Sustainable Ranching and the Cowboy Museum in El Triunfo
The new Museo de Vaqueros del las Californias in El Triunfo – The Cowboy Museum – is an intimate, yet gorgeously expansive look at the 300 years of families, traditions, skills and tools that bind the Californias of Mexico and the United States in ways that no war or border can erase. It is a celebration of the great vaquero / cowboy culture that was born in Baja California, moved north with the cattle to Alta California, and still thrives today throughout the western United States.
The museum exhibits are punctuated with the fantastically beautiful paintings of La Paz artist Carlos César Diaz Castro, who created ten paintings and two murals to help tell the vaquero’s story, as well as stunning photos of present-day vaquero life by renowned Baja California Sur photographer Miguel Angel de la Cueva. As with its sister museum in El Triunfo, Museo Ruta de la Plata / the Silver Route Museum, one of the museum’s most compelling exhibits is the oral history section, in which members of local ranching families share their stories, histories and anecdotes.
But perhaps one of the most interesting themes running throughout the museum in small plaques and chalk drawing prints is that of sustainability. Interwoven with exhibits of criollo pigs and cattle brought from the Iberian Peninsula, is the explanation of Transhumance, livestock practices with minimal environmental impact that the Spanish brought with them to the New World that involved the environmentally sustainable practice of seasonal livestock migration. This practice is now a cornerstone of regenerative cattle ranching, and you don’t have to go far from the museum to see it in action. Christy Walton’s innovacionesAlumbra, an alliance of sustainable businesses in Baja California Sur, is the owner not only of the Cowboy Museum, but also of Rancho Cacachilas – about an hour’s drive from the Cowboy Museum – where modern day cowboys are fast at work restoring the land.
Florent Gomis, a Frenchman who came to Baja to study the Ecology of Desert Climates, is the Director of Sustainability at Rancho Cacachilas, and Transhumance is at the heart of his efforts. “In Baja California Sur as elsewhere in the ranching world, livestock has been blamed for the destruction of the land. In reality, the cattle aren’t the problem, it’s the management of the cattle.” Florent explains further. “Before there were vaqueros, herds of herbivores were motivated by predators to keep moving from place to place and that movement kept the land from being overgrazed. What we are working to achieve here at Rancho Cacachilas is the restoration of the impact that wild herds of herbivores once had on the land. These wild herds would continually move location, giving lands time to recover from their impact before their return. Here at Rancho Cacachilas we manage animals in groups and keep them moving, letting the land they had previously occupied rest for at least a year.”
While cattle are typically decried as destructive, Florent sees them as part of a restorative, creative process. “We really view the cattle as gardeners. When they move to a new grazing area, their hooves break the hard-packed dirt, allowing water and minerals to infiltrate the land. The cattle’s dung and urine are full soil-revitalizing carbon and nutrients, and as the cattle graze they trample these riches into the ground, resulting in the regeneration of the land. In a relatively short period of time we have seen these eroded, barren lands become covered in vegetation.”
The benefits of Transhumance don’t stop there. “One of the really cool things about this process of regenerating the soil is that it also regenerates the rain cycle” explains Florent. “Lots of vegetation on the land has a cooling effect on the atmosphere, causing clouds to precipitate on the land. So from what was once this vast cycle of death – overgrazing, monoculture, fertilizers and pesticides – you get this great cycle of life. The cows create nutritious soil so chemicals are not needed, the soil retains water and supports vegetation, the vegetation improves the soil, attracts more rain and feeds the cows, and the rain replenishes the whole, holistic system.” Florent notes that at Rancho Cacachilas, the same amount of land that could previously support only one cow, will soon support four. Moreover, with the increased vegetation for the cattle to eat, the ranch’s need for nutritional supplements for the cattle has dropped dramatically, resulting in substantial savings.
Rancho Cacachilas aims to be its own kind of Cowboy Museum. They’ve taken the lessons from the past, applied them to the present, and plan to share what they’re learning about managing cattle in the specific conditions of Baja California Sur with ranchers throughout the peninsula. The past comes alive at the beautiful new Cowboy Museum in El Triunfo. The past is alive down the road at Rancho Cacachilas.
