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

The Log

San Carlos to Agiabampo:
Two faces of the Sea of Cortez

Saturday, May 8, 2004

San Carlos Bay, just north of Guaymas, is a social microcosm of the two sides of the Sea of Cortez. Like Steinbeck and Ricketts, we came into the bay through the narrow opening between two dramatic headlands and anchored. We looked around for the bouldery beach that they described and decided it was probably here, where there is now a fishing village. So this morning, Oceancamp, a local environmental education organization, brought 20 kids from four local high schools out to survey the site with us.

Cesar Salinas showed the students how we do a transect and they dove into the work, counting anemones and urchins, coral and tunicates, barnacles and hermit crabs. We read the description of San Carlos in The Log from the Sea of Cortez and talked about how sometimes it's difficult to know exactly where Steinbeck and Ricketts collected. We have to make our best, informed guess, looking at what they wrote and what is written on the landscape, which itself may have changed. A hurricane in the Sea of Cortez last fall created two new beaches in this bay. Understanding these uncertainties, we try to get as close as we can to the place and the kind of habitat that they explored.

The biggest changes in San Carlos are not in the intertidal. In the early evening, we were invited to a reception in one of the big homes hugging the steep hillsides on the other side of the bay. As the sun went down behind the ragged peaks ringing this beautiful port, we sipped cocktails and talked about our work with a lively and interesting group of American and Mexican residents of San Carlos, including town commissioner Sergio Garcia Juárez. He told us there are about 800 U.S. citizens living in the area, which has a total population of around 3,000 residents, but that number expands to about 5,000 in the winter, when "snowbirds"—visitors and part-time residents fleeing the colds of northern North America—flock to San Carlos. All of these people bring good things to San Carlos, said Señor Juárez, income, investments, and ideas. But most important, he said, is the interaction between the two sides of San Carlos.

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

Sunday, May 9, 2004

We continued to explore the two faces of the Sea of Cortez today in San Carlos Bay. In the morning, Bill Gilly and I went to the local fishing village and talked with Orlando Espinoza and his son Jorge. They were just bringing in a net full of pink Murex, a snail with a beautiful shell and tasty body.

This is the first time we've seen so many of the Murex and their shells. In The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck and Ricketts describe Tiny, one of the crew members, collecting a big barrel of the shells to give to friends and family in Monterey. We gathered up a handful of the shells and the Espinozas gave us one live specimen for our onboard aquarium.

We had a quiet conversation about the fishing. The Espinozas, like other fishermen here, shift their fishing effort according to the season. Right now, they are waiting for the water to warm up, said Orlando, that's when the big fish come into these waters. Unlike many other fishermen around here, the Espinozas don't go after jumbo squid. It's too much work and too little pay, said Orlando, and hauling the big squid up from deep down is hard on an old man's back.

At lunctime, we were invited to another reception at Barracuda Bob's, an American style ice cream and sandwhich shop in the marina across the bay. The marina is packed with shiny new sail boats and sports fishing boats. At Barracuda Bob's, we were greeted by about 60 curious American residents of San Carlos and peppered with questions about our voyage and our impressions about what we had seen so far. People were especially curious about the dramatic rise in the presence of jumbo squid and they wondered if it is related to a decline in other top predators in the Sea of Cortez, such as sharks and tuna.

Bill Gilly explained that the rise of the squid in the Sea of Cortez is a complex phenomenon, that probably involves long-term climate oscillations in the Pacific, short-term climatic events such as El Niño, the squid's own natural history (it is a short-lived species that can have quick population booms and busts), as well as fishing pressure on the squid as well as other predators. These are some of the mysteries we hope to unravel as we try to weave together the story of the jumbo squid in the context of the bigger picture of the Sea of Cortez.

Barracuda Bob's had some special luncheon items in honor of our expedition, including a Sea Cow Sandwich, Gus D Guzzler, and a Western Flyer banana split. How did they know the captain has a soft spot for ice cream? Perhaps telepathy.

I radioed out to captain Frank Donahue to tell him I was headed inoto Guaymas, the nearby commercial fishing port, to find some friends and colleagues who will be joining us for the next week. I added that Bill would be coming back to the boat with a surprise for him.

Okey, dokey, Frank said, just tell him to make sure it doesn't melt.

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

Monday, May 10, 2004

This morning we talked to 50 fifth-grade students at W.L. Chenery Middle School in Belmont, Massachusetts. The live video link was done through the internet. The students could see us and a few Mexican students who joined us on a big screen in the classroom of teacher Andy MacAulay. And we could see them on the little screen of a laptop computer on the porch of Oceancamp's headquarters overlooking the bay in San Carlos.

