Islas Todos Santos: A Sacred Place

What if it were your break, and you understood better than anyone how invaluable raw, bountiful wilderness left alone in the middle of the Pacific is? Would you watch it degrade and eventually disappear, or would you do everything you can with everything you’ve got to protect it?

Vicente’s F-150 flies over the busted cobblestone streets of northern Baja and lands with a thud.
He accelerates again, navigating every crack and crevice with expert maneuverability and utter nonchalance, like it was any old day, any regular outing to his local break. But it’s not. It’s 4am, pitch black, and eerily empty. We’re headed to the marina before dawn. The harbor master deemed the building swell too dangerous for smaller vessels, but Vicente knows a guy who knows a guy who’s willing to sneak us out early for a couple thousand pesos, as long as we pay upfront— cash only— say nothing to no one, and don’t bitch if he drops a line along the way.
Like most of my experiences in Mexico, the risk to reward ratio is pretty skewed. Uncrowded waves in the 25’+ range with perfect offshore conditions can play a powerful, tantalizing role in one’s mind. Getting caught, however, could mean an unwanted run-in with the federales, revoked permits, fines, and possibly even jail time. Non gracias.
At the marina, we rush to load Vicente’s quiver of custom guns into the panga. Then, as quietly as possible, start the engine to slip through the channel, hoping, praying, no one sees.
But that’s the easy part.
Now underway, past the protection of the harbor, the swell hits. The panga climbs up and drops down rolling seas it wasn’t built to deal with. If it’s big here— an hour and 20 km out, it’s going to be huge there. I grab the rail tight, and look at Vicente Yazbek, an Ensenada big-wave surfer, born and raised on this wild, rugged coastline. This is the kind of winter day he waits and trains for all year. A Cheshire grin stretches over his face.
Behind us, the sun rises over the stretch of coastline and illuminates the surface of the water in the most resplendent way. Our fisherman surveys potential spots to drop a line, but Vicente’s eyes are locked on the destination: a pair of very special islands off the Pacific Coast:
Islas Todos Santos.

The familiar outline of a man lying on his back. The little red lighthouse as his toes.

