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Behind the beauty and mystique of the Sea of Cortez

An isthmus of water cutting a sliver of land from the main body of Mexico; the Sea of Cortez, otherwise known as the Gulf of California, holds more mystique in my mind than most marine waters.  From the small fishing and laid back tourism town of Bahía de Kino (Kino Bay) where I’m writing this article, you can see clearly the Isla Alcatraz, a small island also known as Isla de Pelicanos (Pelican Island), not the more sinister island home of the US prison.  Further to the north, just a bit hazy looms Mexico’s largest island, Isla Del Tiburón (Shark Island). Tiburón is the traditional home of the Seri people but depopulated in 1963 when the island was made into a nature reserve.

Sitting where I am now, I can watch fishermen in small boats, some with outboard motors and some with only oars dropping nets.  The nets bob in the water buoyed up with floats made of nothing more than old plastic bottles and other buoyant flotsam of industry.  Brown Pelicans, gulls and frigate birds share air, sand and water with Neotropical Cormorants, sand pipers and others. Sea shells liter the sand and dead fish occasionally wash up to the joy of the gulls fighting over the tasty morsels.  Platforms adorn many powerline poles near the beach and are taken up by Osprey that fish near the small dock by the Marina Authority office.

Prescott College of Arizona has a field station located in Bahía de Kino and surveyed Isla Alcatraz, finding that 13 bird species nest there.  41 species of terrestrial plants grow on Alcatraz, sea lions bask on the island along with the largest colony of Double Crested Cormorant in the Sea of Cortez.

Isla Del Tiburón is now managed in cooperation with the Seri people who gained control of the island in 1975.  The Seri people maintain exclusive fishing rights for the Infiernillo Channel between Tiburón and the mainland.  The Seri live in a small village just up a rough, 4WD only road from Bahía de Kino at Puente Chueca, population 520, according to a Mexican census of 2010.  The name Seri is of uncertain origin but they call themselves, Comcaac. The Seri language is not related to any of the native languages of the area and so they remain linguistically isolated.  The Seri are known for maintaining their culture despite contact with Spanish and traditional Mexican cultures and attempts of genocide.

Infiernillo channel is only 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) of water separating Tiburón from the Seri village at Puente Chueca but is named for notoriously rough water and treacherous tides.  

Tiburón itself is home to Bighorn Sheep introduced in the 1970s, and a quick Google image search shows that they’re in popular demand as hunting trophies.  A permit to hunt a bighorn on Tiburón is costly at roughly the equivalent of $100,000 US dollars. My fiancé and I, not being hunters but being birders, and generally interested in remote places and wildlife thought we’d arrange to visit Tiburón.  It wasn’t exceptionally hard to find someone willing to take us to Tiburón for a price, even with our limited Spanish. Asking at the Marina Authority office next to the one dock in town lead us to a restaurant next to the Marina where we asked about the panga (type of boat) Adon.  

The people in the restaurant were easy to deal with, asking us details of what type of trip to Tiburón we wanted and accommodating our attempts at communicating. In the end, we were quoted a trip for 4 to 6 hours on the island for $400 US dollars for two. The price was more than we could easily pay and so we deferred a visit to Tiburón to a future visit to the area.  High prices can keep a place less visited and more remote, perhaps more wild. There are no permanent residents on Tiburón, only old buildings of an abandoned hunting camp and a military base to protect the island and its biodiversity.

Throughout the Sea of Cortez there are over 240 islands, which were created through several volcanic episodes.  The Sea of Cortez itself was created by the San Andreas fault tearing a chunk of land from the mainland of Mexico, allowing the sea to rush in.  Currently the Baja peninsula is moving away from the mainland at a pace of 4 cm per year.

The islands have evolved a rich diversity of endemism.  Tiburon Island itself is home to a subspecies of coyote (Canis latrans jamesi) found only there.  There is a species of chuckwalla, the San Esteban Chuckwalla (Sauromalus varius), found only on San Esteban Island in the sea of Cortez.  The Seri once moved some of the San Esteban Chuckwallas to other islands as a food source but none of these transplants took and they remain only on San Esteban.  As is often the case with island species, the San Esteban Chuckwalla is three to four times the size of mainland species. In the early 2000s reptile enthusiasts wanting a Chuckwalla the size of those on San Esteban that could legally be owned, repeated the failed introductions of the Seri people on other islands.   

