One of the great pleasures of being the Executive Director of WILDCOAST is being able to evaluate our impact each year. And this year was a tremendous year of success. Here are some of our results.
Here is a photo of me and my wife Emily on Palm Beach in Todos Santos sometime in November 1994 with our dogs Julius and little Tecate (who was a “street dog” who came with the house we cared for). We spent the previous year living in Laguna San Ignacio and Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos carrying out field research for our University of Texas at Austin doctoral dissertations in Geography on gray whale conservation (me) and the cultural ecology of fishing and eco-tourism (Emily).
Our stays in those amazingly hospitable and wonderful communities were followed by a month in La Paz to do interviews and carry out archival research and then another month in Mexico City to do the same.
After a great year in Mexico, we faced the prospect of returning to Austin to write up our research and work as teaching assistants (Emily) which is what smart grad students do (it is best to be near your committee members and advisor). Thanks to a series of encounters in Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos with Kimberly and Ken who introduced us to Lee Moore, who then set us up with Roswitha Mueller (who owned a stunning 19th century home on the Plaza in Todos Santos) we ended up living in that emerging art colony and now-hipster village in southern Baja for a year.
For two literally penniless grad students it was a dream come true. The house overlooked the Palm-fringed coastline of Todos Santos. I dawn-patrolled each morning and after a long surf returned to the house where Emily and I shared breakfast and then sat down to the task of writing dissertations. After a long day of writing, we would retreat to Palm Beach for a walk with the dogs and to play in the waves.
I unwisely decided to write my dissertation as a book, which wasn’t a very strategic way of getting my committee to approve it (I later had to substantially modify the manuscript to make it more academic–which I should have done in the first place). My original manuscript later became my book, Saving the Gray Whale.
In retrospect making the decision to stay in Todos Santos was the smartest thing we have ever done. That year launched our careers in international conservation. After having discovered that ESSA (and its 49% partner) Mitsubishi planned to turn Laguna San Ignacio, a gray whale lagoon and Mexican federal protected area, into a 500,000-acre industrial salt harvesting facility, we joined up with Homero Aridjis and Betty Ferber of the Grupo de los Cien, to help launch a campaign against the project.
That initial effort turned into one of the largest ever international efforts to save a wild place that ended successfully when Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo cancelled the project in March, 2000.
Other things we did that year included convincing the School for Field Studies to open a study center in Bahia Magdalena and working to advise RARE on the launch of a very successful and ground-breaking eco-guide training program for whale guides in Bahia Magdalena and Laguna San Ignacio.
The most important part of the year is that Emily became pregnant with our oldest son Israel, and then got a job teaching geography at the University of Arizona. Despite my misgivings about living in Tucson (for a surfer, exile to the desert in Arizona is a slow death), in the end, I could never have launched my career in conservation without having lived there.
After completing my Ph.D. a year after we moved to Tuscon, The Nature Conservancy hired me to launch their Northwest Mexico Program. That profoundly gratifying, rewarding and educational experience was the equivalent of attending Harvard Business School–but for Conservation. I was damn lucky to have worked there.
While at TNC, I helped to launch their still vibrant Baja California and Sea of Cortez Program and helped to launch successful initatives to preserve Loreto Bay National Park, Isla Espiritu Santo and Cabo Pulmo.
So that moment on the beach really was just before we became adults and understood that chasing dreams requires sacrifice, hard work, discipline, vision, and passion. We chose to do what was right for us, rather than please everyone else. I also realized that if you want to get anything done, you can’t depend on anyone else to make it happen.
I will never forget our year in Todos Santos and how it changed our lives forever.
In a small coastal community tucked away in a corner of Baja’s East Cape is Cabo Pulmo.
This seaside paradise inhabited by friendly fishermen and a colorful group of expatriates is ground zero for efforts to restore the ocean.
If in Cabo Pulmo, local fishermen can work with biologists, conservationists, divers and government park staff to make a marine reserve that is a global model for the protection of a marine ecosystem and fisheries, than our conservation efforts are on the right track.
I was in Cabo Pulmo last week to review efforts to preserve Cabo Pulmo from development threats. A Spanish company had proposed building a new city larger than Los Cabos adjacent to the reef.