The familiar outline of a man laying on his back emerges over the horizon. His feet, the lighthouse at the end of the island, is our destination. It is more commonly referred to as Killers.  Aptly named, one would reckon, due to the beastly liquid giants that erupt with a kind of fury the ocean must’ve tucked deep into her subconscious; wave energy traveling from frigid northern waters, funneling through a perfectly positioned underwater canyon, and unleashing here all at once.
But Vicente is here to have fun. Not to think about the dramatic life-altering (or life-ending) consequences he might face with any misstep or hesitancy once on the ledge of a triple-overhead set.
As the boat veers toward the eastern side of the island where the water is calmer, resident sea lions come alongside to check us out, a puzzled look on their faces as if to ask whether or not we understand what we’re getting ourselves into. The engine cuts off and that’s our cue to jump before the panga drifts too closely to the island’s jagged edge. Boards, pelican cases, and dry bags are checked and double-checked before they’re flung off the starboard side. Wetsuits are zipped and a Hail Mary or two is thrown before jumping into the ice cold water, swimming the thirty yards or so to shore.
Once on shore, we haul our gear up a ladder dangling precariously from the cliffside. From there, it’s half-mile walk to the lighthouse.
It’s at this point, with 60 pounds on our backs and a ways to go, that the question of why the seemingly simple concept of surfing has graduated to something so ambitious, so onerous, seems reasonable. The answer must lie somewhere between a surfer’s insatiable appetite and in the fickle nature of big wave breaks. When that tender sweet spot of swell direction, swell period, wind, and that little extra anticipation injected along the way comes together, it delivers a bite of something so delicious that it leaves you wanting more. Something you might find yourself doing just about anything for.
Vicente knows this feeling. He was first invited to Todos by a group of chargers at the ripe and impressionable age of 17. Quite quickly, he found himself among conditions he was not remotely prepared for. The 20-30’ waves were over double what he had ever surfed, coupled with inadequate equipment and the typical teenage misjudgment of his own physical capacities, of which Vicente became acutely aware in the obliteration of white-water when trying to scramble over the lip in one piece. That first day ended quickly for Vicente, having smacked his torso so brutally on his board he broke all of his ribs and bobbed semi-unconscious until someone was nice enough to pluck him out. He laid in unprecedented agony for an hour while the rest of the crew kept surfing. Vicente vowed to never surf Todos again.
And yet, every itch must be scratched. Three years later, Vicente traded boards until he had a proper 9’8” under his feet, which enabled him to catch his first magical ride, beautifully executing the drop, bottom turn, and making the section with the sense of effortlessness, grace, and confidence any veteran big wave surfer would exude. This caught the eye of Gary Linden, who would soon become one of Vicente’s first sponsors, and offer a quiver of boards to the local community to promote greater access to their own waves.
Now, over ten years later, it’s difficult to spot this same singular-minded hunger in Vicente. Gliding through the field of overgrown vegetation, his yellow gun slung over his shoulder, he doesn’t walk with any swagger, but in a moving meditation, deeply enraptured by the beauty of what’s around him.
There’s something to be said, and a moment of pause worth giving, for the deeply palpable magic of places like these. It begs the question:
How do you know if you’re in a sacred place?
Do you feel it the moment your bare feet graze cool soil? Do you see it when salty sea spray refracts into a million brilliant rainbows and lands like dew softly on your lips? Is it realizing that you’re standing where the ocean’s mood swings erupt like volcanoes and liquid mountains rise and move like stallions across the sea’s rolling surface? Can you tell because the light is brighter? The air is cleaner? Because everything around you moves as if part of some symphony? Or is it something else? Do you feel big here, realizing you’re inextricably, boundlessly, beautifully tied to every detail around you? Or do you feel small, trying to reconcile how puny you are against the spectacular tapestry of life that carries on just fine without you?
 “There’s creation here. You can feel it. It’s an indescribable vibe.”
Down toward Killers, the waves are pumping. They’re about ten feet smaller than expected, but shaping up favorably. Vicente’s face lights up, anxious to jump in before the elusive window of opportunity vanishes.
”Deberías haber estado aquí hace una hora!” someone shouts in the distance. We look back to see the only full-time residents of the island, Andrés, the lighthouse keeper, and his jubilant, slobbery four-legged sidekick, Léon, bouncing out to embrace their old friend in a warm hello. They are both grateful for the change in company, and we are welcomed guests in their home of solitude. “Come here,” Andrés says to Vicente, in a much different tone, “I need to show you something.” Closer to shore, against the backdrop of a raging sea, a wasteland of debris sits at the water’s edge. Months prior, two vessels slammed into the point, lodging huge chunks of themselves in the rocky coastline and spoiling the pristine point with new lethal obstacles for surfers and marine life to dodge. It is a heartbreaking and infuriating blight against the otherwise untouched ecosystem.
Chalk it up to bad weather, bad timing, lack of experience, or maybe something more nefarious. Regardless the cause, the wreckage has leeched plastic, fiberglass, and heavy metals, causing irreversible ecological damage. Despite Islas Todos Santos earning a World Surfing Reserve badge of protection, three shipwrecks in three years speak to the lack of enforcement and effective consequence for the perpetrators.
It is complicated, like most things, to place blame or responsibility on a single entity. Can Californian non-profits constantly make the trip south to conduct two-day clean-ups and monitor every environmental breech that might happen? Unlikely. Will the Mexican government fund local efforts to limit the human footprint on the island? Will they enforce the fine that has to be paid if any damage is caused? Will that money immediately go into further conservation, like funding a local clean-up? Don’t hold your breath.
Who is it up to then to do something?
What if it were your break, and you understood better than anyone how invaluable raw, bountiful wilderness left alone in the middle of the Pacific is? Would you watch it degrade and eventually disappear, or would you do everything you can with everything you’ve got to protect it?
Since the first shipwreck, Vicente worked to accumulate the financial resources and manpower necessary to clean the point and put pressure on the Mexican government to enforce protection. He was met with obstacle after obstacle. Though one clean-up in 2017 funded by non-profits Save the Waves and Parley allowed for an estimated 40% of the debris to be removed, the added wreckage from two additional vessels echoes the old adage: one step forward, two steps back.
Transforming frustration into action, Vicente earned an environmental law degree, became proficient in the astounding bureaucratic red tape of Mexican legislation (and its loopholes), and now intends to host a new clean-up, this time with no big names or brands attached, but instead propelled by local youth. As most Ensenadans have never set foot on their own island, Vicente sees this as a crucial step for fostering the next generation of defenders and activists.
Back at the lighthouse, Vicente’s demeanor changes as he grapples with a new burden to make room for on his shoulders. No one speaks— there doesn’t seem to be much to say, so instead we watch the waves, hoping for an answer or maybe just some release.
Then, Andrés’ phone rings. It’s the federales. They demanding our immediate return to the harbor. Who saw us, who told, they won’t say. But we’ve been there not even an hour, and already, it’s time to go.
Vicente begins the somber trek back with zero waves accounted for, but glances over his shoulder in time to watch a rideable set, though dropping in size, as a little mind-surf souvenir for the way home. It’s tough to swallow that being here isn’t always as easy as he'd like, but maybe that’s for good reason. It’s the challenge that cultivates a devotion the likes of which few understand.
There is work to be done — an extensive amount of work to be done. It is not a question of wanting to; as our collective well-being is intimately and permanently tied to the well-being of these places, we simply must. Reinforcing this can fundamentally shift the way we judge our own strength as surfers, so that it is not measured by how fast we paddle, how smooth we ride, or how hard we wipeout, but by the depth and fortitude of our convictions as they are expressed in and out of the water. As we continue to learn this, we will build an army of defenders for our most precious, fragile places right when they need it most.

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