Mission Blue’s Journey to Magdalena Bay in Baja California Sur
February 11, 2019
The bull sharks of Cabo Pulmo inspired awe in our expeditions team as they glided into view on a January morning in 2019. If one were to dive all over the Gulf of California, as our team has done, they would be struck by the concentration of bull sharks in Cabo Pulmo. Why are these sharks so abundant and healthy in this place? Dr. Sylvia Earle would likely flash a grin and say “duh” at this point! It’s obvious: the community of Cabo Pulmo has protected their waters from fishing of any type, and voila, nature has flexed her muscles and the sharks have moved back in. What glorious creatures they are…powerful and pensive, as they cruise the reefs and wrecks at Cabo Pulmo delighting divers who travel from all over the world to revel in their majesty.
“We just finished our dive next to the wreck, and this is one of the best places in Cabo Pulmo to see the bull shark. We find lots of shark teeth around here, so it appears this is a favorite area to congregate and feed,” reported David Castro, owner and operator of Cabo Pulmo Divers. “We can find bull sharks that are easily 11 or 12 feet! A long time ago, we didn’t believe that the recovery of the biomass, and especially the sharks, would be possible. My grandfather used to say that there were hundreds and hundreds of sharks around here. And he wanted to show the rest of his family what he saw so many years ago. Sadly, he passed away before the sharks returned, but luckily for us, we now see it.”
“It’s been very interesting to see the changes through the years with regards to the abundance and different sharks we’ve been seeing in Cabo Pulmo,” said Andrea Asunsola, who took part in weekly monitoring activities of Cabo Pulmo under the direction of Dr. James Ketchum and Dr. Mauricio Hoyos of Pelagios Kakunja. “For the first couple years it was mainly females, and we’d only see them for four months out of the year. And then they started staying for longer periods of time. And then we started seeing males. And now we’re actually seeing areas with more males, both mature and juvenile, than females. We’ve also started to see changes in the other marine animals and their behavior. For example, the sea lions have started to swim close to the shore — and some of them have shark bites. So, it’s interesting to see that the sharks are actually establishing themselves in the area and are staying all year long.”
The Mission Blue expeditions team, under the direction of Kip Evans, also travelled up to the area around Magdalena Bay a few hundred miles north of Cabo Pulmo on the Pacific ocean side of the Baja Peninsula. The team visited shark fishing communities and ecotourism operations located in Puerto Chale, Puerto San Carlos and Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos. That extractive shark fishing activities exist alongside ecotourism operations shows the complex nature of Baja communities’ relationship with the marine wildlife that thrives here. On the one hand, communities have been relying for generations on the bounty of the sea to support their way of life. On the other hand, that bounty has drastically dried up, and now some have embraced ecotourism and conservation as a sustainable path forward.
Through speaking with shark fishermen, the team learned that they see industrial-scale shark fishing as the largest issue for the future of the shark fishery. They pointed out that their artisanal operations in a week pull in a fraction of what these large factory boats are able to fish in a day. They also noted that the seasonal shark fishing closure instituted by the Mexican government has had a positive effect on shark populations. However, it seems clear, that in order to fully tackle the issue of shark overfishing, stronger enforcement and regulation is needed of the international and industrial fishing operations that come into the Gulf of California. Small, artisanal shark fishers are part of the puzzle, but by no means do their activities represent the full extractive pressure being put on sharks in the area. Efforts to create large marine protected areas in the Gulf of California are critical in advancing marine protection in the region.
Another type of ecotourism in the region is centered around the seasonal occurrence of the gray whale. Every year gray whales migrate 10,000-14,000 miles roundtrip, the longest of any mammal, from their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas to breed and calve in the warm, calm bays and lagoons along the Pacific coast of the Baja California Peninsula. They are not the only ones who migrate to the lagoons; every year visitors from around the world travel for a close encounter with the whales.
The Mission Blue team took the opportunity to visit Magdalena Bay, one of the locations where tourism operators bring small groups of tourists out onto the water to see the whales. Concerns about the impact of tourism on the whales has led to federal protections, like marine protected areas, and regulations on tourism with the safety of the whales in mind. Even at the local level, some of the operators formed their own collective to ensure that the rules are followed and that the whales are protected. As with all regulations, they only work when they are followed and enforced. Like shark diving in Cabo Pulmo, tourism around the gray whales in Magdalena Bay is another example of the efforts being made to sustainably balance the needs of the environment, visitors, and the local economy.
Still, despite humanity’s complex relationship with the sea, there is much marine wildlife that is flourishing in the Gulf of California. In the last few hours of the expedition, before flying back to home base in California, the expeditions team stopped by a beach right outside of La Paz. One might think that wildlife would steer clear of the largest city in Baja California Sur, but the opposite is true: we found gentle whale sharks bobbing peacefully in the waves, taking mouthful after mouthful of seawater as they fed on plankton. These giants, along with the bull sharks of Cabo Pulmo and the other marine wildlife that endures in the Gulf of California, provide hope that the Gulf of California might one day bounce back to the health it enjoyed fifty years ago.
Big blue thanks go to the Marisla Foundation Paul M. Angell Family Foundation and Paradise Foundation for their support of Mission Blue’s shark work in the Gulf of California. And, of course, thank you to Scubapro for always outfitting our expeditions team with the best in the business.