My colleagues and I discussed future strategies needed to improve the protection of the coral reef that is home to humpback whales, sea turtles, manta rays, schools of giant fish and a growing population of sharks, including the elusive and docile whale shark.
“There really is nothing else in the Gulf of California like Cabo Pulmo,” said Dr. Octavio Aburto, a research scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who has studied Cabo Pulmo for years.
“Our family noticed that the reef and fish and Cabo Pulmo were not doing well,” said Judith Castro, the daughter of a fisherman and a longtime resident.
The Castro family has lived in Cabo Pulmo for generations. But by the early 1990s the fish were disappearing and, due to climate change, there were fears that the global wave of coral bleaching would forever damage the reef.
I first visited Cabo Pulmo in 1996 as the founding director of The Nature Conservancy’s Sea of Cortez Program. Back then I attempted to develop a conservation program to manage the newly established national park at Cabo Pulmo.
But due to political conflicts, conservation efforts at Cabo Pulmo initially failed. Marine biologists who had studied Cabo Pulmo and had advocated for the development of the marine reserve were desperate.
It took a few years, but by 1999 conservationists, marine biologists, fishermen and the Mexican government came together to support a no-take reserve at Cabo Pulmo. Local fishermen, including the Castro family who had fished the waters of the region for decades, agreed to give up fishing inside the reserve.
“Our family had to learn to dive,” Judith said. Her family now runs a dive operation.
Ten years later Aburto and his Scripps team confirmed what marine biologists had only dreamed about, but that local fishermen and divers already knew was happening: The fish have returned to Cabo Pulmo. The reef is teeming with life.
“Fish biomass increased 460 percent over a decade, but even more critically the predator population increased over 1000 percent,” Aburto said. “And abundant predators are key to healthy marine ecosystems.”
“No other marine reserve in the world has shown such a fish recovery,” he said. “There are so many fish that species like tuna are coming from outside the reserve to feed around the reef.”
Last year I went diving more than a mile from the Cabo Pulmo shore and was amazed by the schools of huge fish that hugged the reef. In my more than 25 years working in the Baja California peninsula, I had never encountered so many large fish.
Even sharks, whose slaughter and decline has alarmed marine biologists and conservationists, have returned to Cabo Pulmo.
“You can stand on the rocks at the end of Bahia de los Frailes at the western end of the reserve and see schools of sharks swimming around,” said Sofia Gomez, my WiLDCOAST colleague who is coordinating our Cabo Pulmo conservation program.
With additional recent good news from California’s Central Coast about the increase in marine species in marine protected areas, there is reason to be hopeful that we can reserve the decline of the ocean and the species within it.
Marine explorer and conservationist Sylvia Earle has called Cabo Pulmo a “Hope Spot” because of its importance in demonstrating that we can restore our oceans.
I am just glad that there is at least one place left where the ocean is as it is supposed to be—filled with fish and undisturbed by man.
Yesterday I spent the morning at the world’s most important sea turtle nesting beach, Morro Ayuta beach in Oaxaca, Mexico. The area is largely cut off from communications.
After picking up my son in Barra de la Cruz where he had spent the week with a local family, my WiLDCOAST team and I returned to our hotel in Huatulco and were greeted with the news that Mexico‘s President Felipe Calderon had cancelled the Cabo Cortes project that would have destroyed the Cabo Pulmo coral reef.
WiLDCOAST has spent the past two years mountain a campaign to stop the Cabo Cortes project. We brought the issue international attention and organized people in the streets of Los Cabos and the East Cape. We made it a truly grassroots and global campaign.
Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is considered the world’s most important marine conservation area–fish have rebounded there by more than 460% since fishing was banned in 1999.
My favorite part of the campaign was our finale–where we worked with Napanda-a freestyle rapper and graffiti artist to work with students in Los Cabos and La Paz to pain Save Cabo murals. In addition we placed two billboards in La Paz.
I have an amazing team at WiLDCOAST and I am lucky they did such a great job of working passionately and tirelessly to bring attention to the plight of Cabo Pulmo and additionally work with the Mexican government to conserve the federal coastal save of the park through federal conservation concessions.
And thanks to all of our supporters for helping us to conserve a world-class ocean ecosystem and proving that you have to fight hard to make conservation a reality.