When Christian Liñan decided to open his third restaurant in La Paz in 2017, he resolved to work only with 100% traceable, sustainably-caught local seafood. That made his seafood supply chain logistics pretty simple: he bought totoaba from Earth Ocean Farms in La Paz and oysters from Sol Azul in San Ignacio. That was it. “I have at least 15 different recipes for totoaba” he notes.
A combination of the pandemic and interminable neighborhood renovation forced the closure of that restaurant, but Christian’s commitment to traceable, sustainably-caught seafood has spanned decades and was not snuffed by a mere change of circumstance. His talent was recognized by COMEPESCA, the Mexican Council for the Promotion of Fisheries and Aquaculture Products, and as of January 2023 Christian is the Baja representative of COMEPESCA’s wildly successful program Pesca Con Futuro / Fishing with a Future. Explains Christian, “Pesca Con Futuro started in the Yucatan peninsula in 2017 and became a highly successful, high profile coalition of chefs, fishermen, producers, marketers and distributors, all committed to responsible, sustainable, in-season consumption. They all agreed to abide by the rules that promote biodiversity of species in Mexico and avoid overexploitation, thereby guaranteeing the future of fishing and aquaculture in Mexico. The 120 eminent Mexican chefs in the Yucatan peninsula who committed to Pesca Con Futuro have had such a huge impact as they are able to transmit the concept of responsible consumption and sustainable fishing and aquaculture directly to consumers via their menus and cuisine. It is truly impressive to see what they have achieved.”
COMEPESCA didn’t tap Christian to be the Baja representative of Pesca Con Futuro just because he’s a chef with an interest in sustainability. Nor did they choose him just because of his degree in Marine Sciences from CIBNOR in La Paz. One of the key reasons they chose him is because he has witnessed firsthand the importance of engaging the full chain of players in protecting marine species. In 2009, fresh out of CIBNOR, Christian joined Noroeste Sustentable (NOS) in the upper Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). At that time the fisheries of the upper Gulf had thousands of pangas, each of which was catching roughly three tons of fish daily, mainly with gillnets. There was no management system or operating agreement among the fisheries or with the distributors, with the result that all those thousands of tons of fish were just being dumped on the market and collapsing prices. Fishers were taking home only 6 to 10 pesos per kilo of fish and fish stocks were being rapidly depleted. It is therefore not surprising that some fishers were tempted to traffic in the highly lucrative totoaba swim bladder trade. The totoaba is an iconic, endemic marine fish species of the upper Gulf. Its swim bladder is highly prized in some parts of Asia for both its purported medicinal properties and as a status symbol. As totoaba swim bladders can sell for as much as USD 80,000 per kilo, they became known as the “cocaine of the sea” and attracted the same cartels in Mexico and China that traffic in such illicit substances.
Violence came to the upper Gulf, and to say that it was a complex and dangerous work environment is a severe understatement. And humans were not the only mammals that suffered from the totoaba swim bladder trade. The totoaba shares its habitat with the Vaquita porpoise, the smallest dolphin in the world. The illegal gillnets used to trap the totoaba caught and killed huge numbers of Vaquita, which rapidly became critically endangered.
It was in this environment that Christian and NOS started the Fish Less and Gain More campaign. Through incredibly hard work in the communities they were able to create an agreement among the fisheries to catch and sell fewer tons of fish, with the result that prices rose from 6-10 pesos per kilo to 20 pesos per kilo. To protect the Vaquita, they also enforced the ban on gillnets, as well as the ban on fishing in the Vaquita’s habitat. It was all going extremely well, until it wasn’t. “Unfortunately there was really no way to enforce the agreement across all the fishing communities of the upper Gulf, with the result that some areas simply ignored the agreement and ultimately after two years prices collapsed again. Gillnetting in the Vaquita habitat resumed. The NGO and donors that had supported the program decided to close it. I was so sad and frustrated.”
Which is exactly why the Pesca Con Futuro program excites him so much – all the key players in the seafood supply chain are engaged, not just the fishermen. With chefs on the front line creating demand among consumers for eco-friendly caught, traceable seafood, the fishers, distributors and marketers realize that they have to get in line with market expectations. But, notes Christian, “It is almost impossible for fisheries to get sustainable certification.” That is why Pesca Con Futuro is a champion of the Fishery Improvement Project, FIP. “The FIP is a group of organizations and people who work collaboratively to achieve the sustainability of a fishery in the shortest possible time” notes Christian. “It is a clear and simple way to share good practices and teach about traceability. Organizations that participate in credible FIPs are considered reliable sources of supply and allies of sustainable products.” The list of FIP projects in Mexico can be found at: https://fisheryprogress.org/
Christian continues, “Sustainability is the responsibility of each of us who make up the consumption, production and supply chain, a task that must be permanent. At Pesca Con Futuro we link the different actors in the value chain, making various support tools available to them to achieve informed and responsible purchases of sustainable seafood.”
Christian believes that sustainability’s time has come for the seafood market. “In the 1990s consumers were all demanding “light” products. In the 2000s it was organic produce, and now in the 2020s the public is really turning its focus to sustainability. Pesca Con Futuro is here to both increase that awareness, and to make sure that in Mexico in general and Baja California in particular that sustainable seafood practices are widespread and sustainably-caught, 100% traceable seafood is widely available to the public.”
What about that totoaba he was cooking with at his restaurant in 2017? It represents the future he hopes to see for all of Baja. Pablo Konietzko, vice president of COMEPESCA and the founder of Earth Ocean Farms, a state-of-the-art facility in La Paz which raises the totoaba explains. “In 2012 we got special permits from SEMARNAT, the agency in charge of protecting marine species, to fish for totoaba breeding stock in the upper Gulf of California. Since we brought in those first fish we have kept meticulous records such that we can fully trace the bloodline of every fish from the hatchery to the table. It is impossible for someone to imitate our fish or pass off wild totoaba as EOF-raised.” Not only is Pablo raising totoaba for the seafood market, he is helping the totoaba to recover in the wild. Notes Pablo, “For the past 7 years we have held totoaba restocking events in Bahia Concepcion in the Gulf of California, near Mulege. We have successfully released over 175,000 juveniles into the sea, and we will continue the program each year.”
Christian could not be more thrilled to be working with Pesca Con Futuro in Baja. “It is truly an honor and a privilege to do this” he says. But the work falls to each of us. Next time you order seafood at a restaurant, ask if it was sustainably caught, and if it can be traced. Only in this way can you be sure that your favorite seafood will continue to be on the menu not only for you, but for the generations to come.
A Celebration of Todos Santos Eco Adventures’ Guides
Last month, several Todos Santos Eco Adventures (TOSEA) guides completed an epic 10-day, end-of-season paddle from Loreto to La Paz. Skills, knowledge, teamwork and FUN were the themes, but it turns out that when the season winds down, naturalist adventure guides just want to relax by adventuring in nature!
“Being out there with all you need in the hatch of a kayak makes you realize that life is actually pretty simple. This trip was a mental and physical challenge for me, but I learned so much and had so many amazing encounters on the ocean and in the unique Baja landscape. I came away with fantastic memories and a lot of learnings. These are the great moments of life.” – Cesar Caballero, TOSEA guide
The adventure started off with a night on a beach under the stars. After organizing gear, the team had dinner and relaxed before the next day’s big paddle. The trip was designed not only for fun and camaraderie – it was a chance for the guides to learn from one another and to build their both their soft skills and preparedness skills such as perfecting the ‘Eskimo roll’ (rolling and righting your kayak) – and they were able to do all of that and more over the 10 days!
Days on the trip started early, fueled by hearty breakfasts. The guides took turns leading each day – cooking meals, cleaning up, organizing navigation and more. One guide played a faux demanding guest so that the group could practice tending to the ‘client’s’ wants and needs while also tending to the rest of the group.
