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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.

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The occasional tourist wanders up from Mismaloya Beach below, but, for the most part, it is a silent and deserted place, its rough edges thankfully softened by the ever encroaching jungle. No one—other than an old man who passes there on an occasional trip between Las Caletas and Vallarta—seems to give a damn what happens to the place. He would like to see it torn down and given back to the iguanas. The old man is me of course.

John Huston, An Open Book

Alcatraz, Devil’s, Rikers, Robben. Prison islands imply dread with a floral note of the picaresque. Being forcibly marooned implies finality. Once moated in, a different sort of wall presents—one that can’t be chipped away or tunneled under.

Like all island penitentiaries, Tres Marías, northwest of Puerto Vallarta, was notorious. The coastal mountains of the Mexican states of Nayarit and Jalisco lie 100 kilometers away, visible under the right conditions. On a clear day, the inmates could see the mainland. On summer nights, lightning illuminates the continental peaks from Tepic to somewhere above Mismaloya. These chimeric glimpses would have reminded one of home. Family. Girlfriends. Poor choices. Throwing in with the “wrong” party. Regret. Standing on the beach, the reality would come fast and hard. Hemmed in by heavy water. A channel too broad to be worthy of the name. The math of it would die in the mouth before the sum could be uttered.

Most of the incarcerates were inland people, not watermen. Escape would be foolhardy, even suicidal. Capture and punishment, or death by weather, sea creatures, or thirst. Only the most desperate or deranged would consider fleeing. Of the tens of thousands who lived and died there over a 110-year span, fewer than 90 made it past the shorebreak. Some were recaptured, others drifted for weeks before they were rescued, many were never found. Fifty or so, aided by complicit prison officials, bought the equivalent of high-priced charter boat rides. 

Today, the prison is closed. The current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, ordered it shuttered in 2019, and its fate sits in a sort of limbo. The prisoners are gone, the grounds lonely but for the sort of institutional echo that vibrates through places where tragedy was commonplace. Not that you can visit. The islands are off-limits, as they have been since 1905, when the prison was founded. For over a century, navy patrol boats and fast-attack gunships kept prisoners in and interlopers out. They actively patrol there still.

Why would people come? For money, mostly, but also for sport. The chain’s biodiversity is well documented. As mainland fishermen deal with overextended resources, the islands’ wealth of pelagics—tuna, dorado, and wahoo—and inshore species—chiefly pargo and seemingly endless fields of succulent conch—beckon like jewels. 

Surfers, of course, are occasionally attracted to the islands. Phil Edwards, perhaps our culture’s most enduring style icon, sailed past the chain in the mid 60s on a wing-on-wing run from Cabo San Lucas to Puerto Vallarta. There was surf during his visit, and his crew carved what must have been first tracks. Sitting on his Capistrano Beach porch one afternoon in 1994, he answered a young Longboard Quarterly editor’s hackneyed question of “What has surfing meant to you?” without a moment’s hesitation: “Oh, it’s the adventure.” Surfing off the shore of a Mexican prison island (along with a lifetime of self-propelled coastal gunkholing) explains Edwards in a way that no almanac-style list of movie clips, surfboard models, and reader-poll victories ever can.

The period between Edwards’ visit and the turn of the century is hard to document, but easy to dead reckon. Southbound cruisers sail past in November, and a handful of those vessels have boards lashed to the lifelines. Local surfing fishermen from the coastal villages of San Pancho, Sayulita, and La Cruz have ridden the main break sporadically. If the coast looks clear, they’ll run the risk of sliding a few.

If a patrol boat catches you, you’ll likely find yourself boarded, arrested, and towed to the island’s naval dock for booking. It’s not cheap and it’s not pleasant and it happens every year. This isn’t sneaking into the Ranch, and the result won’t be a hand slap. It’s a naval trespass violation in a Mexican district that made its bones sealing in some of the country’s most dangerous felons: kidnappers, state enemies, transnational organized-crime gangsters. They’re used to legitimate badasses. Callow newbs might quickly wish they had opted for that Instagram van life once they find their wrists slipped into a pair of esposas.  

I was aware of all this before my first trip to the Marías, in 2015. I’d been invited down for a short week of gathering sashimi. Apparently, all papers were in order. The waters surrounding the islands are justifiably famous for cow-class fish: 200-plus-pound yellowfin tuna. Flying home with a freezer-stuffing load of A5 maguro sounded appealing. It was winter, so any thoughts of surfing there were off the table. Eleven of us motored out of Nuevo Vallarta on the Maximus, captained by Keith Denette. A pioneer of sorts, he was among the first Californian sport-boat skippers to focus on the Marías fishery. Before that, it was the province of skilled expat sportfishermen and a handful of lights-out Mexican masters. 

Denette, something of a maverick, was at first begrudgingly accepted by the locals. His near-immediate success and brash, limit-pushing style soon had some area captains aligning against him. The fact of the matter was that everyone was dancing on the edge, Mexicanos and visitors alike. Trophy tuna fishing remains a lucrative proposition, and life in the offshore Far West requires a gunslinger’s swagger. Denette has some of that. 

(Four years ago, Denette lost the Maximus on a repositioning run. In the cold current a hundred miles off Guerrero Negro, the boat’s wooden hull delammed. Denette and two crew members crawled into the life raft at dusk and watched as the boat slipped under the waves. They had managed to radio a Socorro! (SOS) before going overboard. Miraculously, a passing barge—towing the Space Shuttle fuel tank, of all things—heard the signal and rescued them.)

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. 

Nothing ventured… Greg Long streaks a full 60 miles from the next nearest surf crew. Photograph by DJ Struntz.

“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. 

Travis Ferré makes fair use of rare glass. Photograph by DJ Struntz.

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.

Long, pump-action speed line. Photograph by DJ Struntz.

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.

Josh Temple knows this all too well. A Canadian charter captain and surfer, he plied his trade until about 2016, when he left Mexico—probably for good. Where controversy is concerned, he was pretty much unequaled in the Marías zone and in the international sportfishing community. Flamboyant and loquacious, Temple’s online fishing reports were illustrated with record catches, tournament wins, and the occasional topless model. If one was looking to sell a charter to some snowbound insurance salesman in Tulsa hoping to recapture his libertine glory days, the approach was gold. Low-key it wasn’t. 

While Temple and his millionaire partners failed to permanently solve the Islas Marías access issue, they did temporarily crack the code. In a 360tuna.com post dated March 22, 2011, Temple shared his perspective: 

Royal Pelagic swings on the hook. While many Mexican bio-reserves are “paper parks,” enforcement here is swift and severe. Photograph by Tom Carey.

“We finally started to realize that if we continued to push the limits someone was going to get seriously screwed. We were hearing stories of people actually going to jail, and having their boats taken.… We found out that there was a way to get permission to fish within the restricted zone. Supposedly if you knew the right guy in Mexico City, or Guadalajara, or Tepic, you could get week-long permits to fish out there. So we started digging. Eventually, after a lot of time and effort and most importantly BRIBE MONEY $$$ we connected with a guy who knew a guy, etc. And POOF! We had permits to go. So what do you do with that kind of paperwork? YOU GO! Our first trip on these permits was nerve wracking. We went all the way out to Isla Madre on a brand new custom yacht worth $3 million and winged it. Anyone who knows the details of THAT story can assure you that we were scared shitless and literally flying by the seat of our pants. But do you know what???? THE PERMITS WORKED!! And we had a great dinner at the prison/Naval base on our boat with the commandante [sic] and drank beers with the boys long into the night. 

“Subsequently, power of control over the islands has also recently changed hands. Formerly controlled by the Navy in San Blas, the islands and the prison are now under SSP control. For those that don’t know, the SSP is Mexico’s version of the FBI, Secret Service, and CIA all rolled into one. You do not want to mess with these guys.

“In the old days you could outrun the patrol boat, no problem. We all did it. Then they got a go-fast patrol boat that you couldn’t outrun…then we started to get caught with regularity, warnings became stern and severe. Then we found some permits. Things got much better for years. Then the chit [sic] hit the fan all at once. Authority and the seriousness of the cartel situation took precedence over a few boats wanting to catch tuna. The SSP started cracking down and dozens of people were made examples of…Now who do we have to bribe at the SSP to get access again? Somebody get me THAT guys [sic] name and number.” 

