“After God, we owed our victory to the horses.” When Hernan Cortez arrived on the eastern coast of Mexico in 1519 and defeated the Mayan people there, horses had not been seen on the North American continent in over 10,000 years. Their sudden appearance with men on their backs terrorized the local population nearly as much as the noise and deadly impact of the musketry, and victory came readily to Cortez.
From that first triumph the horses continued their conquest of the Americas, with men defeating one culture from their backs while creating others centered around their skills. Spanish settlers arrived from Cuba and Hispaniola bringing livestock and horses with them and great ranching haciendas built on horse prowess spread across Mexico and points north. The haciendas began competing among themselves to display their horse and animal husbandry skills and the tradition of Charrería, similar to rodeo, was born. Descendants of the 16 horses that Cortez brought with him as well as those brought by other settlers spread out across the continent in feral bands, becoming the progenitors of the Mexican Galiceño, the American Indian Horse and the great Mustang herds of the American west. Two of the great horse cultures of the world arose on the North American continent – cowboys and Indians by any other name – and the once terrorized indigenous peoples who survived the onslaught of the Spanish later became formidable horsemen.
In Baja California Sur (BCS), when the European Jesuits were expelled from the peninsula in the late 1700s, many of their lands went to the ranchero horsemen who had helped the padres develop their missions, and their independent ranching culture built around horses and mules became the defining culture of the state. For festivals or fiestas they would often ride their horses for days across the mountains, picking up more riders as they went, and having parties each night along the way. This was the ranchero version of the Spanish cabalgata, or parade of horsemen. In many ways, after God, Mexican culture in general and Baja California culture in particular, owed its victory to the horses.
But, as it does, the world changed. As modern generations of Mexicans and Baja Californians became more urbanized, they came to think of “horsepower” mainly as a term to define engine output and the great horse-based traditions of Charrería and cabalgata began to fade. “When I first came to BCS 43 years ago, there were no cabalgatas and very few Charrería events. That part of the culture was almost dead” recalls Fermín Reygadas, a professor of Alternative Tourism at the Autonomous University of BCS. “Then, about 30 years ago, ranchers in the Sierra de la Gigante in the northern part of the state began making a concerted effort to keep their culture alive and restarted the traditional San Javier cabalgata. This cabalgata is reminiscent of the cabalgatas that originated as early as the 1500s in Spain. These were ostensibly religious events in which villagers would ride horses and walk from place to place carrying the image of the Virgin of Rosario. When they stopped at night to rest there would be music, singing, dancing and of course lots of drinking. This fundamental aspect of the cabalgata is also a big feature of the resurgent cabalgatas in Baja.”
In the southern part of the state of BCS, the cabalgatas only returned 15 years ago and for a distinctly secular event – a birthday party. Recalls Arturo Geraldo, president of the BCS Association of Riders (Asociacion SudCaliforniana de Jinetes AC), “In 2005 a horse lover in Cabo decided he wanted a cabalgata for his birthday, so we put together about 36 riders and made a parade from Santa Anita to Cadueño, about a 4-hour ride. Based on the success of that cabalgata we formed the Association of Riders and we have been organizing cabalgatas across the state ever since. Now, on any given weekend in BCS there are at least two cabalgatas taking place, many of them for birthday celebrations, some for funerals and some just because it’s fun.”
Arturo is extremely pleased but not surprised at the scale at which cabalgatas have returned to the state. “Here in BCS we come from horses, we come from the ranches. Even those of us who now live in the cities have our roots in the ranches and the cabalgatas are such a fun way to celebrate our heritage and keep our traditions alive.” Javier Pavel, a La Paz based horse trainer and farrier who is the veteran of dozens of cabalgatas around the state agrees. “The cabalgatas are a wonderful way to pass on our traditions to our children and I love taking my young son on as many cabalgatas as possible.”
Miguel Angel León Amador is the president of Cabalagantes Unidos de Todos Santos-Pescadero and he loves how the cabalgatas have grown in popularity. “Todos Santos is the mother of all cabalgatas in BCS” says Miguel Angel. “When we started it 14 years ago to celebrate Nuestra Senora de Pilar, the patron saint of Todos Santos, we had 50 riders on the trip from La Paz to Todos Santos. Last year we had 502 riders on 502 horses and mules. Then there were all the people to support the cabalgata including veterinarians, drivers, cooks, all pulling horse trailers, and bringing food, water and supplies for both riders and horses – it ended up being about 1,500 people!” Miguel Angel reckons that about 50% of the riders are from ranches and the other 50% from cities and towns.
