Travels & Traditions: Baja: The Sea of Cortez - #103

During the 21st century, tourism will be the biggest industry in the world.  But in addition to the great cities and traditional tourist attractions, unusual and unspoiled destinations will become more and more important.  The increase in the number of visitors to these unspoiled places could easily spoil them.  One response to the problem has been the development of companies that are as responsive to the needs of the environment as they are to the expectations of the travelers.

One of the pioneers in this form of travel was Lars-Eric Lindblad.  In 1958, he began taking travelers to places like Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, Mongolia and Tibet.

We wanted to see what responsible expedition travel was like, so we headed off to the Baja Peninsula, off the west coast of Mexico, to board a ship called the Sea Lion.  The Sea Lion belongs to Lindblad’s Special Expeditions, a company that is run by Sven-Olof Lindblad, the son of the early pioneer.

In the next half hour, we’ll explore a group of remote islands that are only accessible by small craft.  We’ll look at their unique plant and animal life and reach new heights in our search to understand their amazing adaptations.  We’ll learn the secrets of some of the smallest creatures on our planet... and the very largest.  So join me, Burt Wolf, as we explore the Sea of Cortez on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS.

We boarded the Sea Lion at the port city of La Paz, on the southern tip of the Baja.  During the night the ship headed north through the Sea of Cortez.

I started the first day by watching the sunrise.  A simple way to pass a few moments, but more than one passenger told me that watching the day begin filled them with a sense of connection to the natural rhythms of our planet.  Only a few hours into the voyage and I understood what they meant.

NEIL FOLSOM:  Good morning... we’re getting a little closer now to Punto Colorado...

Shortly after the sun cleared the horizon our expedition leader, Neil Folsom, described the day’s coming attractions on the island of San Jose.

BURT WOLF:  What do we expect to see here?

NEIL FOLSOM:  This is a really nice flavor of the desert that most people really don’t realize the diversity that you have.  Most people have the conception that a desert is very, very barren.  And even though this is by definition a desert because of a lack of rainfall, I think you’ll find that it’s a bit more lush than you may expect.

Neil gave us a list of activities, and each person on board decided what they wanted to do and when.  There was quite an age range among the passengers.  One day we celebrated the 18th birthday of a young woman who was visiting from Finland.  The next day I had breakfast with a woman who informed me that she was well past her eightieth birthday.

At this point the Zodiacs were lowered into the sea.  A Zodiac is like a giant inner-tube, shaped in the form of an arrow.  They will allow us to move about quickly on the surface of the sea and to reach many otherwise inaccessible points on the islands.  A Zodiac can be operated in a way that causes a minimum amount of disturbance as it moves along.  They are the essential tool for our explorations.

About four and a half million years ago, forces inside the earth took a strip of land on the west coast of Mexico and pushed it off into the Pacific Ocean.  That strip of land became the Baja Peninsula, and the water that came in and filled the 700-mile-long space between Mexico and the Baja is known as the Gulf of California, or the Sea of Cortez.

The Sea of Cortez has over fifty islands; most of them are uninhabited, and some are so remote that no one has bothered to give them names.  There are upwellings of water behind many of the islands, and these surges bring nutrients up from the bottom.  The nutrients attract fish, birds and sea mammals.  The fish, birds and sea mammals attract tourists interested in nature.

CHRISTA SADLER:  The stuff that you’re looking at on this beach represents some of the oldest rocks in Baja California.  These are... this is granite.  It’s about 150 million years old.  What we’re going to discover is that’s actually really young -- geologically.

One of the things that makes Lindblad’s Special Expeditions special is the knowledge and helpfulness of the people who lead the daily explorations.  They are naturalists, historians and experts in the local culture with considerable experience in the locations we are about to visit.  Christa Sadler is a naturalist who explained the geology of this island.

CHRISTA SADLER:  Granite starts out its life as something completely different.  This stuff starts out as molten magma.  And it starts out way down deep under the earth, I mean like miles down.  So when you see granite, whether you’re in New Hampshire or Maine or Yosemite or Baja California, you know that this had to have been uplifted.  It had to have been pushed up from way down deep because this stuff forms, literally can form miles down.  And so that’s kind of a fun thing to imagine.  The other thing is that by looking at this granite and comparing it to other granites in Mexico -- in the mainland Mexico area -- we find out that this piece of land has actually moved north a couple of hundred miles because we can match this granite up with granite in mainland Mexico that’s a couple of hundred miles south --  just by looking at the type of rock it is and sort of the fingerprints in this rock.

