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Mexican Navy Allows Emergency Stops at Puerto Balleto

If recreational boaters have an emergency while crossing 300 n.m. between Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta, they can now seek help from the Mexican Navy’s ENSAR (Naval Air Squadron for Search & Rescue) group located at Puerto Balleto on Isla Maria Madre.

This Search & Rescue group constantly monitors VHF 16 and 22, and the small emergency harbor of Puerto Balleto on the east side of Isla Maria Madre is located at GPS 21°38.157’N by 106°32.237’W. That’s about 200 n.m. southeast of Los Cabos and about 90 n.m. northwest of Puerto Vallarta, i.e. almost on the rhomb line between these two popular boating destinations.

Two excellent charts are MX41100 of the four Isla Maria Madre and Proximities, with all four islands and off-lying hazards, and MX41110 of Puerto Balleto where we find the Navy pier and emergency anchorage. Both charts are GPS accurate, published in 2022.

VISIT TO PUERTO BALLETO

In early April, I visited Puerto Balleto with a special group of 200 eclipse tourists who arrived by 20-knot fast ferries from Mazatlan and San Blas, operated by the Mexican Navy. For details, visit http://visitaislasmarias.com.mx

While there, I was pleased to be able to interview Lt. Commander Juan Carlos Silva Sam of the Mexican Navy, who was working with CONANP (federal nature protection) to host us civilian visitors to Isla Maria Madre.

I asked Lt. Commander Silva what the relatively new UNESCO Biosphere Reserve means for recreational boaters passing through these waters, and if they have an emergency en route can they seek help from this formerly forbidden island.

“Yes, absolutely,” said Silva. “Any boaters having an emergency in these waters should contact us (ENSAR) for immediate assistance,” said Silva. This is good news for recreational boaters. Silva noted an array of antenna atop Maria Madre (2,021’ elevation) plus repeaters on all four islands that cover the approaches to the archipelago. A Navy truck road encircles Maria Madre (where a half marathon was run in November 2023).

Two Defender class SAR vessels (about 36’ and 42’ LOA) are always at their disposal to respond to emergencies, as well as multiple offshore and coastal patrol ships. But while I was there, Puerto Balleto’s 300’ long deep-water pier was already occupied by our two 110’ fast ferries and two local work boats.

Medics are available for emergencies from the Navy’s small but modern hospital in Puerto Balleto. Unidentified helicopters carrying Mazatlan TV station crews and National Geographic’s eclipse photographers landed at the port’s 1,500 yard long airport, but I don’t know if choppers or other aircraft are also there for SAR service.

I asked Silva if the Navy might consider setting one or more emergency moorings just north of Puerto Balleto’s pier; he said that was a good idea that he would note and discuss further. I understand this as possibly more good news for boaters and will check back.

WHAT IS PROHIBITED?

“Fishing, diving and anchoring are strictly prohibited within this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve,” according to Milton Jorge San Vicente, one of the English-speaking guides, also an officer in the Mexican Navy who also was guiding April’s special eclipse tour.

Recreational boaters should know that the biosphere’s restricted zone covers almost 2,500 square miles. Its rectangular boundary encompasses the waters from at least 12.5 n.m. off all the islands’ shorelines to as far out as 22.5 n.m. offshore. That includes offshore of Isla Juanito, the smallest island at the chain’s northwest end.

Besides no fishing, also no diving or anchoring.

Coral reefs and ledges that encircle all four islands date back 2.5 million years, to the late Pleistocene Era. Historically pristine, these corals are strictly protected by half a dozen Mexican and international laws – including UNESCO’s.

The only place without protected corals is about 1.75 n.m. of shoreline directly in front of Puerto Balleto. It’s also the only place a vessel experiencing an emergency is allowed to approach and anchor, of course after conferring with the Navy ENSAR on VHF 16 or 22.

If boats anchor anywhere else around any of the Marias Islands, their anchor and chain would seriously damage these prehistoric coral formations. San Vicente noted that rare and endangered black corals also exists at deeper depths within the biosphere.

WHAT’S TO DO HERE?

So, why would adventurous boaters come here aboard a fast ferry? Like tourists?

It’s our neighborhood Galapagos Islands.

Normally, at least five daily hikes, tours and activities are available for visitors. We started the day with sunrise hikes and bicycle rides up to the towering Cristo monument at 2,021’ elevation, and ended with midnight star gazing on the coastal airstrip – amazing stars.

Fernando Rivera, another English-speaking Navy officer, guided my husband, myself and six other visitors in a safari-type high-clearance vehicle to explore old prison sites ranging from an iron torture chamber, haunted cemetery, henequen factory, women’s prison, salt-evaporation pond and a U.S. style high-risk penitentiary. Or you can visit a gorgeous museum and landmark church, or visit stroll flowering gardens and pristine beaches.

Bird watchers were in all-day heaven. I saw endemic Marias Amazon Parrots and brilliant Marias Orioles right on our patio.

Rivera noted that 99 percent of the Islas Marias Biosphere Reserve has not been touched by humans in many thousands of years, so it’s a veritable Galapagos Islands of Mexico. Hundreds of species – above and below sea level – have evolved only on these remote islands, existing nowhere else on the planet, such as the Marias Mapache (kind of like a raccoon).

Rivera reminded us that the former (1905 to 2020) prison administrative grounds at Puerto Balleto where my husband and I stayed for four nights actually account for less than one percent of this magnificent new reserve.

For more information about the Islas Marias, Mexico’s newest UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and how boaters can visit it by fast ferry, check out www.visitaislasmarias.com.mx

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