Cabo Pulmo Saved!

Mexican President Calderón withdraws permit for development of Cabo Cortez

by Catharine Cooper, for The Ocean Foundation

A massive school of stingrays at Cabo Pulmo (Photo: Fleur Schultz)

In an unprecedented move, Mexican President Felipe Calderón withdrew the development permit for the 9,400 acre development of Cabo Cortez on the southern tip of Baja California. The land, adjacent to Cabo Pulmo National Marine Reserve, had become a regional – if not national cause – among ocean conservationists and environmentalists because of its proximity to the only intact coral reef in the Sea of Cortez.

The reef itself is estimated to be 20,000 years old and is home to 226 of the 875 species that exist in the region. Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park was created in 1995 and encompasses 17,750 marine acres. Parts of the shallow coral mountain lie just 10 miles offshore. In addition to sea turtles, dolphin, tiger and bull sharks, migrating blue and humpback whales, and rare whale sharks congregate in the area. (For a stunning collection of Cabo Pulmo photographs, see National Geographic’s Pictures: Best Marine Park? Booming Fish Leap and Swarm)

Decades of overfishing and the commercial practice of dragging anchors and nets had left the reef nearly devoid of life. In the early 90s, local fishermen recognized the need for protection, and rallied for the reserve. Four years after its establishment, monitors from Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) and Scripps were astonished at the changes in the sea life. Enforcement of the no fishing/no take zone had given rise to Gulf groupers larger than anywhere else in the Gulf, dense schools of predatory jacks, increased numbers of black top reef sharks, and other predators.

In 2005, Cabo Pulmo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2008 it was added to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. A great deal of credit goes to the local population, who made a dramatic shift from fishing to eco-tourism, and put their muscle to enforcing the marine protections. A study released by Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported that in August 2011, Cabo Pulmo’s biomass – the total weight of living species – had increased by 463 percent from 1999 to 2009. “No other marine reserve in the world has shown such a fish recovery,” wrote researcher, Octavio Aburto-Oropeza.

Such great results made the Mexican government’s permit of the upscale/uber-development Cabo Cortez all the more mind-boggling. For a local population to have worked so hard to bring life back to the sea, and to be sanctioned and honored by numerous world-wide organizations, it seemed impossible to believe that a permit for 9,380 acres with seven hotels, 27,000 guestrooms, two golf courses, a marina for 490 boats, and 5,000 residents for workers could even be considered.

Groups such as U.S. NGO Wildcoast, the Mexican NGO Niparajá, Pro Natura Northwest, Community & Diversity, Friends of Cabo Pulmo, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and UABCS joined together to protest Cabo Cortez. Their efforts proved that grassroots campaigns could be effective.

An onslaught of media outlets – websites, newspapers, radio spots, and prime time television segments – garnered attention. A photo exhibition was staged in the Federal Senate and Legislative Palace in Mexico City to highlight the importance of the Reef, and led to motions against the proposed project. Pressure was placed on Mexico’s environmental protection agency to revoke the development permit.

In his announcement on Friday the 15th of June 2012, Calderón restated environmentalist concerns. “Because of its size,” he said, “we have to be absolutely certain that it wouldn’t cause irreversible damage, and that absolute certainty has not been proved.”
Omar Vidal, the head of WWF Mexico, called the announcement, “an important victory, because it shows that when the public organizes, it can achieve great things.”

For the moment, we who care most deeply have spoken for the sea, and we have been heard. The fragile resuscitated reef is safe – temporarily. The chemical run-offs, garbage and waste water, which would have resulted form the enormity of development – and killed off reef life once again – has been halted. However, the owners of the land, a Spanish development group, Hansa Baja Investments, stated in a press conference, that they would re-apply, and would take counsel from qualified advisors. Their new plan will be, “… compatible with the conservation and preservation of the area’s environment.”

Residents of the area would prefer no development at all. With their shift from fishing to scuba tours, kayaking trips and other eco-based activities, the community is working to develop their own model for sustainable tourism in southern Baja. Integral to the program is to maintain the rustic environmentally friendly atmosphere of the community, and to expand that vision to other towns in the region.

In other words, there is no need for another Cabo or Cancún. We need more places that are safe to swim, to snorkel, and be in the sea. We need seas that are healthy, free of pollutants and teaming with life. Our underwater friends and partners depend on us to make that happen. So join hands with The Ocean Foundation, and put your heart and spirit into protecting the seas.

Island Living

Loreto is surrounded by seven islands, which lend themselves to abundant snorkeling, diving, fishing, whale/dolphin/manta watching, sailing, SUP. and beaching opportunities. It’s a water paradise with sea temps in the 80s in July, August and September.