- Mexico cancels Cabo Cortes, $2 billion Baja California (miamiherald.com)
- Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park: Baja’s Miracle Threatened (newswatch.nationalgeographic.com)
I caught my first glimpse of the Sea of Cortez as I rounded the farming and fishing village of La Ribera, on Baja’s East Cape. The sea was turquoise.
A pod of humpbacks breached in the distance.
My guide was Cecilia Fischer, a Baja native who works with me as the WiLDCOAST Cape Region Coordinator.
“We’re almost to Cabo Pulmo,” said Cecilia as we left the pavement in my rented Jeep, and headed down a rutted dirt road to the tiny fishing village that proudly abuts the only coral reef in the Sea of Cortez.
I was in southern Baja to give a talk to the residents of Cabo Pulmo and the Cape Region to update them on our efforts to conserve the reef, a marine protected area, and the coastline that surrounds it.
A Spanish company, Hansa Urbana, has proposed building a new city larger than Cancun in the empty desert just next to Cabo Pulmo National Park.
If the project is built out, conservation biologists and marine ecologists fear the reef will not sustain the impacts that are sure to come.
We arrived in the ramshackle hamlet of Cabo Pulmo and made our way to the Cabo Pulmo Resort.
“I first came here years ago,” said Cole, the operator of the Resort’s Coral Reef Restaurant. “The reef was dead and the fish were gone. But now, diving the reef is incredible.”
Back in 1999, local fishermen and the Mexican government brokered a deal to ban all fishing around the reef. The fishermen switched from harvesting the locally dwindling supply of fish to taking tourists to dive the reef.
More than ten years later, researchers from Scripps announced the results of their decade long monitoring project in Cabo Pulmo.
The population of fish or “biomass” increased 460%.
Cabo Pulmo, they declared was “the world’s most robust marine reserve.”
“We never used to see whale sharks here,” said Cole. “Now this is one of the few places in the Sea of Cortez we can dive with them.”
Marine biologists and conservationists from around the world now visit Cabo Pulmo to learn about how Mexican fishermen saved the reef and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Last fall, Sylvia Earle, the renowned ocean explorer came to Cabo Pulmo to dive and named the 18,000-acre Cabo Pulmo National Park a “Hope Spot.”
After meeting with the friendly residents of Cabo Pulmo, Cecilia and I returned to San Jose del Cabo. The sprawling city is a world apart from the desert solitude and emerald brilliance of the East Cape.
The next morning I made my way through the bustle and traffic of Los Cabos on my way Todos Santos. My wife Emily and I lived in he artsy and historic village on the Pacific Coast 18 years earlier while we were finishing up writing up our dissertations on Baja’s gray whales and the fishing folk who make their living from whalewatching.
Todos Santos is still one of my favorite towns in Baja with great food, historic buildings, excellent surf and art galleries.
I caught a few waves at a beach south of town. The surf was 3-4’, the water was 70 degrees.
On the outskirts of Todos Santos I met up with Jim Pickell, the CEO of Baja.com who has an office in a renovated historic brick building. “Baja is back,” said Jim. “Tourism is up and people are excited to come to Baja and rediscover the peninsula.”
At the Café La Esquina in Todos Santos, an airy and friendly neighborhood hangout on the west side of town I ordered a veggie panini and a carrot-beet-spinach-apple smoothie from Paula Angeloni, a local surfer.
“I came Todos Santos to surf,” said Paula, who is originally from Uruguay and moved to Mexico to study marine biology in La Paz. “But now I’m raising my daughter here.”
That evening I have dinner at the La Dolce restaurant in San Jose del Cabo. Ramiro Rivas, the owner and native of Mexico City moved to Baja more than 11 years ago.
When Ramiro is not working at his lovely Italian restaurant just off the plaza in San Jose, he loves to visit Cabo Pulmo. “I love Cabo Pulmo,” he said. “It is so beautiful.”
Over the next couple of days I greeted the sunrise each morning while surfing Costa Azul. The waves were small but the water was warm and crystal clear.
At the San Jose del Cabo Farmer’s Market, I ate the best pizza in Baja and was delighted with the quesadilla like vampiros stuffed with portabella mushrooms.
I bought beautiful abalone jewelry for Emily from Victor de la Vega. Besides making unique and original jewelry, Victor transforms driftwood into unique art.
