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

The Log

Cabo Virgenes to Puerto Refugio:
Encounters with the jumbo squid

Friday, April 23, 2004

Our encounter with the jumbo Humboldt squid has begun! As we traveled north yesterday evening, we saw a dozen pangas carrying fishermen from Santa Rosalia on the same course. When we anchored off of Cabo Virgenes, we were among them and could see them hauling on lines. Gaston lowered a jig overboard. He let it go down about 100 meters and then started lifting it up and down. Within minutes he was struggling with a monster. He reeled and reeled. Then rested. And reeled and reeled some more. By the time he got his prey to the surface, all that was left attached to the jig was the beak and tentacles of a "calamar gigante," as the squid are called here. Other squid had eaten the rest on the way up.

After taking a breather, we lowered the jig again and soon enough it was hit again. This time Gaston and I took turns reeling and resting. From time to time, we could feel the weight double as another squid attacked the squid on our line. We worried there would be nothing left when we brought it to the surface. But then it appeared, flashing red and white.

The squid does this by opening and closing chromatophores in its skin. These are pigment filled sacs that open and close under the control of muscles controlled by the squid's brain. Squid seem to use these on-off color changes to signal something, but no one is sure what. We brought the squid aboard and put it in a tank, hoping to study it close up, but it promptly filled the tank with ink and we couldn't see a thing. So we let the squid go back overbaord. It was only a medium-size jumbo squid, but it felt like more than that to our sore arms. It had a lot of fight. We watched it return to the deep with a great deal of hard won admiration.

Later in the night, we watched these sleek jumbo squid jetting with ease all around the boat snacking on mackerel, which in turn were eating plankton attracted to our lights. We videotaped the squid flashing white and seeming to round up the mackerel in a coordinated fashion and then come in to feed on them near the boat. It was thrilling. We plotted to spend another day and night here studying this phenomena, which neither Bill nor Gaston had ever seen before, despite many nights spent observing squid fishing in the Sea of Cortez.

Today, we spent much of the daylight hours crisscrossing a deep trench, which descends to more than 700 meters just five miles offshore from Cabo Virgenes. Using the onbaord GPS and depth finder, Gaston is mapping this trench, where the jumbo Humbolt squid spend their days, before coming closer to the surface at night to dine.

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

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Our encounters with the jumbo Humboldt squid, Dosidicus gigas, continued today. We caught more squid last night and today. We observed them on the surface during the day, which is unusual. Three squid went into our onboard tanks and have been kept alive for going on 24 hours, a first as far as we know. Two more became calamari for dinner, but not before being dissected for science.

Inside the squid's mantle, you can see the jet propulsion system on the left, with the ink tube running down the pen, the cartilage that is like a spine but not a spine since squid are invertebrates. The white organs on the top and bottom of this picture are gills. And the stomach is on the right. Inside the stomach, we found a red gooey substance, perhaps digested plankton, as well as tiny bits of other squid. Dosidicus gigas is known to be a cannibal. Squid will attack other squid that are caught on jigs. However, this seems to indicate that the cannibalism is more regular.

In the picture above, Bill removes one of the squid's central nerves. Scientists like Bill use squid nerves as model systems for neurophysiology because the nerves are so big they are easy to dissect and study.

And the calamari steaks, prepared Cajun style by our chef Sue, were delicious!

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

Sunday, April 25, 2004

If I were not keeping this log, I would not know what day it is. Time has slipped away on this roadless stretch of coast north of Santa Rosalia. We have not seen anyone else for days and many miles. And the shoreline seems mysterious. Names repeat themselves: like San Carlos, Punta Prieta, Punta Baja. There are any number of places with those names. We have been trying to find a Steinbeck-Ricketts site that they call San Carlos Bay, a curious bay with a lagoon behind it.

