Return to the Sea

It has been almost exactly three years since we set out on a boat to sail the world.  And we have made it to exactly one country.  There are many examples of people who sail around the entire world in the same or much less time—40 days in some sailing races, 1-3 years for travelers set up like us.  We are motivated to move past more international borders, but we could not leave Mexico without one more tour of the Sea of Cortés.  

The Miracle Mar

I fell in love with Mar de Cortés as a kid, having only a pinhole view of its greatness from a single city along its northern tip.  Rob fell for it during motorcycle adventures with his dad along the Baja peninsula.  And we both realized an even deeper infatuation of and devotion to Mar de Cortés two-and-a-half years ago, during our first season of cruising.  

It’s a miracle place with the most biodiversity of any of the world’s water bodies.  And most of that diversity is in the form of large ocean animals.  33 of the world’s 86 Cetacean species reside in Mar de Cortes, including orca, sperm whale, blue whale, humpback whale, bottlenose dolphin, and vaquita porpoise.  There are over 170 species of shark, including great white, bull, tiger, hammerhead, and whale shark. Huge bill fish, grouper, and yellowtail share waters with manta rays and sea turtles.  The Sea holds a world record in the number of marine plants that it hosts—700.  900 species of fish and many important sea birds live in it.  

This interesting, mostly big-animal, biodiversity exists because the geography of the sea allows deep, cool water to run alongside temperate and tropical coastlines.  The large animals enjoy the warm waters while feeding on squid, crustaceans, and plankton from the cool waters.  All of that, plus the fact that the sea itself and its 2500-mile coastline is irrefutably pretty. 

I do not think there can be enough said of the beauty and vibrancy of Mar de Cortés.  Many have tried with the most famous being French explorer, Jacques Cousteau, who declared it the “World’s Aquarium.”  In 1940, novelist, John Steinbeck, and marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, memorialized its treasures in the nonfiction novel, Log from the Sea of Cortez.  Divers deemed La Paz (close to the Sea’s only coral reef) the “dive capital of the world” in the 1960s.  Recreational fishermen flocked to the sea for its abundance of prized fish in the 1990s.  As I type this out, I rethink my assertion–maybe any praise of the Sea is too much.  And here I am adding to it.   

Too Much Love

The original responses to the praise of the Sea’s biodiversity and abundance were unmanaged expansions in tourism, recreational fishing, and commercial fishing.  Mar de Cortés could not keep up.  The circling hammerheads above divers’ heads are now gone.  Sharks in general were almost eradicated along with the turtles, whales, manta rays, and many other fish species.  Without big predators, mid-level predators thrived, and they ate up all the fish that are important to maintaining the health of the reef, so the reef suffered, which further impacted the health of the Sea.  The most famous casualty from the excessive human activity in the Sea is the vaquita porpoise, which, like many of the threatened animals, is often a bycatch victim in fishing nets.  The tiny porpoises’ only territory is Mar de Cortés.  There are literally 10 vaquitas remaining (maybe less at the time of this posting), and the number will be zero in the next few years, because the vaquita are not breeding and are still at risk from those nets.  

The Plot Twist

There is a happy turn in the Sea’s story, which is also a product of human efforts.  In 1995, environmentalists lobbied and obtained protections for parts of Mar de Cortés as marine parks, administered by Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP).  In just 10 years with that protection, biomass of the Cabo Pulmo reef (the Sea’s only reef) increased by 463%.  In 2005, UNESECO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) named 244 islands, islets, and coastal areas within Mar de Cortés a World Heritage Site.  The CONANP protected areas continued to expand, and CONANP now enforces protected breeding grounds for sharks and sea turtles.  Fish populations are rebounding, and whales, dolphins, rays, and sea turtles are returning. 

These conservation efforts, which include significant fishing regulations, have remained sustainable through today because many Mexican fishermen have been able to transform their careers into tourism businesses.  Tourism taxes go to the agencies that manage and monitor ecotourism.  The tourism businesses must obtain permitting, which require passing exams and participating in the monitoring and information-gathering of marine life.  Despite the upfront costs to Mexican fishermen-turned-tour-guides in education, licenses, equipment, and marketing, many report earning more money, more quickly than they did at fishing.  The sustainable fishing practices and a focus on ecotourism are huge steps, but there are, of course, other problems to tackle, such as reducing plastic waste and cleaning up destructive abandoned fishing gear.  Still, it is heartening to see that people are successfully working at protecting the World’s Aquarium.

