Gulf of California

Sea cucumbers, birds, and lions!!?!
by -- March 25th, 2011

What do they have in common? Not too much, but we found all of them on our boating/snorkeling adventure to southern Tiburon Island in the Gulf of California.

The Prescott College Kino Bay Center is located below to the right in Kino Nuevo.

 

Our first day to explore the Sea of Cortez started at 7:30am.  We stood by the Prescott College marine station’s boat weighted down with wetsuits, snorkeling gear, and a cooler filled to the brim with all kinds of sandwiches (we have been getting quite creative in our sandwich-making skills on this trip!).  Our original destination was San Pedro Martir marine reserve, the most oceanic island in the Gulf of California, but due to windy conditions we decided to re-route to San Esteban Island, which is a bit marked from the elements.  Just as we were about to depart, Xavier and company decided to go look at the water conditions one more time, because it was a bit choppier than expected.  We all stood by the boat wearing our life jackets, praying that we would be able to get out on the water for the day!  When Xavier returned, he said that none of the recreational boats were going out and they decided to check the weather forecast for the next few days.  Alas–we were left to hold our breath some more.  Finally, he came back with the decision to go out to Turners Island and the southern part of Tiburon Island.

So we all set off to the Kino Nuevo boat ramp, excited to finally get out and explore the gulf waters. Hector Perez Puig also joined our class for the trip as the marine mammal expert for the Kino Bay Center.

 

Here are some of the blue and brown-footed boobies!

 

The ride across the gulf was a little bumpy at first and some of the lucky people on the starboard side of the boat got a second shower of the day (aka. sea water to the face).  With Cosme at the wheel, we made great time and finally got to the leeward side of the islands where it was much calmer.  First, we went through the channel near Turners Island and came upon hundreds of sea birds, including brown pelicans, blue and brown-footed boobies, great blue herons, gulls, cormorants, osprey, and the rare red-billed tropic birds.  We passed by many smaller rock islands in the gulf that were covered in cacti and white bird guano, which took hundreds of years to accumulate.  A lot of these beautiful birds are also sporting their breeding plumage this time of year, making them extra pretty so that they can find a mate.

These curious and cute sea lions came to swim with us…they were more like sea puppies if you ask me.

 

When we finally made it to Tiburon Island, we were greeted by a small pack of juvenile sea lions who followed our boat, playing and jumping around in the teal water.  Watching them play around and show off reminded me of puppies–sea puppies!

 

After we anchored our boat to the beach, some of us went off to explore the tide pools and look at the vast number of beautiful shells that lined the water.  The tide pools were filled with life, including sea urchins, sea stars, anemones, and sea cucumbers to name a few.  Just by lifting up one rock, you could find an entire small ecosystem of flora and fauna!

This is where we went snorkeling in a small bay area and our faithful steed is pictured, the panga Albatross!

Sea cucumbers are a delicacy in some parts of the world and there is currently an illegal fishery for them in the Gulf of California.

I found these two hiding under a large rock in one of the tide pools.

After working up a sweat tidepooling and exploring the beach, we all decided to slip on some wetsuits and see what the world looked like under water.  The water is warming up (its around 70 F) but it’s still cool enough that one should wear a wetsuit if you are going to be swimming around for an extended period of time.  The water is beautiful in the Gulf of California and rich with biodiversity.  Looking at the bottom, it was covered with kelp-like plants and schools of thousands of small bait fish.  We also saw some rays and very large puffer fish swimming around below us.  The best part of snorkeling was when the sea lions came over to see what we were up to.  They are very curious and would swim right up to us–about one foot from our faces and then abruptly flip over and swim away!  It was amazing to watch them speed around and jump out of the water right in front of us from time to time.

After snorkeling, we all laid on the hot beach rocks to warm up a bit before the journey to find marine mammals.  The rich waters of the Gulf of California are home to an amazing number of marine mammals, including fin whales, sperm whales, pilot whales, blue whales, and bottlenose dolphins to name a few.  With Hector’s eagle eyes searching, we spotted a pod of bottlenose dolphins just after we left Tiburon Island!

One of the dolphins from the pod we found swimming near Tiburon Island.

 

The dolphins were quite playful, jumping next to the boat and bow-riding along.  Luckily, we also brought a hydrophone along with us and we were able to hear them whistling to each other.

On the beach in the southern part of Tiburon Island

 Finally after a fun day in the sun, we were on our way home.  The ride was quite wet and bumpy, but thanks to Cosme’s great boat driving skills we made it home safely.

Today was a great hands-on introduction to the amazing ecosystem of the Gulf of California.  After we got home, a number of us ran to the beach to see another amazing act of nature–the grunion run!!  Grunions, a silver bait fish, beach themselves onto the sand, wriggle around, and spawn.  This is a very rare event that usually occurs at night for a short period of time and we were very lucky to be able to catch this just before sunset.  A perfect ending to a great day on the Sea of Cortez!

Here are the grunions beaching themselves–the females are the ones up in the air digging a hole in the sand and the males wrap around them to spawn.

 

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