Sebastián Vizcaíno began charting the California coast on May 5, 1602. Three ships crossed the Gulf of California, from Mazatlán to Cabo de San José. After several tries, they finally cleared the cape on July 5. Today, it’s a four-hour drive from Cabo San Lucas north to Magdalena Bay. Sailing into constant headwinds and 10- to 12-foot swells, the fleet took 15 days.
On July 20, Vizcaíno’s ship, the San Diego, anchored in the black, phosphorescent waters of Magdalena Bay. The Santo Tomás lay offshore but the crew couldn’t see even the flagship’s masts. The frigate Tres Reyes, forced to turn back several times at the cape, hugged the coast and lagged many leagues behind.
Wanting to contact the Santo Tomás, Vizcaíno ordered four soldiers to climb a high point near the northern entrance. They built a fire from dry grass and sent smoke signals. But no one on board the Santo Tomás understood the message. The decrepit galleon unfurled its sails and headed north.
Ensign Pascual Alarcón took the cosmographer, Geronimo Palacios, and 20 soldiers from the San Diego ashore. Their tasks: sound and map the inlets of Magdalena Bay; search for water amid the barren hills and dunes.
Half a league from a sandy beach spiked with whalebones, Alarcon found a small pool of green water. Since it was the only one around, he had the men fill their bottles with the slimy fluid.
The natives proved friendly. On first contact, they made signs of peace. They dropped bows, arrows, and fire-hardened darts. They gave gifts of incense and showed the soldiers several weirs, thick-beamed enclosures along the shore, where they caught fish in abundance.
On the 25th, the Tres Reyes entered the bay. The reunion was jubilant. Captain Sebastián Melendez told tales of monstrous winds and waves bursting at the bow like bombs of water.
Vizcaíno sent the frigate, which could navigate close to shore, to make a more deliberate search for drinking water. Alarcón returned to the small pond but could fill only 70 bottles. “Although they made great efforts,” writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, “no other fresh water was found.”
On the 27th, owing to “our great need of water,” the two ships set sail. Four leagues out, Vizcaíno ordered his crew to tow the frigate astern “and not become separated again from the Captain’s ship.”
Up ahead, the Santo Tomás came to a bay so thick with whales Captain Corban named it “Bahia de Ballenas” — the Bay of Whales. Corban thus became the second member of the expedition to break the viceroy of New Spain’s edict against renaming sites.
Along the shore, natives made signs of friendship. Others tried to swim to the ship, but high, pounding surf drove them back.
Ensign Juan Tejeda and some soldiers took a launch to shore. The surf was so rough they stayed outside the breakers. Tejeda and another man dove in and swam to the beach. As they came out of the water, writes Father Ascensión, “Indians put some net bags full of oysters on the points of long poles.” They held them out to the Spaniards “with respect and reverence, treating them as gods and not daring to touch or come close to them.”
The natives made signs for fresh water and wood. They pointed inland, where villages could supply other necessities.
On the way back, Tejeda “was badly treated by the sea, from which originated a sickness” that, in time, “ended his life.” The sea didn’t cause the illness — Tejeda died, most likely, from scurvy. He became the first casualty on a voyage that would take many, many more.
The whales at Bahia de Ballenas were so playful they threatened the Santo Tomás. They’d rocket up from below and give the hull a — brotherly? — thump. Some almost capsized the ship.
To keep the giants at bay, the captain ordered constant noise. The crew rang bells and banged on basins. They stomped and howled. Results were mixed: fewer whales continued the game. Those that did began splitting the beams.
On the last day of July, needing water and weary of being the bauble of behemoths, the Santo Tomás weighed anchor. The old galleon caught a favorable breeze and sailed north. The natives, writes Ascensión, were “very sad and hurt to see them go without having communicated with them.”
The water in storage was “somewhat saltish,” says Ascensión, “which under necessity would pass, although was not good for the health.” By this time the green fluid began to have an effect. Dysentery swept through the crew. Noxious odors from the bilge, where the sides of the ship meet the keel, became a constant presence.
On August 15, the Santo Tomás came to a medium-sized island they called “La Asunción,” after the Ascension of the Virgin Mary. Nubbled with sand and gravel, the island looked made of plaster. The patina, it turned out, came from the excrement of pelicans.
Captain Peguero and Father Ascensión took a scouting party ashore. They found a pelican flapping one wing. The other was tied to its body. Although it couldn’t move, piles of sardines lay around its webbed feet. Father Ascensión realized that “as he could not catch them by reason of his captivity,” other pelicans had brought the fish, “so merciful are these birds.”
Ascensión also realized that the trapped bird was a native trick for fishing without getting wet. Once pelicans had brought enough, natives would leap from a bush, chase the birds away, and “obtain sufficient fish without great labor.”
Ascensión released the bird.
While Ascensión, who was the expedition’s second cosmographer, mapped the island and sounded the keys and inlets, three men went fishing near a reef. Using hooks and lines, and no bait, they filled the launch in less than half an hour.
Several days after the Santo Tomás left La Asunción, the San Diego came to a neighbor island, San Roque, with the Tres Reyes in tow. Ensign Alarcón took a search party ashore. They not only found water, they discovered signs that the Santo Tomás had already been there.
Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation