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 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.

Cabo Pulmo in the Huffington Post

Cabo Pulmo National Park in Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Here is a photo essay/article I wrote for the Huffington Post.

CABO PULMO, Mexico – By the 1990s, decades of overfishing the waters of the Sea of Cortez left the coral reef at Cabo Pulmo, in the East Cape region of the Baja California Peninsula, almost void of life. To reverse this process the local community convinced the Mexican federal government to establish a marine protected area at Cabo Pulmo in 1995. Ninety-nine percent of the 17,560 acre Marine Protected Area that was established is ocean.

Today the Cabo Pulmo Marine Park is one the most successful examples of marine conservation in Mexico. Fishing was banned inside the park and local residents, along with the Mexican government, helped to bring the reef back from complete destruction.

Unfortunately, development pressures along the East Cape now threaten the fragile beauty, abundance, and diversity of the marine species for which it is famous.

Photo: Octavio Aburto

“Coral reefs are very fragile ecosystems, explains Dr. Octavio Aburto Oropeza, from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and an Associate of the International League of Conservation Photographers. “They are nurseries essential to populating the oceans. Cabo Pulmo is estimated to be 20,000 years old, and is home to 226 fish species”.

Yellowfin tuna are being fished as a replaceme...

Image via Wikipedia

A Spanish company, Hansa Urbana, plans to build a tourism mega-development on 9,875 acres adjacent to the marine park. If the development goes through, the sleepy and white sand fringed Cabo Pulmo will be joined by 40,000 new residents in a complex that will include hotels, condominiums, a 490 slip marina, two golf courses, and shopping centers.

Mexican environmental authorities had already given the green light to the Spanish company but eight months of legal and media pressures by a coalition of local residents, non-profit organizations, and researchers have made the Secretary of the Environment reconsider the project. It has temporarily revoked Hansa’s building permits pending new evidence on the impacts of the development on the coral reef.

Badly planned marina developmet at La Ribera near Cabo Pulmo. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

The director of the Cabo Pulmo National Park, Javier Alejandro Gonzalez, told the media in an interview that the National Commission on National Protected Areas (CONANP) found that Cabo Cortes’ environmental-impact statement “was vague in several points” and contained figures that “had not been validated”.

“We have spoken with experts, such as Dr. Octavio Aburto Oropeza, from Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Dr Ezequiel Escurra, and others, and they all warn of dire consequences if the resort project is not cancelled’, says Fay Crevoshay, communications director of WiLDCOAST, and part of the coalition called “Cabo Pulmo Vivo!”, that is trying to raise public awareness about the threats to the reef.

Enrique Castro, whose family has lived for five generations in the small community, says, “fifteen years ago we stopped fishing and started taking care of the reef. Today we offer tourist services such as diving, snorkeling, boat rides, sport fishing [outside of the park], and lodging. And now they are going to kill the reef and what about us? Tourists will not come to see a dead reef.”

“Following 15 years of protection the Cabo Pulmo coral reef has recovered from overfishing, becoming the marine area with the highest concentration of fish in the Sea of Cortez,” said Serge Dedina, Executive Director of WiLDCOAST and author of the forthcoming Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias.

Photo: Carlos Aguilera

El Hijo del Santo Fights for Cabo Pulmo

The Lucha Libre El Hijo del Santo appears in m...

Image via Wikipedia

In Mexico, there is no greater living legend than lucha libre star El Hijo del Santo.

In the ring he fights the bad guys.

In real life he saves the coast and ocean.

El Hijo del Santo has been the main spokesperson for WiLDCOAST for the past three years.

Wildcoast

Image via Wikipedia

And in our most serious fight, we have been trying to stop the Spanish resort developer Hansa Urban from destroying the fragile Cabo Pulmo coral reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Mexican National Park, from being obliterated by a giant new resort-city on the East Cape, on the park’s boundary.

So our team went to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup and unleashed El Santo.

Can you say GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Santo scored for Cabo Pulmo!!

Thanks Santo

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