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A Sea in crisis

19 Jan

Richard and I set out yesterday for a couple of hours of random kayaking, with no specific destination in mind. We had only covered a mile or so when we were witness to a most marvelous spectacle, 2 adult Humpbacks feeding vigorously, with a very young calf in attendance. There was only 1 other kayaker who noticed them and we were given a private showing for over 40 minutes of a sight most have seen only on nature shows. We sat still as they moved around us, feeding on the massive amounts of krill in the water. A couple of times they were within 30 to 40 feet of us. We watched them until they had moved a long ways away before we continued on our journey. Regardless as to how many times I am privileged to witness whales in their natural habitat, even after all these years of being on the water; it still takes my breath away!

Humpback feeding on her side

We’ve seen Blues, Fins, Seis, Greys, Humpbacks and Brydes, many dolphins, Basking Sharks, Whale Sharks, and Turtles and have always considered just a glimpse of these great creatures to be very special, yet there are some down here who could care less. They see not the beauty of the Sea and the creatures within it, only what they can take from it…

Up until the 1950’s, the Baja and Sea of Cortez was a virtual unknown to the rest of North America. Then Ernest Hemingway discovered the fabulous sport fishing that was available here. Extremely large Sailfish, Swordfish, Wahoo, Yellowtail, Grouper, and Rooster Fish swam in the waters here and were completely undisturbed by any fishing pressure, until then. It became a wealthy mans play ground, with large World Record adult fish extremely common.

Foreign commercial fishing fleets introduced change beginning in the late 1970’s with monofilament gillnets. A new road was built down the peninsula during those years, creating much easier access and with it came a dramatic increase in sport fishing activities, spearfishing, as well as a large population increase, producing for the first time ever a flow of pollution into the Sea.

A decrease in size and number of fish species was very noticeable by the late 1980’s. Fortunately by that time the Mexican Government had started to introduce regulations and set aside areas that became Marine sanctuaries and parks.

Not only do fish live here but a great many of the worlds whale populations come into the Sea every year as part of their southern migrations. Greys and Humpbacks both use the lagoons and bays of the Pacific side to give birth and mate, as well as the warm salty waters of the Sea of Cortez. Minke, Sei, Bryde, Blue, Fin, Humpback, Right, Grey, Beaked Whales, Pygmy and Dwarf Sperm Whales, as well as their full sized relative, and Orcas, not to mention at least 11 species of Dolphins and 1 Porpoise, are all here at some time during the winter months, and some live here year round.

On a calm day, whales can be found just by their blow sound!

These mammals come here to mate, give birth or simply to feed in the rich waters of the Sea, and therein lays the problem.

For those Rorquals or baleen feeders, life is pretty good here because the massive amounts of krill hasn’t been affected much over the years, though it has decreased somewhat due to pollution runoff. There is still enough of it out there to look like a Red Tide and has been mistaken for it, from time to time. When out kayaking it looks like the surface of the water is alive. It is this banquet that brings in the massive Whale Sharks over the winter and there is more than enough to share around.

Humpback feeding on krill

The toothed whales are the ones having the problems here. They are fish eaters and the fish they eat are quickly disappearing.

Sport fishing is still one of the biggest tourist draws here and it brings in a big chunk of change to the local economy. It contributes to the decline in baitfish and there is also a correlation between losses of feed fish with those that predate on them. Without something to eat, the bigger fish and whales either move to new feeding grounds or die out!

My father used to say, “Any idiot can catch a fish using bait, it takes a fisherman to catch a fish on a lure!” and he was right. It is much easier to catch a fish using bait and over the years the number of anglers has increased dramatically, putting huge pressure on the various bait fishing stocks. Anything small enough to constitute bait has been fished almost completely out. Some folks down here have complained bitterly that they can’t find any bait this year, and the fishing is very bad!

These are the same folks who have fished out their own waters and since they can’t catch anything there, see nothing wrong with moving somewhere else and using the same methods that devastated their own fisheries.

Day after day, all winter long they are out there taking anything and everything they can catch. They can hundreds of pounds to take home with them, so they can have cheap fish all summer until they return next winter. They are so fanatic about it that they can’t bring themselves to release anything. Many have been known to bring fish that are inedible back to the beach simply to give to their friends to use as dog food! Catch and release is not in their repertoire and it doesn’t occur to any of them to use lures. If asked why not they’ll tell you that lures cost too much and bait is free!

