DES­TI­NA­TION AFLOAT

The world’s best aquar­ium in the Sea of Cortez

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - TIM ECOTT

The whale shark is swimming straight to­wards me. Its mouth is more than 1m wide and its body a shad­owy tor­pedo stretch­ing into the hazy green wa­ter be­hind. Just be­low the sur­face, the vel­vety skin catches the light and shows off a pat­tern of thou­sands of white spots, as if it has been dec­o­rated by a crazed paint­ball fa­natic. Barely seem­ing to flex its high tail, the gi­ant passes me with­out a flicker of ac­knowl­edg­ment. As I try hard to keep up, I mea­sure its size in arm spans — about 8m, more than four times my body length. But the whale shark, the largest fish in the ocean, is a harm­less be­he­moth.

Whale sharks mi­grate vast dis­tances and make sea­sonal ap­pear­ances but in the Sea of Cortez, off Mexico’s Baja Penin­sula, they find it hard to leave. “Last year they stayed un­til late May and they were back again in July,” says James Cur­tiss, owner of the Cortez Club div­ing cen­tre. “They may even be year-round res­i­dents.”

The Sea of Cortez has an al­most leg­endary sta­tus among divers and marine nat­u­ral­ists. John Stein­beck wrote a book about his voy­age here aboard a sci­en­tific col­lect­ing ex­pe­di­tion in 1940, and Jac­ques Cousteau fa­mously called it “the world’s aquar­ium”. The gulf is di­vided across 155,000sq km be­tween a tem­per­ate zone (north of La Paz, the state cap­i­tal of Baja Cal­i­for­nia Sur) and a warm-wa­ter “Panamic” zone (south­ward to Cabo San Lu­cas, a re­sort city on the penin­sula’s tip). The con­fronta­tion and sub­tle mix­ing of these two ecosys­tems partly ac­counts for its rich­ness of about 900 fish species and 32 types of marine mam­mals that gather to feed and breed. Mas­sive blooms of plank­ton mean that even elu­sive blue whales are seen, along with the gnarled hump­backs and grey whales that sound and breach in the bay.

This rich sea is in stark con­trast to the for­bid­ding desert at its edge. Driv­ing north from the tourist hub of Cabo San Lu­cas, gi­ant car­don cac­tuses stretch to the hori­zon where the moun­tains, Cordillera del Paci­fico, cast a great blue shadow in the mid­day heat. On a walk through a small sec­tion of a gorge, cut­ting from east to west across the Baja Penin­sula, I am guided by David Alba from Cabo Ad­ven­tures. Warn­ing me to stick to the path and not to pick up any­thing with­out check­ing with him, he ex­plains Baja is home to 17 of Mexico’s 34 species of snakes, in­clud­ing the rare tree rat­tlesnake. Alba’s love for the desert is clear as he ex­plains how the big­gest car­don cac­tuses weigh 20,000kg and are more than 500 years old, and then shows me the sap from the cinerea bush used by in­dige­nous peo­ple as sun­block. There is an abun­dance of wildlife in this arid wilder­ness, in­clud­ing birds, from vul­ture-like crested caracaras to horned owls and bright ver­mil­ion fly-catch­ers.

Even on dry land, how­ever, there is no es­cap­ing the sea. On the broad Male­con, La Paz’s main prom­e­nade, there is a bronze statue of Cousteau clutch­ing a div­ing mask and star­ing out to the watery hori­zon. Fur­ther along the es­planade are stat­ues of manta rays, sea lions, whales and dol­phins, even a gi­ant clam con­tain­ing a gleam­ing pearl. On land at least, lit­tle seems to have changed since my last visit 10 years ago. A few more stat­ues have ap­peared on the Male­con, and at the edge of the bay there are a cou­ple of new ho­tels. I hope it stays that way; in my ex­pe­ri­ence, mass tourism dam­ages marine habi­tats.

That is not to say that the Sea of Cortez has es­caped the rav­ages of hu­man ac­tiv­ity. Decades of over­fish­ing have un­bal­anced the ecosys­tem, tak­ing top preda­tors such as sharks and mar­lin out of the food chain and lead­ing to a surge in other species. Be­fore the 50s there were no sight­ings of Hum­boldt squid, fe­ro­cious crea­tures up to 2.5m long that hunt in packs and can­ni­balise vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of their own species; now there are about 20 mil­lion, prey­ing on shrimp and other mol­luscs. In the 70s, hun­dreds of ham­mer­head sharks were of­ten seen at El Bajo, a sea mount and dive site. These days, sight­ings are rare be­cause gill-net­ting and other fish­ing meth­ods have dra­mat­i­cally re­duced their num­bers.

Ac­cord­ing to Cur­tiss, how­ever, there are rea­sons to be op­ti­mistic about the Sea of Cortez. “Sure, there has been over­fish­ing in the past,” he con­cedes, “but the at­ti­tude of lo­cal peo­ple has changed a lot in the 23 years I’ve been here. Plans for big re­sorts here have been op­posed. I em­ploy ex-fish­er­men as dive guides and they un­der­stand the value of live sharks and manta rays com­pared to the short-term gains of catch­ing and killing them.”