“I was able to discover a version of myself that I didn’t know existed. Being out there in the immensity of the Sea of Cortez, constantly being pushed out of my comfort zone, and working so tightly with my colleagues to achieve our common goals really changed the way that I approach my work. It was a life-changing experience.” – Octavio Marin, TOSEA guide
Throughout the journey the guides were serenaded by incredible landscapes of islands, mountains and perfect, deserted beaches; paddled and played with dolphins; and marveled at whales and birds. All the while, they built routines to make everything work and paddled, paddled, paddled – a kind of meditation.
“I breathe deeply trying to take in as many images, sensations, feelings as I can before they turn into memories.” – Alejandra Ibarrola, TOSEA guide
One of the magical things about discovering Baja California Sur with TOSEA is what the guides themselves were reminded of over and over again on this trip – the absolute wonder of this biodiverse peninsula. One evening the group decided to do a night paddle (after paddling all day!) to see the ocean’s bioluminescence…
“As soon as the sun hides, we start seeing the tiny sparkles in the water. The darker it gets, the more we see. It’s stunning, my colleagues are ecstatic. There are stars shining above us and underneath. We see some bright silhouettes of fish swimming past us. Every time the paddles go in the water they leave a trace of blue light amongst the darkness of a moonless night. It truly is the stuff of dreams.” – Alejandra Ibarrola, TOSEA guide.
This unforgettable experience demonstrates TOSEA’s deep commitment to investing in their guiding team. Creating opportunities such as these, along with their innovative guide exchange program, help their guides to grow as individuals and as a team. This all translates into a better adventure for your guests in both tangible and intangible ways. Way to go TOSEA!
“Being out on a trip like this with my fellow guides and colleagues was truly something special. It reinforced how much we all have in common through our shared passion for nature, and it definitely united us more as a team. We had so many beautiful experiences, including dolphins swimming all around us one day, being in the water with the bioluminescence at night, and so many more. I think we all grew a lot, and we were all reminded that we truly live in paradise. It was an amazing experience.” – Sergio Mariscal, TOSEA guide
Todos Santos Eco Adventures Climate Action Partnership with Tomorrow’s Air
We’re thrilled to share our passion for eco-friendly tourism practices, and lately, we’ve taken our promise to protect the environment to new heights by renewing our commitment to Tomorrow’s Air as an Education Partner. Tomorrow’s Air is educating and inspiring a global travel collective to clean carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it permanently. We are proud to be supporting and advocating for climate action education and accelerating the development of carbon removal with permanent storage.
We understand that alongside conventional carbon offsetting and natural climate solutions, new carbon removal and storage approaches are also needed to help us clean up the trillion tons of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The reality is that even if all carbon dioxide emissions were to halt completely right now, Earth’s warming would continue due to the high levels of carbon dioxide already stored in the atmosphere. The only way to permanently reverse warming is through carbon removal.
Therefore, in May 2023, Todos Santos Eco Adventures made an investment in Tomorrow’s Air. The Todos Santos contribution supports:
Inspiring traveler education about meaningful climate action
An order for 3 tons carbon to be removed and permanently stored
Through this partnership, we’re actively educating visitors about carbon capture technology and the role it plays in preserving our planet. Our knowledgeable staff share examples of carbon capture technology, promoting the importance of this initiative.
Curious about how it works?
The Tomorrow’s Air portfolio of carbon removal innovators includes pioneering companies selected for their technical and hybrid nature-tech solutions that can help restore our climate: direct air capture company Climeworks, Pacific Biochar, and Eion enhanced weathering.
Payments received from individual travelers and travel companies like Todos Santos Eco Adventures support climate conscious travel education and directly fund carbon removal provided by these companies.
With direct air capture, carbon collectors capture carbon dioxide from ambient air. Air is drawn into the collector with a fan, and adheres to a filter within the collector. Once the filter is saturated, the collector is closed, and the temperature is increased, releasing pure carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is dissolved in water, just as a soda machine makes sparkling water.
This water mixed with carbon dioxide is then injected deep underground into basaltic rock in Iceland. The basaltic rocks release metals that mix with the carbon dioxide in the water and turn this carbon dioxide into stone. The process safely and permanently removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere since rocks cannot leak out of the ground. The entire process is powered by geothermal energy.
