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

The Log

Puerto Refugio to Isla San Pedro Martir:
Drifting in a mysterious gyre

Saturday, May 1, 2004

We have reached the northernmost point on our journey through the Sea of Cortez: Puerto Peñasco, also known as Rocky Point. The port is home to a fleet of 118 shrimp boats, but the six month season is over, and so the boats are idle until mid-September. The fishermen have hung up their nets and turned to other pursuits, such as towing tourists around behind their pangas on banana-shaped rafts, like Gabriel Salazar-Salazar and Esdras Zamorano below.

They came out to talk with us about this strange thing we are doing: fishing for information on a shrimp boat with no nets. We asked them about this strange thing they are doing: fishing for tourists using a rubber raft shaped like a banana. We got along swimmingly after acknowledging the evident absurdities.

Today is Labor Day, a national holiday in Mexico. The beaches and restaurants and hotels are packed with Mexican and American tourists. The air is filled with shouts and laughter, as riders are bucked from the banana boats by the choppy waves. Later there will be fireworks on the beach and dance music pulsating into the night. Puerto Peñasco is a little bit like Cabo San Lucas, only an hour's drive from Arizona.

Rocky Point seems like a friendly town, if a bit on the wild side in some ways, and not quite wild enough in other ways for those of us who have grown accustomed to starry nights without a light in sight and the only sound the calling of baby pelicans, which come to think about it, wasn't that different from the sound of revelers on the beach screaming into the night for satisfaction.

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Sunday, May 2, 2004

This morning I went to see the Port Captain in Puerto Peñasco bright and early so that we could turn around and head south again back into the Sea of Cortez. We have become a little shy about civilization. Twenty-four hours is almost too much for us. We get itchy to get back into the wilderness. From here, we are off for five days among the midriff islands, Angel de la Guarda, Raza, Tiburon, San Pedro Martir. We will be revisiting one Steinbeck and Ricketts site, but also exploring new territory and looking for more jumbo Humboldt squid.

So we turn our backs on society again, but not without some appreciation for the kindness of strangers and the benefits of formality and respect, which we have found to be much more the rule than the exception here in Mexico. We have met with the most friendly and understanding and generous officials we have ever come across in our travels around the world. From Naval officers, who have boarded the Gus D from time to time to inquire about our intentions in the Gulf, to the Port Captains who approve our comings and goings from our various way stations along our journey, to the owners and managers of docks and marinas who have allowed us to use their facilities to come ashore and take on supplies, we have been treated with utmost kindness and showered with good wishes and interest in our journey.

This morning was not only the most recent, but perhaps the most illustrative example. I called on the Port Captain's office shortly after sunrise, on a Sunday morning, the day after a national holiday, to ask for permission and fill out the official paperwork to leave port. I had no reason to expect to be received at all, let alone warmly. The office was locked tight.

I sat down in the shade and was about to pull my radio out of my backpack to try to call the Captain, when his young assistant, Alfredo Montes Palomares pedalled up on his bicycle. He opened the office for me and helped me complete the paperwork.

Then he called the Port Captain to see if he could get his signature, which is one of two essential elements on the dispatch allowing a boat to proceed from port to port. The other is the official stamp of the Port Captain. There was no answer. He tried his cell phone. Still no answer. "Maybe he's sleeping," Alfredo said. "Let's go see."

So we got in his truck and drove over to the Port Captain's house. Alfredo knocked on the door. "Hey, Capi," he said. "We need your signature." The captain grunted, opened the door, took the dispatch in, signed it, and passed it back out.

Alfredo drove me pack to the Port Captain's office and added the final stamp of approval for us to continue our journey.

"Que le vaya bien," he said. And we could only return the sentiment for a young man who made us momentarily appreciate the finer aspects of society and civilization and humanity before plunging back into the watery wilds.

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Monday, May 3, 2004

This little island may not look like much. It's only 120 acres in size. And its highest point is not much more than 100 feet above sea level. But this makes it a perfect place for two species of birds.

Elegant terns (Sterna elegans).

And Heermann's gulls (Larus heermanni)

More than 95 percent of the entire world population of these birds come to breed on this small island from March to June.

Approximately 200,000 Elegant Terns and 260,000 Heermann's Gulls nest on the island. They like the fact that it is flat, has sparse vegetation, and no native land predators. Two aerial predators, the Yellow-footed Gull and Peregrine Falcon occasionally prey on the terns and Heerman's gulls.

So they throng together for protection to keep their chicks safe on their rudimentary nests.

Like the pelicans on Angel de la Guarda Island, these birds feed on sardines and anchovies. When the fish are abundant, the birds breed successfully. When the fish are scarce, the birds may not be successful at all. This is probably why Steinbeck and Ricketts didn't see pelicans on Angel de la Guarda. It was a bad year for small pelagic fish.

Isla Rasa was an early success story and a leading example for conservation in the Sea of Cortez. The island was formally protected as a bird sanctuary in 1964 because of concern about the sea birds on the island. Their total population had fallen to 25,000. Scientists have been studying the birds ever since. In 1995, they eradicated introduced rats and mice from the island. The rats and mice preyed on eggs and young birds. Now, after seeing the success on Isla Rasa, many of the other islands in the Sea of Cortez are getting the same care.

