Thursday, February 20, 2014

San Blas Part 3: The creatures of the mangrove lagoons

A Great Blue Heron poses for a photo during a boat tour of San Blas' lagoon. Its calm, graceful beauty was nicely set against the green jungle of the mangrove swamp. The Great Blue Heron is the largest heron of North America and can be found along the shores of open water and in wetlands throughout North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Birds like this one used to wade in the creek behind my house in Salem, Oregon. They are year-round residents, not migrants. The little seaport of San Blas is surrounded, on the land side, by lagoons and mangrove swamps. These are filled, almost to bursting, with plant and animal life. For example, almost 300 species of birds have been identified in the area. In order to see all this famous wildlife, we hired a launch with an experienced boatman at "Embarcadero Aguada," a few miles south of San Blas on Highway 76, just before reaching Playa Mantanchen. Look for the launching point across from a row of crafts stalls. Embarcadero means, roughly, "place of embarcation." The Spanish word aguada is an old maritime term. It refers to the fact that 18th Century colonial ships sent their sailors here to fill barrels with clean, fresh water. The proximity to the ocean means that much of the water of the surrounding lagoons is brackish and unfit for human consumption.

Beginning the tour

Victor was a skilled boatman and had incredibly sharp eyes for wildlife. He obviously loves his job and has fun with it. Since he is out on the lagoon every day, he gets to know where the various creatures like to hang out. He almost always spotted an animal long before I did. Victor spoke only a little English but, along with our intermediate level Spanish, we managed to communicate just fine. We had the entire boat to ourselves because we were taking the extended tour and no one else had signed up for it. The cost (for both of us) about $50 USD, but the adventure was worth every penny. On other, similar tours, someone in the crowded boat was always getting in the way of my photos, and the boatman had to accommodate the desires of the whole group. On this tour, we had the boat to ourselves and Victor was ours to command.

A quiet green channel leads through dense mangrove thickets. The water was very still and perfectly reflected the vegetation. The jungle closed over our heads, creating a long, winding, green tunnel.  While the channels themselves are natural, they are regularly cleared of low-hanging branches that might inadvertently sweep an unwary tourist right out of the boat. These thickets are unbelievably dense. I can't imagine leaving the channel and trying to force my way through while waist deep in water. I suspected that the local crocodiles would love me to try.

A tourist boat pulls over to the forest's edge so passengers can click away at the wildlife.  This would have been our craft, if we had taken a regular tour. The boatmen can maneuver quite close to the animals before reaching the limits of the creatures' tolerance. The area is protected, and the boatmen help enforce it because they depend upon tourists for their livelihood. Under these conditions, the animals are not as frightened as they might be if regularly hunted. Often we were able to approach within a few feet before the creatures moved off. Sometimes they posed, completely stationary, almost as if they understood their roles in this little drama.

Life among the mangroves

A female Snail Kite, surveys its domain from a tree top. The 42x zoom of my new Nikon was very helpful, since birds like this Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis) like to sit on a limb high above the swamp. There was some difference among the various birders who saw this photo, but this appears to be the correct i.d. The bird gets its name from the fact that its main diet consists of large snails. It likes freshwater swamps and roosts in groups.

After leaving the mangrove tunnels, we moved out into the open swamp. The scene above is very typical of the channel's shore in this area. Palm trees are found in clumps, towering over lower trees that hang out over the water. In some areas, the shore area was covered by tall grasses. Except for where it was disturbed by our wake, the water in most areas was very still.

A Northern Potoo was sleeping on a limb when we drifted by below. Northern Potoo (Nyctibius jamaicensis) are nocturnal birds, which probably explains why this one was napping at mid-morning. The Northern Potoo can be found in Mexico, Costa Rica and the islands of Jamaica and Hispaniola. It hunts by resting on a branch and sallying out when prey happens by. Hmmm...hanging out in Mexico or the Caribbean; staying up until the early hours; sleeping late in the morning; making your living by sitting around until dinner appears. My kind of bird.

The spiny-tailed iguana is found all along Mexico's Pacific Coast from Sinaloa to Chiapas. Its formal name is Ctenosaura pectinata, which refers to the spiky comb along its back. This one appeared to be as curious about me as I was of him. Although rather ferocious-looking, they are harmless unless cornered, and would rather flee than fight. They can grow as much as 140 cm (4.6 ft) long, although the females are generally smaller. The juvenile animals are generally bright green and assume the adult colors as they mature. Unlike other species of Ctenosaura, the Mexican spiny-tail is very social.

