Sailing with the spirits of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts on a new voyage of discovery around Baja California

The Log

Isla Cayo to El Estuche:
A remote roadless coast full of spirits

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

This view is looking north along Cayo Island a small island off the coast of Isla San Jose in the background. The left or western side of the island is the windward side. It is getting a rough treatment from waves. The lee of the island on the right or eastern side is calm. This presented two different kinds of habitat separated by less than 100 yards at the narrowest part of the island. Even at its widest the island is no more than a few hundred yards wide. It rises to a spine about 100 feet above the water. The spine is inhabited by nesting gulls—yellow-footed gulls mostly and a few Heermann's gulls. They squawked at us the entire time we were on the island, trying to keep us away from their nests, shallow depressions in the eroded rock with two or three spotted eggs in each. Gnats and flies living on the guano-covered islet also harrassed us constantly, but luckily the breeze kept them from swarming too badly.

Steinbeck and Ricketts described this as a "burned" coast. "One knows there will be few animals on a 'burned' coast; that animals will not like it, will not be successful there," they wrote.

On the contrary, we found Cayo Island to be teeming with life, from the nesting gulls to the intertidal. Later, Chuck Baxter concluded it was the most diverse site we had visited so far in the Sea of Cortez. We found four kinds of sea stars, four or five different brittle stars, four or five species of sea cucumbers, and four different urchins, as well as five or six different kinds of vermetid snails. One of these worm-like snails formed some of the largest coiled shells that we have yet seen stuck to the rocks. And this was just on the calm leeward side of the island.

The Sally Lightfoots on this side of the island seemed calm and slow too, but on the other side in the surf they were just as fast here as anywhere else. Still I managed to catch one. I wanted to have my picture taken to prove it, but someone must have let it out of the bag before I got a chance.

What explains the difference between what Ricketts and Steinbeck saw and what we saw 64 years later? In this case, the most likely explanation may simply be a matter of perception or even mood. They seem to have been in a dark mood themselves, and not given much time to Cayo, and then attributed their feelings to the island. Perhaps there was no breeze and the bugs were really bad. And although they don't mention the birds, maybe the squawking got to them. Maybe they were just tired. Scientists are only human too. It's good to remember that.

After collecting, Tim Means introduced us to a family of fishermen, including Ismael Cuevas above, who live on another nearby small island, Isla Pardito. The Cuevas brothers were so friendly and welcoming and it was such an ideal, beautiful setting for the roughhewn reality of a fishing village that captain Frank Donahue broke his rule of leaving the boat for the very first time on our trip. He and the fishermen, like Juanito Cuevas below, understood each other with few words and many gestures. It was the most moving experience of our voyage, Frank said later. And as we pulled away from their beach, Frank told them he wanted to come back to work with them, help them with welding and mending nets, and anything else they might need in order to share some more time together.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

After three or four hours of counting and collecting in the tide pools and under rocks, Minda, Nancy and Rafe discuss what we've found.The animals are sorted into trays for identification and preservation. In order to positively identify a particulary difficult species of limpet, Chuck consults the classic Sea Shells of Tropical West America by A. Myra Keen. It is a Fissurella rugosa, red and white on the outside, pale green on the inside, with a hole that is rounder and not pinched in the middle like other limpets.

Some of the specimens go into our aquarium on deck so that we can study them alive and share them with the school kids we will be meeting in Loreto and Santa Rosalia next week, including a brittle-star, lower left, a crown of thorns, upper left, and a colorful variety of sea stars.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Today we found some real tide pools at Punta el Cerro, one of our stops along a largely roadless coast between La Paz and Loreto. Until now, we've been in lots of rocky intertidal habitat, but not seen too many classic tide pools, with urchins and hermit crabs and tiny fish in the calm pools.

We are surveying four very similar sites along a roughly 60-mile stretch of the coast. We are stopping at rocky points on the southern end of bays. We hope to see whether similar coastal habitat is home to similar communities of species or there are other forces creating diversity in the intertidal.