Posted by Jon Christensen with photos by Nancy Burnett.
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Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Michael Beman, a graduate student in geology and environmental sciences at Stanford University, sent us this recent image of the Sea of Cortez taken from space. Mike is studying nutrient cycles in the Gulf of California and he will be joining us onboard next week.

The midriff islands, which we are now exploring, are in the upper left hand quadrant of the image.

This is a satellite image showing chlorophyll blooms in the gulf. The warmer the color, the more chlorophyll is present in the water. This means there are nutrients in the water. These nutrients are brought to the surface by cold water upwelling from the deep canyons that run between the midriff islands.

More nutrients mean more food for life. More plankton. More fish. And more jumbo squid. And that's what we're after.

So later today, we will head toward the edge of the bright orange and red bloom just to the west of Isla San Pedro Martir to see what's going on there right now. We'll let you know.

Posted by Jon Christensen
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Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Right where the satellite image said we would find it, we found it: an edge. In this case a temperature edge in the water. On one side of the edge the water temperature was 21.5 Celsius and on the other side the water temperature was as low as 15.5 Celsius, a dramatic temperature change in a very short distance. And right along this edge was a fog bank. We went right into it last night.

Edges are where interesting things happen in nature, and this temperature edge is also the edge of an upwelling of nutrients, chlorophyll and plankton. So Bill Gilly and Cesar Salinas lowered the bongo nets to do a plankton tow to see what we could find.

The two nets were towed behind the boat for 20 minutes and then brought up to see what they caught. We divvied up the thick sludge into bowls.

This is not our dinner spread, though it is a rich soup of the sea.

Through a hand lens we could see hundreds of tiny animals, including many miniature versions of what we have been seeing in the tide pools: larvae of crabs, brittlestars, snails, lobster, shrimp, and barnacles, as well as an astonishing variety of copepods, among the smallest animals at the bottom of the food chain, and much to our delight a tiny version of a top predator: squid!

Our take included two specimens Bill Gilly found that may be Dosidicus gigas larvae. If so, this could be the first time that we know of that the tiny newborns of the jumbo squid, probably just a few weeks old, have been found live in the Sea of Cortez. It was not known whether the Humboldt squid, which is widespread in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of North and South America, actually breeds in the Gulf of California. But finding larvae most likely means jumbo squid are successfully reproducing here.

Posted by Jon Christensen with photo by Nancy Burnett.
E-mail the crew by clicking here

Thursday, May 6, 2004

In addition to larvae and juvenile jumbo squid, we have caught adult jumbo squid here in the midriff of the Sea of Cortez. Cesar Salinas, a professor at CIBNOR who has joined us for this squid-centric leg of our journey, dissects them to study their stomachs to see what they are eating, their statoliths or primitive inner ears to see how old they are, and their reproductive systems to see whether they have spawned any young yet.

After a long night and day of squid work earlier this week, Cesar put in another shift, in the kitchen, turning squid tentacles and triggerfish into a delicious picante ceviche made with lime juice, red onions, tomatoes, cilantro, fresh jalapeños and a little clamato juice. I have become an aficionado of ceviche, in travels along the Pacific Coast from Lima, Peru, to Seattle, Washington, and I have never tasted one as good nor as fresh from the sea. Cesar and a "squid team" of colleagues at CIBNOR and other institutions are working on a project to expand the market for jumbo squid here in Mexico through a popular educational effort. They've put together food fairs and they're collecting and sharing recipes. He says the market is growing. I can taste why.

We have had the good fortune to work with colleagues on this trip with great gusto for science, the environment, conservation, and life. And did I mention food?

So in a moment of sentimentality, we raise a toast to those who have traveled with us and shared their personal recipes for the good life at sea before returning to their lives on the land—including most recently Chuck Baxter, our sage of the intertidal and Sierra a la Veracruzana, who left us in Puerto Peñasco. Adios, amigos! Until we meet again.

And as we get underway again facing into the waves and salt spray, we look forward to other colleagues who will join us in the few remaining weeks of our voyage to share what has become an expedition with many unexpected discoveries, scientific and gustatory.

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

Friday, May 7, 2004

For the last few days we have been drifting in a gyre among the midriff islands west of Isla San Pedro Martir. The Gus D has been slowly carried around in a great circle as the currents surged all around us. From time to time, we dropped a plankton net behind the boat and towed it for a while, then brought it up to see what life was swirling around us. When we pulled up the nets and dumped the catch out, we looked into a basin with a thousand eyes looking back at us.

Never before on this trip, even when we were walking directly in their footsteps and surveying the same tide pools, have we felt as close to the spirits of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. Here, instead of following them, we are doing what they did, exploring the Sea of Cortez and life in an open-ended leisurely fashion, letting the great force of the gulf carry us along.

And here, in this watery gyre under a dome of stars and a full moon, we have come close to really feeling in our souls what Steinbeck and Ricketts did: "that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again."*

Posted by Jon Christensen with photo by Nancy Burnett.
E-mail the crew by clicking here

Continue with us on our journey and learn why you too must come back to the Sea of Cortez.

Return to the index to The Log.

* From THE LOG FROM THE SEA OF CORTEZ by John Steinbeck, copyright 1941 by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts. Copyright renewed (c) 1969 by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, Jr. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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

 

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