KAREN COPELAND-WILLIAMS:  ...and the whole idea of a plant is to pass its genes on, and it can only pass its genes on if it can cross-pollinate with another plant.  And so they’ve developed very intricate ways of doing that.

Karen Copeland-Williams has an M.D. degree, but decided she was happier with plants than prescriptions.

KAREN COPELAND-WILLIAMS:  Here’s the flower on it -- a tiny, non-descript white flower -- but what draws your attention to the plant are these inflated seed pods.  They’re soft and cushiony and full of air.  And if we take one off, we can see that it’s got three carpels -- three parts to it.  And each carpel -- we separate it -- each carpel contains within it one seed positioned on the placenta in the center.  If you put your finger in there you can actually feel the humidity inside.

BURT WOLF:  Oh yeah!

KAREN COPELAND-WILLIAMS:  It was much, much higher than the...

BURT WOLF:  This is like a tent!


BURT WOLF:  To protect it.

KAREN COPELAND-WILLIAMS:  Yeah, exactly.  And a very well-sealed tent because it can keep that moisture in there, it can prevent it from getting too hot.  I think they make great earrings.

    We’d better go and rescue these ladies from not touching the pink flower.  It’s got hairs on the leaves that are an irritant, and if you get that on the skin of your fingers and then get it in your eyes it’s very, very painful.  They call it mala rosa -- “bad rose”.  And the parents would keep their daughters from touching it because if you touched that, you would become promiscuous.  Bad rose!

CHRISTA SADLER:  ...but I want you to leave here with a sense of the story that Baja California has undergone.  Because every place in the world has its own story, and this is one frame in a movie that’s been going on for a long, long time.  And this movie is going to continue to go -- it’s going to continue to happen.

As we headed back to the ship we passed a group of pelicans who were totally unfazed by our presence.  This was typical of our contact with the wildlife.  In most cases, they were as curious about us as we were about them, and we became the observed as well as the observers.

Next morning the sun came up... the flag went up... and the joggers came out.  And so did the whales.

CHRISTA SADLER:  There it is!  Right over here... Ten o’clock.

LEE MOLL:  We have the whale back on the surface now at about ten o’clock, over in that direction... 

CHRISTA SADLER:  It’s much closer to us.

LEE MOLL:  Quite close now.  Watch for the spout.  Sometimes some whales will bring their flukes up out of the water as they sound...

Lee Moll got her degree in Environmental Conservation; on board the Sea Lion she specializes in marine mammals.

LEE MOLL:  And, again, we’re gonna see if it comes back to the surface.  They typically have fairly erratic type of behavior, and so it could come up just about anywhere.  But keep scanning in all directions, and again, look for that blowspout.


Sometimes we’ll time the whales, especially when they go down and they dive down, which we can tell by an arched back or a fluke coming up above the surface, and they may have a certain pattern as to what their behavior is.  And so we can time how long they’re gonna be down, approximately, so we can get ready to look for them to come back to the surface.

And what they do when they feed is they’ll gulp in large amounts of water along with whatever they’re feeding on.  And then they will use their tongue to expel the water through the baleen plates and catch the little goodies in that -- well, you can think of it as a mustache!  Some of you gentlemen may understand this feeding method.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The variety of conditions that exist in the Sea of Cortez has set up an eco-system that supports a greater variety of sea life than any other similar sized area in the world.  Over 800 species of fish have been catalogued in the Sea of Cortez and new ones are added each year.

All life on our planet began in water -- and so do we.  It is our most essential nutrient.  Without water our lives would end within days.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  It’s possible to think of plants and animals that live on land as canteens, trying to preserve water inside themselves.  If you accept that, then it follows that the most difficult place for these plants and animals to survive is a desert.  And only those plants and animals that are capable of very sophisticated adaptation are going to survive.

A stretch of terrain is described as a desert if it has less than ten inches of rain during a year.  That means less water and more sun than any other area in the world.  The primary job for the plants and animals of the desert is to hold onto the available water.  Each develops its own strategy.  Some of the results are quite strange; many are very beautiful.

One of the most common techniques for conserving water in the plant world is to become a succulent.  Succulents develop root systems that suck moisture out of the earth.  They also develop tissue that stores the water they collect.  Cacti, yucca plants and elephant trees are succulents.  There are over 120 different forms of cacti in the Baja, and seventy of them are found here and nowhere else in the world.

During the afternoon I got my first chance at learning to kayak.

LEE MOLL:  And then sit down, and your legs go forward... And then you have pedals in there...