While camaraderie and friendship are the main draws for most riders, there is sometimes also a formal entertainment component to the cabalgatas and very few things are as entertaining as the dazzling display of horsemanship put on by the women of the escaramuza. Kaia Thomson, a cabalgata veteran and student of Mexican horse culture explains. “The word escaramuza means skirmish in Spanish. During the revolution women on horseback would work to trick the enemy by riding off in the opposite direction of the army, cutting their horses back and forth to kick up dust and lure the enemy away from the soldiers. It is that daring horse-work that is the hallmark of escaramuza routines today, in which teams of 8 women riding sidesaddle in colorful flowing dresses ride at each other at a full gallop in uninterrupted succession, drill team style, executing heart-stopping movements that include crosses, quick turns, slide stops and passes in synchronized flashes of speed and color. They are incredibly skillful and it is thrilling to watch.” The women of the escaramuza are part and parcel of the Charrería tradition, which is officially the national sport of Mexico. Notes Fermin, “The stadium where the Charrería competitions are held near my university sat empty for many years. Now I see it regularly in use, often packed to capacity. It is another indication of the revitalization of and appreciation for the great horse culture of Mexico and Baja California Sur.”
The resurgence of the cabalgata tradition has had a powerful economic impact on the state as well. Notes Kaia. “When I first came to Todos Santos with my horses 15 years ago there was very little infrastructure in place to care for horses. I had to feed the horses rabbit pellets because there was no grain and the neighbors all wanted to borrow my pitchfork because they just weren’t available in stores. Now large feed and tool supply companies have a huge presence in the state.” Arturo agrees. “Before we started the cabalgatas saddle makers were almost extinct here and there was no place for leather repair. Now you can find them everywhere. Same goes for horse veterinarians. They were in very short supply 15 years ago and now there is excellent medical care available for horses.”
The horses have changed a lot too. “In the old days everyone in the cabalgatas just rode their regular working criollo (mixed blood) horses that they used on the ranches,” recalls Arturo. “Now it is like a beauty pageant for horses!” Don Rene Ruiz, a horse breeder and passionate cabalgata rider imported Tennessee Walkers in 2006 for the softer ride they offer. He notes the change in horses too. “Now ranchers like to keep a good, smaller criollo horse that is well-suited to ranch tasks, as well as a fancier horse like an Española or Fresian for cabalgatas.”
While the horses may be getting fancier, everyone agrees that cabalgatas are fundamentally family-focused, friendly, egalitarian affairs and that absolutely everyone is welcome. Recalls Kaia, “I’ll never forget one year seeing a kid on a skinny horse who had made a saddle pad out of an old bathmat and tied it on with a car seat belt. He’d made his bridle out of hay twine and he’d clearly made an effort to straighten his clothes. This kid was up at the head of the cabalgata riding proudly right next to Arturo. In the cabalgatas everyone puts their best foot forward, no matter what that best is, and everyone is happy to have all the riders that want to join. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Arturo agrees. “This is why I don’t quit. The cabalgata is one big family that is taking pride in our ranchero culture. My motto for cabalgatas is ‘Let’s ride, let’s make friends.” Friendship, pride and a revitalization of the great egalitarian ranchero traditions in BCS. For this, we owe our victory to the horses.
This is not a fish tale. It’s an immigrant story any American could tell. “In 1860 my great grandfather Esteban Puppo arrived in Cabo San Lucas from Genoa, Italy. He brought money and a son with him and purchased a hacienda in Caduaño, near Miraflores. He raised cattle and built a good life. His son Santiago grew up, married a beautiful woman from the coast and had my father, Pedro Puppo, in 1889. But it was a troubled time in Mexico and the government took away the hacienda, so Pedro went to La Ribera where he opened a general store. There he met and married a young shop attendant, Seferina Marrón. They moved to La Paz in 1910 where my brother Santiago was born in 1929 and I was born in 1939. My father became a fisherman, as did my brother and I. Santiago has been fishing the waters of Isla Espiritu Santo and La Paz for 80 years. My father would be sad to know that we are the last independent fishermen of Isla Espiritu Santo.”
Mario Puppo Marrón, the younger of the two famed Puppo brothers, tells his family story with humor, passion and a keen understanding that his family history is the history of Isla Espiritu Santo and the fishing industry in La Paz. When his father Pedro became a fisherman in 1910, he and his colleagues would row or sail their boats – crafts that were more like canoes than pangas – to Espiritu Santo, often taking two days or more to reach their destination. That trip now takes less than an hour by motorboat. They would stay on the island for months, camping wherever they liked, salting the fish they caught to keep it from rotting. They could sell the salted fish for 1.5 pesos per kilo (4 pesos per kilo for shark) and in two months they could make 1,000 pesos. In those days the pesos were silver and living was cheap, so 1,000 pesos was a lot of money. It had to be to motivate the fishermen to endure months on the island.