“The farmer’s market started out pretty unofficially,” said Jim Tolbert of Baja Books and Maps who hosts a stall in the market each Saturday with his wife Judy. “But now we’re a non-profit. Thousands of people come here each week during the season.”
On my last evening, Cecilia and I drove out to the East Cape again. Our destination was the Crossroads County Club at Vinorama. Joan Hafenecker, the owner has created an impeccable oasis with a incredible view of the coast and savory food.
After giving a talk to a collection of local residents and visitors from Los Cabos, I settled down to a dinner of Asian stir-fry with pasta. When an American celebrity strolled in with his wife, no one even batted an eye.
We were too busy watching the sunset, looking for humpbacks, and absorbing the stars as they settled into Baja’s never ending nighttime sky.
Another perfect evening on the Cape.
From my Southwest Surf Patch.com column of October 26, 2011.
You don’t have to travel too far to experience the best coastal wilderness on the planet. There is no other place on Earth that provides the outdoor experience and friendly fishing folk in one location as the Baja California peninsula.
If you crave travel plans that bring you in contact with pristine waves, friendly whales and untrammeled wilderness, then pack up your gear and head south.
Whether you fly or drive, fish, surf or dive, the fact is that the real Baja is not found in the large tourist resorts but in the quiet and more remote fishing villages and mission towns far removed from the hustle and bustle of modern resorts such as Cabo San Lucas.
Here are some areas in which it is possible to experience the best of wild Baja. These are all family friendly locations that provide either camping or small-scale hotel and eco-lodges to get you close to the water and wildlife.
San Ignacio Lagoon: This sheltered mangrove lagoon about 35 miles west of the mission village of San Ignacio is one of the world’s top destinations for whalewatching. Between late January and mid-April, hundreds of gray whales assemble in the shallow waters of this desert lagoon to give birth, mate and escape the cold water of the north Pacific. Numerous San Diego and locally based outfitters provide eco-camps and whalewatching services such as Kuyima, Pachico’s Eco-Tours, Baja Discovery, Baja Expeditions, and Baja Eco-Tours.
Bahia de los Angeles: Located about ten hours south of San Diego, this small fishing settlement on the shore of the Sea of Cortez is a haven for sportfishing, diving and wildlife watching. During the fall there are opportunities to observe whale sharks (with a certified outfitter). The numerous islands just offshore are filled with seabirds and excellent diving and snorkeling. There are a plethora of small eco-camps and a few hotels. If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of a sea turtle, fin whale, or a sea lion or all three.
Loreto: This lovely and quiet mission town in Baja California Sur on the Sea of Cortez is the gateway to exploring white sand beaches, pristine islands, the jagged peaks of the Sierra de la Giganta and hidden missions. Loreto is also one of the best places for sportfishing and diving in Baja. To the north is Bahia Concepcion that provides more undeveloped beach camping and to the south are the dramatic peaks and beaches of Agua Verde.
Magdalena Bay: This huge mangrove fringed series of bays is a maze of hidden waterways, sand dunes and mysterious islands that extends for more than 100 miles along Baja California Sur’s Pacific coastline. During February and March, gray whales are found near the fishing villages of Puerto San Carlos and Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos that also provide small-scale accommodations and basic restaurants. Sportfishermen have long been attracted to the area and birders are also discovering the wildlife of this long forgotten region.
Cabo Pulmo: This tiny village of about 60 people borders the northernmost coral reef in North America. Cabo Pulmo National Park was recently listed by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography study as one of the world’s most robust marine conservation areas. A dec
ade ago, local community members, conservationists and the Mexican government joined forces here to ban sport and commercial fishing within the national park and fish and ocean wildlife have rebounced. Cabo Pulmo is now one of the best dive spots in Mexico and is a haven for whales, sea turtles and giant schools of fish and even sharks. Small-scale accommodations abound here and there are numerous sportfishing resorts located to the north. Unfortunately there are plans to build a new Cancun-style resort here so don’t delay visiting this world-class nature reserve.