Yesterday we found such a place, Boca San Carlos, but it was eight miles from the place where Captain Tony Berry's log said they anchored off Punta Trinidad. Still it felt right. The description of the lagoon—or "estero" as they are called here—matched Steinbeck's. But nothing else fit. So we moved north to Punta Trinidad.

The night was dead calm. That brought on the bugs. So we moved offshore and drifted in the night with the current and wind. We saw more squid feeding on plankton around the boat again last night. And in the morning when we came to the beach, there was another squid. This one seemed lost and forlorn, as if perhaps it was looking for a place to beach itself and die as squid sometimes do, but usually in groups, not alone.

We wonder why Steinbeck and Ricketts never mention the jumbo Humboldt squid, Dosidicus gigas, in their book. They must not have seen it, but we have seen these squid, many times while doing the same things they did. Perhaps it wasn't here 64 years ago. Or perhaps it wasn't here in the same numbers that it is today. So they missed it. This is a mystery we hope to solve through historical research. When did the "calamar gigante" begin in appearing in the Gulf of California? And when did it attain such great numbers as today? It is now one of the top fisheries in Mexico.

If you know anything about this history—or any other clues to this mystery—please let us know.

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

Monday, April 26, 2004

Today we were visited by fishermen from the nearby village of El Barril with a panga hold full of sharks, rays, and a couple of halibut.

They asked if we had any soda pop. "No," I said, "and we ran out of fresh water this morning. But we have cold beer. Would you like some?"

"Si!" said Martin Aguilar Arce. "Would you like some water? We have a little."

I told him we'd be OK because the captain had just fixed our water maker. Then Frank came out and we sat on the gunwale and talked with Martin and Manual Villavicencio.

The fishing is so-so, said Martin, "mas o menos." An ice truck leaves from El Barril to Ensenada every four days, from whence the fish continue farther north to San Diego and points beyond. "That's the fish we eat," said Frank.

We are part of this food chain too.

We talked for a while about the fish and then the fishermen started to get antsy to go back out for one more try with their gill net before heading home for the day. Before they left, Martin asked Frank if he would like a halibut or a shark or two. Frank said he would like to try the shark, which looked like a grey smooth hound.

Frank filleted the shark on the spot and popped a fillet in the microwave. Within minutes it came out piping hot and delicately delicious.

After lunch we weighed anchor and moved north to San Francisquito—little San Francisco. We are moving into the region of the midriff islands about halfway up into the Sea of Cortez. The islands float in the mysterious air.

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Tuesday, April 27, 2004

We collected today along the beautiful rocky shore just outside San Francisquito Bay. Again we were amazed by the diversity of life here. When Steinbeck and Ricketts came here in 1940, they didn't have a good low tide. So they only did a cursory sampling along the inner shore of the bay and made notes on 17 species. Such are the vagaries of being at the mercy of the tides. We hit a nice low tide, a great collecting site, and found more than 17 species under one rock!

Taking a wider view, and allowing for these differences in the luck of the tides, it seemed little had changed here since Steinbeck and Ricketts visited San Francisquito. Then we found this huge mound of pearl oyster shells on the beach.

Chuck told us that in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a run on wild pearl oysters and fishermen swept through this area collecting all the wild pearls they could and leaving the oysters on the shore. Now there are very few pearl oysters left in the wild here. The population has been severely depressed for a long time. This is just one of the fishing booms and busts to have hit the Sea of Cortez in the last 64 years. We have seen some of the ancient shell middens left along the shore by the Indians who lived on the Baja Peninsula thousands of years ago. Those middens are a record of people having lived on what this environment produces for many, many years. By contrast, this mound of shells was probably deposited in a few days. It left us with a melancholy feeling at the end of an otherwise vibrant day of surveying the intertidal environment.

But later in the night that exuberant feeling returned. Once again, after dark, the Gus D was surrounded, first by plankton, then by sardines, then came the jumbo Humboldt squid. I put on a wet suit and went overboard with an underwater camera to capture images of them snacking on sardines.