La Paz seems to be slowly wak­ing up to selling its own charms and con­serv­ing its best as­sets. At Los Is­lotes — a jum­ble of rocks north of Isla Espir­itu Santo, a pro­tected is­land off La Paz — a colony of about 300 Cal­i­for­nia sea lions is thriv­ing, buck­ing the trend for the Sea of Cortez as a whole, where num­bers have de­clined by 20 per cent over the past two decades. A few years ago, doc­u­men­tary mak­ers found that the colony was feed­ing on deep­wa­ter fish that sea lions would not usu­ally eat; they had adapted their habits to feed on species be­yond the reach of com­mer­cial fish­er­men.

All this makes me ap­pre­hen­sive about what I’ll find out there, a decade on. My div­ing log­book re­minds me of en­coun­ters with shoals of colour­ful fish at Espir­itu Santo; of male sea lions at Los Is­lotes blow­ing bub­bles un­der­wa­ter to warn me off their lair. Would they still be there? On a bright, clear morn­ing, I take a boat from La Paz north to­wards the off­shore is­lands. Javier Olichea, my skip­per, has fished and dived these wa­ters all his life. First he wants to show me two craggy out­crops fes­tooned with seabirds. El Mer­ito (Grouper Is­land) is a nest­ing spot for blue herons and ospreys, while the sheer sides of gua­noen­crusted La Gaviota are home to a large colony of blue­footed boo­bies. Af­ter a quick cir­cuit, we speed across open wa­ter to­wards the large bulk of Isla Espir­itu Santo, a na­ture re­serve of rus­set sand­stone cliffs, cac­tuses and deep, shel­tered bays with shal­lows as clear as glass.

As we head around the coast­line, Olichea points to a dis­tant flash of spray and calls out a litany of fish names: yel­lowfin, manta, mar­lin. A repet­i­tive shadow catches my eye and Olichea steers a lit­tle fur­ther out. It’s a large school of long-beaked com­mon dol­phins hunt­ing un­seen prey. There is noth­ing com­mon about their ap­pear­ance, how­ever, distin­guished by sleek two-toned flanks and el­e­gant ta­per­ing tail flukes. Sixty, per­haps 80, dol­phins fly across the sur­face, jump­ing, flip­ping and stand­ing on their tails as they pur­pose­fully herd a shoal of sil­ver fish. On the glit­ter­ing sur­face of the deep blue, they are liv­ing ex­pres­sions of vi­tal­ity, energy and sur­vival. At Los Is­lotes, we hear the re­as­sur­ing bark of Cal­i­for­nia sea lions. Young pups, golden-haired fe­males and bullish de­fen­sive males lie in nooks and cran­nies sun­ning them­selves af­ter their fish­ing ex­pe­di­tions.

Slip­ping as qui­etly as pos­si­ble into the wa­ter, I swim to within a short dis­tance of the rocks. Al­most im­me­di­ately a young fe­male sea lion joins me and passes within cen­time­tres of my head. Head­ing down to­wards the rocky slabs 4m be­low the sur­face brings her close, in­ves­ti­gat­ing my own clumsy move­ments while she turns som­er­saults be­side me at dizzy­ing speed. All is well at Los Is­lotes.

The Sea of Cortez is also famed for its en­coun­ters with gi­ant Pa­cific manta rays; like whale sharks, these are harm­less plank­ton feed­ers. Olichea ex­plains they are usu­ally seen from Au­gust to Novem­ber. The ham­mer­heads at El Bajo are still there from Novem­ber to Jan­uary, he tells me, al­beit in smaller num­bers. I ask him about the mys­te­ri­ous and lit­tle-known vaquita por­poise, the world’s small­est ce­tacean, which lives north of La Paz and is crit­i­cally en­dan­gered. He says he has only seen two and most con­ser­va­tion­ists be­lieve there are fewer than 100 left. Mexico has re­cently em­barked on a re­newed ef­fort to cap­ture the illegal fish­ing boats blamed for killing the vaquita, which be­come en­tan­gled in the gill nets laid for the totoaba, a big fish with a swim blad­der that fetches high prices as a Chi­nese medicine. Mex­i­can pres­i­dent En­rique Pena Ni­eto has pledged pa­trol boats and a nofish­ing zone to try to save this por­poise, which is so shy it was only defini­tively iden­ti­fied in the 50s.

Close to the port of La Paz, we steer to­wards a sand­bank known as El Magote. Olichea has promised we’ll see more whale sharks, and soon I am able to swim with five. Olichea warns me not to touch and dis­turb their feed­ing. In this shal­lower wa­ter, green with plank­ton, I can see less than 1m. The sharks take the tiny plank­ton with gap­ing mouths, fil­ter­ing wa­ter through their enor­mous gills. Small eyes are mounted in tele­scopic sock­ets that re­tract at any sign of dan­ger, re­in­forc­ing their vul­ner­a­bil­ity, de­spite their size. Their life cy­cle is still a mys­tery and it re­mains un­cer­tain where they go to breed.

But that is part of the al­lure of so much marine life. En­coun­ters like this bring a sense of priv­i­lege. I am swimming with the big­gest fish in the sea. To know they are still com­ing here, along with all the other marine life we have seen in just one day, is greatly com­fort­ing.

Sixty, per­haps 80, dol­phins fly across the sur­face, jump­ing, flip­ping, stand­ing on their tails

GETTY IM­AGES

Swimming with Cal­i­for­nia sea lions in Sea of Cortez, above left; fly­ing manta ray, be­low

ALAMY

Sea of Cortez, above; swimming with a whale shark, above right; and bask­ing sea lions, right

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