Recalls Mario. “I was 10 years old when I started working with my father on Isla Espiritu Santo. There is very little fresh water on the island and the water from home was sent in cans so it rusted quickly. Therefore almost every day we would eat tortillas, fish machaca, and turtle. We would have vegetables for the first few days after arriving on the island, then nothing for the remaining weeks or months. We couldn’t make beans because there was no water to cook them. Our only “spices” were onions and chiles. It was exciting when we were able to catch one of the wild goats on the island for the pot.”
When Mario’s father Pedro started fishing in 1910, an entrepreneur and local politician named Gaston Vives had a concession in San Gabriel Bay on Espiritu Santo for cultivating pearls. It was a substantial operation that included homes, offices and a 500-meter-long dike which turned the bay into a lagoon. There he created a massive system of 36 roofed canals through which he steered the waters of the Sea of Cortez to supply the necessary nutrients and oxygen to his oyster beds. He was wildly successful, selling his cultivated pearls throughout the US and Europe. Mario’s father, who sometimes dove for pearls, saw a different side of the operation. “The workers recruited for the pearl operation at San Gabriel Bay were all people from the bottom of society with no families, no one asking after them. They were forced to work naked so they couldn’t steal the pearls. But as they were only paid 20 pesos a month, the temptation was too great and many of them would swallow the pearls in an attempt to smuggle them out of the bay. These workers suffered a great deal and many of them died and were buried on the island. Until the 1960s and 1970s when Americans arrived and started taking away the bones, there were lots of crosses in the dunes of the island. Many of the beaches still have the shells from this operation, which was destroyed in 1914 by an enemy of Gaston Vives.” Today Isla Espiritu Santo is a national park with no permanent structures, and only the ruins of the dike remain of the Vives empire.
The Puppo brothers’ father fished with spears and handlines using hooks made by blacksmiths, as did Mario and Santiago when they were old enough to join him in the sea. The 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s were bounteous years for fishermen in the Sea of Cortez. Recalls Mario. “There was so much great fishing. We would often spear 100-kilo groupers and of course they were too big to take into the boat so we would just keep them alive in the water next to the boat and take them straight to the Hotel Perla on the Malecon in La Paz where they always bought all we could catch. The owners there really valued the fishermen and not only would they pay us, but they always fed us well too. Of course, it’s been well over 20 years since I’ve seen a fish that big around Espiritu Santo.”
Fishing techniques changed through the decades. “From 1945 to 1970 the fishermen of La Paz began using dynamite to fish, and of course that was extremely dangerous” says Mario. “The dynamite was unstable and many fishermen ended up blowing themselves up along with the fish.” That was not the only threat for the fishermen. In the old days the fishermen didn’t have a way to track the weather and many died in hurricanes. In 1976 Mario rode out Hurricane Lisa, the worst recorded storm in the history of Baja California Sur, in a cave on Isla Espiritu Santo with his wife, 3-year old daughter, and dozens of snakes who were also seeking refuge. While Mario laments many of the changes that have affected fishermen at Isla Espiritu Santo, accurate weather prediction technology is not one of them.
In 1977 Isla Espiritu Santo and 897 other islands of the Sea of Cortez were designated a Flora and Fauna Protection Area (Zona de Reserva Natural y Refugio de Aves Migratorias y de la Fauna Silvestre) and in 2005 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Conservation became the driving force and where once Mario and Santiago had camped wherever they liked on the island, in 2007 they were restricted to one piece of land on the back side of Gallo Bay where they keep their fishing shack and, at 81 and 91 years of age, continue to fish the waters of Isla Espiritu Santo. While nylon fishing nets have been in use around the island since the 1970s, Mario and Santiago command a premium for fish caught with hand lines so that is generally how they ply their trade. But they are the end of the line.
“Fishing at the island as we know it is over. Once Santiago and I are gone, there will be no more permits for fishermen like us. Now only cooperatives are able to get fishing permits. And that would be OK if the system was effective, but fishermen from outside of La Paz come in the night to fish our waters and nothing is done to stop it. We are sad to see this happen.”
Mario has been married to Rosa Maria Murillo Martinez for 56 years. Together they have 5 children, 9 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. One of their daughters married an Italian immigrant, and Mario loves that the family story has come full circle. While it is the end of the story for the independent fishermen of Isla Espiritu Santo, the American story of immigration, integration and intrepid determination continues to thrive in Baja California Sur. It’s a tale for the ages.
