I first met Gabino for breakfast in the restaurant of the Catedral Hotel in La Paz, one of the preferred hotels for clients of Baja Expeditions. The cappuccinos are better than anything at Starbucks, and the breakfast eggs are delicious. Gabino is legendary when it comes to the Mexico sardine run. In those early days, he helped us out with a couple of trips and did a brilliant job getting our guests onto large bait balls and lots of striped marlin in the waters off San Carlos and Magdalena Bay.
I wanted to meet Gabino to thank him in person for helping us, but I had no idea who he was as a person or how committed he was to eco-tourism. One of the many things I love about Baja and Mexico is the way you truly get to know people in a meeting. It’s not like Canada where you stick out your hand, shake, introduce yourself, and get down to business. Rather, you have a drink or, preferably, a meal. You chat, you listen, you get to know the other person. You open up with some stories about yourself, hoping to find some common ground. You smile a lot simply because you feel like it. You chat and listen some more. There is no process to it. Instead, it’s about the gradual process of getting to know each other. And man, did Gabino ever share an interesting story with me.
San Carlos is home to Gabino, or more accurately, Gabriel Gabino. As I would later discover, he has friends, cousins, and family all over Baja. I even met one of his relatives with a fleet of pangas on a dive trip to Carmen Island. San Carlos is the main port in Magdalena Bay, an old-time fishing and industrial fish processing town that has now embraced ecotourism with gray whale tours over the winter and spring. The “Bay” is a little deceiving, as the main waterway spans 50 km across, and the interconnected waterways, channels, and lagoons are almost 180 km long. When I think of a bay, I envision an indent in the shoreline, nothing like the scale of Mag Bay.
Gabino started commercial fishing when he was 12 years old. At the age of 14, he became a panga captain, which is pretty darned impressive. He was out fishing as a captain in open water at the same age I was in 9th grade! By the age of 18, he had bought his panga (apologies to Gabino if I am off by a year or two on when you bought your first panga!! This breakfast was some time ago, and I didn’t take notes!). Fishing was busy. To keep this in perspective, at that time, over 300 boats would head out most nights just to go shrimp fishing.
As Gabino tells the story, it wasn’t many years later when some diving photographers approached him with a request to go diving on a fishing marker offshore. Huh?? What? Why would anyone want to do that? Turns out these guys had heard about sharks swimming around the markers and wanted to film it. It was even more puzzling to Gabino that anybody would want to go diving with sharks and take photos of them, but a trip is a trip. He gladly took them, and that was the start of a love affair.
The waters of Magdalena Bay become loaded with life every fall. Not so much in the spring and summer but, by October, the ocean is teeming with animals. We first noticed this phenomenon in 2002 in the Nautilus Explorer. At that time, I was still the Captain and we had finished our Alaska and Port Hardy seasons. During an exploratory trip from San Diego down to Cabo San Lucas, with a planned layover for a couple of days so that we could check out Cabo (thirsty sailors and all of that) and then off to La Paz for our first-ever charter in the Sea of Cortez. That’s a different story but the point was something was up around Mag Bay. We saw sea birds diving into the ocean, sea lions tearing around, whales spouting, and much more (not knowing back in those early days that we were witnessing bait balls), but we were way more focused on finding a pinnacle to dive on and finding the rumored World War 1 submarine wreck off Mag Bay.
Anyways, back to Gabino, over the next number of years, he developed a reputation as the “go-to guy” for photographers and filmmakers seeking excellent footage of sharks and all the other animals swarming around. He was done with fishing and all-in on eco-tourism. Gray whales in the winter and spring and catering to crazy divers in the fall. Fast forward to 2014, and adventurous sport divers first heard about the opportunity to get in the water with marlin with this guy named Gabino, operating out of San Carlos. Word slowly spread around the Cabo dive scene, and by 2019, we were planning our first trip with Gabino, the maestro himself.
So back to breakfast. Gabino explained to me that no matter how many guests I wanted to send up to experience the bait balls, he would look after them. I mean, if we send our bigger boats, there might be 24 divers to look after, with no more than 6 guests per panga. (The bait balls are huge and can be spread out, so there is no problem with crowding). “No problem”, said Gabino!!! He is similar in age to me, and I asked him why he wanted the hassle of looking after all these people. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to captain his panga and leave the headaches to someone else? His answer confirmed what I already suspected: he is a h*lluva good guy, and it was not about him but about looking out for his family, his friends, and the next generation. Helping other captains pay off their pangas and look after their families. And equally importantly, helping fishermen transition from fishing to making a living solely off eco-tourism while, at the same time, reducing the fishing pressure on the local stock.
I love it. This is exactly what perfect ecotourism looks like to me—local guys guarding the local animals, looking out for each other and the next generation, and providing guests with terrific service (these guys know the area like the back of their hands) with super clean, nice, well-maintained boats. Fighting industrial-scale fishing and processing, I was keen and proud to run Mexico sardine run trips on a cooperative revenue-sharing basis, and since then, we have never looked back.
I invite you to come and join us and experience all of this yourself.