In the World's Aquarium

Photos by ROBERT YIN

For Skyward Magazine

Few waters in the world support such rich and diverse life
as the Gulf of California. According to the World Wildlife
Fund, it is an important feeding and breeding area for at
least 6,000 species of marine fauna. Its inhabitants include
891 species of fish, 181 of birds, 34 of mammals and
seven of reptiles. They range in size from microscopic
shrimp to whale sharks. Five of seven species of sea
turtles call the gulf home, namely, leatherback, hawksbill,
loggerhead, green and olive ridley. They share waters with
blue, fin and gray whales, hammerhead sharks, marlins
and jumbo flying squid over 2 meters long and weighing
more than 45 kilos. Underwater explorer Jacques
Cousteau was so amazed by the gulf's vibrant life that he
called it the "world's aquarium."

The gulf is also called the Sea of Cortés, named for the
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. He sponsored many
exploratory voyages to the gulf and northward along the
California coast beginning in 1532, although some
question if Cortés ever actually saw the body of water that
would bear his name. What makes the
1,200-kilometer-long gulf such a productive habitat is its
unique geographical configuration. At the gulf's
northernmost point, the Colorado River sends in some
freshwater during years of high rainfall in the western
U.S. The southern end of the gulf, where the Baja or
California Peninsula terminates at Cabo San Lucas, is a
320-kilometer-wide opening into the Pacific Ocean that is
gradually getting wider. Tectonic plate movements that
separated the Baja from the mainland some 5 to 7 million
years ago continue to this day along the San Andreas
Fault, which extends up through California.

The Baja shields the gulf from upwellings of cold water
from the depths of the Pacific. Water in the gulf averages
in the mid-20s Celsius compared with the Pacific's upper
teens. Sealife thrives in the warmer water. And because
the protected area is long and relatively narrow, the gulf
divides into a patchwork of distinct habitats that support
species found nowhere else on earth.

Warmer waters at the northern end produce the most
endemic species, including the vaquita, the smallest
critically endangered cetacean. The endangered steel-blue
totoaba, which can reach 100 kilograms, is also unique to
the northern gulf. On 35 islands dotting the waters reside
endemic side-blotched and whiptail lizards and a
fish-eating bat.

Deeper cooler southern waters where the gulf mixes with
the Pacific draw pelagic animals, the world travelers of
the oceans. Manta rays swoop through plankton-rich
water with wings extended to scoop up feasts of
microscopic organisms. Eagle rays sometimes travel in
schools that fill the water as far as the eye can see in all
directions. Whales pop their heads above water to observe
boatloads of tourists snapping pictures of these
now-protected animals. Whale watching started the area's
first ecotourism movement in the 1960s, when local
fishermen began supplementing their incomes with the
less backbreaking work of taking boatloads of visitors to
sea to see the great creatures.

Many of the species that draw whale watchers, fishermen
and divers - including Cousteau in 1987 - were initially
documented by American novelist John Steinbeck in his
nonfiction book Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of
Travel and Research. Steinbeck teamed up with his marine
biologist friend Ed Ricketts in 1940 to take a break from
fiction by mounting a specimen-collecting expedition.
During the month-long trip, they cataloged more than 500
species of fauna, discovered 50 new species and recorded
a species of brittle starfish that had not been seen for 100
years. Besides providing the first snapshot of marine life,
the book is an important work within Steinbeck's oeuvre.

While Steinbeck marveled at the diversity collected in the
boat's net, he would have been as stunned as Cousteau
was to see the life beneath the waves. Warmer waters are
a boon to sport divers. Cumbersome dry suits are needed
to dive on the Pacific side of the Baja, but lightweight,
form-fitting wet suits are comfortable attire in the gulf.
During the prime season from July through October,
water temperatures range from 23° to 29°C, and the
surface is usually calm. Underwater visibility during these
months is at least 15 meters and sometimes can extend to
30 meters or more.