When Dr. Peter Klimley, AKA Dr. Hammerhead, was studying the scalloped hammerheads of El Bajo seamount near La Paz in the late 1970s, he attached little compass sensors to some of the sharks and made an amazing discovery. “The sharks were swimming like we would drive a car down the highway, directly from one point to another.”
The sharks would leave El Bajo seamount, go out for 10 miles or more in the middle of the night, and return in the morning with no problem at all. How could they do that? Two things. Firstly, the Gulf of California is filled with magnetic fields of lava flows around seamounts, and the sharks use the magnetic fields to navigate, like following neon signs along the highway. Secondly, the whacky shape of the hammerhead’s head means that the shark’s sensors, known as ampullae of Lorenzini, are spaced widely apart over a larger surface so the sharks can better detect variations in the magnetic field, reading the lava flows as clearly as a white line down the highway.
The result, demonstrated by Klimley and published by National Geographic, is that hammerheads are using seamounts alike El Bajo as hook-up joints along established migration routes. Interestingly, the vast majority of the sharks gathering at the seamounts are female, and Klimley found that they are fighting each other to establish dominance as the males prefer to mate with the strongest females. 400 million years of evolution at your service ma’am!
One of the Jesuits’ prime motivations in establishing themselves in Baja California in 1697 was to pursue their dream of a theocracy, a society completely devoted to God, with all productive activity in the service of the missions as they worked to convert the native peoples. While there was some grumbling about the Jesuit lock on the economy, for the first 50 years of Jesuit rule no one came along with the entrepreneurial drive, financial backing, or political support to challenge it. But then the heavens opened and the Jesuit sands shifted. As recorded by missionary Miguel del Barco:
Because of an unusual storm…the sea cast up a great multitude of pearl oysters, mounding them on certain beaches from the 28th parallel on to the north. This area, to that time, had not been worked by pearl hunters. The Indians of that coast, recent Christians, knowing that soldiers desired and bought pearls, began to bring them in abundance to the men of the escort at Misión de San Ignacio, then the heathen frontier.
And so it happened that an act of God brought riches to the Jesuits’ earthly defenders and thereby created the first direct threat to their Baja California theocracy. The soldier who wrangled the majority of the profits from the great pearl bonanza was Manuel de Ocio, the Spanish son-in-law of the captain, who capitalized on his connections to broker the pearls and make the beginning of his fortune. In short order he resigned as a soldier, invested in pearling equipment and bought goods to trade with the Indians who were still collecting the pearls. Baja California’s first entrepreneur was launched, and he soon found he was not the only one eager to break the Jesuit monopoly. In 1743 the pearl-rich de Ocio went to Guadalajara where he found businessmen keen to push for a civil colony in Jesuit territory, and by 1748 he had laid claim to Santa Ana, site of an abandoned Jesuit chapel where a Spanish soldier had spotted silver ore in 1722. de Ocio created his home and cattle ranch there, and began mining silver near present day San Antonio. Real Santa Ana was the first secular settlement in Baja California, and San Antonio today is considered the oldest continuously settled town in the peninsula. The Jesuits were expelled from Baja California in 1767, but a thriving secular economy launched by de Ocio and built around mining continued for another 150 years.
Stories like de Ocio’s are the highlight and backbone of the Museo Ruta de Plata, the Silver Route Museum, which opened in the Baja Sur town of El Triunfo November 17, 2018. The brainchild of Christy Walton, Richard Kiy, John Reynolds, and Juan Jose Cabuto, the museum reflects the remarkable research the team conducted to resurrect and celebrate the mining heritage and societal changes wrought by de Ocio and others who came to the area to pursue their dreams. Troves of documents were recovered in the public archives of La Paz, descendants of key players in the town’s mining industry were tracked down and interviewed, and oral histories were gathered from families in the area who are direct descendants of the Mexican, French, German, Polish, Chinese, American, and English miners, entrepreneurs, teachers, tradesmen, artists, shop owners and others who created what was once the largest town in the Baja peninsula with one of its most diverse and fascinating communities.
Museo de Ruta Plata is part of a much larger project by Christy Walton, heir to a portion of the Walmart fortune, to create in the greater La Paz region of Baja Sur “a thriving economy and engaged social system that respects and nurtures our unique environment.” Her Baja-based Alumbra companies include: Rancho Cacachilas, a land management organization that engages in livestock management, gardening, honey and cheese production and ecotourism activities; Earth Ocean Farms, an offshore marine fish farming company; Sol Azul which engages in year-round oyster production, and Tenaja Holdings, a real estate development company that manages the silver museum. The integration of all these projects is readily found in the silver museum complex which includes Restaurant-Bar El Minero, a wonderful culinary destination built on the ruins of an old cantina, where on any given day you can enjoy traditionally-made cheese from Rancho Cacachilas, organic oysters from Sol Azul, and farm-bred totoaba (critically endangered in the wild) from Earth Ocean Farms. The museum itself was built on the site of some abandoned buildings that they believe once housed a tannery, all right next to the ruins of the silver mining and milling operations. In fact, it was when Walton saw some children playing in these ruins that she was inspired to create the museum as a way to help revitalize El Triunfo by promoting its cultural heritage, one that was perhaps already lost to its younger generations.
