly interested in making observations about the human impact on such a remote island as well as documenting the presence of large predators. These scientists also planned on continuing their shark migration project using acoustic and satellite tags to track the animals.

With everything ready, boat, crew, divers, passengers, scientific team and a big number of video and photographic equipment, we set sail at 10:30 in the morning.

Expedition team and crew ready to depart from San José del Cabo

The long journey of about 1457 km from San José del Cabo to Clipperton  (492 km from San José del Cabo to Socorro and the other 965 km from Socorro to Clipperton) took us from latitude 23.06 N, 109.70 W to 10.3 N, 109.21 W,  a latitude near the border of Costa Rica and Panama!

Our first stop was planned for San Benedicto Island, in the Revillagigedo Archipelago, but during the night and part of the morning a strong current slowed the boat a couple of hours and we were not able to dive. Since the weather forecast wasn't looking promising over the next couple days we decided not to stop at all in Revillagigedo.

During the crossing from Revillagigedo passengers used the free time to work on their computers, read, sleep or just enjoy the opportunity to be in the middle of the pacific and scan the horizon for whales, dolphins and birds. 
Captain checking distance and coordinates to Clipperton

Every night was an organized scientific talk or presentation about different topics hosted by the scientific team on board: White Shark in Guadalupe Island, Clipperton fauna, Shark Tagging protocols, different shark documentaries, etc. 

It was also a great time for all the group to get to know each other better, share good times, and lots of laughs.

Finally at dawn on February 2nd we were able to see the atoll from the distance! It was a very powerful moment to see the silhouettes of the palm trees (mentioned in many books) and the historical Clipperton Rock keeping in silence unknown secrets of the people and boats that have been there before.

A group of more than 15 dolphins came to swim around the boat and to welcome Quino el Guardian to the island.

Clipperton at last!

The underwater mountain is quite steep and goes deep very close to the surf breaking zone which makes anchoring very complex and risky. Our captain managed to anchor safely and immediately we started to prepare everything for our landing on the island. The energy, excitement and enthusiasm on board Quino el Guardián was palpable.
The two pangas scouted the beach trying to find a safe passage to the shore. The waves were breaking and the reef was extremely shallow close to the beach. It was impossible to take a panga all the way in, so we all had to jump into the water and swim trough the surf zone into the beach.

Definitely not an easy maneuver considering that it was required to bring filming and photographic equipment, water, food, etc. At some points it looked more like the D-Day in Normandy, but all passengers were to rise to the occasion, but not without bruises and scrapes! 

Landing on Clipperton 
Picture courtesy of  Charalampos Babis Bizas
Taken under special permit #HC/1838/CAB
The rest of the day was full of exploration: walking around the island trying to listen to the voices of the ghosts and the laughs of the children that lived there for years. 
Discovering footprints of history of the lagoon and remains of human presence on the island. 
At some points the Masked and Brown Boobies seemed like they were making fun of us and the bright-orange crabs peeked up at us, curious to see who was visiting and making all the noise!

Clipperton is an uninhabited 6 km2 (2.3 sq mi) coral atoll territory of France. Most of the time it has been an uninhabited island except for the guano miners, the Mexican settlement in 1917 that ended in tragedy (subject of several novels) and the USA military base during WWII. 
Nevertheless this little piece of land in the middle of nowhere has called the attention of numerous people during history: business men, pirates, military, governments, international disputes, scientific expeditions and it has been a refuge for many castaways. 

Shallow coral reef makes landing using pandas impossible

Intense sun during exploration day

Break for lunch and water

Wreck on the beach

New French flag

Clipperton Rock: mystery, history, treasures

Human impact on the island: plastic carried by ocean currents

During the short time that we spent on the island we were able to feel and experience a little taste of the island. The smell and sound of thousands and thousands of birds and the guano, the difficulties to walk on pieces of sharp dead coral, the intense sun and the lack of fresh water, but at the same time the magnetism of the island and in some way understand why so many people have been hypnotized by Clipperton and its treasures.

That night, after a rough swim going back to the pangas, the scientific team (Eric, Sandra and Mauricio) lead the first shark tagging attempt of the expedition. It was a fantastic opportunity for all of the 16 passengers to help, learn and participate actively in this important work marine biologist are doing to learn more about the shark migration and to protect them in a better and more effective way.
Shark tagging
The crew of Quino el Guardian was ready to help them to catch the sharks from the platform and get the shark out of the water (not an easy task when the shark is about 7 feet long). Then two or three passengers had the task of holding the shark and providing it with water running through its mouth to keep it breathing. Some others were in charge of taking notes while others were taking measures. A couple more were assisting directly to take the biopsies and to do the surgical procedure to introduce the acoustic tag in the shark.
Not everything was serious work— on the platform and dive deck it was a lot of laughs and jokes! Everyone was having a great time while learning. And of course from that night nobody will ever forget how that big Galapagos shark slapped Thomas twice!

