Driving along the Mexican coast of Baja, I saw the phrase again and again: “Sea of Cortez, the World’s Aquarium.” Painted on the walls of dive shops, printed in tourist brochures, this high praise came from none other than Jacques Cousteau, high priest of ocean conservation. How did the Sea of Cortez earn the label? Located between the Mexican mainland and the Baja Peninsula, the Sea of Cortez is one of the most biologically diverse bodies of water on earth. Landing at the tip of the peninsula for a week-long road-trip, I was about to discover just how spectacular Cortez’s scenery could be.
The Rough Road to Cabo Pulmo
Few tourists drive the East Cape Road. It is unpaved, bumpy, washed-out at low points, and interrupted by roaming donkeys. That is exactly how Cabo Pulmo wants it — a small fishing village famous for its coral reef, and where we would spend our first days in Mexico.
Tourism is transfiguring Baja fishing villages into all-inclusive resorts, condo developments, and golf courses. Cabo Pulmo chose a different track. In 1995, after decades of sport-fishing tourism and declining fish stocks, it transformed into a protected marine park. Visitors can dive the reef, but they can’t take the fish, like the hammerheads and massive groupers once caught near shore. In 2008, the government offered to pave the most direct road to the town, but Cabo Pulmo said, “no thanks.” This preserved the village as small and off-the-beaten track. Literally. After a jaw-rattling three-hour drive on the East Cape Road, we rode into town. There were no signs, no street names or streetlights, and no ATMs.
After Cabo Pulmo protected its waters, it didn’t take long for the marine life to return. By 2005, bull sharks were swimming the coastline once again. From 1999 to 2009, researchers documented a 463% increase in fish biomass. Oceanographer Sylvia Earle dubbed Cabo Pulmo a “Hope Spot.” During our time there, it was too windy to dive the reefs farther from shore. Instead, we took our snorkeling gear to a cove where giant pelicans were feeding. Beneath the surface, we found out why.
In only a foot of water, the water was thick with baitfish. We waded in further and swam through the school, fish parting around us. Then I reached the first reef I had ever snorkeled, with electric-blue parrot fish, trigger fish, purple puffer fish and dozens of other species I didn’t know the names of. Now I realized how literal Cousteau’s description of the Sea of Cortez is. Swimming here felt like diving in an aquarium exhibit.
Swimming with the Biggest Fish in the Sea
Ask any tourist why she’s in La Paz and she’ll tell you: whale sharks. The sprawling state capital of Baja California is an ideal spot to swim with this gentle shark. Right from the La Paz boardwalk, boats leave with tourists, departing for a certain stretch of water where the sharks congregate. Of course, we were going there, too.
Our first morning in La Paz, a snorkeling guide briefed us on meeting our first whale shark. Don’t touch the animal; stay two metres away at all times, she cautioned. There were three ways the whale shark might be feeding, but the best for our viewing purposes was “vertical feeding.” The shark pirouettes in one spot, its mouth gulping up plankton at the surface. Until now, I had never heard of vertical feeding, but I felt a desperate urge to see it.
All too soon, we were jumping overboard and swimming toward a dark shape in the water. Through my goggles, I saw nothing but green water, green water green water — and then, a huge animal reared up out of nothingness. Its long polka-dotted body stretched so deep I could barely make out the tail. But I could see that we’d hit the whale-shark sweepstakes: it was vertical feeding! Twisting in the water, five gills flaring, that otherworldly mouth feasting on plankton, tinier fish swarmed around the shark, taking cover under its massive fin. And then, all too soon, our visit with the largest fish in the ocean was over. I climbed out of the Sea of Cortez, feeling like I had swum with a god.
The Interminable Agony of Watching Baby Turtles Being Buffeted by Waves
A hundred people have gathered on a windy beach to watch something spectacular: eight just-hatched sea turtles crawling toward the Pacific Ocean. It was a slow spectacle. Metre-high waves crashed onto the sand, pummeling the tiny turtles. Cheers went up as one disappeared in the waves; groans resounded when another was washed back on the sand, undoing all that exhausting crawling.
A half-hour passed until only one fatigued, but still fighting turtle remained. A volunteer moved it closer to the surf where a wave quickly swallowed it. The volunteers at Tortugueros Las Playitas had done all they could. They scour the beach for eggs, bringing them to a plastic-covered greenhouse where they hatch in a safe, temperature-controlled environment that yields an equal number of males and females. Now it was up to that baby turtle to survive the great big ocean.
After La Paz, we had driven west, leaving the Sea of Cortez behind. But the marine life on the Pacific coast was no less spectacular. Just outside the artsy town of Todos Santos, we walked a beach-lined street called Vista Ballena — in English, Whale View — where we could see the breathy exhalations and flukes of pilot whales. It was a legit whale-watching tour without ever having to leave land. As we stood there, watching whales frolic, a woman trudged past and asked for directions to the turtle release.
A day after the release, we were back on the plane to Canada. It seemed unbelievable that in a mere seven days I had swum with whale sharks, seen dolphins, pilot whales and manta rays from the shore, swum through reefs filled with colourful fish, and watched baby turtles make a break for freedom. I actually wonder if anyone will believe this account, but it all happened, I swear!
Strangely enough, we only skimmed the surface of the world’s aquarium. There were still hammerheads to see, and bull sharks, marlin, sailfish and hundreds of other species that live in the plankton-rich waters. Blue whales swim here, feasting on thick krill, along with fin whales, humpback whales and various dolphins. From December to March, thousands of gray whales migrate to Baja’s shallow lagoons to give birth. The list goes. You should probably take a trip yourself.
Laura Trethewey is the Senior Writer and Editor of Ocean.org.