Bromeliad, one of many we found perched on tree branches over the water. The family Bromeliaceae is a relatively recent addition to the plant world. They are very widely distributed, from sea level up to 1280 m  (4200 ft), and from rain forests to deserts. Bromiliads possesses some extraordinary survival tecniques. Some species do not root in the earth but take sustenance directly from the air. Many can store rain water within their tightly interwoven leaf bases, which gives them an advantage in dry climates.

An Anhinga drys its wings after diving for fish. Rounding a bend in the channel, we came across this Anhinga, casually drying its wings. It took no notice of us and I was able to get several good shots as we slowly cruised by a few feet away. Anhingas (whose formal name is Anhinga, anhinga) are also called Snakebirds, Darters, and Water Turkeys. The Anhinga name, meaning devil bird or snake bird comes from the Tupa language of Brazil. It gained the Snakebird appellation from its habit of swimming with only its sinuous neck and sharp-beaked head out of the water. The long narrow beak is used to spear fish and other game. 

An abandoned set for the movie "Cabeza de Vaca" stands in the middle of a lagoon. The 1991 Mexican film chronicled the adventures of a real-life Robinson Crusoe named Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. He and three others were the only survivors of a 600-man Spanish expedition to the Florida coast in 1528. After various misadventures decimated the expedition, Cabeza de Vaca and a handful of survivors were enslaved by Gulf Coast tribes. However, they managed to move from tribe to tribe across the American Southwest and into Northern Mexico. After traveling down the coast of Sinaloa they finally encountered other Spaniards in 1536. Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain the following year and.published an account of his amazing journey in 1542. After meeting one of Cabeza de Vaca's fellow survivors, Francisco Coronado launched his famous 1540-1542 expedition in search of Cibola and its fabled (but non-existent) Seven Cities of Gold. He traveled north from central Mexico to the vast plains of Kansas before giving up. Cabeza de Vaca is considered a proto-anthropoligist because of his detailed--and sympathetic--observations of the lives and cultures of the native people he encountered during his incredible journey.

A Mexican River Crocodile takes its ease on a partially sunken log. Crocs rest with their mouths open as a cooling mechanism. This guy was so totally blissed-out that he seemed unaware of our presence. All he needed was a beer and the ball game playing in the background. River crocs are found in rivers, lagoons, and estuaries such as those surrounding San Blas. According to a local sign, they reach maturity at 2 m (6 ft) but have been known to grow as large as 7 m (21 ft). While some crocs have reached the age of 100+ years., there has been a significant reduction of their overall population because of poaching. They usually prey on fish, water birds, and small mammals, with an occasional tourist as a special treat.

A fresh-water turtle prepares to dive as we approach. Mexico has six different species of fresh water turtles, but I was unable to determine which this one fell into. We also saw several other species during our visit.

Tangled vegetation overhangs water roiled by our passing. These bare, overhanging branches were ideal for spotting birds. Those roosting in the shoreline jungle are very hard to discern.

A White Ibis possesses a long curved beak. This one was immature. White Ibises (Eudocimus albus) do not have the snowy white plumage as juveniles that they obtain when they are full grown. They are found along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the US as well a Mexico and Central America. White Ibises prey on small aquatic animals such as insect and fish. During breeding season, they gather in huge colonies near the water.

A juvenile spiny-tailed iguana stretches out along an overhanging branch. He has not yet lost his youthful green tint. This one appeared to be about 1 m (3 ft) long, and blended fairly well with his surroundings. Although our boat passed directly underneath his branch, he barely blinked at our close proximity. If you wish to observe the creatures of the lagoon in the wild, I suggest taking one of the early boats. That way, the animals will have been less disturbed when you come by.

El Cocodrilario

Two adult River Crocodiles bask in the afternoon sun at the Cocodrilario. Crocs are very social animals and can often be seen in close proximity. The San Blas lagoon's Cocodrilario performs several important functions. In order to increase the overall population, the facility raises crocs from eggs and protects juveniles from predation. It also provides a sanctuary for injured or elderly crocs that might otherwise starve. Finally, the Cocodrilario confines crocs that have attacked humans in order to keep tourists safe and dangerous crocs out of trouble. Of course, all crocs are potentially dangerous and should be treated with the utmost respect.