The peninsula itself is a long finger of land surrounded wrapped by the Sea of Cortez on the east coast and the Pacific on the west. A day’s drive and a traveler can experience two vastly different environmental climates. The middle of the Baja can be more like an inferno mid-summer, with temps not unusual in the 110+ range.

“On the Island”

It is the sea that draws me, holds me, keeps me waking next to water and all her power to soothe, to invigorate and to heal. My new neighbor, Dave, took this photo this morning of my Casa de Catalina using an iPhone ap :

It certainly appears from this image that I live on an island. What a whoop! Better get the paddles out!

Airline Angst

SanTaco Airlines

SanTaco Airlines

Once upon a time Alaska Airlines flew daily flights from Los Angeles to Loreto – and “…the living was easy.”  During the buildup of Loreto Bay,  Delta and Continental both added flights.  Prices were low.  Flights were easy to obtain at the last minute, and travel to and from the United States was relatively simple.

Enter the dawn of the US housing crisis and airline traffic dwindled.  Delta and Continental pulled out of Loreto market, and Alaska : aka Horizon : cut flights to four days a week.  Then they switched from the 737 Jet to the much smaller load carrying prop Bombardier q400.  While the plane is more fuel efficient, it adds an additional hour to travel time.  Cost cutting measures insure that airlines stay in business, but lately, the cutbacks have had a ferocious effect.

Tie whale-watching season – mid-January through the end of March – to the needs of local fliers, and simply forget about a/getting a flight, and b/getting a flight at a reasonable price.  At least for February and most of March.  Unless you’ve got $1000 to spend round trip.  Gee whiz : I went to London and back last month for 1/2 that price!

So this morning, when my friend, Cynthia, sent me an email with the title, “New Flights to Loreto,” I couldn’t wait to open it!  Was there really a new option???  I almost peed my pants I laughed so hard, looking at the photograph she attached, with the new planes name, “SanTaco” proudly painted on the tail.  Can’t wait to book a flight – but better make sure to tie back my hair and wear sunglasses!!

beauty where we find it …..

Baja : Pacific Morning

For the uninitiated, there is little that can be said to fully express the beauty of Baja California Sur.  From the moment one leaves the populations of Colonet & San Quintin, makes a requisite gas stop in El Rosario, and heads into the heart of undeveloped land of cardon, bojum, cholla, poloverde, cirrius and more …  the heart slows, the shoulders drop, and the mind begins to embrace again that primal space of undeveloped land.

Mex One zigzags across the peninsula in undulating rhythms, following for the greater part, the easiest passage through rough terrain.  That translates to switchbacks, mountain climbs and descents, and arroyo crossings.  Wide plains, dry lakes and craggy rock piles – the spewn evidence of long-ago volcanoes litter the landscape.  I’ve stopped counting the trips. I never fail to be inspired.  I am always stunned by her beauty.

For those who are afraid to travel, I am sorry.  So much the greater landscape and less crowded roads for me.  While the horrors of the drug cartels are not to be ignored, the city streets of any major metropolitan area has its own body and assault count.  I feel safer in my home in Loreto than I ever did in the states.

The Pacific side teases with waves that follow distant swells.  Spots like the Wall, Shipwrecks, the local spots of Ensenada .. and of course, Pescadero, Todos Santos and Cabo San Lucas beckon surfers from across the globe.

The east coast, the beautiful bountiful Sea of Cortez, is filled with dolphin, sea turtles, fish of every color and size, rays and whales – blue, pilot, fin and orca.  Sunrises, sunsets .. kayaking, paddling, surfing, hiking, sailing, scuba diving, snorkeling .. exploring ..  magic.  To be with and surrounded by such beauty is to me – pure magic.
And then there are the people – beautiful kind warm family loving folks.

Food!  Beverages!  Music!  Dancing!  Camping under stars and/or a full moon. Yes : Baja : I love and dream of you always.

Back to the Whales!

Maldo Fisher, co-owner, Campo Cortez

Maldo Fisher, co-owner, Campo Cortez

The great luck of returning to San Ignacio Lagoon twice in one season is first and foremost, a reconnection with old friends – in this case, Maldo Fischer, his sons Cuko and Paco, and guides Adrian and Christina.

Their surprise – and then broad smiles and hugs – upon our arrival made the end of the dusty road a magical place, indeed. Steve and I were assigned “Balena” cabin – which seemed quite appropriate.

During my February early February visit, there were approximately 80 whales in the lagoon. Primarily mothers and their newborn. We were treated to baby antics, nursing moments, and the gift of the mothers as they brought their babies to the boats to be touched and kissed.