El Triunfo in its heyday. Photo courtesy of Museo Ruta de Plata
de Ocio started a major mining boom in the area and from 1862 to 1926 the network of gold and silver mining operations completely transformed the area, making El Triunfo and San Antonio the wealthiest towns in Baja California in the process. El Triunfo had been a sleepy little village of 175 souls in 1857, but by 1890 had grown to a vibrant hub of over 4,000 as people flocked to the area to make their fortunes. Money flowed and the residents invested in the good life; a huge number of pianos were imported from Europe, and classical music concerts and artistic performances were a regular feature of town life. Gourmands imported apples from San Francisco and the cantinas imported American beer from St. Louis and Milwaukee. It was even rumored that Gustav Eiffel, he of the Paris tower, designed the still-standing La Ramona smokestack in 1890 for the Progreso Mining Company. While the museum states there is no evidence that Eiffel designed the tower, for Eiffel fans it should be noted that there is no evidence that he didn’t either.
1890 was an important year for El Triunfo on another front as well. The United States enacted a federal law called the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which effectively made the US government the second-largest buyer of silver in the world, second only to the British Crown in India. Under the terms of the act the government was required to purchase an additional 4.5 million ounces of silver bullion every month, in addition to the US$2 to $4 million required previously. Silver mining around El Triunfo surged. But the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, initially conceived of as a way to boost the economy and create sufficient inflation to allow farmers and miners to pay off debts that had become untenable due to deflation, was unsustainable. It contributed to a major economic depression in the US, and in 1893 was repealed. The US moved to the gold standard and the price of silver plummeted.
It was the beginning of the end for the mining towns of BCS. The mines struggled and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 exacerbated their challenges. Ultimately, the silver boom ended as it began, with a monumental storm. This time however, instead of riches being tossed upon the shore, the hurricane of 1918 washed them away, destroying much of the town and rushing arsenic from shattered mines downstream, devastating local livestock along the way. 25 human deaths were recorded, and all ships in La Paz were reportedly damaged, sunk or run aground. The last mine in El Triunfo closed in 1926, and the town shrank back down to the sleepy little town of a few hundred folks that it is today.
Today Mexico is the largest producer of silver in the world, producing 5,600 metric tons in 2017. But no one in El Triunfo seems to be clamoring for a return to the old mining days. Turns out the quality of the silver in the area wasn’t that great anyway. A 1906 US Consular report on display in the museum notes that the ore of the area “is not high grade and is very rebellious.” But the high price of gold in the global market today has created persistent efforts from companies outside of BCS to establish open pit gold mining in the area once again. For its part, Museo Ruta de Plata makes it clear that although mining for minerals drove the settlement of the area, mining for knowledge is the long-term economic path forward for the region. Exhibits in the silver museum laud the extraordinary biodiversity and natural beauty of the area, alongside the scientific research and distinct ecotourism opportunities they represent. As with places like the Galapagos that have a similarly unique and biologically diverse environment, jobs based in sustainable tourism, conservation and research seem to be the hope for the resurgence of El Triunfo and the surrounding towns of BCS. Even the Jesuits would have been happy about that economic plan.
Sources for this article include: Harry W. Crosby, Antigua California: Mission and Colony on the Peninsular Frontier, 1697-1768; Juan Jose Cabuto of Museo Ruta de Plata; and the displays and websites of Museo Ruta de Plata. www.museorutadeplata.com.
Swimming with the sea lion puppies at Los Islotes, the southernmost rookery of the California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus, is truly one of life’s great joys. The puppies are often playful and naughty, nibbling on the flippers and fingers of human visitors, while their teenage siblings like to sidle up to humans for a good belly rub or game of chase. Their mothers may be found sunning themselves on the rocks, enjoying a snooze, while the males who rule the 20 territories of Los Islotes indefatigably patrol the waters to ensure everyone’s safety. It is a scene of utter Baja bliss, and humans can’t help but feel a magical glow from this most wondrous of wildlife encounters.
All of which begs the obvious question: Why are the males working so hard when everyone else is just having a good time?
