Baja’s Sea of Cortez
Baja’s Sea of Cortez is somewhere close to five million years old (estimates vary greatly), making it the youngest of all the seas in the world. The Baja peninsula was formed during an era of frequent volcanic activity and earthquakes of unbelievable magnitude. While the volcanoes and the San Andreas fault were violently creating the Baja peninsula, they were also forming the great chasm that would eventually become the Sea of Cortez.
Over a long period of time, these actions separated what is now the Baja peninsula from the rest of México. This entire process took many years and eventually the Pacific Ocean poured in and filled the gap. This final action is what created the incredible Sea of Cortez and Baja.
Many of the volcanic peaks broke off and fell into the chasm. Later some became islands. Continuing volcanic eruptions, over the eons, created even more islands, 37 total. The San Andreas fault runs right down the very middle of the Sea of Cortez, which explains the violent activity during the period of the sea’s origin.
Some of the first charts, drawn in the early 1500’s, depicted Baja as an island. This was disproven in 1539 by Francisco de Ulloa who was sent by Hernán Cortes to explore the area. Cortes had heard persistent rumors that there was an island ruled by Amazon women with weapons made of gold and that the surrounding waters were paved with endless beds of pearls. Ulloa named the sea after his benefactor.
That was then, let us concern ourselves with the present. The Sea of Cortez is a major tourism draw for both Northern Baja and Southern Baja. This incredible body of water is still somewhat unknown in the overall scope of world destinations. Although it is well known to fishermen, scientists, conservationists, water sports enthusiasts, as well as recreational boaters, many in the world have no knowledge of this sea.
Biologically speaking, the Sea of Cortez is the richest body of water on our entire planet. This diverse sea supports more than 900 varieties of fish and more than 2,000 species of marine invertebrates. It is home to many species that exist only within its waters.
The sea is abundant with game fish, both small and large, and an extraordinary amount of world record fish have been taken in these waters. Several species of whales regularly visit the sea and the Whale Shark, which is the world’s largest fish, is quite common as far north as Bahia de Los Angeles.
What is the reason this small sea is home to so many species of fish and other marine creatures? It basically has to do with the food supply that is so abundant in the Sea of Cortez. The reason for the abundance of food is complex, but in simple terms it is not that difficult to understand.
The Sea of Cortez is too small to have much of a real lunar tide of its own. Even though it has no tides, the sea does produce a very strong tidal flow. The lunar tides of the Pacific cause strong currents in the sea which actually occur as a lifting motion. The speed of these currents is determined, in part, by the width of the shore, the depth of the water and the contour of the bottom.
Near the Midriff Islands, in very deep water, this lifting action creates vertical currents known as upwellings. A funnel-like effect can be caused also, depending on the bottom and the currents. Because of severe changes in the bottom contour, there can be an upwelling and a whirlpool very close together. These radical movements move fish, plankton and other nutriments around as if in a washing machine. The nutriments are affected by different currents and movements throughout the sea, keeping the fish population very well fed and very happy to be in the Sea of Cortez. Happy fish make for happy fishermen!
The vaquita porpoise, one of the world’s rarest marine mammals, is found only in the northern reaches of Sea of Cortez. These small porpoise are also one of the most endangered sea mammals in the entire world. The current population of the vaquita porpoise is thought to be 200 or less, barely a sustainable number. To find out how to help save the vaquita visit: www.vaquita.tv, and watch the 7-part documentary. This is another website with a lot of information about what you can do to save the vaquita: ¡Viva Vaquita! If you are not touched by this very serious problem, you have a serious problem.
The fish stories that have come from this sea often seem unbelievable, when in fact, most are true. It is near impossible to describe the realities of fishing at the East Cape, for example, to someone who has never fished in the area. For the first time fishing the Sea of Cortez, from Cabo San Lucas, all the way to San Felipe, will feel like your wildest fishing dream come true. The incredible variety and abundance of fish may even be a bit overwhelming to someone who is used to fishing the coastal waters or lakes anywhere in the U.S.
In the not-too-distant past, before the 1974 completion of the trans peninsular highway, this was a destination of the truly hardcore fisherman. Travel plans were difficult to arrange, communications and local transportation providers were spotty, at best. The fishing conditions pre-1974 were much better than they are today, if you can believe it. With the opening of the highway, came the tourists, and resorts were built to cater to them. With the tourists came the sportfishing fleets, and of course, the word spread about this incredible fishing destination.
There is trouble in the Sea of Cortez! Commercial fishing interests are depleting the fishery with amazing speed. Gill nets along with illegal fishing practices are commonplace in all regions of the sea (except at Cabo Pulmo). Enforcement of any laws, bans on a particular species or tonnage limits are very rarely enforced. This is sadly happening in all areas of the Sea of Cortez and it is happening to all species of fish.
There is hope though! The small community of Cabo Pulmo has proven that there are solutions to the problems that occur daily in the Sea of Cortez. This very small Baja village took matters into their own hands 15 years ago and is living proof that with proper conservation practices and active vigilance the local communities can survive and the sea can be revived.