Pelagic Life in Baja
BY LISSETTE VALENTIN
I have always been fascinated by the ocean and attracted to its underwater mysteries.
In the last few years, it has become my passion to find out all I can about the Sea of Cortes and the lower Baja Sur Pacific Ocean inhabitants. And there is a reason for that. We, humans, are made of 60 percent water. As a fetus, we grow up in a salty bag made of 90 percent water with almost the same chemical composition as the ocean. At early stages, our arms and legs resemble fins and we are one chromosome away from fish. We also share amphibious reflexes and extra senses of marine mammals. Our planet is 71 percent water and continental land is surrounded by many oceans and seas. Now my obsession seems like a reasonable natural curiosity.
In my research, I came across the term Pelagic. The word is derived from ancient Greek (pélagos), which means open sea. A pelagic zone consists of the water column of the open ocean and is divided into several vertical regions.
The Epipelagic is the illuminated surface area that most of us swim in and also where most marine life concentrates like plankton, floating seaweed, jellyfish, many species of sharks and cetaceans like dolphins, porpoise and whales. The Mesopelagic is a twilight area where swordfish, squid, and some species of cuttlefish live. The Bathypelagic is where the ocean is pitch black and has inhabitants like giant squids hunted by deep-diving sperm whales. In the Abyssopelagic or abyssal zone, very few creatures live in the cold temperatures, high pressures and complete darkness of this depth. Lastly, the Hadopelagic or hadal zone is mostly formed of trenches.
Pelagic also refers to an ecosystem that relies completely on phytoplankton. Phytoplankton manufactures its own food using a process of photosynthesis and is why it inhabits the upper sunlit epipelagic zone. It is this plankton that feeds migratory forage fish like herring, anchovies, capelin, and menhaden and, consequently, their predators like sea lions, billfish (marlin, sailfish, swordfish), tuna and tuna-like species like yellowfin and bluefin, skipjack, mahi-mahi, bonitos, oceanic sharks and large rays.
The Baja Sur Peninsula is teeming with pelagic life. Some of the largest and richest fishing tournaments in the world are held in Los Cabos, like the Black and Blue, The Bisbees and the Tuna Jackpot to name a few. Sportfishing is highly practiced from Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo to the Eastcape, Punta Gorda, Los Barriles and Los Frailes.
But not only anglers can spot and interact with pelagic fish and other pelagic creatures. Whether you are boating, surfing, free diving and/or spearfishing, snorkelling or scuba diving you are most likely to have a pelagic encounter.
Scuba divers enjoy that privilege in protected areas like Cabo Pulmo National Park and the islands of Espiritu Santo and Cerralvo. All three are located in the Sea of Cortes and, together, hold about 50 plus dive sites. At Cerralvo Island there is a dive spot called La Reina where the number of gigantic rays has seemed to increase thanks to the efforts of several non-profits like Manta Pacifico. This site offers a magnificent spectacle of colourful large groupers, moray eels, turtles and other small pelagic species such as nudibranchs, frogfish and seahorses.
In Cabo Pulmo National Park at el vencedor dive site, a school of 20 bull sharks was spotted last year and the numbers are expected to grow. At Espíritu Santo Island in La Lobera inlet lives a colony of over 400 seals. At El Bajo dive site there is a large school of hammerheads. This is great news because not long ago, in 2009, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had them on their red list of threatened oceanic sharks. At Punta Lobos a school of mobula rays lives and thrives. At the Sawanee Reef, nudibranchs and octopus abound.
More recently, an incredible male orca named Moctezuma, after the last Aztec emperor, was documented again this past July exercising highly developed hunting strategies. Just off La Paz Bay at El Mogote snorkelling whale shark tours happen every year from December to April. Higher up in Loreto Bay, scientific expeditions are held researching the blue whale.
In Cabo San Lucas there is a zodiac type of expedition that submerges hydrophones (often adapted from military tracking submarines) so you can actually hear humpback whales singing and clicking. This vocalization or echolocation consists of rapid bursts of high-frequency clicks that help whales obtain sonic information about their environment, find prey and sexual selection. Marine biologist Philip Clapham describes their singing as “probably the most complex in the animal kingdom.”
Humpback whales have also been found to make a range of other social sounds to communicate such as “grunts”, “groans”, “thwops”, “snorts” and “barks.”
Also in Cabo San Lucas, a shark pelagic safari offers a lifetime close encounter with mako, silky, hammerhead and blue sharks.
Still, on the Sea of Cortes, La Ventana village seems to be a hot spot for free diving and spearfishing and offers the chance to interact with pelagic species like tuna, wahoo, mahi-mahi (dorado), leopard grouper, pacific crevalle jack, dog snapper and sierra.
In the Pacific Ocean up north in Magdalena Bay, Puerto San Carlos, BCS there is a sustainable pelagic safari offering dives with striped marlin and sailfish chasing sardines. Imagine witnessing a place where hundreds of marlins gather together during an annual sardine migration to feed on a single sardine bait ball. It is also here where gray whales congregate to birth and nurse their offspring.
Baja Sur isn’t short of nonprofits trying to protect the pelagic abundance and promote sustainable tourism. Pelagic Life and Whale Shark Mexico have joined forces to tag whales, sharks and giant mantas with satellite devices in the Revillagigedo National Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Isla Cerralvo to register their swimming profiles and their movement patterns. They are also teaming up with Pelagios Kakunjá in shark conservation efforts.
Pelagic life has a Youtube channel and has produced several documentaries like Pelagic Mexico. It is a film about Mexico’s oceanic treasures that seeks to inspire people to take up the mantle of respect and conservation through ecotourism.
Here is a complete list of their productions and where they were shot: Striped Marlin and Orcas Bahía Magdalena, Mobula Rays and Orcas, Obsession with Cetaceans Sea of Cortes, Mobula Rays, Sardines and Bull Sharks Sea of Cortes.
Some are still pending: Major Pelagics Mar de Cortés, Baja California – 2021 and Reborn (Revillagigedo Island) – 2022
It is evident that Baja California Sur and its shelter bays are breeding grounds and birth sanctuaries for many pelagic species. It is our responsibility as locals and visitors to protect it by raising awareness, foment sustainable tourism and fishing and promote responsible seafood consumption. Hopefully, the planet’s greatest mammals and pelagic creatures around us will also force a rethink of our own place on Earth.
For more information about pelagic life in Baja California Sur, please visit and consider supporting these nonprofits: http://www.pelagiclife.org,
www.whalesharkmexico.com, www.facebook.com/mantapacifico and www.pelagioskakunja.org
Amazing article but there is a mistake in the redaction, Cortes
The correct is Cortez
Greetings from La Paz and your articles has helped me to improve my English as student.
Went whale watching 2 years ago in San Carlos and it was really disheartening to see so much garbage on the beach. When I mentioned it to the sight seeing tour guide he said once a year we clean up the beaches but how many ocean and land animals die during that year? They should be educating the children in school.
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