And so the toothed whales find themselves having to compete for their very existence with arrogant, greedy, unthinking humans, who also complain that there sure isn’t much whale activity this year. I guess that old saying really is true, that we see only what we want to see and we hear only what we want to hear.

Sorry for the rant, but after having spent most of my adult life in the fishing industry at home in the so-called “Salmon Capital of the World” and seen it’s demise; it’s hard to watch the same thing happening here in “Paradise”.

What’s that line from the old Eagles song? “Call someplace Paradise, kiss it goodbye!”

Yes, I made a living from the Ocean, but I was always aware of the impact I was having and tried constantly to compensate for it. When we do go fishing, which doesn’t happen very often anymore, we take only what we can eat in the next couple of days and are very careful to release anything we don’t intend to kill.

The Mexican government is trying; fishing licenses are required and there are strict regulations, including limits and number of rods allowed, but there is no money for enforcement and a great many of the gringos here simply ignore them. They get incensed when they are expected to follow the rules and seem to believe that laws in foreign countries don’t apply to them. The Government has also stopped all foreign commercial fishing and has taken control of what commercial fishing there is, but it may be too little, too late. The locals are very poor and the last financial crisis made it even harder here to earn a living, so they fish illegally. They take any fish or shellfish they can find and it’s hard to blame them when all they’re trying to do is eat and feed their kids. We are talking a Third World Country here, and they do have much bigger infrastructure problems, but it would be nice if those visitors who are big users of the resource would step up to the bat and help, instead of simply helpingthemselves to everything they can lay their hands on while whining about lost fishing opportunities.

The big adult fish are few and far between now and only occasionally are really large fish brought to shore. The big Dorado tournament held in Loreto every summer was won this year by a 16-pound fish. Dorado used to run up to 90 pounds. Not many of any species are seen in that range anymore. Sure, once in a while a fish over 60 pounds is landed but before Baja was “discovered” 60 pounders were the norm, and they were plentiful. Now anything over 10 pounds is considered a good catch, if you can find anything to take your hook.

All, however, is not lost, as the expert consensus seems to be that though the Sea is in crisis, it’s still salvageable. Keep your fingers crossed because otherwise we can add the Sea of Cortez to the list of seas, oceans, rivers and lakes that we, as humans, have managed to destroy based on nothing more than our own greed!

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On the Sea of Cortez

21 Dec

I’ve told you about our kayak. One of the great things about it, is it allows us to go further, faster. That means we can decide we want to head out for a leisurely paddle over to Danzante Island, stopping here and there to explore the many coves and beaches that abound on it’s shores, and still get home in time for Happy Hour!
The water here this year, due to a slightly lower than normal temperature, is crystal clear and even in depths of 20 feet the bottom is clearly visible and so are all it’s inhabitants.
Over the years, we’ve had problems with dust getting into our cameras, so last year we purchased a couple of small, digital cameras capable of underwater shots and movies. This not only does away with dirt and sand getting inside them, it also offers us a new perspective when out on the water.
We headed out last week to explore the coast of Danzante, cameras in hand, hopping for a few sightings of fish and fowl to record for posterity, and to get a little exercise. As we headed out past Coyote Point we could see a great deal of splashing ahead of us, so we aimed for it, then stopped paddling to wait and see what it was. What it was was Manta rays, hundreds of them! They were doing an intricate dance around one another that included leaping clear of the water, moving back and forth around and under us, in a fabulous mating display. It was like watching a carefully choreographed ballet and continued for as long as we wanted to watch.

Manta Rays mating dance

While I was shooting in every direction I could think of and getting quite a few good photos, I inadvertently got a shot of this fellow. They’re called Needlefish, they run about 2 feet long, and are a major predator in the waters here. The name describes both it’s body shape and the multiple needle sharp teeth in it’s jaw. They are also a very pretty blue colour as are it’s flesh and bones.

