Mag Bay And The Secret Submarines

Intriguing stories of American meddling

Isla Magdalena, (isla means island), is a strip of land 30 miles long that protects Magdalena Bay from the Pacific Ocean's harsh currents, allowing perfect conditions for a very rich ecosystem that has made this a fisherman's dream. It actually is one of the most productive fishing regions in Mexico, but is so far from an international airport, it isn’t exploited very much.

This island has an interesting history that has nothing to do with fishing or whales, and more to do with international intrigue, war ships and submarines.

It all goes back to 1910 when two administrative grants that were given to the United States in Magdalena Bay expired.  These were annual permits for shooting practice and the administration of a coal refueling station for the American Navy.

Just a few days after this treaty was due to expire, two Japanese warships arrived at Manzanillo, a sea port on the Pacific side, south of Puerto Vallarta. The warm welcome the Mexicans gave these ships was taken as an offense by the Americans and a barrage of rumors about a secret treaty between Japan and Mexico spread. Speculation had it that Mexico would make a treaty to allow the Japs to establish a base in Magdalena Bay and take some railroad permits too, in exchange for military aid.


What did you expect, to see a submarine? No! They’re right here, but you don’t see them.
That’s the whole point of a submarine. Trust us, it’s there.

The geographic importance of the bay from an American dominance point of view was a big deal, since this treaty would endanger the Panama route and would welcome an enemy country’s military base very close to home.  Also the formidable characteristics of the bay, like having a depth of 60 to 130 feet, allows big ships to enter and roam close to the coastline. Magdalena and Margarita Islands gives it natural protection, making it easy to defend.

The bad news rumors did not stop there. There was also a story about Japan sending 50,000 of their own to colonize Baja California so that in case of war they c1ould easily invade the United States through the border.

Eventually cooler heads prevailed and through diplomacy the waters calmed down.  But a few years later another Japanese commercial courting to Mexico gave the American government more chills, and a new excuse to restart, this time without permits, target practices and sea trials in Magdalena Bay, lasting all through the 1930s.

There is another story about an American war submarine lying in the bottom of Magdalena Bay. A document found in the historical archive of Baja California, in the war section number 503 volume 751, mentions that an American ship ran aground on Isla Margarita and outlines the failed attempts at rescuing it.

This document says that in March 17 of 1920 in a place called “Cortes” about 15 miles south of Punta Redonda, on the outer side of the island, a US submarine got stuck, the number of it is not mentioned in the document but it says that eight of its crew members died, two were declared missing in action, and nine survived. It is mentioned too that a destroyer ship tried to drag it into deeper waters but the maneuver failed and the ship sunk into the bay forever.

For many years this was considered a legend but the Mexican national anthropology and history institute finally investigated it and, with a team of experts, went out to snap the first pictures of the legendary sunken ship. This images were published in the magazine, “Mexico Desconocido”. Unknown Mexico.

There is also information there about American Germany trying to buy Magdalena Bay just before WW1. Supposedly they were to propose to Mexico an alliance against the United States. Mexico was to get in exchange for  military aid, help in reconquering New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. There is no proof of this alliance ever being consummated, let along carried out.

Then there is an interview with the famous Pancho Villa: He talks about how a captain of a Japanese warship came to see him to persuade him to help Japan attack the United States, at which Villa responded the Americans were our friends and in case of war and if Villa got the power he sought, Mexico would help the USA against any enemy.

And lastly we have the story of a Japanese secret submarine base in Mag Bay in world war 11. Max Arthur, author of, “Land Where Time Stands Still”,  mentions having seen a Japanese submarine in the bay in 1941 from a hill.  Later in La Paz when he mentioned this, he was told by the locals that the submarines were hiding in the bay and were submerged during the day.  Also around this time a Texas ranger named Rufus Van Zandt (1895-1981) said he and a pack of  Yaqui Indians attacked one of these submarines at a secret refueling station, killed some of the crew, and scuttled the ship. It seems that Van Zandt was not really a hunter as he claimed to be, but an undercover operative of the American intelligence services lucking in the area to do his part for the ongoing war. There is evidence that the ship might not have sunk as previously thought, but survived and made it to another secret base in Chiapas in the southwestern Mexican Pacific coast.

So besides fishing and whale watching in Mag Bay, there are some 007 stories to entertain your friends on your four hour car trip north. Some may have various degrees of truth, but they’re all intriguing.