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Night and the Iguana

If you have designs on surfing—or escaping from—a prison island, you’re going to have to pay. From TSJ 30.2.

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Fishing offshore in the moonlight, the islands’ buffer zone scans surreal. Pods of small, coffee-colored dolphins surround the boat, feeding on squid attracted to the deck lights. The mollusks are the size and shape of black, fat-handled baseball bats. Below them, refrigerator-size yellowfin hit glow jigs. One fights these ludicrous creatures drop-knee style with cannonball-heavy, two-speed reels resting on the rail. When a gaffed fish hits the deck, the thud shakes the hull clear to the bow. It’s not dainty, and Norman Maclean failed to rhapsodize. The art of it lies in the interstice between getting bit and sliding the fish into the hold for an ice nap. That’s when only bad things can happen—saw-offs, knot failures, line breaks, angler error, and the like. There’s focus, technique, and muscle involved—if not finesse.

Many surfers are attracted to this game, local Mexicans chief among them. Diego Cadena, Dylan Southworth, and Juan “Pana” Muñoz all stab out to the zone for fishing and freediving. If the coast is clear, they dart inside to ride waves at a place Southworth jokingly calls Disneyland. 

“Oh, it’s a mission,” says Southworth. “The fuel expense, being in an open skiff trying to sleep. It’s a long and dangerous run. You have to have your stuff together. It’s not something we do all the time, but we love it any time we can make it happen.”

Southworth and Cadena have fished and surfed the islands in a variety of ways: long and sketchy dark-to-dark runs, overnights on a rain-soaked panga, even camping in the thorn jungle. Employing surfing’s long-standing Artful Dodger ethos, they’ve avoided arrest. Trading beer and tackle to local commercial panga fishermen, they clip into a stream of underground intel: “The patrol boat is waiting on a fuel separator and inoperable.” “The Marinas (navy) are everywhere.” “Las pinches chotas consiguio a nuestros compas, incluso robando motor.” (“The cops got our friends, and even took their outboard.”)

This cat-and-mouse game means the waves are lightly surfed, even after a full-scale surf-media assault: Surfing magazine’s 2009 Google Earth Challenge, the kind of exposure that led to Skeleton Bay’s obscene overcrowding. 

The Challenge—a combination print/online publicity stunt—involved Surfing challenging their readers to find “undiscovered” waves via online satellite photos. The 2009 edition landed off the coast of Nayarit courtesy of Steven Page, the 12-year-old winner of the fourth GEC. He found one of the island’s waves using Google Earth’s flight-simulator function. Surfing arranged for young Page to join staffer Travis Ferré, photographer DJ Struntz, pros Greg Long, Sam Hammer, and Ricky Whitlock, and local guide (and Mexican national champion) Cadena. The crew journeyed to the island, leveraging Cadena’s knowledge of naval patrol patterns, and set up camp in the jungle for five days. Much of the piece was devoted to the hunting of a local black iguana. The islands crawl with them, and plumper examples are bush-tucker delicacies. 

Shockingly, the group scored an unduplicatable confluence of swell and conditions. The swell direction and glass factor were such that the only hitch was the takeoff boil—a welcome complication on an otherwise too-perfect wave.

Ferré, the magazine piece’s author, delivered an informed and entertaining documentation of the trip, matched by Struntz’s beguiling photographs. Despite the obvious—searchable on Google Earth during a “swell day” satellite pass, Pacific dry-tropical Mexico, landmarks in evidence—the magazine opted against outright naming the place. Alas, from the day it saw print, a thousand fingers clutched a thousand mice. Any reasonably skilled, geography-minded surfer found the wave in the time it took for a bong rip to come on. 

Astute students of surfing know what happened next…right? Wrong. 

Had the Marías been at risk from truck-driving hominids from

SoCal or Cape Town or Brisbane, it would have been overrun immediately by surf schools, yoga touts, bliss ninnies, and real estate slingers. But it wasn’t, and still isn’t, at risk. Distance, expense, and the navy see to that.

Since the wave’s international debut, it has peeled off more or less by its lonesome, a handful of locals with boats playing risk versus reward during optimal swells. Maybe the odd sailboat cruiser, oblivious to consequence. Waves as seen on these pages are precious few. Nothing in winter. August is too late. Prime time is often scotched by side-off wind. Over the last decade, surfers made curious by the islands’ wealth usually have opted for lower-hanging fruit. The consensus is that it’s not worth it. When local charter skippers with a lifetime of connections find themselves locked up in a federal holding cell for trespassing, that doesn’t inspire confidence in the offices of the surf-trip packagers…

Pick up the new issue of TSJ for the full read: