FORCED LANDING – Part One
By Day Dobbert
My two-seater Cessna, chartered through Aeortaxis de Baja de California, was late coming in from Cabo, later still leaving Ensenada for the Mexican Island of Cedros, 267 miles south off the Pacific coast of Baja. The plane’s cargo of fish first had to be offloaded, then the interior swabbed down before take-off. Once on Cedros I was to hitch a ride on a fishing boat that passed that way twice a week. My final destination, 15 miles further west, was a cluster of three barren outcroppings, the Islas San Benitos. In what passed for a harbor there a Boston Whaler would ferry me and provisions ashore.
I’d flown from L.A. via San Diego to Ensenada, and was to continue onward to rejoin oceanographer Bruno Vailati and his crew on location on the San Benitos. Bruno’s Rome-based company, Sette Mare, was underway on another documentary in the TV series “Men of the Sea.” This episode would feature Mexico’s legendary Ramon Bravo free-diving with the migrating killer whales—orcas—filming them as they passed by these desolate islets. (Free-diving in Arctic waters, intrepid Ramon had once chased a polar bear under water, camera and underwater ‘sun-gun’ in hand; Bruno and Frenchman, Michel Laubreau, followed in SCUBA, filming the action and one another. The bear, displeased, perhaps by the glare of the light, made a lunge for Ramon’s foot, but got a taste of rubber flipper instead and took off.)
Our crew, along with these three venerables, included our Italian grip, a giant of a man, nicknamed Mimi; Dutch, boatman and jack of all trades; and myself, my work topside, keeping the daily log and roughing out script material for our English-language version, co-produced with Hollywood’s David Wolper. Two Mexican families from Cedros completed this polyglot group. The men fished, and, in an improvised kitchen, their wives cooked, their children along for the ride. Our fare was largely what was pulled out of the briny.
We bivouacked in abandoned, jerry-built shacks knocked together with flotsam and jetsam thrown up by the sea; abalone fishermen camped here, but only during high season. In January of 1972 the San Benitos were deserted save for our presence; an official census taken in 2001 numbered permanent residents as two. That said, elephant seals increased the population by the thousands.
The orcas were taking their time putting in an appearance, but the elephant seals provided memorable, stand-alone footage. When our photographers weren’t in wet suits, they filmed them on land, the females lazing on the shingle, their pups posing for their pictures. But it was the males, formidable in size, their proboscises resembling elephants’ trunks that put on a show that more than compensated for the orcas’ delay. By pure luck, our vantage point a bluff above the strand, we chanced on two enormous bulls rearing up in battle royal at water’s edge, the younger challenging an elder for possession of his harem, an age-old rite of passage. After an hours-long exchange of chargings, rammings, thrashings and more, the old bull finally weakened, ceasing to respond to his adversary’s repeated attacks. The victor made no attempt to go for the kill; he moved aside, permitting his defeated opponent to withdraw with dignity. The huge beast subsided onto the shingle, labored to the water, and disappeared into the sea….
I loved roughing it on location, but as our vigil wore on, basic provisions and film stock were running low, and I was dispatched back to L.A. as designated shopper, making the junket in reverse.
My generous boss Bruno insisted that I accept as a bonus for slogging in the wild, accommodation at the Beverly Hilton. I luxuriated in silky sheets and pillows to sink into, with room service and mini-bar, and above all a steaming tub, with scented soaps and little bottles of shampoo, an extravagance of towels and a wrap-around-robe—heaven after bathing in the buff in January’s chill Pacific; my salary was modest, but the perks were magnificent. I got my errands done in short order, a friend of Bruno’s my chauffeur.
Now with the delay in Ensenada, I visited with the charter personnel and moseyed around the small airport. At the last minute I turned up a vendor of chocolates and bought up as much as I could fit into my tote, a treat for the children from Cedros. Then, finally shipshape and gear aboard, all was set for take off as the sun began to set over the Pacific.
My pilot, Vicente Cuevas, had a little English, and with my few words of Spanish we got on fine. Once aloft, I relaxed in the glow of late afternoon’s fading light and the companionable crackling of our open radio. With the sun’s rays slanting over a shimmering sea, it was a beautiful run. That would change.
As we began our approach to the island, the crackle in the cockpit was overridden by a harsh, urgent voice, a woman’s, coming from the Cedros airport tower. Thick fog was rolling in, conditions worsening by the minute. The gist of the woman’s increasingly agitated, rapid-fire Spanish was clear enough; there was no landing on Cedros—the island was socked in.
Nevertheless, Vicente made a pass for the runway–unsuccessfully. The voice from the tower grew louder and shriller. Undeterred, Vicente tried for a second pass, but aborted. When a third attempt failed, our controller, screaming hysterically, prevailed. Vicente banked and dipped eastward back toward the peninsula—in darkness; by now all light had drained from the sky, and we were without benefit of moon. In as casual a tone as I could muster I asked, “Back to Ensenada?” “No, no night landing in Ensenada,” he said, “no night lights there.” I pressed on hopefully. “But in an emergency, yes?” Vicente’s succinct response left me mute. “No sufficient fuel….”
To Be Continued Next Month
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