My zoom allowed me to get up-close and personal with a snoozing cocodrilo. The jaws are immensely powerful and the teeth have evolved as instruments for gripping and tearing flesh. While they primarily hunt at night, they will feed at any time during the day. Adult crocs can weigh more than 907 kg (2000 lbs) and have been known to attain swimming speeds of 32 km/hr (20 mph). Fortunately, they are not usually aggressive toward humans. This species prefers to live in water that is salty or at least brackish and is widespread along Mexico's Pacific Coast beaches and lagoons. These crocs are very susceptible to temperature and are found almost exclusively in tropical areas. They would become helpless and drown in cold water of a temperature that alligators can tolerate.

Two peccaries snuggle together during their afternoon siesta. The Cocodrilario also functions as a zoo for other kinds of animals found in the lagoon area. Peccaries are part of the family Tayassuidae, or New World pigs. They are also called javelinas or skunk pigs, and are distantly related to the hippopotamus family. These New World pigs are different from Euro-asian pigs in the shape of their feet and tusks and their internal organs, although their eyes and noses look similar. Peccaries are omnivorous and will eat small animals, but prefer roots, grasses, and seeds. They are very social and have been known to gather in herds of up to 100 animals. 

One turtle clambers on top of another in an apparent game of King of the Hill. These two are of a different species than the one shown previously. Their shells are flatter and of a darker color. Along with other turtles, they frolicked in a fenced off area of the lagoon near the Cocodrilario. The water here was very clear and clean and we could see the bottom easily.

A large school of fish shared the fenced off area with the turtles. The Cocodrilario sells small packets of food that you can sprinkle in the water, causing the fish to swarm close to the pier. I have not been able to determine the species of these fish but, from the shape of their mouths, they may be some sort of catfish. If any ichthyologists are reading this, please help me out.

A jaguar keeps a close eye on things. I almost didn't see this fellow until I was stopped in my tracks by his unwavering stare. Although I felt sorry that he was caged in here, I was glad the fence was between us. Jaguars are the third largest of all big cats, behind African lions and Asian tigers. They are fierce and powerful night hunters. These aspects gave them mystical powers in the eyes of the pre-hispanic people. Their nocturnal habits suggested a connection to the underworld and their power and grace were admired by the warrior castes. The jaguar societies were the most elite warrior groups among the Toltecs and Mexica (Aztecs) of Central Mexico, and the Maya of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. 

A smaller cat occupied a nearby cage. There was no sign, so I couldn't determine the species. It looks quite a bit like a common house tabby, but is about twice as big and the tail is shorter. Once again, I welcome any expert identification. NEWSFLASH! I got a couple of quick responses to my request for information. One person suggested an ocelot. However, upon Googling a photo, the ocelot's ears and tail were different. Another suggested a bobcat, and presto! We have a winner! The ears, tail, and general markings are a match. Bobcat ancestors arrived in North America about 2.8 million years ago via the Bering Sea land bridge that then existed. Modern bobcats (Lynx rufus) evolved about 20,000 years ago. Their favorite prey are rabbits, but they will feed on anything from insects to deer. Bobcats get their name from their stubby tail.

La Tovara

La Tovara is the end point of the extended tour. There is a rustic restaurant and a fenced off swimming area with a hanging rope for the adventurous. Our guide told us that at one time the little cove wasn't fenced off and some crocs lived here. After someone jumped into the water and landed on one, triggering an attack, the crocs were moved out and the area was secured by a chain-link barrier. 

Cold drinks are available at the restaurant, along with some simple dishes. We had brought some snacks, so we only ordered cokes for ourselves and Victor. The setting was lovely, shady, and very tranquil. After finishing our drinks, we clambered back in our launch, eager for more photographic possibilities on the return trip.

This completes Part 3 of my San Blas series. Hopefully you have enjoyed seeing and reading about it almost as much as we did directly experiencing it. I always encourage feedback and questions. If you would like, you can leave your thoughts in the Comments section below. If no one has commented yet, it may say "no comments". Just click on that and it will take you to the Comments page.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. The last cat with the short tail is a bobcat. I first went to San Blas in 1968, these photos brought back a lot of good memories.

  2. Some really good photos, Jim. Did I recently read you got a new camera? This looks like a tour that would be just up our alley sometime in the next couple of years as an excursion up from Puerto Vallarta. Thanks!

  3. Three birds are incorrectly identified:

    Marsh hawk is really a female Snail kite (look at that curved bill)
    Pauraque is a Northern potoo
    White-faced ibis is White ibis

  4. What a great series of posts -- including photos -- about the San Blas area! Thanks for sharing. Jim, please email me at I'd like permission to share these articles on FB. Thanks, Maria Lee PLT

  5. Simplemente increíble! Espero visitar muy pronto San Blass.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim