Around the Cape

Whale shark. Photo courtesy of Ralph Lee Hopkins.

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.

East Cape in Baja. Photo courtesy of A.J. Schneller and Wildcoast.

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.

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The Best of Wild Baja

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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.

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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.6604819cee43ce4cc0a751ed8005c9cd

View of the bay with Isla Angel de la Guarda o...

Image via Wikipedia

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.

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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.

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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.

The Threat to Baja’s Underwater Rainforest

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.

Baja Travel Update: My Interview in Surfline

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Image by Carlos Villamayor via Flickr

Surfline published this interview with me, Sean Collins and Gary Linden

(who had the Green Lantern surfshop in Imperial Beach when I was a kid)

on tips for staying safe in Baja. I’ve just included my interview:

The tragic and ongoing Narco-war South of the Border has many potential visiting surfers on edge, unsure whether to make the trek south — and if so, how to minimize chances of ending up in a dangerous situation. With this in mind, Surfline asked three frequent and longtime Mexico travelers for advice — on when to go, where to go, and how to stay safe. Many of the suggestions are the same as they’ve been since the ’50s. Some are new. All are worth a quick read if you’re thinking about a trip. 

Note: this is NOT an exhaustive list on avoiding the perils and pitfalls of travel to Baja. (Nor does it even begin to bring up the issues involved in travel to Mainland Mexico.) It is three very well-qualified surfers’ perspectives. For those serious and concerned, there are a series of useful related links at the bottom of this feature. For those who have stories and/or advice, please leave them in the comments below. –Marcus Sanders

Baja surfing

Image by Dom Edwards via Flickr

Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST, an organization that works in both California and Mexico to conserve coastal and marine ecosystems. He is the author of the new book, Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias. He has been traveling throughout Baja California and in Mexico since 1972. Here are his thoughts:

The security situation has improved significantly since 2007 when a string of robberies and assaults against surfers and a Baja 1000 race crew resulted in most surfers abandoning the idea of traveling to Baja. Over the past three years, the Mexican government spent a lot of time and resources making the highway in Northern Baja safer and overall things are much better than they were. Southern Baja, along with Oaxaca, is considered one of the safest areas in Mexico.

Baja surfing - Larry

Image by Dom Edwards via Flickr

Overall, the level of crime has decreased in Baja. Really, most of the violence and problems are concentrated in Tijuana. Don’t travel through there at night. I travel to Ensenada a lot to surf San Miguel and visit the WiLDCOAST office there and haven’t had any problems or talked to anyone who has had problems recently.

The risk is greatest for surfers who believe that Baja California is like it used to be and they don’t need to take any precautions when traveling there. Bummer is, that Baja has become just like any other area in the developing world where there are problems with crime. Being clueless in Baja is no longer an option. But if surfers are careful and avoid hanging out in areas like Tijuana, most likely they’re going to have a great time South of the Border.

Baja surf

Image by Dom Edwards via Flickr

Camping anywhere in Northern Baja should be done in established camping areas or surf spots where you are not alone and potentially a target for criminals. The increase in the use of crystal meth in Northern Baja, especially anywhere in the area of San Quintin and Colonet, means that there is a greater chance of having problems if you are camping on an isolated part of the coast. South of El Rosario things are generally fine. I spend a lot of time camping and surfing the most isolated part of the coast between Guerrero Negro and El Rosario and haven’t had a single problem. Last summer I took my kids on a 2,970 mile round trip tour of Baja and hit most of the peninsula’s great surf spots. Everyone was super friendly and helpful, we didn’t have any problems at all, and caught some great waves.

Baja surf

Image by Dom Edwards via Flickr

But Baja is back in a big way and surfers need to show that we care about Baja and demonstrate that our tourism dollars are an important source of revenues for Mexico. The more we show that surfing has a positive impact on the economy in Baja and the rest of Mexico, the easier it is for organizations like WiLDCOAST to convince Mexican authorities to conserve coastal areas that have great waves. Surfers have a lot to contribute to Mexico. We have made great friendships, have influenced the development of surfing in Mexico, and have had a positive impact on communities such as San Juanico, Punta Abreojos, Todos Santos, Puerto Escondito, Saladita, Sayulita and the East Cape.

“The risk is greatest for surfers who believe that Baja California is like it used to be and they don’t need to take any precautions when traveling there.”
–Serge Dedina, executive director, WiLDCOAST
The road runs the entire length of the Baja Ca...

Image via Wikipedia

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USEFUL LINKS:

How safe is Mexico? Data on U.S. citizen deaths from the U.S. State Dept — Comprehensive feature by Fodors, posted March 11, 2011.

Is Mexico safe for Spring Break? — USA Today travel section, posted March 9th, 2011.

US State Department Mexico Travel Warning — Updated September 2010

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LOCAL RESOURCES

Baja Crime Hotline: 866-201-5060 — To report a crime or if you need help.

Green Angels
The Green Angels are similar to the AAA in the U.S. The Green Angels are a government paid bilingual crew that patrol the toll roads throughout Mexico every day in green trucks, carrying tools and spare parts, looking for motorists in trouble. The Angeles Verdes will provide mechanical assistance, first aid, basic supplies, and towing. The services they provide are FREE of charge unless your vehicle needs parts or fuel. If for some reason you need assistance call “060” (Mexico’s version of 911) or pull to the side of the road and lift your hood, this will signal the Green Angels that you need assistance or contact them Toll Free 24 hours seven days a week at:
Baja California Highways Emergency Toll Free Numbers:
* 01 800 990 3900: Tijuana – Ensenada & El Hongo – La Rumorosa Toll Roads
* 01 800 888 0911: Tijuana – Tecate Toll Road

US EMBASSY LOCATION:
The U.S. Embassy is located in Mexico City at Paseo de la Reforma 305, Colonia Cuauhtemoc; telephone from the United States: 011-52-55-5080-2000; telephone within Mexico City: 5080-2000; telephone long distance within Mexico 01-55-5080-2000. You may contact the Embassy by e-mail or visit the Embassy website.

In addition to the Embassy, there are several United States consulates and consular agencies located throughout Mexico, listed below.

CONSULATES:
Guadalajara: Progreso 175, Col. Americana; telephone (52) (333) 268-2100.
Tijuana: Avenida Tapachula 96, Col. Hipodromo; telephone (52) (664) 622-7400.

CONSULAR AGENCIES:
Acapulco: Hotel Continental Emporio, Costera Miguel Aleman 121 – Local 14; telephone (52)(744) 484-0300 or (52)(744) 469-0556.
Cabo San Lucas: Blvd. Marina Local C-4, Plaza Nautica, Col. Centro; telephone (52) (624) 143-3566.
Cancun: Plaza Caracol Two, Second Level, No. 320-323, Boulevard Kukulkan, Km. 8.5, Zona Hotelera; telephone (52)(998) 883-0272.
Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo: Hotel Fontan, Blvd. Ixtapa; telephone (52)(755) 553-2100.
Mazatlan: Hotel Playa Mazatlán,Playa Gaviotas #202, Zona Dorada; telephone (52) (669) 916-5889.
Oaxaca: Macedonio Alcala No. 407, Interior 20; telephone (52) (951) 514-3054 (52) or (951) 516-2853.
Piedras Negras: Abasolo 211, Local #3, Col. Centro; telephone (52) (878) 782-5586 or (878) 782-8664.
Playa del Carmen: The Palapa, Calle 1 Sur, between Avenida 15 and Avenida 20; telephone (52)(984) 873-0303.
Puerto Vallarta: Paseo de Los Cocoteros #85 Sur, Paradise Plaza – Local L-7, Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit C.P.; telephone (52)(322) 222-0069.
Reynosa: Calle Monterrey #390, Esq. Sinaloa, Col. Rodríguez; telephone: (52)(899) 923-9331

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Blue Ocean Tour in Southern Baja

 

From April 2-7 I will be touring the Cape Region of Baja California to show the Blue Ocean Film Festival “Blue on Tour” ocean documentaries and give talks on my book Wild Sea.

APRIL  2nd:  San Jose Organic Farmers Market, 10am-2:00pm

APRIL 2nd:  TBD

APRIL 3rd:  Los Barriles Art Festival, Hotel Palmas De Cortez Los Barriles

APRIL 3rd: Vinorama Country Club, East Cape, 6pm

APRIL 4th: DREAMS Spa and Resort, @ 6:00pm

APRIL 6th: Sculpture Francisco Merino Galeria @ 6:30pm

APRIL 7th: La Esquina, Todos Santos @ 7:00pm

When I am there I look forward to seeing old friends, making new friends, and surfing the crystal clear blue water of the East Cape and Todos Santos–two of my favorite places in Baja.

 

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