Voyaging with Velella: Wildlife Highway

By: American Sailing Association, Sailboats, Social Media

Continuing the “Voyaging with Velella” series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. Meghan, Prescott and their kitten Nessie are on a planned 9-month cruise in the tropics.

We sailed into Chacala before sunset, escorted all the way in to our anchoring spot by the most enormous dolphins I’ve ever seen. The anchorage was small, lined with densely forested hills and colorful homes perched on the cliff sides. Dramatic black rocks framed the sinking sun, dark boughs hung over the surf, music from warm palapas drifted out over the water. We split a bottle of wine in the cockpit under a black night full of stars and watched the underwater light show performed by throngs of undulating phosphorescent jellyfish and darting neon schools of fish. Every so often one of our huge dolphins swam by, like an underwater rocket in the bioluminescence.

A couple days later, we spent the entire morning motor-sailing in the glassy water alongside an enormous pod of whales. We got so used to seeing them surface every few minutes that the flip of a 10-foot-wide tail no longer was something to ooooh-ahhh about.

An almost hourly distraction was spotting large sea turtles basking in warm surface water. We could sail right up alongside of their leathery backs, they would raise a wrinkled head and sort of smile a soft hello in our direction, then flap a flipper and descend below the bow with a smooth unhurried breaststroke. A new kind of dolphin (dark grey with golden spots running down their backs), huge kaleidoscopic jellyfish, spotted pufferfish, ocean sunfish—all joined us over a very short distance. We’ve entered a constant state of Sea-World wonder down here.

We were pleased with the blossoming of the marine wildlife in this area, because we were headed to pick up Prescott’s family for a week of cruising between La Cruz and Barra de Navidad. We had promised them great fishing and whale sightings and all sorts of other tropical attractions, and it appeared that we’d chosen the right spot to take them on as guests. But even with all the wildlife we’d seen, we had no idea about just how close we’d come to it.

We spent one beautiful evening overnight sailing—an experience in itself for our guests, who got to sit in the cockpit with us under the millions of stars and participate in our watch-keeping rotation. By morning, we were all a bit tired and ready to arrive at our anchorage. We had just sighted our landfall and started making our way toward the coast when a pair of grey whales surfaced off our port bow, perhaps 500 yards distant. We were running parallel with them, and watched quietly as they rose slow and majestically, blew powerful spouts of steam, slapped their tails with echoing booms across the water. Soon we realized that there were not only two, but several more in their company, and Prescott and I were on full alert as we began to suspect we were running very near an entire pod. We were motoring, but throttled down and tried to stay far away from where we thought they were.

Prescott gave a startled shout to look out to port, and we turned to see a white mass rising no more than 30 feet away from the rail. Nobody moved. A huge grey fin pushed through the surface, white barnacles clinging to its glistening, cloudy skin. Then it arched as if in slow motion, and we saw its light colored underbelly as it plunged below, lifting its tail then slipping beneath. All that was left was a glossy patch on the surface amidst the wind waves, a trail of bubbles following it down.

I’ve always regarded close encounters with marine life a good omen, as if they’re welcoming us to their sea. On our very first sail on Velella, from Tacoma to Seattle, Washington, several small black-and-white Dahl’s porpoises happily played in our bow wake—which I took to be better luck than any amount of good wine poured over the bowsprit. The enormous gentle presence of this whale touched me in the same way. Because sometimes in the middle of the night when the wind is really strong and the salty swell is conspiring to take all the life out of me, I have to wonder if all this is really such a good idea. But when a whale surfaces next to us as if we’re part of the pod, I feel like we’ve truly become creatures of the sea.

Here’s where Velella is now!

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