The scene underwater makes for quite a panorama.
Clouds of yellowtail snappers stand out in bright contrast
to the aquamarine sea. Blizzards of scissortail blue
Chromis zip past schools of barberfish, surgeonfish and
groupers. Bright-orange squirrelfish use their large eyes to
ogle divers from protected spots where they sleep by day.
King and queen angelfish reign over a court with jacks.
Blue-spotted and fine-spotted jawfish poke their bulbous
heads into the sandy bottom while hunting for prey.
Pufferfish amble along lazily, and above them ocean
sunfish or Mola mola relax near the surface, vacuuming in
all the jellyfish they can find.

Soft and hard corals coat all rocky surfaces that are not
covered with anemones. Within cracks in the walls can be
seen green, spotted and striped moray eels. Some cohabit
with spiny lobsters in an unusual symbiotic arrangement.
The nocturnal lobsters get protection by day, and the eels
snack on predators drawn to the lobster. Starfish come in
all sizes and shapes, from the wiry brittle stars to the
multi-armed crown of thorns, which dines on living coral.
Sea hares and other nudibranchs look like living sushi as
they slither along the bottom undisturbed, creatures of this
realm being well aware of their toxicity. Sharp-eyed divers
may see tiny blennies looking out from the small pores in
coral that they call home.

Seahorses use their tails to hold fast to plants, often in
pairs. The pudgier-looking one is likely the male carrying a
marsupial pouch of babies. Bright peacock flounder ride
through the water like magic carpets and disappear
instantly once these masters of camouflage land on a flat
spot. Trumpetfish perform a similar disappearing act while
blending vertically into tall sea fans and plants, where they
snap up unsuspecting baitfish that swim below their
mouths. Only the pair of eyes gives away the location of
scorpionfish, which can pack a powerful sting into any
diver who mistakenly grasps one.

Porkfish swirl in giant balls as protection from sea lions,
creating a picture opportunity for underwater
photographers. Ever playful, sea lions are the comedians
of these waters and are totally fearless among divers.
Although they often skitter away if pursued, they boldly
approach divers, especially in their blind spots, to give a
quick "hi there" tap on the butt or head or tug a fin. Any ill
feelings about the surprise attack are quickly melted by the
innocent look of their big deep-black eyes. However,
during the mating season in April and May, divers should
be cautious for male sea lions have been known to be
aggressive and sometimes bite visitors to their reefs.

What divers are likely to see can depend on the timing of
their trips. Although the water may be a little cloudier
during spring and autumn algal blooms, the reward for
visiting then may be to swim with whale sharks the size of
school buses. Whale sharks, the gentle giants of the sea,
glide with mouths open to filter meals of plankton from
the water. By October, the blooms generally come to an
end, and the whale sharks migrate elsewhere. Once the
algal blooms end, the water reaches peak clarity. Manta
rays, which are also filter feeders, sweep the waters in
late summer and early autumn, scooping up plankton as
they soar through the water column.

Schools of hundreds of hammerhead sharks pass through
the sea in late summer. In contrast to their reputation as
ruthless killers, hammerheads are quite timid and avoid
divers that attempt to approach them. Underwater
photographers sometimes hide in the reef and hold their
breath to avoid making bubbles that would give away their
location in an attempt to get hammerheads to swim within
shooting range of a meter or so.

Location can improve the odds of seeing hammerheads
and other creatures. The Marisla Seamount, also known
as El Bajo, is renowned for its hammerheads. Schools
ranging from six to hundreds of hammerheads swim in a
clockwise direction around three underwater peaks 13
kilometers north-northeast of La Paz. The peaks rise from
the 37-meter bottom, with the tallest rising to within 16
meters of the surface. Currents can make this site a more
challenging dive, but well worth the effort for those with
advanced skills. Schools of eagle rays, amberjacks, tuna
and other fish swarm in the lee of the current. In a small
submarine canyon at the base of the site is a colony of
green moray eels that poke their heads out of crevices.
Although they look fearsome, constantly flashing their
mouths full of sharp teeth, the chewing motion is simply
their way of breathing as it forces water through their gills.

