By Sarah Sinn-White, Expedition Guide on the Safari Endeavour
Since the first conquistadores, priests, and explorers found their way to the Gulf of California, it has been known as a place of resources. Pearls from the gulf bedazzled the royal courts of Europe, minerals were extracted from the ranges that run like a spine along the peninsula, and souls ripe for salvation brought in Jesuit men inspired by their beliefs.
But it was the richness of the surrounding sea itself that brought in others. Jacques Cousteau was drawn to the Gulf of California for its abundant and diverse wildlife, giving it the nickname ‘The World’s Aquarium.’ John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, of Cannery Row fame, made a voyage aboard the Western Flyer, collecting and documenting as they traveled the Pacific and Gulf coasts. Eventually, the timeless classic Log from the Sea of Cortez was born and paved the way for Ricketts’ magnum opus book, Between Pacific Tides. This is an area that has influenced and been influenced by humans for thousands of years, and that effect continues today.
At Los Islotes, where we snorkel and skiff with California Sea Lions in their southernmost rookery, I experienced a little of the magic of Baja. With the wind speeds low, the fetch across the water short, and the tides just right, we were able to snorkel the northeast side of the island.
Cortez Rainbow Wrasse covered the rocks, picking algae clean. King Angelfish were schooling with butter yellow tails flashing against the dark-water background. Then, a murmuration of Silverside fish balled together within a narrow channel and the sea lions joyfully swam through the school of flashing scales over and over, cutting through the group, sending the fish scrambling out of formation then scrambling back together. There really is strength in numbers for these animals.
Agua Verde, where we have an opportunity to ride burros (donkeys) with traditional vaqueros (cowboys), is also an incredible kayaking destination. On this calm day, we were able to paddle our way all the out to Roca Solitaria, a 100-foot tall chunk of rock set off the main peninsula.
The birdlife surrounding this solitary rock was flying high this week. Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring, Brown Pelicans in breeding plumage, Double-Crested Cormorants, Eared Grebes, American Oyster Catchers, and even a Blue-Footed Booby made an appearance that day. Fish were leaping clear of the surface with such regularity that it sounded as though waves were crashing on a shoreline.
The grand finale of the paddle though was an act of predation. As we stroked our way back to shore, suddenly a Peregrine Falcon swooped low overhead, wings tucked, talons extended, and plucked a Grebe mid-air out of flight, dispatching it immediately.
As we think of the abundance that this seemingly empty desert landscape has to offer, it pays to keep in mind the fragility of this ecosystem. Below the sunlight pouring through the sea’s surface lies the hazards of a delicate web of life slowly moving out of balance.
Our oceans, seas, and all that inhabit them are in dire straits. Overfishing has degraded many food webs, leaving gaps in the chain. Ocean acidification, or the overabundance of CO2 dissolving into the ocean, has made coral skeletons brittle and uninhabitable for the symbiotic algae and zooxanthellae relationship necessary to build healthy reefs. Noise pollution and its link to mass strandings are still being discovered. While plastics are in such high abundance, studies are showing coral may have a preferential propensity for consuming them. Worldwide, commercial industrial whaling is back on the menu for a few select countries, once again threatening some of our largest, charismatic megafauna species.
These hazards and degradations must be addressed head-on. If we want our oceans to continue to be the rich, healthy pond from which all life came - now is the time to act. Reduce the footprints we leave behind, consider not only what we want our lives to be like, but what we want three generations from now to be able to experience. The idea is to leave the Earth in better shape than how we found it. Now is the time to gather ourselves together, finding the solutions it will take to preserve the beauty, abundance, diversity, and magic our oceans have always given us.