Temple has moved his base of operations back to Canada, but permits have indeed become the coin of the realm. At issue is which permit. Agencies, terms, and conditions are notoriously fluid. One vessel, the Maria Cleofus (née the Royal Pelagic), devised a way to come over the top. Learning that Mexican islands in general and the Marías in specific were protected as biosphere reserves, the owners of the Pelagic formed a California-based nonprofit and hustled up a research permit. The 128-foot ex-Alaskan crabber—now refitted as a luxury surf-expedition yacht—enjoyed favored-nation status. Hosting scientists and researchers in the lap of shipborne extravagance—“shag carpet, mood lighting, plush surround-sound theatre, 6-burner Wolf Range, Greenough skiffs”—the vessel was most often found “on the hook” outside the surf spot. It is unlikely that anyone has surfed more waves at the Marías than the Pelagic’s lucky guests and crew. The combination of a federal permit and (until 2019) prison-island security represented a golden ticket.

I visited the Marías again in the winter of 2016, and a third time in 2018 on Denette’s Constitution, the insurance replacement for the lost-at-sea Maximus. One night remains lodged in my notes. We were anchored in a cove near the surf spot, the sky above a lesson in Greek astronomy. Denette related that the cove was rarely visited.

“Well,” he said, “it’s too tucked in and too shallow for most. I have every rock marked, and nobody would think to look for you here. We’re kind of hidden in plain sight.”  

A frigate bird’s-eye view of the resource, while the Maestro Limpio waits above the conch beds. Albino’s benediction. Photograph by Mark Kronemeyer.

Near midnight in the cove, fishing with light tackle for clouds of pompano, something caught my eye. An escapee. Holding fast to a raft of flotsam, the iguana drifted off into the dark. No marine creature, it was anyone’s guess how this woebegone refugee had become detached from his home. Yet there he sailed, off to God knows where. 

In the summer of 2020, I jumped on a Vallarta-based boat with a group of friends, including Southworth. Muñoz, a ripping local boxer in his forties, runs a booking agency called Saltmen. He served as our ayudante (deckhand) as well as “second ticket” (backup captain). I was hungry to see how the prison closure had changed the landscape. 

We were assured we had a permit, and, with Muñoz and Southworth’s local knowledge, we felt confident in our ability to absorb any bracing by the patrol boats. The ace in the hole was mounted on the roof of the flying bridge, quietly spinning away. Radar has always been a coveted component of the Marías surf experience. One can sit on the hook, alert for any suspicious blips on the screen. In the event of a fast-moving mark, you have, at bare minimum, time to get your documents at the ready, and in some cases can take the opportunity to weigh anchor, fire up the Caterpillars, and head for safe water. We ended up needing none of that. On this trip, our enemy was the wind.

Waiting for the trades, we worked through a compass clock of breeze, catching seconds of pleasure between the rough grain of sideshore chop. Even the crew was put off their feed by the wind. Albino, our taciturn Sinaloan mate, fiddled with the gold chain that draped around his neck and under one arm, bandolero-style. The captain saw me studying him. 

“He’s getting ready to go ashore,” he said. “To practice his religion.” 

We watched as Albino motored alone in the inflatable, around the break and toward the beach. An hour later he was still on the sand, marching a ritual pattern and pointing a stick at some prescribed directions. It was oddly solemn. Whether conjuring or giving thanks, we had no idea. It felt rude to ask. He had been on the island hundreds of times, and had been arrested at least a dozen of them. He loves the archipelago and knows every one of its features: the reef infamous for its resident 14-foot tiger shark; the self-devouring, left-breaking slab that he’s never seen surfed; the ruined landing where he says escaped inmates turned on one another in hunger and fought to the death. 

McCullough, stylishly gamboling for an audience of zero. Photograph by Mark Kronemeyer.

And our final day, we were gifted with a single session of offshore, head-high conditions. Five days, $12,000, and the prospect of a trespass rap came down to 90 minutes of roping right-reef surf. One takes what one gets—here more than almost anywhere.  

Not much has changed at the Marías. Risk and expense. Long runs to fickle prospects. The chance to wallow in astounding wilderness and beauty. You have to take the bone in your teeth. But change is on the wing. A major hotel concession has been granted, flying under a flag of convenience: ecotourism.

There might come a time when anyone can venture unimpeded to fish the waters, surf the waves, and marinate, Albino-like, in the glory of the untrodden foreshore. In the meanwhile, the vines lay claim to the old cells, the jungle doing its best to return to the time before any of us showed up.

Southworth levitates through a gusty bowl, August 2020. Photograph by Mark Kronemeyer.