Not all the creatures encountered underwater are marine
animals. Divers in the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park,
100 kilometers north of Los Cabos, wear a special
wristband, which has to be purchased to dive in the park.
Park rangers may approach divers underwater to check
for the band and levy fines against those without one. The
park is a shallow bay cradled between Pulmo Point and
Los Frailes. It became one of the earliest underwater
preserves when it was established in June 1995 to counter
the effects of sport and commercial overfishing during the
1980s. Now the 71-square-kilometer park is the star
attraction among Mexico's western dive sites. Populations
of whitetip sharks, groupers, porkfish, surgeonfish and
turtles have returned in great numbers. Mountains rising
above the bay are being eyed by developers. Local
residents, fearing large-scale resorts would sully the park,
are pressing Mexico to limit development to small
bungalows so as to minimize the runoff of sewage and
nutrients from artificially watered golf courses.

Land bordering this marine gem is some of the most arid
in North America. Yet some 8.6 million people live here,
mostly ethnic minorities such as Papagos, Pimas, Seri,
Yaquis, Mayos, Cucapas, Kikapus and Coras. Most are
descendants of tribes living here before the Spanish
arrived. Populations are concentrated near the shores of
the gulf, where aquaculture and fishing industries supply
shrimp, anchovies, sardines and fin fish that are shipped
throughout the world. The top industry, however, is
serving the 2.1 million tourists who visit each year, mostly
from the U.S. and Canada. In 2007, tourism generated
more than US$2 billion.

As tourism rises, so does concern about protecting the
region from overdevelopment. Diverting the Colorado
River for agriculture and drinking water in California and
Arizona has all but stopped the flow of freshwater into the
gulf at its headwaters. Tourism and local demands already
outstrip the supplies of water, yet construction is under
way for more resorts and golf courses. The World
Wildlife Fund is working in conjunction with the
Aquarium of the Pacific to raise an awareness of the
growing ecological pressure and to study solutions that
will allow for controlled growth with the least adverse

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Turtle / Remora
Sea Hare
Giant Hawkfish
Brown Moray
Male seahorse
Sea lion / Diver
Jahnrandallis Nigronostris
Epinephelus Panamensis
                                         Photo © Robert Yin
Two remora hitch a ride on a green turtle,
one of five species of turtles that thrive in
the Gulf of California.
                                          Photo © Robert Yin
A playful juvenile sea lion swims close to a
                                        Photo © Robert Yin
Though it looks menacing, a brown moray
opens its mouth to breathe.
                                          Photo © Robert Yin
Named for its resemblance to the mammal,
the sea hare is a mollusk that lacks an
external shell.
                                         Photo © Robert Yin
A jawfish nestles into its protective home.
                                        Photo © Robert Yin
A giant hawkfish perches high on a rock.
                                          Photo © Robert Yin
Despite demand by gourmands, this lobster
is protected in a national marine park.
                                         Photo © Robert Yin
Sheltered from strong current by gorgonian
soft coral, this male seahorse awaits
passing plankton.
                                         Photo © Robert Yin
At night, this black-nosed butterflyfish seeks
the shelter of orange cup coral.
                                         Photo © Robert Yin
Hiding in a crevice, a grouper awaits prey.
The Long Beach, Calif., which gets its
freshwater in part from the Colorado River,
established a standing exhibit as well as a virtual
exhibit on its website to call broader attention to
the gulf. Assisting in the studies are students and
professors from the University of Arizona at
Tucson, which has been actively researching the
gulf and its adjacent lands for more than 30
years. These organizations are working with the
Mexican government to set aside more land and
sea as protected areas, as it has in the 300 square
kilometers surrounding San Pedro Mártir Island
and the Canon de las Barajitas. Both are among
the 14 marine protected areas of the gulf.
Government and conservationists alike thus share
the goal of permitting generations to come to see
for themselves just why Cousteau thought to
give the world's aquarium that name.

JAL flies to Mexico City.