Christina, Guide - Campo Cortez

Christina, Guide - Campo Cortez

This trip, 180+ whales had been counted. The behavior had changed with the arrival of males looking for mates and the maturation of the babies. Breaching and spyhopping seemed to be everywhere simultaneously. And we were treated with feeding behaviors – mother and baby – scooping up tasties from the lagoon floor and filtering them through their baleen. The dorsal fins pictured to the right are prominent displayed when the whales are feeding. They scoop with one side of their face, fin raised in the air.

The second evening, Adrian and Christina gave an informative and beautifully presented slide show and narrative. They filled in many gaps on whale behavior, and the show included many new photos from Adrian’s current stay.

After, Maldo gave a wonderful talk and demonstration on the ‘green’ nature of Campo Cortez. He described in detail the solar systems, battery packs and the wind generating turbines. He also covered the water system and the marine toilet operations, also solar powered.

Grey Whale

Grey Whale

In the morning, I was very sad to leave, but pledged to return next year for a longer stay.

Thanks to Maldo for his vision, and for Johnny Friday in joining with him and making the dreams a reality.

Whale Kissing & Spy-hopping in Baja

Eye of Baby Grey Whale in San Ignacio Lagoon

Eye of Baby Grey Whale in San Ignacio Lagoon

To be touched by a whale is to be changed for life.

It’s an experience that entered my psyche, bounced around my emotional pool and exited through my intellect. Soft whale skin pressed against my cheek. A throat lifted toward me – “please scratch me.” Mother whales lifted babies toward the boat.

This gift, this play, this sharing.

Can it not be considered an act of love?

How is it possible that these extraordinary leviathans trust us at all? Hunted to near extinction – not once, but twice – their numbers had been reduced to fewer than 100 by human hands hungry for lamp oil.

That they continue to reach out to us, present their young for petting, acknowledge and seek out our presence is a mystery – and some would call, a miracle.

Eloise, CC, Laura at Campo Cortez

Eloise, CC, & Laura at Campo Cortez

We were four – Lynn, Laura, Eloise and me – at Campo Cortez seeking “the friendlies” as the whales in the lagoon have come to be known. To arrive, we’d overcome a faulty car alarm, a dead starter motor, 40 miles of wicked washboard road and one flat tire. Once we arrived at camp, the dusty journey drifted into the past.

Campo Cortez sits on the edge of the lagoon near the boundary of the birthing waters and the playpen in the sanctuary. San Ignacio Lagoon is part of the Vizcaino Desert Biosphere Reserve, a recognized World Heritage site. This desert is extremely dry, consists primarily of volcanic soil and has limited vegetation.

The location of the camps is totally “off the grid.” There is no electricity, no phone lines, or fresh water system.

This has limited the human invasion – no commerce centers or factories mar this retreat. The night sky provides a triple blanket of stars, and the silence is broken only by the whale songs and coyote calls.

On our late afternoon arrival (the tire thing), we were quickly fitted with life jackets by guides Adrianna and Christina, and joined the other “campers” on three separate pongas. The wind was brisk and whipped up small waves and we bounced inside the boat.

Whale spouts surrounded us, and even though we were early in the season, the park personnel had counted 85 whales, all of which seemed to be diving, rolling and breaching in the bay. Our first trip, none advanced to be pet, but they were close enough to almost touch.

That night, we were treated to footage by a film crew from National Geographic, led by documentarian, Luke Inman. He showed clips of whales spy-hopping the boat, spraying the passengers, and being kissed.

Reddish Heron

Reddish Heron

The tide in the morning was ultra low, and the mud flats in front of our cabins were alive with shorebirds foraging for small crustaceans. Oyster catchers mingled with marbled godwits, sandpipers, heron and cattle egrets. Overhead, two osprey searched the receding water for their breakfast.

After breakfast, we all walked to the point and again boarded the boats. Our boat captain, Cuko, had not driven very far when we encountered our first pair.

He idled the engine and we started to splash in the water. The whales seem to be drawn either to the soft sound or the droplets themselves, but the mother whale came right to the boat with her baby.

We could see them under the water before they surfaced and were all “ooh” and “ahh” as they lifted their heads right next to us to be touched.

Each in turn ran their hands across a skin surface that felt unexpectedly as soft as a chamois. Soon, we had a second pair, and we were petting, scratching – and yes, kissing the tops of these huge mammals heads.

San Ignacio Lagoon Ranger w/Spy-Hopper

San Ignacio Lagoon Ranger w/Spy-Hopper

A park boat nearby whose job it is to insure that no whale watching takes place inside the birthing zone, was surprised by the attention of a solitary whale. She would simply not leave his boat alone, and kept spy-hopping (coming up head first) and peering into his boat. Satisfied that he had no passengers, the whale began to play with the boat, pushing it in circles with her nose, and at one point, lifting the bow gently out of the water.