Scientists on board: Mauricio Hoyos, Sandra Bessudo and Eric Clua

The next two days in Clipperton were dedicated to diving. We had a marvelous opportunity to see the huge coral reef on the island full of reef fish and insolent morays. Photographers and videographers were happy collecting images of the endemic species of Clipperton: (Myripristis gildi) Clipperton Cardinal Soldierfish,  (Thalassoma robertsoni) Clipperton Rainbow Wrasse, (Xyrichtys wellingtoni) Clipperton Razorfish, (Holacanthus limbaughi) Clipperton Angelfish, (Stegastes baldwini) Baldwin's Major and the (Pseudogramma axelrodi) Axelrod's Reef-bass
We also saw many baby Silvertip sharks (Carcharhinus albimarginatus) and few Galapagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis) but we missed seeing more large pelagic predators and schools of fish. Maybe over-fishing near the island, "El Niño," and plastic debris are all related to the cause of this.

The scientific team aboard will take all these observations to the authorities to keep the pressure on to declare Clipperton and the seas around the island a Marine Protected Area.

Alejandro happy after seeing a hammer head shark

Picture: Frankie Rivera
Taken under special permit #HC/1838/CAB
The expedition was honored to carry the Explorers Club flag number 213
Steep coral walls around the island

Unfortunately the wind was increasing day by day and diving conditions were getting more complicated to do safely. Even so, we managed to recover two of the three acoustic receivers Mauricio Hoyos had installed around the island to track sharks and everybody had very nice dives with warm water and good visibility (28 C/82 F and 60 to 80 feet vis)

The afternoon weather report on Thursday Feb 4th brought bad news. The wind was going to pick up with red flags for the next few days. It was a very tough call, but safety since safety comes first, we decided to start making our way back to Socorro Island that night after the shark tagging activity and dinner.

Clipperton sunset (last night in the island)

Crossing back from Clipperton to Socorro was very tough but it was not enough to remove the smiles and the good mood of the passengers. All my respect to all of them who handled courageously the long journey with rough seas.

The last stage of this expedition was in Revillagigedo Archipelago. Our first stop was in Socorro Island diving in Cabo Pearce. We had really good dives with mantas, dolphins and a couple of Galapagos sharks.

The next day we dove on San Benedicto Island. The morning dive was at the famous dive site, El Cañon that gifted us with an incredible safety stop with a huge bait ball of Black Skipjacks with big Galapagos and Silky sharks chasing them.

But the big surprise was on the surface: at least 6 different mantas were feeding in very shallow waters and without a doubt divers got on their fins and masks and jumped in with their cameras to spend at least half an hour swimming with these incredible and peaceful animals.
Our next stop was in El Boiler for three more dives entirely with mantas, mantas, and more mantas. It definitely was a fabulous closure for the diving activities of this expedition. San Benedicto: thank you again!

Picture: Frankie Rivera. Manta in San Benedicto Island

Then it was time to celebrate: Poncho, Carlos and "Flaco" cooked a wonderful dinner on the top deck: mexican tacos! Plus margaritas, beer, wine, cactus salad (nopales) music and the most important ingredient: lots of laughter and happy faces.  The feeling of having accomplished a mission invigorated us!

This is what a true exploring expedition is: different people from different parts of the world with different objectives come together to create a team that goes to a remote place to discover new things, to bring new information, to do a specific work (science, documentary, etc) and use the best skills of each person onboard to accomplish common goals.
This wasn't easy, it wasn't a recreational tour, it was a real expedition with big challenges, risks, difficult weather, but at the end the good spirit, team work and smart decisions made it a total success.

Quino in Socorro Island
Thanks to all of you for sharing this lifetime experience with us, for choosing us as a company and vessel dedicated to these kinds of expeditions and to be part of the humans that want to make a change in the world and help protect it.

We'll be waiting for all of you guys on our upcoming adventures!

Text: Juan David Cortes (DM)
Photos: Frankie Rivera, Eric Clua, Charalampos Babis Bizas, Juan David Cortés, N2PIX
San José del Cabo. February, 2016

1 comment:

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Diving in Cabo