Todos Santos Eco Adventures travelers are encouraged to share their personal travel stories and perspectives with the Tomorrow’s Air community and are invited to
Our commitment to sustainability extends beyond our support of Tomorrow’s Air, as we firmly believe in minimizing the environmental impact of our tours. We use reusable water bottles, purchase local foods and products, and minimize single-use plastic wherever possible. Our responsible waste management practices ensure that we leave behind as little waste as possible, allowing future generations to enjoy the beauty of Baja. Our tours offer unique experiences, including hiking, whale watching, and farm-to-table cooking classes, all of which are designed to promote sustainable tourism. We believe that tourism goes hand in hand with sustainability and hope to inspire others by setting an example through our eco-friendly initiatives.
There was a thief in the aquarium and no one knew what to do. The institution had just recently purchased 10 Australian Pineapplefish at a price per head
California Two-Spot Octopus, The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson
that brought tears to the financial officer’s eyes, and now these expensive beauties were
disappearing – eerily, quietly, and exactly one fish per night. Management’s initial hypothesis was that night-time employees were seeking to boost their fortunes by selling the fish on the black market, so they set up monitoring stations at employee exits to inspect bags and purses. No pilfered fish were found, and they kept disappearing, one fish each evening. Puzzled, and anxious to protect what remained of their investment, aquarium officials finally decided to set up a camera monitoring system at the Pineapplefish tank to try and catch the thief in the act. Turns out, it was the perfect inside job.
Three tanks away the giant Pacific octopus planned and executed the crime. He figured out how to undo the lock on his tank, walk past the (obviously less delectable) Barrier Reef Anemonefish and Bicolor Parrotfish, open the tank of the Australian Pineapplefish, and leisurely enjoy his midnight snack. He then carefully replaced the top of the Pineapplefish tank, walked back to his own tank, and put the lid back in place.
An Octopus planning? Picking a lock? Walking? The aquarium theft story is one that is widely told in marine science circles, although no one seems to remember the name of the aquarium or exactly when it happened. Even Snopes.com is not entirely sure. Yet the story has such wide currency as those who study and work with octopuses (yes, it is “octopuses” as the greek-derived word octopus will not suffer a latin ending like “I”) know an octopus could easily plan and execute such a caper. In fact, the remarkable intelligence of octopuses, coupled with their other-worldly, alien-seeming bodies, has given rise to a spate of books in recent years that explore and celebrate these amazing creatures. In Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith talks about engaging with octopuses as “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” In The Soul of an Octopus Sy Montgomery tells wonderful stories about the octopus friends she made at the New England Aquarium, their personalities and their sophisticated cognitive skills of being able to imagine what is in another creature’s mind. And in Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea, Harmon Courage discusses how “the big-brained cephalopod can navigate through mazes, solve problems and remember solutions, and take things apart for fun.”
Octopuses and humans last shared a common ancestor (a wormlike critter) about half a billion years ago, so minds of the two groups developed into complex, sentient entities completely separately. As did their bodies, which seem to be almost the inverse of each other. Octopuses can shape-shift through cracks no larger than their eyes. Humans lack such fluidity. Vertebrates are structured around a central nervous system centered in the head, while the brains of an octopus – whose neuron numbers are comparable to those of mammals – are distributed, with two-thirds in their 8 arms and only one third in their heads. This means that the arms can engage in independent problem-solving behavior, like how to open the tank of the Australian Pineapplefish, while the owner can be checking to see if there is a similarly worthy object of its attention in another tank. As Godfrey-Smith notes, “An octopus is so suffused with its nervous system that is has no clear brain-body boundary.” Imagine.
And that’s just for starters. Vertebrates have just one heart, while octopuses have three. Two of the hearts are engaged solely in the task of moving blood beyond the gills, while the third heart is tasked with keeping circulation flowing for the organs. When an octopus swims, the organ heart actually stops beating, which explains why in many cases an octopus would rather walk, or crawl, than swim, as swimming is exhausting for them. And walking does come in handy when getting out of the water for an aquarium hunting expedition.
Common Octopus Juvenile, Sea of Cortez. Photo by Kaia Thomson
But perhaps of all the cool things that an octopus’s brain/body can do, the most amazing is its ability to disguise itself by almost instantaneously changing not only the color and pattern of its skin, but the very texture of its skin to everything from small bumps to tall spikes to match its surroundings such that even the most determined and observant predator or prey cannot distinguish it from nearby coral, algae-covered rocks, kelp fronds or the sandy seabed. And color also denotes mood. As Sy Montgomery wrote upon meeting an octopus named Athena, “As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. Later, I learn this is the color of a relaxed octopus.” Alternatively, “An agitated giant Pacific octopus turns red, its skin gets pimply, and it erects two papillae over the eyes, which some divers say look like horns.”
It is tempting to chalk up the body-changing abilities of an octopus to instinct alone, but Dr. Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist who studies octopuses, has found that octopuses use specific disguises for specific species in specific conditions – both offensive and defensive. That is, it is another sign of the octopus’s intelligence. Dr. Mather believes that the octopus’s loss of the ancestral shell is what lead it to develop this intelligence. Being shell-free allows the octopus to be an active predator like a lion, rather than a passive muncher like a clam. But the dozens of different prey species that it hunts require different hunting strategies, just as different strategies are required for defending itself against different predators. Dr. Mather has documented that octopuses will often use what is called the Passing Cloud display – flashing pulses of color that move across the octopus like passing clouds – to startle an immobile crab (one of its favorite foods) into moving and give itself away. To catch shrimp, octopuses have been seen to compress themselves, creep up to the shrimp, extend an arm up and over the shrimp, then touch it – an act which scares the shrimp right into the mouth of the octopus.
Common Octopus, The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson
On the other side of the equation, if an octopus is being hunted by a hungry fish it might rapidly change color, pattern and shape; fish have strong visual memories for certain images, and if an octopus is rapidly changing from light to dark, from spots to stripes, the fish can’t place it and moves on to something it can identify to eat. But if that psychedelic display is not enough, octopuses have many more tricks in their bag – including the ability of some species to deploy a pseudomorph, a life-size self-portrait made from a cloud of ink and mucus. This essentially freaks out and disorients the predator, allowing the octopus to get away. It seems that octopuses actually enjoy messing with the (lesser) minds of would-be predators. The mimic octopus, rather than making itself look like something passive such as coral or rock to avoid detection, transforms itself to look and act like venomous creatures such as jellyfish, sea snakes and spiky lionfish to send its would-be predator running the other way.
Octopuses also employ tools for defense. Researchers in Indonesia have documented octopuses lugging half coconut shells across the ocean floor, assembling them into spheres, and climbing inside for protection. An octopus at the Middlebury octopus lab found that a sea urchin was hanging around too close to its den so she ventured out, found a piece of flat slate, and erected it in front of her den like a shield.
As Sy Montgomery notes, “…of all the creatures on the planet who imagine what is in another creature’s mind, the one that must do so best might well be the octopus – because without this ability, the octopus could not perpetrate its many self-preserving deceptions. An octopus must convince many species of predators and prey that it is really something else….(then) assess whether the other animal believes its ruse or not, and if not, try something different. “Writes Godfrey-Smith, “When surviving requires decision-making, brains have developed awareness. Sentience,” he notes, “has some point to it.”