Claudia J. Hernandez-Camacho, a professor of biology at CICIMAR in La Paz, has been studying the sea lions of Los Islotes and the Sea of Cortez since 1990. In particular, she has studied the entire lifespan of 190 sea lion individuals (94 females, 96 males) who were hot-branded by her professor between 1980 and 1984. Her findings, based on these specific sea lions and others, tell a complicated tale for our pinniped friends.
“Sea lions are polygynous, meaning that one male mates with several females in the territory that he defends on land and sea. It takes an enormous amount of energy to defend this territory, and in the breeding season a territorial male, who is so focused on his job that he barely eats or sleeps, can lose up to 30% of his impressive body weight (400 to 500 kilos, or about a ton) in just a few weeks.”
Photo by Colin Ruggiero for Todos Santos Eco Adventures
One would assume, of course, that the males are spending this incredible amount of energy to defend their harems and offspring, to ensure the survival of their genes. “But this is not exactly the case” says Claudia, “they are defending the territory, not the females.” The science proves this out. “Genetic studies show that just 15% of territorial males are the fathers of the newborns the next breeding season. It is not just that the females hook up with and get impregnated by wandering, opportunistic males when they slip off for their 4-5 day feeding trips, which they do, but in some cases the territorial males are not even copulating with the females in their territory.” All that work and no sex?
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” says Claudia. “There are 600 individual sea lions at Los Islotes, and every year around 170 pups are born. Almost 30% of the pups die in the first two years, either from disease or because they or their mothers have fallen prey to predators. But that means that 70% are surviving. With this type of situation, many of the sea lions are, by definition, related. It could be argued that the Los Islotes males work so hard not just for their own offspring, but because they are protecting their extended families. This would also explain why they do not copulate with all the females in their territory. They are avoiding inbreeding.” This is an approach to collective living that we generally only associate with high intelligence mammals like primates, elephants and dolphins.
The Los Islotes territorial males are so successful in their defense of the colony, and have made conditions so conducive to survival, that Los Islotes is actually full to capacity now. In fact, two new satellite colonies have been created nearby in recent years by all the young males who are no longer welcome at Los Islotes, but who are still too young and slight to fight older, larger males for territory. Sea lions are philopatric, meaning that they stay in or habitually return to the area of their birth, so it is possible that these satellite colonies will only continue to grow.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that it is happening at a time when the overall population of California Sea Lions in the Sea of Cortez is dropping dramatically. Between 2000 and 2018, 40% of the population of other colonies disappeared. Are those males falling down on the job? Not likely says Claudia. “We are analyzing a lot of
Photo by Colin Ruggiero for Todos Santos Eco Adventures
environmental variables right now to determine the main factor causing the decline of these colonies, but one of the most likely culprits is the food supply” she observes. “It is not that the fish populations in the other parts of the Sea of Cortez are declining, they are not. It is that the fish are moving further south. While the sea lions of Los Islotes, the southernmost California Sea Lion rookery, are benefitting from this trend, it is proving lethal to others. Healthy females will travel up to 60 kilometers away from their colonies to find food, but further than that is not feasible. They need to conserve energy to produce milk for their pups. And even in those more northern locations where there are still fish, there are a very limited number of fish species, and this relatively poor-quality diet means that the females are not gaining enough energy from their food to productively nurse their pups. On the opposite side of the coin, the sea lions of Los Islotes are getting an increasing number of fish species in their diet, with the result that population density has reached an all-time high.”
Female sea lions are not only philopatric, i.e., prone to stay in the area where they were born, they are attached to very specific real estate in that area, with many staking one specific rocky outcropping for their own. So with the increasing density of the population at Los Islotes, it is not surprising to learn that sea lion attitudes are becoming a bit more aggressive. Add to that the fact that the entire colony of females either a) goes into estrus, or b) has newborn pups to defend at exactly the same time and breeding season, which generally takes place June 1 to August 31, becomes a time when human body parts might best be kept at a distance from the sea lions of Los Islotes. In fact, Los Islotes is now closed to snorkelers and scuba divers during this period.
Los Islotes is regularly listed as one of the top diving/snorkeling spots in the world, and Claudia and her students are launching a study to evaluate the effects of all these visitors on the sea lions. The tourism hiatus being imposed by the authorities during breeding season offers them the perfect opportunity for their research. “We have already collected fecal samples from the sea lions during the tourist season, and will now do so again when the colony is closed to tourists. We will then test the level of cortisol, a stress indicator, in both sets of fecal matter to determine if tourism increases stress in sea lions. We have already observed some differences in behavior in the sea lions at Los Islotes. While at other, more remote colonies, the sea lions will copulate during the day, at Los Islotes they only engage in this behavior at night. We hope to be able to determine if tourism is having an impact on the sea lions.”
