Searching for 'The Sea of Cortez'

NPR's John McChesney, left, takes notes with expedition’s chief scientist, Bill Gilly

hide captionNPR's John McChesney, left, takes notes as the expedition’s chief scientist, Bill Gilly, examines organisms found on Isla Espiritu Santo.

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NPR's John McChesney recently returned from a visit to Baja California to report on a crew of scientists following the route John Steinbeck and Ed "Doc" Ricketts made 64 years ago, charting the marine life of the Sea of Cortez. Here, he writes about his encounter with the explosion of life found on Isla Espiritu Santo:

It's 5:30 in the morning, and the sun's not up yet. A 30-knot wind is whipping whitecaps up on the Sea of Cortez. At the marina in the city of La Paz, NPR engineer Carlos Gomez and I meet Tim Means, a burly man with shoulder-length gray hair and huge drooping mustache. We pile into his 18-foot skiff, and he fires up the 100-horsepower Yamaha, pushing her down the channel toward the open sea.

Outside the marina, we run into a nasty four-foot chop. Means opens the throttle and we begin to slap and pound through the waves. He skillfully quarters the seas, powering up one side and surfing down the other, making sure he doesn't broach as we come down the front side. He can't really relax, but he appears totally nonchalant. He is a former Grand Canyon river runner.

Carlos and I are hunched nervously over our equipment as the spray comes over the bow and sides. We get soaked but are able to shield recording gear and camera.

As the sun comes up, we can see the mountains of Isla Espiritu Santo looming darkly over the sea. In places, the mountainsides plunge straight down to the water. Espiritu Santo is the crown jewel of the Sea of Cortez.

The Nature Conservancy describes the island this way: "The island has the most intact ecosystem in the region. Several animals on Espiritu Santo are found nowhere else in the world, including the blacktailed jack rabbit, ground squirrel and two species of snake. The island is home to 53 regional endemic plant species. The waters surrounding the island support coral reefs, resident colonies of sea lions, and 500 species of fish."

Just last year, the island became a federal nature preserve, to a large extent because of the work of Tim Means, our skiff captain.

After about an hour we spot what we are looking for, a fishing trawler named the Gus-D, at anchor in a relatively sheltered bay off Punta Lobos. As we come alongside, Jon Christensen, the voyage's organizer, hails us. It is 7:15, just right for low tide.

The ship's scientists — Bill Gilly, Chuck Baxter, Nancy Burnett, and Raphael Sagarin — climb down the ladder to the skiff, and we head for the beach. In The Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck describes the beach this way: "The boulders on this beach were almost the perfect turning-over size — heavy enough to protect the animals under them from grinding by the waves and light enough to be lifted."

The Gus-D crew was soon on the beach, rolling rocks over to explore what was beneath. Steinbeck says the most numerous species here was sea cucumber: "We saw literally millions of these cucumbers. They lay in clusters and piles between the rocks and under the rocks..." Our crew found plenty of these, but there were not millions of them lying about. The second-most plentiful species, said Steinbeck, were the brittle stars — black critters with a small circular center from which long, thin, spiny legs radiate out.

Following a morning of collecting and counting, we piled back into the skiff and Tim Means took us on a tour of the island. From a distance, it appears barren, but when we got closer we could see that it was studded with a profusion of cardon cacti, a close relative of the giant saguaro. The sides of the island are a geologist’s dream — different rock strata clearly layered where the sea has carved the mountainsides into sheer cliffs.

In some places, the bluffs are sculptured into sensuous, sinuous, almost anthropomorphic shapes. In other places the bluffs are fractured into sharp, multi-faceted columns, echoed by the perpendicular lines of the cacti, which often grow very near the water. The bluff colors range from khaki to dark chocolate to deep red, and at water's edge collided with either dark blue, aquamarine, or luminescent turquoise. There are not many places in the world where the desert meets the sea in such a spectacle.

A pod of porpoises broke the water's mirror surface in front of us, and then cavorted about the boat for nearly 20 minutes, their sleek, finned bodies arcing along as we blasted away with our cameras. The wing tips of a giant manta ray glided briefly above the water not far away. The undersides of soaring brown pelicans were an eerie blue-green from the light reflected up from the water. Tim Means pulled the boat into a cave, and above us we saw brown boobies sitting on their nests. He then took us through a pass, across sand bars and out onto the other side of the island, where we rejoined the Gus-D. It was a fine day on the Sea of Cortez.

Here's more of what the Nature Conservancy says about this unique body of water: "The Sea of Cortez is a global conservation priority, containing 31 species of marine mammals (one-third of the world's whale and dolphin species), 500 species of fish, 4,848 known species of marine macro-invertebrates and 626 forms of macroalgae. The area provides nesting sites and migratory habitat for about 210 bird species (both terrestrial and marine). It also provides breeding grounds for colonies of sea lions and several types of marine turtles. Many of these species are found only in the Sea of Cortez. In addition, the largely arid land rising from the coastal water is home to a number of endemic species, including the world's largest cactus and a variety of reptiles."

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