Love and Friendship
Common Octopus. The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson
Montgomery, Godrey-Smith and numerous others have documented that octopuses can readily distinguish different people, even if they are wearing identical uniforms, and that they have very particular feelings about those different people. With people that they like, they will touch them, hold their hands and arms, give them gentle squeezes, and allow themselves to be stroked. They are friendly and engaged and will readily come to the surface of their tank for interaction. People that they don’t like may be subjected to rude squirts of water and – if the visitor is too close – even a bite. But what about with each other? Every Valentine’s Day the Seattle Aquarium hosts the Octopus Blind Date, in which the partition between the tanks of a male and female giant Pacific octopus is lifted and nature is allowed to take its course – six hearts beating as three might be the romantic view. But in 2016 the blind date was cancelled due to fears that the 70-pound male, Kong, would simply find his 35-pound date a tasty snack, a decidedly unromantic outcome. While it was a loss for Seattle’s octopus sex voyeurs, it was a new lease on life for Kong. Mating, while ensuring the survival of the species, is a death knell for male octopuses, who die shortly thereafter. This close link between sex and death might account for some octopuses rather hands-off approach to sex – literally. The males and females of the Algae octopus will find houses next to one another so that the male only has to reach his hectocotylus (sex arm) out his front door and into her’s to get the job done. The Argonaut octopus doesn’t even get that intimate. Males simply detach their hectocotylus and send it off to mate with a passing female.
Female octopuses can lay up to 400,000 eggs, which they attach to the ceiling of their dwelling and lay in long strings like translucent ropes of pearls. They guard and tend their eggs diligently until they hatch. Sy Montgomery reports how her octopus friend Octavia in the New England Aquarium wove her egg chains and tended them with meaningful rituals, even though there was no male to fertilize them. Of course the eggs never hatched and Octavia succumbed to death a few months later, as do all female octopuses once their reproductive cycle is over.
The Octopus’s Garden
Octopuses are the blue bloods of the marine world. Truly. Octopuses evolved a copper rather than an iron-based blood, and it’s the copper that turns their blood blue. Copper is more efficient at transporting oxygen than hemoglobin in deep ocean environments, where water temperatures are low and there is not much oxygen. But this system also means that octopuses are very sensitive to changes in acidity, and when the ocean’s pH gets too low, octopuses can’t circulate enough oxygen. There is therefore a great deal of concern in the scientific community about what will happen to octopuses with the increasing ocean acidification being brought about by climate change.
Octopuses have existed on the earth for at least 296 million years, the age of the oldest known octopus fossil. That’s over a thousand times longer than humans. “The sea is the original birth place of the mind. When you dive into the sea, you are diving in to the origin of us all’” writes Godfrey-Smith. It is perhaps for this reason that Godfrey-Smith dedicates his book to “all those who work to protect the oceans.” As Carl Safina notes, “As we change the world, let’s bear this in our minds: Other minds are living their own lives here with us on earth.”
In Baja California Sur our two oceans, the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez, are filled with many of the 300 species of octopus that inhabit the world, and it is possible to visit many octopus gardens and match wits with these amazing creatures when snorkeling and diving. Jacques Cousteau, who called the Sea of Cortez the Aquarium of the World, tells a charming story in his 1973 book Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence. “Our friend Gilpatric … brought an octopus home and put it in an aquarium, which he then covered with a heavy lid. A short time later, the aquarium was empty, and Gilpatric found the octopus going through his library, book by book, turning the pages with its arms.” And that’s a true octopus story.
The global pandemic achieved something that no political movement, no world religion and no pharmaceutical product has ever achieved before: global agreement from the people of all nations, all regions and all walks of life on a single, inherent truth. The year 2020 sucked.
There were still moments of joy and revelation, and few can match those experienced by Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa, a native of the Baja California Sur town of Constitución and a graduate of the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) in La Paz, one of the best marine sciences schools in Mexico. “My master’s degree at UABCS was on the habitat of beaked, or toothed, whales in the La Paz-Los Cabos region. This is not as easy as it sounds. While 23 species of beaked whales have been documented, they are quite rare to see and we still know very little about them. Unlike the gregarious gray and humpback whales who love to come in close to shore in Baja and spend a lot of time at the surface, beaked whales tend to live really far offshore, in very deep waters, and spend about 90% of their time foraging underwater. When they are on the surface it’s only for a few minutes. All this combines to make them extremely difficult to study.”