In one of the tide pools, we found pearl oysters. It was just south of here that John Steinbeck heard the real story that grew into The Pearl. As we passed the village earlier, Tim Means pointed out the big two-story house that the family that had found the great pearl built. Family members still live in the village, but no one lives in the house. Apparently, the real pearl had a similar curse to the fictional pearl. It divided a family.

When this crab got too big for its house, it just moved on, leaving its exoskeleton on this rock. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to shed your skin like that, Tim asked me, and move on from time to time?

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Today we came to Santa Marta where Tim Means and a friend, writer Bruce Berger, have a ranch they have devoted to conservation. Their ranch house is a palapa, a thatched roofed roundhouse with a palm tree growing through the center of the roof.

Tim has been working for many years to help preserve this coast, working with government officials such as Exequiel Ezcurra, who was on the Pacific leg of our trip, and local people in a conservation group called Niparaja. The model they are working on here is to create a national park, stretching from Loreto to La Paz. Local people would be granted fishing rights. This would give them an incentive to restore and protect the fisheries along the coast, from sea cucumbers, to shellfish, and yellowtail. Right now, shrimp boats and gill netters come over from the mainland and sweep through the area, cleaning out many of the fish. It is the classic tragedy of the commons. No one has rights. So all suffer.

Tim says the creative force for conservation has to come from the bottom up—from local people calling for protection of their resources—in order to get the government moving at the top and to last on the ground and in the sea. Niparaja has been in existence since 1990. The group is named for a local god of creation. And Santa Marta is filled with spirits.

Such as the palm front with a face above, and the chimera dancer below.

Tim has been our guide along this spectacular coast. He has a business called Baja Expeditions, which offers all kinds of trips in this area by boat and kayak and hiking. He knows it better than anyone. And it his lifetime goal to see it restored and protected forever.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

At Punta San Marcial, some parts of our transects were under water as the surf ebbed and flowed across the exposed rock reef. Counting critters with water surging back and forth across the transect is a real challenge.

One of the common species here is a limpet called Lottia atrata. This one has tended its own patch of rock, keeping acorn barnacles out and harvesting the algae that grows here.

Urchins have burrowed into the sandstone, each one creating its own little home protected from the waves on this exposed point. One of the things that we have observed is that the rock substrate really shapes communities. We've seen this kind of pattern a number of times in softer stone. In harder rock formations, the urchins have to find nooks and crannies to escape the wave action.

This is not a new observation. Ed Ricketts was one of the first to put together the importance of height in the intertidal zone, substrate, and wave exposure in determining the composition of intertidal communities. He published these ideas in his seminal book, Between Pacific Tides, just before coming to the Sea of Cortez with John Steinbeck.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Last night we anchored in a narrow little inlet called El Estuche, the rifle scabbard. The low tide was at 3:30 a.m. this morning. So we woke up in the middle of the night and took a skiff ashore. The phosphorescent dinoflagelates lit up the dark water like the stars above in the night sky. We floated in between these microscopic living stars in the water and the cold stars so far away. We rowed toward the sound of the waves lapping on the beach.

We came ashore to explore the intertidal when all the secretive animals are out and about. Colorful fish, including striped sargeant majors, swam between the rocks. Tube worms spread their feather duster tentacles out around their holes. Anenomes reached out fully open like pink palm trees. And shrimp with shiny gold eyes skittered among the rocks.There were many sea hares at this site. Sea hares are large gastropods or snails with a thin shell in their skin or no shell at all.They look a little like rabbits because their heads have ear like flaps sticking out of each side.

When they are disturbed, as this one was when I tried to pick it up, they squirt out a stream of purple ink staining the water.

Back on board the Gus D before dawn, the surrounding darkness seemed more full of color, light and life.

Posted by Jon Christensen
E-mail the crew by clicking here.

Continue with us on our journey as we meet a new generation of conservationists in Loreto and Santa Rosalia.

Return to the index to The Log.


Baja California & The Sea of Cortez
Image provided by SeaWiFS Project
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center


The Western Flyer:
the fishing boat that John Steinbeck
and Ed Ricketts took to
the Sea of Cortez.
photo courtesy Bob Enea.


The Gus-D:
the fishing boat we will take
back to the Sea of Cortez.


Sea of Cortez:
A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research


The Log from the Sea of Cortez