One of the strangest species endemic to an island in the Sea of Cortez is one I once wrote a paper on as an undergraduate studying biology in college.  Crotalus catalinensis, is a contradiction in terms, the Catalina Rattlesnake is a rattle-less rattlesnake.  When most rattlesnakes shed their skin, they grow a new segment of rattle, the Catalina Rattlesnake instead loses the small degenerate rattle ‘button’ when it sheds its skin.  Most scientists believed that the loss of rattles in the Catalina species is an adaptation to hunting birds in trees. Indeed the small size of the snake allows it to be a better climber than most species of its genus.  Newer research has shown that C. Catalinensis subsists mainly on a diet of small mammals and only occasionally climbs trees.  It seems likely that the snake lost its rattles simply because there were few animals threatening to step on it to be warned off.  The Catalina Rattlesnake has also been observed more often in the open, slower to hide than mainland species.

The islands of the Sea of Cortez are stark spots of desert in a dazzling azure setting, a paradise for kayaking, snorkeling and bird watching.  All taken together, the islands host 115 species of reptiles, representing 10% of the reptile species of Mexico. The rare Vaquita, Orcas, Dolphins, Sperm Whales and California Sea Lions are among the 36 species of marine mammals that can be seen in the Sea of Cortez.  181 species of sea bird live at least part of their lives over and in these waters, approximately 50% of which are migratory. As it is, only 5% of the Sea of Cortez is legally protected, including all the major islands.

Walking through towns like Bahía de Kino, it’s obvious the importance of fishing to the locals.  Small fishing vessels are common in Kino Viejo, the old part of town. Along the beach and in the blocks behind it, boats are common yard ornaments, and seafood stores line the street.  Restaurants and street food vendors mostly sell seafood from shrimp tacos to fillets of Marlin at dirt cheap prices. You can buy oysters in the shell from a cart or octopus served on Tostitos from a small outdoor shop on the beach.  

Sea food is also omnipresent in Puerto Peñasco, a settlement further north in the Sea of Cortez.  The difference is that in Puerto Peñasco large condo complexes five, six, even ten stories high also front the beach.  Billboards in perfect English featuring white Americans selling real estate are hard to miss in Puerto Peñasco. While it’s true that there are condos and hotels in Bahia de Kino as well, it’s also true that most of the real estate ads are in Spanish and the condos are mostly three stories are less.  The gringos pouring into Puerto Peñasco also give the place an entirely different feel. There is a restaurant called Frenchie’s decorated with a Canadian maple leaf and featuring an English menu devoid of sea food. There are hordes of ATVs for rent, roaring over parts of the beach and kicking sand into the air.  As the closest ocean stop to Arizona, Puerto Peñasco is an obvious place to party next to the ocean and get drunk on half priced Margaritas.

Overfishing has cost the Sea of Cortez and it will never be what it once was.  The Vaquita, a small and adorable porpoise, endemic to the Sea of Cortez has an estimated population of only 60 individuals, where there once were 500.  The culprit is gill nets used to catch the Totoaba. The Totoaba is the only species in the genus Totoaba, a large fish growing up to two meters in length and is endemic to the Sea of Cortez.  The Totoaba was intensively fished for its bladder which was sold as a pricey delicacy in China. The Totoaba is itself threatened by fishing.

Walking the streets of fishing villages of Mexico, looking at small huddles of plain cinder block homes set in patches of dirt amid a harsh desert, I ponder the problem.  Walking south past the humble houses of fishermen, there is a new water park within a stone’s throw of the ocean, not far from an Estuary known for its birds. The waterpark stands empty as I look at it and I wonder who will use it.  Across a parking lot is a restaurant empty except for a handful of Americans, an later Mexicans arrive in a large, expensive looking white Denali. I sit with my fiancé as we eat Choco flan and sip mixed drinks, talking and looking out at the ocean below the restaurant windows.  From where I sit, it becomes increasingly difficult to blame the local fishermen in their small boats, with nets buoyed up with old plastic bottles. If I think about the problems in the Sea of Cortez my own position becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Why am I here and if more people like me continue to come, what does that mean for this special sea and it’s strange little islands?                     

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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