Claudia at Los Islotes
Of course, liking your loving in the evening time is a common enough attribute of many healthy mammals, but if other colonies are also enjoying some afternoon delight, have the sea lions of Los Islotes gone too far in adapting to the presence of humans? Will the territorial males one day snap back to impose a more natural environment for their territories? Human males have certainly done battle over lesser issues.
Tourists have been visiting Los Islotes on a regular basis for roughly three decades, and sea lion males live an average of 19 years. There is therefore not yet a deep institutional knowledge about humans among the territorial males, and they could still be giving us the opportunity to demonstrate our worthiness as visitors to their home. Will we make the cut? We can’t be sure what the sea lions have learned about humans over the years, or what Claudia and her team will demonstrate, but the strong pull of Los Islotes on humans is easy enough to understand: it is a place where joy and spontaneity rule, and we thrill to that vibrancy. While the territorial males are likely not motivated by their roles as life coaches for humans, it is enticing to think that maybe just one of the reasons they work so hard is to protect such a joyful lifestyle for their families. Claudia and her team are working hard to do the same.
VISIT WITH CLAUDIA AND HER TEAM!
Todos Santos Eco Adventures is the leading eco adventure company in Baja California Sur. On Isla Espiritu Santo we operate Camp Cecil, a luxury tent camp, and Camp Colossus, a moveable glamping operation. Claudia and her students will be spending time with us at our camps throughout the season as they conduct their sea lion research, so you may find them at the dinner table if you spend time with us at the island!
The National Geographic Society, as venerable an institution as ever graced the shores of the North American continent, has an image problem. Since 1888 the NGS has been supporting adventurers and explorers of every stripe across all the corners of the globe, and such is their success that it is now safe to say that we know it all. Satellites and surveyors, exploring on the ground and from the air, have neatly filled in all the spaces on the old maps where there used to exist nothing but the terrifying admonition: Here be dragons! Does this mean that the Age of Exploration is dead? Is there no more geography left around which a society can coalesce for discovery? Is the NGS, as some naysayers opine, obsolete?
Dr. Jon Rebman in the Sierras
Not a chance. A glance at the interactive NGS global explorers map, which shows thousands of explorers engaged in equally numerous projects across our well-mapped continents, definitively lays that notion to rest. A zoom from the global view of the map down to our own Baja California Sur shows just how vibrant an era of discovery we inhabit. Here you’ll find a hiker symbol in the Sierra La Laguna mountains just outside of Todos Santos, which is the avatar for NGS explorer Dr. Jon P. Rebman, director of the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Botany Department, and author of the definitive Baja California Plant Field Guide. Dr. Rebman’s work demonstrates not only that the Age of Exploration is alive and well, but that we are always gaining a deeper knowledge of the areas depicted on our maps. Perhaps more importantly, we are conserving the existing knowledge of these areas that is in danger of slipping away.
Explains Dr. Rebman. “After 20 years of floristic research on the Baja California peninsula and adjacent islands, my colleagues and I created an annotated, voucher-based checklist of the vascular plants of Baja California. We published this in 2016, and when we compared it to the only floristic manual for the entire Baja California region published by Wiggins in 1980, we found that we had added more than 1,480 plant taxa to the area, including approximately 4,400 plants (3,900 vouchered taxa plus 540 reports), of which 26% are endemic to the region. As part of this process we identified several plants in Baja California that are very rare and only known from one to very few collections.”
“We got focused on the need for conservation efforts to protect the region’s rare flora during a November 2013 expedition in the Cabo Pulmo area to document biodiversity in an area slated for development. My colleagues and I documented two plant species that had been lost, meaning not collected or scientifically documented, for decades. One of these rediscoveries was Stenotis peninsularis (Rubiaceae), a micro-endemic species that was last collected in 1902 by T.S. Brandegee. Yes, that means we had not seen this species in over 110 years!”
Inspired, Rebman continued his quest for the lost plants of Baja during a workplace re-assignment from San Diego to La Paz August 2015 to June 2016. Working with local Baja botanists, he rediscovered approximately 50 plant species in the Cape region that were known from just one, or a tiny number, of historical specimens. But there were more. Specifically, there were 15 more “lost” plants, all endemic to the Baja California peninsula, that had been collected between 1841 and 1985, but had not been seen since. Rebman was intent on finding them. “With the ever-increasing detrimental impacts to native plants and natural landscapes, I realized that the time was now to attempt to re-discover some of Baja California’s very rare, unique, and presently “lost” plants before they are gone forever.” The National Geographic Society agreed to fund the project, and Rebman got his Mexican colleagues – Dr. Jose Luis Leon de la Luz, Dr. Alfonso Medel Narvaez, Dr. Reymundo Dominguez Cadena and Dr. Jose Delgadillo – to join the effort. But how do you find a “lost” plant? It’s not for the faint of heart – spiritually, physically, or intellectually-speaking.