In fact, the only reason scientists know about one species of beaked whale, Perrin’s beaked whale or Mesoplodon perrinni, is that several dead ones washed up on a beach in the US state of California. They were initially identified as Hector’s beaked whales or Mesoplodon hectori, and only genetic testing proved that they were an entirely new species previously unknown to man. They had never been seen in the wild. They had never been definitively heard either. One of the defining characteristics of beaked whales is that they communicate and hunt via echolocation clicks that are above the frequency of human hearing, and Perrin’s beaked whales are thought to produce a species-specific FM echolocation pulse of BW43. In 2013 BW43 pulses were recorded off the coast of Southern California, but in 2018 Gustavo’s colleagues recorded BW43 pulses from the US-Mexico border south to the mid part of the Baja Peninsula. They had no DNA or visual proof, but they thought this area might overlap with the limited geographic range of Perrin’s beaked whale. Had they stumbled upon the Mesoplodon perrinni in the wilds of Baja’s waters?
Upon graduation from UABCS Gustavo started working with the Marine Mammal Research Group of the National Institute of Ecology, which became part of CONANP in 2018. He also began work on his Ph.D. at the Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior, CICESE. Through his work he connected with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), which has been working for the last several years to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise in the upper Gulf of California. In October 2020 Gustavo and his colleagues engineered a 5-year agreement between CONANP and SSCS in which SSCS would provide boat time, equipment and scientific manpower to help CONANP monitor whales in Mexico’s natural protected areas. They did two expeditions to Guadalupe Island to study Cuvier’s beaked whales, then in November 2020 started their third voyage as a team aboard Sea Shepherd’s vessel the Martin Sheen. Their goal was to see if they could finally get a visual and/or acoustic match for those BW43 signals recorded in 2018 to determine if they really did belong to Perrin’s beaked whales.
“It was 6:15 AM on November 17, the third day of the expedition, and we were about 100 miles north of the San Benito islands off the coast of Baja when we started seeing marine mammals close to the boat” recalls Gustavo. “It was three individuals and because of their size and their apparent ease at being around the ship, at first we thought they were dolphins. But we started taking photos and deployed a specialized underwater microphone to record their acoustic signals. It was then that we realized that they were beaked whales and it was really amazing because beaked whales almost never come close to ships, and these guys were actually investigating the boat with a great deal of curiosity. It was just incredible.”
More incredible than he could have imagined in fact. “Of course, we all thought that we’d finally found the elusive Perrin’s beaked whale which was amazing enough as one has never been spotted alive. But then we started analyzing the photos and realized that the morphology of these whales was quite different from that of the Perrin’s. One of the beaked whales that we saw was a male, which means that it had teeth in the lower jaw that we could compare to other species. And its teeth were in an entirely different location from those of the Perrin’s. The Perrin’s beaked whale has teeth right at the end of its jaw, while this whale had teeth much further back. Moreover, the acoustic signal we recorded is not BW43. In fact, it is not a sound previously known to science. Add in the fact that there were differences in skin color and size and we realized that not only were these whales not Perrin’s, they were most likely an entirely new species!”
Gustovo and the science team carefully storing the cable and removing the recorder from the array Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd/CONANP
“We didn’t see any other beaked whales for the remaining two weeks of that expedition” continues Gustavo, “but we did take water samples from the area where we saw the whales and our hope is that there will be some genetic material like sloughed skin that will allow us to analyze the whale’s DNA to determine if they are definitely a new species. But we feel pretty confident that it is.”
So for Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa 2020 was definitely a banner year. Not only did he discover a potentially new whale species, he successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis less than a month later and is now, according to the Sea Shepherd web site, “renowned beaked whale researcher, Dr. Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa.” But it was still 2020 after all and the genetic testing lab at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) – which also had a scientist on the expedition – was closed due to the global pandemic. So Gustavo and his colleagues are just having to cool their heels until the pandemic releases its grip long enough to allow the lab to reopen and test the water samples to see if they have really discovered a new species. When will that be? It’s anybody’s guess, but the potential discovery of Gustavo and his team has given a weary world a happy reminder that the earth still has joyful mysteries to share, that local boys from small towns can still make huge contributions to science, and that in Baja, right when we need them the most, the whales can still be relied upon to appear to fill us with wonder and inspire us with their 50 million years of sustainably inhabiting the earth. It’s almost enough to make you consider 2020 in a new light. Almost.