BURT WOLF:  You think so?

LEE MOLL:  ...that are used to steer.  The rudder goes to the right and to the left.  And they have to be adjusted by a little strap that’s in there.

BURT WOLF:  That strap?

LEE MOLL:  Loosen.  See the buckle?  Just pull on the buckle...

BURT WOLF:  We should have gotten a cab.  I told everybody,  “Just get a cab.”

LEE MOLL:  All right, now do you know how to use the paddle?

BURT WOLF:  Well, I go like that when I go like that and I go like that when I go like that.

LEE MOLL:  Yeah, you have to turn it.  And that’s the way it goes like that.  And then when you come out you turn it so that then this one is going to catch the water.

BURT WOLF:  What’s the point of that?

LEE MOLL:  Well, you don’t have to do it that way, but that’s the way most kayak paddles are made.

BURT WOLF:  Do you have a telephone number for the Coast Guard? Launch!

JAMES WOLF:  You have to launch.


JAMES WOLF:  Use your paddle...

BURT WOLF:  We’re never going to get out of here.  Bye!

The word kayak means “hunter’s boat,” and they were used on lakes, rivers and seas by the northern tribes that drew their primary food sources from the water.  Archaeologists have evidence indicating that kayaks have been used by people living around the top of the world for at least four thousand years.

As we paddled back to the Sea Lion, I was struck by the fact that each day the Baja presented new opportunities to rediscover the curious child within us.

The next morning we headed off to the island of San Marcos.  There are two ways to make an island.  When there is a volcanic eruption beneath the sea and a mountain pushes up through the surface of the water, you get what is called a volcanic island.  When a volcanic island is born, it comes up from the bottom of the sea in pristine condition.  It has no animal or plant life.  Eventually, seeds and insects arrive with birds or on the wind.  Other life forms float in with beach debris.

When land sinks around some high ground or the sea rises but doesn’t cover an area of high ground, the isolated area is called a continental island.  All the life that was on the high ground before it became a continental island is cut off from the life on the mainland.  The island life begins to develop in response to its new isolation.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Every island is a classroom for the study of evolution.  When the island is separated from the mainland, all of the life forms on that island begin to modify in order to find techniques for survival.  When you come to a deserted island, you never know what you are going to find.

Here we have a group of mammals foraging.  They are one of the varieties found in North America and they are feeding upon some of their traditional foods.

LEE MOLL:  This potato salad is the best!  The best delicious potato salad.

Fortified and rested in preparation for an afternoon hike, we headed out into the interior of San Marcos.  We learned about the rock formations on the island, and some of us learned how to climb them.

CHRISTA SADLER:  When you’re climbing on things like this, it’s really important -- there’s a couple of things you need to keep in mind.  Don’t lean into the wall like this because if you do, your feet slide out from under you.  Stay up and keep your center of gravity over your feet.  It’s a little scarier; you think you want to hang onto the wall, but it’s not way to do it.  Stay over your feet.  Also, don’t use your arms to pull you up -- use your legs.  You can brace yourself, but use your legs to get up to things.  If you start pulling, you can pull the rock right off.  And go slowly, and don’t let anyone behind you tell you to go faster or you have my permission to slap them silly if they do.

BURT WOLF:  Okay, yeah.  Thank you.

VOICE (OFF CAMERA):  Uh, Burt, we missed that.  Could you do it again, please?

Christa also introduced us to some of the life forms that inhabit the tide pools.

CHRISTA SADLER:  This is a sea urchin and it’s a member of the family of invertebrates we call -- or, actually the phyla of invertebrates we call echinoderms, which means “spiny skin.”  But you can see how he’s moving in my hand -- he’s using his little tube feet, these little suction feet, on the bottom of the test, to move around.  And right there in the center is this little guy’s mouth.  It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?  You don’t think these guys can move, you know?  You see them and you just think they probably sit in one place, but they’re pretty active.  Pretty active for something that doesn’t have a backbone.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Life on the islands of the Sea of Cortez is still evolving.  Each generation makes new choices.  Some changes are for the better and make survival easier.  Some changes are for the worse and may eventually lead to extinction.  Life on a desert island is a tough game, but it’s fun to watch.

That evening we took on supplies in the town of Santa Rosalia.  Santa Rosalia was established by a French mining company in 1866.  They came for the copper and they brought along an entire church, which they assembled in the town square.  The church was designed and pre-fabricated in France by Gustave Eiffel, the same guy who put up the Eiffel Tower.  Another surprise in the Baja.