Astragalus piscinus: an image of the holotype specimen deposited in the united States national Herbarium (uS) at the Smithsonian.
Consider. In March 1889, self-taught British botanist Edward Palmer disembarked from a boat at a place on the Baja peninsula that he called “Lagoon Head”, found what he thought was a common weedy plant, and deposited it in an herbarium without further ado. Sometime later, renowned American botanist Marcus E. Jones found it in the herbarium, realized it was a very rare, endemic Baja California plant species, named it Astragalus piscinus, (common name Lagoon Milkvetch), and that was the last time anyone recorded it. In 1884 noted California naturalist Charles Orcutt was in a place he christened “Topo Canyon” when he chanced upon the very rare Physaria palmeri, took a sample, and recorded it with the fledgling San Diego Natural History Museum. No one has noted a sighting of it since. The entire list of the 15 lost plants Rebman and his colleagues set out to find reads like this, with very precise information about the plant, but incredibly imprecise information about the location. Therefore, the first thing the team had to do was pore over the papers, books and letters of the botanists who originally discovered the plants, and do their best to figure out where, exactly, in this 1,000 mile long peninsula, these botanists were when they took their samples. As a result, one of the cool byproducts of the expedition is a map put together by the NGS team that shows the place names used by these early botanists with the actual place names in use today. As every good cartographer knows, maps are an ever-evolving business.
The team narrowed down the possible locations for each plant (“Lagoon Head” turns out to be near Scammons Lagoon and “Topo Canyon” in the mountains of northern Baja), but then they had to actually find these very rare plants in an area that they had already demonstrated held over 4,400 different plants. It would seem almost impossible to make any progress while stopping to investigate all the different possibilities. Unless, of course, you are already so familiar with all the plants that you can immediately discern the one you don’t know, the one you’ve only seen as a specimen or a drawing. John Rebman and his Mexican botanical collaborators are quite possibly the only people alive today to stand a chance of finding any single one of these 15 lost plants. Yet so far, they have looked for ten and found seven. For the others, they need to wait for rain, in Baja, to find the blooms.
“It has not been easy” remarks Rebman. “We were in a desolate area in northern Baja where bandits are known to congregate, and I was looking for Orcutt’s
Astragalus piscinus flowers. Photo by Jon Rebman
Physaria palmeri. There were signs that the bandits were around, and alarm bells were going off in my head. But I had read Orcutt’s journals, had a firm sense of where he had been the day before he discovered the plant as well as the day after, and I really believed I was close. Yet I kept not finding the plant and kept getting more nervous. Finally, I decided that if I hadn’t found it by the time I reached the next tree, I would turn around. I got to the tree, got off my horse, looked down, and there it was. Orcutt, probably found it when he stopped to take a break in a shady spot all those years ago.”
Finding each of the 7 plants they’ve recovered so far has required serious expeditionary skills and effort, with horses, burros, camping gear, local guides, packed water and food. It’s been hot, it’s been dusty and, as we have seen, sometimes it’s been scary. But, as happens with most NGS projects, the results have been quite tidy. Says Rebman, “For each “lost” species that we encountered, we scientifically documented each population using standard protocols to make an herbarium specimen, we recorded all necessary label data, took a census of the populations, and assessed any visible threats to the well-being of the plant populations. Primary herbarium specimens have been deposited in the SD Herbarium at the San Diego Natural History Museum, and duplicate specimens have been deposited in the HCIB Herbarium in La Paz, Baja California Sur, and the BCMEX Herbarium in Ensenada, Baja California. I photographed each re-discovered plant using a digital camera, and these images, along with the map depicting old and new place names together, can be found at bajaflora.org.”
Dr. Alfonso Medel Narváez with Bouchea flabelliformis (Verbenaceae). Photo by Jon Rebman
While looking for the “lost” plants of Baja, Rebman and his team actually made several new discoveries. “From the expeditions we have taken so far, we have already encountered 30 new species previously unknown to science, all sitting in my cabinet awaiting further investigation.”
The NGS likes to quote American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who said you never should have an adventure if your planning is good and you pull off every detail; an adventure is when things go wrong. With multiple expeditions looking for 15 ultra-rare – or possibly even extinct – plant species in poorly-described locations, there is bound to be an abundance of adventure in the process for Rebman and his botanical collaborators. But that is the essence of discovery, the essence of exploration, and Rebman and his team are showing us that there is still a huge amount to be discovered, and re-discovered about the places where the dragons used to roam.