The students have been following our expedition on this web page. They are planning a visit of their own to tide pools along the coast of Maine. And they asked all kinds of great questions.

Student: What happens after a sea cucumber squirts out its guts to defend itself from a predator?

Nancy Burnett: It usually doesn't eject all of its stomach and intestines. So it has some of its guts left to digest food. It will probably try to hide out and regenerate its organs. But it can survive for a while without all of its guts because sea cucumbers don't have a very active life. Most of the time they're just lying around, not running around and playing like you guys.

Student: How big is the biggest jumbo squid?

Bill Gilly: How big are you?

Student: About five feet tall.

Bill: How much do you weigh?

Bill: The biggest jumbo squid is about as big as you are. And they tend to travel in schools of about 50 squid.

Jon Christensen: So imagine your classmates as a school of jumbo squid.

Bill: Especially at recess!

We had a lively, fun conversation and the hour went by very quickly. The class was also interested in our impressions so far. John Judd, one of the teachers who arranged this digital connection, wanted to know how we felt about the Sea of Cortez at this point toward the end of our journey: worried or hopeful?

A little of both, but more hopeful than before we came, especially knowing how interested and concerned young people are, here in the Gulf of California and far, far away. We are all connected more than ever, and we could feel the positive energy coming from that classroom in Masschuseetts all the way to the Sea of Cortez.

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

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The shrimp season is over. The warm water, summer fishing season is slow in getting started this year, because cold water temperatures have lingered in the northern gulf. It's the day after Mother's Day in Mexico, a big national holiday. And the wind is blowing hard out of the southeast, creating six-foot swells. We're headed right into them. But given all these factors, it's not too surprising that we seem to be just about the only fishing boat out on the water today. So it's not likely we'll have much chance to converse with fishermen, like Steinbeck and Ricketts did when they boarded the big Japanese shrimp trawlers after leaving Guaymas.

If this weather keeps up, we're going to have a tough time even getting ashore to see the sites that they visited along the mainland coast south of Guaymas. We've already had to pass by Estero la Luna, which is where they said they stopped, and Estero los Lobos, which is where we believe they really stopped. There is a wide very shallow shelf extending from the shore here, so it's inadvisable to get closer than three or four miles from shore in the Gus D. And it's too rough to launch the skiffs.

So we're concentrating on oceanographic research today with Mike Beman, who came aboard in San Carlos yesterday. Mike is taking water samples every mile or so along this stretch of the coast.

He fills a liter jar with sea water and then fills two test tubes from the jar. He'll analyze the samples for nutrients and contaminants back in his lab at Stanford University.

Mike also filters some of the water and saves the filter to analyze the phytoplankton here.

Mike is studying runoff from irrigated agriculture in the Yaqui Valley, a big farming area inland from the coast south of Guaymas. Water runs off the farm fields into two coastal lagoons—Estero los Lobos and Estero Tobari. The runoff is rich in nitrogen and ammonia from fertilizers put on the fields. The nutrient rich water feeds phytoplankton blooms in the Sea of Cortez that are visible in images taken by satellites orbitting the earth.

The amount of nutrients contributed to the gulf by agricultural runoff is only a fraction of the nutrient rich upwellings that occur naturally here, but it is a significant contribution. And Mike is trying to understand how that pulse of nutrition—think of it like a rush of sugar from a fast food meal with a big dessert—moves through the food web, from the coastal lagoons out into the Sea of Cortez.

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The mangrove forests lining Agiabampo lagoon are totally unlike the rocky intertidal in so many ways. For starters, the structure of the ecosystem is composed of living trees rather than dead rocks. One wonders why Ricketts and Steinbeck tacked on these mangrove forests to the end of their survey of the intertidal of the Sea of Cortez.

They wanted to see the gulf whole. The mangroves forests are an important part of the whole. And upon closer look, they have many similarities with the rocky intertidal.

Oysters and snails and hermit crabs cling to the roots of the mangrove trees, occupying the same space in the high tidal zone that they would in a rocky tide pool.

Blue-clawed swimming crabs scurry among the roots. Stingrays skitter across the bottom, where anemones bloom from sandy holes. We saw all of these and more this morning as the tide flowed out of the bay over the maze of shallow sandbars guarding the entrance.

"Undoubtedly there were many things we did not see," as Steinbeck and Ricketts wrote about their visit to Agiabampo. "Perhaps our eyes were tired with too much looking."*

But as we left Agiabampo, dolphins come to ride the bow wave of our skiff, a sight that has never ceased to lift our spirits ever since dolphins first joined us for a spell during our very first days traveling south, almost two months ago.

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

Continue with us on our journey as we return to La Paz and realize why we must return 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


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