Next day at about 5 AM we arrived at the most northerly point in our journey.  The waves had been running at a height of four or five feet.  The rise and fall of the ship under the sea seemed comforting to me, but the captain felt that the motion would be a little too bouncy during breakfast.  So he shifted our location.  There is a constant balancing between the reality of a ship at sea and the vacation atmosphere being created inside the vessel.  So we turned south and headed into the Canal De Ballenas.

At the northern end of the channel we were discovered by a pod of dolphins.  They swam along with us for about an hour.

Some of them rode the bow wave, which is set up by the forward edge of our ship.  They settled onto the wave, which is constantly pushed forward.  For the dolphins it’s a free and effortless ride.

A school of small fish passing through the narrow channel attracted a mixed crowd for lunch.  Pelicans, terns and brown boobies joined the dolphins.  Each of these species has a slightly different feeding pattern so they can all come to the table at one time and no one bothers their neighbor.  The most spectacular were the brown boobies.

LEE MOLL:  “Booby” comes from the Spanish word bobo, which means “stupid” or “dunce.”  And when the Spaniards first came to this area they noticed these birds and it was easy for them to just walk up to them and catch them and so they thought that was pretty stupid and called them “Boobies.”

Many scientists believe that birds are the descendants of the dinosaurs, and that they gave up their front legs in exchange for wings.  Flight allowed them to nest in trees and cliffs, and helped protect their young  -- and that gave them a chance to survive at a time when the dinosaurs were becoming extinct.

Tomorrow will be the last day of the trip.  We have seen whales from the deck of the ship, but so far we’ve not come to a spot where we can lower the Zodiacs and get in close.  Tomorrow will be our last chance.

Next morning found us off the Island of San Pedro Martir.  It stands like a huge bundt cake covered with a frosting of guano.  Not my most appetizing image but nevertheless descriptive.  Guano is the naturalists’ term for bird droppings, and a hundred years ago it was a very valuable commodity.  Guano contains powerful nitrates that are essential in the making of gunpowder.  The company that had the exclusive license to collect the guano on San Pedro Martir made a fortune.

NEIL FOLSOM:  This is also a nesting area, or rather a rookery area for the California sea lion.  All along the shoreline are groups of California sea lions, I would say probably at least 800, if not more California sea lions on this island.

BURT WOLF:  They swim all the way down the Pacific Coast, and they know to make a turn and head back up into here?

NEIL FOLSOM:  That’s the game there.  And actually, the females and the juveniles will stay in this area.  It’s only the adult males that will go as far north as the city of Seattle.

BURT WOLF:  What are they saying?

NEIL FOLSOM:  They’re saying “Let’s play!”

BURT WOLF:  All right!

 At this point we were supposed to head back to the ship -- the biggest Sea Lion in the area -- but Lee had finally found what we were looking for.

LEE MOLL:  Well, we’ve spotted some big blows of whales from the shore and we thought we’d come out and check them out.  We’re out here in the Zodiac looking for whales!  We’re seeing some fin whales which is the world’s second largest whale.  It’s going to be very exciting to get up close to these animals.  And they pretty much just ignore us.  We don’t bother them at all, they keep doing whatever it is they’re doing and we don’t disturb them or disrupt their activity.

BURT WOLF:  I certainly wouldn’t want to disrupt their activity.

LEE MOLL:  No, no.  Whoa!  Right there ahead of us!  Did you hear that?  Twelve o’clock.  There’s two whales right together.  These are two fin whales.  And one right over here.  That one’s going the other way.  Look how close they are now!  Right here.  Wow!  These are baleen whales, remember, they have two blow holes on top of the head.  Look at that!  Really close.  Try and notice also the white on the lower right jaw as it comes up -- it’s coming up right here.  Follow them right along.  Here’s one... actually, here comes the other one!  Wow!  There’s the fin, it’s got barnacles hanging off the back of it, and his fluke, you can see his fluke underneath the water.

BURT WOLF:  It’s quite amazing!  Hi, kids!

VOICE ON RADIO:  Uhhh, yeah, you might want to come over here, they’re hanging out -- a real good “tea party.”  

As our journey through the Sea of Cortez came to an end, I was reminded of the words of the American novelist John Steinbeck, who traveled here in 1940.  He looked from the shimmering water of the Sea of Cortez to the shining stars and he wrote:  ”...all things are one thing and that one thing is all things -- all bound together by the elastic string of time.”

Thank you for joining me in the Baja, and please join me next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS.  I’m Burt Wolf.