- Staying Safe in Baja (sergededina.com)
- Biodiversity: Marine life rebounds in Baja ocean preserve (summitcountyvoice.com)
- Hidden Baja Undersea Park – World’s Most Robust Marine Reserve (aboutashark.wordpress.com)
- In Mexico’s Baja, worry that a ‘new Cancun’ may harm reef (uwtreasures.wordpress.com)
- Huge resort proposed right near restored reef (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
My friends and colleagues Homero Aridjis and Roberty Kennedy Jr. wrote this op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune on the need to preserve Cabo Pulmo.
By Robert F. Kennedy Jr. & Homero Aridjis
Coral reefs, often called rain forests of the sea, shelter a quarter of all marine fish. In February, the most detailed scientific assessment ever undertaken of these spectacular ecosystems revealed that fully 75 percent are under threat – the most immediate being local pressures for coastal development.
Cabo Pulmo Bay in Baja California – home to one of these underwater “rain forests” – is facing one of those threats. Among only three living coral reefs in North America, it lies 40 miles north of San Jose del Cabo, on the eastern cape of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. John Steinbeck described this 20,000-year-old reef as filled with “teeming fauna” displaying “electric” colors. When decades of overfishing threatened the reef’s existence, the local community convinced the Mexican government in 1995 to protect it by declaring the area a 17,560-acre National Marine Park. In 2005, the reef became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Fishing was banned inside the park, and today Cabo Pulmo Reef’s recovery is considered a prime example of marine conservation in the Americas. It provides refuge for 225 of the 875 fish species found in the Sea of Cortez, including marlin, manta rays, giant squid and several kinds of sharks. Whales, dolphins, sea lions and five of the world’s seven species of endangered sea turtles frequent its waters. Indeed, the coral reef hosts the highest concentration of ocean life within this 700-mile long arm of the Pacific Ocean that separates Baja California from the Mexican mainland. Ecotourism (diving, snorkeling, whale watching) is thriving among the 150 residents of the coastal town surrounding this spectacular marine park.
But now Hansa Baja Investments, a Mexican subsidiary of the Spain-based real estate development firm Hansa Urbana, plans to build a massive resort complex directly north of the National Marine Park. The developer has proposed what amounts to a sprawling new city on the scale of Cancún: 10,000 acres including 30,000 hotel rooms and residential housing units, at least two golf courses, 2 million square feet of office and retail space, a 490-boat marina and a private jet port.
The construction of the Cabo Cortés project would bring in close to 40,000 workers and their families. This fragile region of desert, dirt roads and traditional small communities would be overwhelmed. Cabo Pulmo Reef would die, killed by saline effluents from the planned desalination plant, chemical fertilizers whose runoff causes eutrophication, and the city’s pollution flowing south on ocean coastal currents straight toward the reef.
In early March, Mexico’s secretariat of the environment and natural resources gave the go-ahead for much of Hansa Urbana’s proposal: not only the marina and land developments, but also a 10.5-mile-long aqueduct and 324 acres of roads and highways. The energy-intensive desalination plant – which would discharge 500 liters per second of salt water – and a sewage treatment plant to deal with an expected 39,000 tons a day of solid waste once Cabo Cortés is going full tilt are not yet authorized, but it is considered only a matter of time, as is permission for the pending jetties and breakwaters.
The government’s approval came despite the company’s woefully inadequate environmental impact statement, which claimed that pollution from the development wouldn’t affect the reef because ocean currents flow only from south to north, away from the reef. Recent studies show the area’s currents move in multiple directions, largely depending upon the season.
In a region of water scarcity, Hansa has been granted a concession of 4.5 million cubic meters per year, meaning it will suck dry the Santiago aquifer, depriving the local population of resources it has depended on for hundreds of years.
In authorizing the deal, the government is violating its own laws, disregarding the rules governing environmental impact assessments in Mexico and ignoring its zoning plan for the entire region of Los Cabos.
It is up to the Mexican government to stand by its 1995 decision to protect this flourishing and irreplaceable marine nursery. The government must cancel its authorization of the Cabo Cortés development. Only then can the Cabo Pulmo coral reef remain a stellar example of ocean conservation and sustainable ecotourism. For Cabo Pulmo and its people, it is wreck or rectify. How does Mexican President Felipe Calderón want to be remembered?
Kennedy is a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance. Aridjis, a poet and novelist, is the former Mexican ambassador to UNESCO and founder of the Grupo de los Cien environmental organization.