The Aquarium Of The World

And it’s right here
BY: GAIL COLLINS

The Sea of Cortez. The very name itself conjures up a sense of romance and mystery. Its allure inspired the great John Steinbeck to write a book about his voyage aboard a scientific collecting expedition which was published way back in 1951 called The Log from the Sea of Cortez and even prompted bestselling author Peter Benchley to turn his hand away from suspenseful thrillers such as Jaws and The Deep (the type of reads that make you want to leave the water!) to his 1982 The Girl of the Sea of Cortez - a poignant and beautiful novel about an extraordinary relationship between a young girl and a manta ray. Today, divers and marine biologists from around the world are still discovering what makes this sea so special.

Also known as the Gulf of California, The Sea of Cortez is around 5 million years old but is still a relatively new kid on the block when compared to the likes of the Pacific Ocean which is estimated to be around 200 million years old. It evolved when formidable earthquakes and volcanic activity jolted the Pacific tectonic plates with such force, they separated the Baja California peninsula from the Mexican mainland. Twice a day water surges in from the Pacific, followed by water from below in a process called up-swelling which, combined with receiving more natural light than any other sea in the world, has led to the unrivalled production of rich plankton which in turn has allowed marine life to flourish.

So - what will you find in The Sea of Cortez? It’s probably easier to ask what you won’t find! Around 900 fish species and 32 types of marine mammals and nearly 700 types of vascular plant (these are plants have with specialised tissues designed to carry and process lots of water), have been recorded in this bountiful water. The grand man of the sea himself – Jacques Cousteau – world famous oceanographer and marine biologist once coined it “the world’s aquarium” following his 1986 voyage of discovery on his Alcyone sailing boat. The visit was immortalised in 2012 when his statue was unveiled on La Paz’s Malecon.

With temperatures hovering in the upper sixties in winter and eighties during the summer, The Sea of Cortez is a magnet for returning seasonal visitors such as blue whales, gray whales, humpback whales and orcas, which are all enticed by the warm waters. They execute their mating rituals and swell the numbers of year round residents such as fin whales and the colony of curious, friendly and moustached sea lions found off the coast of Espiritu Santo island. While most of the whale species rely on shows of machismo, (when in Mexico...), to attract the female, the humpback has refined his techniques to include singing mournful and complex tunes, sometimes for days, and blowing bubbles underneath the female in the hope of stimulating her genital area (not sure what you’re thinking but it’s not working for me – although the mournful singing for days might possibly wear me down!)

The Sea of Cortez is home to one of the world’s largest island archipelagos with over 900 islets and islands (well that’ll be one for each of the fish species that have been found!) Known as “The Galapagos of North America”, 244 of the islands are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Within the site lies the Loreto National Marine Park which was created in 1996 in collaboration with the government and local people and now managed by Mexico’s Natural Commission of Protected Areas. The park covers 800 square miles and prohibits large scale commercial fishing.

Giant Pacific manta rays have already started to appear and will probably hang around until November and you’ll soon see juvenile whale sharks closely followed by the adults in late October. Whale sharks, despite their name, are members of neither the shark or whale family and are best known as the “Gentle Giants of the Sea”. They are in fact the world’s largest fish and return to the Sea of Cortez every year to feed on the plankton close to the coast of La Paz and Cabo de San Lucas.

We humans seem to have the knack of exploiting the wonderful things around us, often at great cost to our planet and fellow living creatures sharing it and The Sea of Cortez is no exception. In 2014 the Environmental Protection Agency (PROFEPA) recorded that up to two thirds of whale sharks had been damaged by boat propellers. They worked hard to publicise the problem supported by local and national charities and in 2015 the government prohibited private vessels from visiting whale shark areas and reduced the number of licences issued to commercial boats. There are still problems with unlicensed vessels taking advantage of the hordes of tourists anxious to see the rich marine life. There are also problems with illegal fishing which has led to the almost demise of the vacquita porpoises, (there’s another story coming here).

Decades of overfishing have unbalanced the ecosystem but luckily some communities have taken notice and realised the danger of losing their livelihood. The small hamlet of Punto Abreojos in the Mulege municipality at the mouth of the Laguna San Ignacio have a self-imposed ban on harvesting shellfish. The season starts in January, but they do not start until April, allowing the little guys to grow and replenish. In San Ignacio, the number of boats allowed in the water during whale watching season is limited and during this time fishing is banned. There is still a long way to go but education and national and international assistance will all play a part in preserving one of the world’s greatest seas. If you live near it or are just visiting – you are privileged!