Meanwhile, Gaston netted sardines and caught a squid on a jig. Bill dissected it and found its stomach full of sardines. As far as we know, this behavior, feeding on fish at the surface at night, has never been described before. And our documentation of this phenomenon, which Steinbeck and Ricketts never saw, was complete! That put an exciting and very satisfying finish to a long day in San Francisquito Bay.

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Wednesday, April 28, 2004

¿Donde esta el cyber café? Which way to the internet café?

Gaston gets guidance from some local boys in Bahía de Los Angeles.

After a long night of squid research and a long day of traveling, we arrived in "L.A. Bay" in the afternoon and came ashore to shop for some fresh food, visit the wonderful local natural history museum, and find a fast internet connection.

Our e-mail had been piling up, overwhelming our cantankerous "Sea Star" satellite phone connection. When there is no e-mail waiting for us, it works fine; the connection is made fast and clear. But when there is e-mail waiting the "Sea Star" balks. Perhaps it is jealous. No one is writing nice notes to it, like they are to the rest of the crew.

One correspondent suggested we clean it because salt water may have gotten to it. However, despite the temptation, I have not thrown it back into the sea where it belongs. Instead, I have kept it clean and safe in a waterproof black box in an undisclosed secure location. I have only brought it out when its services were absolutely needed. And then I have pampered and protected it from sun and salt spray, in the vain hope that was the way to treat such a sensitive creature.

I extend the antenna and it indicates a nice strong signal. Then I connect the computer and prepare to send and receive e-mail. Only then does it lose the signal and begin searching, searching for a satellite. I hold it and look up to the heavens and do the strange dance of the satellite phone user, turning in circles first this way then that with the "Sea Star" held reverently in my hand pointing toward the sky, praying to the gods of communication to give me a connection.

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Thursday, April 29, 2004

Sunrise at Bahía Los Angeles looking out toward the islands. This morning we went looking for two sites that Steinbeck and Ricketts surveyed 64 years ago.

One of them was covered in water. There is really no low tide today. The tide will not get below a foot above mean low tide. The tidal profile around the half moon is practically flat. Up here in the upper gulf this pattern is particularly pronounced.

Another site, where Steinbeck and Ricketts were surprised to find one new adobe building with glass windows in 1940, is now lined with houses with beautiful bay views.

Still, in a quick look-see, turning a few rocks, we found a number of the species that Steinbeck and Ricketts found: chitons, cucumbers, crabs, snails, and one they didn't find—a beautiful brown and green limpet called of all things Collisella stanfordiana.

Because there is not a good low tide today, we won't be able to complete a full comparative study here, but that gives us a good reason to come back to L.A. Bay some day!

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

Friday, April 30, 2004

In such an awe inspiring landscape, where there are clearly massive forces at work, why do we spend so much time with our noses so close to the ground?

Why do we study such tiny things as more than 1,000 Littorina modesta in a .5-meter square quadrat?

Truth be told, we're not sure. But we hope that by understanding the relationships among all of the small things in the intertidal communities of the Sea of Cortez, we will gain insight into the big picture—the toto picture, as Steinbeck and Ricketts called it.

Here in Puerto Refugio on the north end of Isla Angel de la Guarda we have found another big surprise—we are in the midst of a huge pelican rookery. Thousands of adult pelicans are flying back and forth from this sheltered bay gathering food for young birds waiting on the cliffs about to fledge. With all the chicks screaming constantly it sounds like we are anchored off of Shea Stadium during a Beatles concert.

What's the big surprise? Steinbeck and Ricketts didn't see any pelicans. They found some empty nests and fish bones, but no birds. They came at the same time of year. Where were the birds? This is another mystery we hope to solve by looking at other historical records to see if we can find any correlation with other known factors such as El Niño.

And we hope that all of these things together will help us see the toto picture.

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

Continue with us on our journey as we drift in a mysterious gyre and find a thousand eyes looking back at us.

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