by Ian Markham -- February 23rd, 2017
A land of sea, sky and sand. Harsh deserts filled with tenacious botanical oddities emerge from a nutrient-rich sea pulsing with life. Thin strips of mangroves form the boundary layer between these two worlds with their feet in one and leafy heads in the other. This is Baja California.
Even the cacti benefit from the richness of the sea as sea birds deposit their nitrogen-rich “waste” inland, proving yet again that one bird’s trash may be another plant’s treasure.
The people of Baja make most all of their living from the sea. Some do so directly as fishermen of everything from sharks and fish down to pen shells and shrimp as they have for hundreds or even thousands of years in the case of the Seri Indians.
Others now welcome tourists from around the world and guide them to intimate encounters with the creatures of the sea.
Tourism has offered some win-win situations for local people and wildlife but not without some tension. Sea lions populations have rebounded as a result of strict protection. Fishermen perceive these creatures as direct competition, a perception aided by the fact that some cheeky individuals have taken to following fishermen and removing caught fish from lines and nets right before the fishermen’s eyes. Nevertheless, most studies of sea lion feeding habits have shown that the creatures are mostly going after different quarry like squid and cusk eels often in other place than conventional fisheries.
The conflict goes the other way as well as evident from this yearling sea lion whose neck has become entangled and deeply scarred by a fishing line. Organizations have formed in Mexico and elsewhere to try to help animals like sea lions and whales that have become entangled in fishing gear. I took these photos to one of those groups in La Paz who promised to send a team to try and save this individual.
Many fishermen have given up their nets in La Paz and decided to use their “pangas” (fishing boats) to take visitors from around the world to see the biggest fish in the sea: the whale shark. These gentle giants gather along the coast where winds, tides and bottom topography drive nutrient rich water to “upwell” from deep below causing plankton to explode in numbers. Despite their massive size, these giants – which can exceed 35 feet – can’t eat anything much bigger than 3-inch fish and mostly focus on nearly microscopic plankton.
Despite attempts by local cooperatives and the Mexican government to regulate tourist activity, irresponsible boating practices can do considerable damage to these sensitive creatures. Many of the sharks have scars across their backs or missing pieces of fins from speeding motorists.
Despite the ocean’s bounty, fishery overexploitation in the 20th century, lead to unrelenting collapse of many fish populations in the Sea of Cortez.
The collapse of fisheries combined with the rapid expansion of tourism galvanized both government and local action to protect and restore marine life. Nowhere on earth have the results of these efforts been so dramatic as Cabo Pulmo National Park.
At Cabo Pulmo, a whole community of fishermen encouraged by university student and professors decided voluntarily to forgo fishing and turn their local reef into a marine protected area. The results have been an inspiration for peoples around the globe as populations of predators rebounded more than 400% and other fish increased in numbers even more. What were near-empty reefs now boast enormous mesmerizing groups of fish who seek shelter and breeding grounds here and whose offspring spillover to fishing grounds around the gulf.
While many Americans think of “Los Cabos” merely as a spring break location, fewer consider how easily its natural wonders of Baja California can be visited from the United States. The more visitors from around the world who come not just for the delicious (and delightfully affordable) margaritas and all-night dance scene but also for the whale sharks, sea lions and marine protected areas, the more that the peoples of Baja can afford to protect their land and sea for future generations.
If you need recommendations of places to go, people to meet and marvels to behold in Baja please don’t hesitate to contact me. ¡Vamonos a Baja!
Note: Pictures above were either taken while working on the National Geographic Sea Bird or during Duke professor Xavier Basurto’s course on Community Managed Marine Resources in the Gulf of California.