Our Second Look

We lose the vaquita, but we are maintaining one of the most bio-diverse bodies of water in the world.  Just this season, Rob and I have sailed with pods of dolphins playing in our bow wave, cheered for humpbacks and manta rays breaching within yards of our boat, spotted octopus and jawfish in their intricately-engineered homes, witnessed a pod of Orca whales hunt dolphins, dinghied around a bay with schools of stingrays, spied pelican and seagull babies, waded next to an eel, watched flying fish jump when spotlighted, come eye-to-eye with box fish and triggerfish, paddleboarded with a sea turtle.  

Again, like our first time in the Sea, we shared many of these experiences with new and longtime boater friends.  And again, our optimism for the world and dedication to maintaining it was renewed. 

Mapache 2.0 currently sits on land in a San Carlos boatyard.  She patiently waits out the hurricane season, while her crew travels north to visit friends and family.  We will reunite in the fall for some boat upkeep projects before getting back in the water and *hopefully* getting past Mexico’s border to travel toward next season’s goal destination—Panama.  

Most of our stops in Mar de Cortés were at uninhabited islands and far-removed bays. Bahía Salinas is a little different, with many calling it a ghost town. It was once well-populated with a large salt operation.

Bahía Salinas “ghost town”

Abandoned equipment in Bahía Salinas

The giant salt flats in Bahía Salinas

Wading through the salt flats in Bahía Salinas

A view of the Bahía Salinas anchorage (you can see the anchored sailboats in the background)

We had many beach hangs with our boating buddies

We cannot get enough of the Sea’s beautiful coastal landforms.

Even the Sea’s geography is diverse.

The sunsets are not bad (photo model: S/V New Sensation).

A hike to the top of Isla Coronado, which is a dormant volcano.

We made it to the top!

A view of the Isla Coronado anchorage with the Baja peninsula in the background

One of my favorite beaches is on Isla Coronado. It has a shallow approach with lots of rays, small reef fish, and, sometimes, turtles and dolphins. The island curves around the anchorage, so you can see its dormant volcano across its bay.

Mucking about on the Baja peninsula across from Isla Coronado.

San Juanico is another favorite anchorage. We spent several days here.

The water in San Juanico seems to always be clear and warm.

Every day in San Juanico, these fish did circles while circling around our boat.

Beach bonfires were a fairly common occurrence this season.

A view from the top of the south side of San Juanico’s bay

And a view from the top of the north side of San Juanico’s bay

Laundry day: our boat’s washing “machine”

Laundry day: our boat’s “dryer”

Baking on a boat: cheesy bread from the air fryer

We returned to Santo Domingo (where we did an emergency transmission repair to the original Mapache in 2021). This time, we explored this uninhabited part of Bahía Concepcion, instead of the insides of our engine.

We spent significant time in Bahía Concepcion, anchoring in several of her interior bays. This is Playa Santa Barbara.

Our favorite Bahía Concepcion spot became Playa El Burro.

Playa El Burro is a sleepy little beach with convenient snorkeling spots, a couple walkable restaurants, and one row of houses with some camping spaces between them.

Bahía Concepcion holds some great examples of the mangroves that are sprinkled along the coast of Mar de Cortés.

This was a pretty normal set up for me in Mar de Cortés: a stand-up paddleboard and snorkel gear.

Our afternoon routine: me on my stand-up paddleboard and Rob with his fishing gear in the dinghy.

Baby pelican!

Pelican happy hour!

Rob with chocolata clams

We took a taxi inland for a day to the lush town of Mulegé, which has a giant river running through it to the Sea.

Mulegé’s historic mission

Boat guests

The unusual haulout in San Carlos

San Carlos boatyard pulls boats out of the water and pushes them down the city street by tractor.

Mapache 2.0, resting on the hard for the summer

3 thoughts on “Return to the Sea

  1. Fantastic post, loved all the info about the area, hearing about your adventures, and the gorgeous pics and videos. Hope you guys have calm seas to Panama.

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