Needlefish investigating us

Coasting around a bay towards a sandy spit which we intended to land on, we became aware of a California Sea Lion, feeding in the deep drop off at the end of the spit. We watched him for a while enjoying his antics, then noticed a pod of Dolphins, either Roughtoothed or Bottlenosed, on the other side of the split, playing. They had quite a few young ones with them and seemed to be doing nothing more than having fun, leaping and splashing about.
Both animals remained in the cove, seemingly keeping us company as we explored the beach and surrounding area. Just as we decided to hit the water the dolphins disappeared, but we realized that the Sea Lion hadn’t. As a matter of fact it had gone to sleep on the surface about a 100 yards off shore, so we snuck up on it. We got quite close before it noticed us and simply slipped below the surface with barely a ripple to show where it had been.

Wakey, wakey!

We turned our boat back towards the shore we live on, but a fair ways further south, intending to work our way up the coast and check out a few of the small Islets on the way. The weather held, warm and calm, just another beautiful day here on the Baja!
There was unexplained slashing going on just ahead of us, in close to shore, so we paddled over to see what it was. Imagine our surprise when the head of this came out of the water. It was a 20 foot long Whale Shark, a plankton feeder, sieving through the huge volumes of Krill that had appeared in the Sea over the last week or so. It swam with it’s top jaw above the surface, pushing massive amounts of water through it’s gills, turning constantly to keep within the waves of Krill. This was a once in a lifetime happening! Most never experience the thrill of seeing one of these massive creatures. It swam so close beside us we could touch it and a couple of times it went under the kayak and it’s dorsal bumped us as it went past. We sat with it for a good 20 minutes just enjoying seeing one of the oceans largest and gentlest creatures. When we returned home and told our neighbours about our exploits, they told us we were very lucky, they had sailed the world’s oceans for 25 years and had never seen one nor did they know of anyone else who had had a similar experience. We felt extremely privileged to have been witness to one of natures rarer displays!

Heading under the kayak

The next day we were invited to go out on a friends motor boat to see more of the coast than we can reach with our kayak. They were also planning to take us to one of the numerous hot springs in an area we have difficulty accessing in our vehicles. We headed out early, tossed the lines overboard just for fun and started to learn more about this beautiful and rugged area.
Rounding a point south of Ensenada Blanca (White Cove) we spotted a net pen in the bay. Our hostess explained that the women of the small village in the cove had a business Cooperative, diving for Angelfish and selling them into the Aquarium Market in the US. They didn’t take many fish, just enough to make a little money. The business was successful enough to buy clothes and school supplies for the children of the village as well as a few other necessities.

Cortez and Queen Angelfish

Over the next hour both our host and Richard caught, fought and released small Roosterfish, both under 10 pounds and lots of fun, both for those doing the fighting and those who watched. We had just released one when another pod of Dolphins appeared off our bows and played around and under us as we made bow and stern waves. Eventually they grew bored with us and went on their way as did we.

 

Dolphins toying with us

We rounded a point into a crescent bay with a spit of rocks leading to a small island. During high tide the spit is underwater. We anchored in the middle of this rocky spit and both of our friends made comments about hoping we had made it here during the right part of the tide. Richard and I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about until we got off the boat and up onto the spit. Right there in front of us, in the middle of this rocky finger was a pool. a hot springs! The only time it can be accessed is during low tide and it’s obviously been in use a long time as patrons over the years have pulled more and more rocks out of it to make the pool larger. It reminds us that the Sea of Cortez is just an extension of the San Andreas fault and that volcanic activity isn’t very far below the surface. It was a most welcome respite and we were loath to exit it, but there were others who had shown up to use it and we vacated to let them enjoy the warm waters as well.

It's nice and warm!

Heading into the last bay, a place called Agua Verde, (which mean Green water and it’s a very apt name as the water has an almost emerald colour to it) our host noticed fishing activity and dropped the gear, almost instantly we were into a large fish and the rod was handed to me. I fought it for a good 10 minutes before we even sighted it and even then we couldn’t figure out what it was. We’ve come to realize that even those who fish this sea all the time are often surprised what appears on the end of their rods. Another 10 minutes went by before we caught enough of a glimpse to identify it as a big Roosterfish. Finally after another 10 minutes I managed to wear it out enough to get it to the side of the boat for assessment and photos, where it was promptly released. From past experience I figured it to be between 25 and 30 pounds and it was one hell of a fun fight!

A great fight then a quick release.

We headed back home after that, thanking our hosts for another memorable day on the Sea of Cortez and wondering what more it holds in store for us the next time we venture out on it! Sights and experiences never to be forgotten!