A sweet four-year old was on our boat, and was simply delighted to watch all the excitement. Over dinner, she asked her mother, “Why do people want to touch them?”

There are probably as many answers as there are those lucky enough to experience a whale’s touch. For me, it was exactly that – the touch. Not simply my hands on their bodies, but their reaching out, soliciting the experience. Together, we bridged the human barrier that separates us from most creatures in the wild.

Whale Blow!

Whale Blow!

No longer will the spouts of whale spume offshore be merely white foam. I’ll remember the eye of the whale, how the tiny baby looked up at me from her watery home, and we connected. I’ll be thankful for conservation measures and the way that sometimes, human beings can protect and defend their fellow travelers on planet earth.

Migrating with the Whales to Baja

We’re following the whales, the girls and I, south to San Ignacio Lagoon. After weeks of watching the graceful grays glide past our Southern California coastline, we’ve booked three days at Baja Ecotours outpost in Baja California, on the edge of the lagoon.

Laura McCants spearheaded the idea, and I was quick to spread the invitation. Lynn Brown and Eloise Coopersmith enthusiastically joined the party.

Lynn Brown

Lynn Brown

Laura McCants

Laura McCants

Eloise Coopersmith

Eloise Coopersmith

When the gray whale was first discovered in the North Pacific, it was called the devilfish. Capt. Charles Scammon discovered their major breeding grounds in the lagoons of Baja California. He and his men furiously hunted the whale, and in turn, the grays killed several men and smashed all of his boats. Because of these actions, the grays were feared by the local population.

Luke Inman photographs Grey Whale at Ponga

Luke Inman photographs Grey Whale in San Ignacio Lagoon

It wasn’t until 1977 that the same gray species became responsible for what is now called “the-friendly-whale- phenomenon.” That season, a single gray whale allowed itself to be petted by passengers by all the whale-watching boats it could find.

During successive seasons, the number of petting whales increased, until now. It appears to be learned behavior, and people travel from all parts of the world to be near these gentle giants.

The gray whale has the unique distinction of being the only member of the family Eschrichtiidae, and a mysticete, or a baleen whale. It is a “coastal” whale that migrates from the krill-rich waters of the Artic seas to the birthing grounds in the lagoons of Baja. Their year of travel covers 12,400 miles.

They have streamlined bodies with narrow, tapered heads. The whale received its name from the gray patches and white mottling on its dark skin. Its skin is home to both scattered patches of barnacles and orange whale lice. Newborn calves are dark gray to black, although some may have distinct white markings.

Adult males measure from 45 to 46 feet in length, and females are slightly longer. Both sexes weigh from 30 to 40 tons.

The gray whale has no dorsal (top) fin, but a bump where it would be, and then a series of smaller bumps or “knuckles” that continue along to the tail. Its flippers are paddle-shaped and pointed at the tips; its fluke is about 10-12 feet across, pointed at the tips, and deeply notched in the center.

Gray whales mate in December or January, and a single young is born 13.5 months later — the following January or February. The young travel north with their mothers when they are only 2 months old, and continue nursing until they are 6 to 9 months old. They are generally seen alone or in groups of three.

These whales, which once inhabited both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, have been close to extinction at least twice in human history, and now live only in the Pacific. Now that they are protected, the gray whale population can continue to recover its numbers.

Eloise, CC & Laura at Campo Cortez

Eloise, CC & Laura at Campo Cortez

“Campo Cortez,” the base camp run by Baja Ecotours, was founded in 1989 by Johnny Friday, an avid diver, explorer and filmographer, and Maldo Fischer, a local fisherman and whale watch guide. Both men share a deep affection and respect for the marine world, and their camp provides eco-conscious travelers with an off-the-beaten path experience. His staff consists of local residents who have a lifetime of knowledge of the area and the lagoon, but are also professional boat captains and naturalists. Their focus is on education and a rewarding experience.

Girls gone wild. Well, not too wild. The camp is solar and wind-powered, and lights are out at 9:30 p.m. That means we’ll have the an increased opportunity for star gazing, hundreds of miles away from annoying city lights. Eloise took a deep breath when she discovered she was “camping,” and friends of Laura’s worried she had set off on a life-threatening experience. Reminds me of the naming of the gray whale — devilfish. How much we don’t know and have yet to learn.

This weekend, we will definitely be in the experiential mode. We are hoping for calm seas and many whale encounters, along with leisurely strolls along empty beaches, and exploratory kayaking in the adjacent mangrove lagoons.

And then there is always the thought that some of the whales we see in the lagoon will be the same that we chance to sight on their journey northward. Maybe we’ll get a tail flap as a confirmation.