The Lost Plants of Baja

The Lost Plants of Baja

by Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

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.

 

The Octopus’s Garden

The Octopus’s Garden

by Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

This article was originally published in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico

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

jdp-octopus-5-lo-res

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.”

Mirror Minds

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.

jdp-octopus-1-lo-res

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

jdp-octopus-4-lo-res

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.

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2017

Cowboy Ambassadors: The Vaqueros of Baja California Sur

Cowboy Ambassadors: The Vaqueros of Baja California Sur

by Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

This article was originally published in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico

The American Cowboy is the quintessential symbol of what made America great: strong character, diverse skills, creative problem solving, resilient nature and beef on the table. The iconic cowboys loved their whiskey, played their harmonicas, and sported nicknames like Cactus Pete, Deadeye Jake and Kid Curry. But If you look under the buckskin a bit you’ll find that the original American cowboys likely preferred tequila, played bass fiddles, and had nicknames like El Coyote, Güero de las Canoas and Dos Santos Biel. And that’s exactly why Meg Glaser, Artistic Director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada invited 5 Baja California Sur vaqueros (cowboys) to be the guests of honor at the 31st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering: they are the living link between the Spanish missionary soldiers that came to Baja California 300 years ago, and the American buckaroo. Yep, as surely as the Statue of Liberty came from France, and the melody of the Star-Spangled Banner came from England, the American Cowboy came from Mexico. Juan Wayne would have been a more apt screen name for the Duke.

Don Jose y La Pancha. Painting by Carlos Cesar Diaz Castro

The Western Folklife Center (WFC) focuses on making connections with other horse and ranching cultures from around the world. They have hosted cowboys from the far-flung corners of the earth, including Mongolia, Hungary and Brazil, but nothing they had ever done prepared them for the challenge of hosting the vaqueros of Baja California Sur. Says Meg, “The BCS vaqueros live almost completely off the grid so they didn’t have passports, US visas, or even email access. It was incredibly challenging to get these men who live on roadless ranches, some of whom must ride 6 hours on mules to get to the nearest highway, from Baja to Nevada, but together with the great Baja team we did it and it was one of our most successful programs ever. Many of our buckaroos in Nevada and other parts of the west are pretty well versed on the history and the connection between the American cowboy and the Mexican vaquero, but very few of us realized that it was such a vibrant living culture. It was a real eye opener for all of us.”

Of course back in the day both Nevada and Baja were part of the Spanish California Provinces (Nevada in Alta or Upper California and present day BCS in Baja or Lower California) and cowboys and cattle – imported from Spain to satisfy the conquerors’ demand for beef – flowed freely throughout the region. In fact, the regions were so integrated culturally and linguistically that it wasn’t until the 1960s that people from Baja California were required to have a passport and visa to travel to the USA. The lingua franca of cowboys demonstrates the cultural link between the two Californias: “buckaroo” is the Americanization of the word “vaquero”, “chaps” comes from the Spanish word chaparreras, or leather leggings, “rodeo” comes from the Spanish word rodear, to surround, and “mustang” comes from the Spanish word mostrenco. The modern livestock industry in the USA continues to thrive on early Mexican techniques for handling cattle including branding, saddle cinching and using a hand-braided lariat – from the Spanish la reata – to rope cattle.

Chema with his guitar in the Sierras.Photo courtesy of Saddling South

But now there is most definitely a border, and crossing it was a tremendous experience for the whole team. Says vaquero Jose Maria Arce Arce, who goes by Chema, “Just imagine. I had to ride a mule for several hours out of the Sierras as part of the journey to the airport, then suddenly I was on a huge airplane and we flew over my ranch – I recognized it immediately and was amazed to see it from the air. This trip was my first time on an airplane and my first time in such a nice hotel. Imagine a horse that is accustomed to poor grazing areas then he’s put in a green pasture. That is what it felt like to me.” Trudi Angell has been Chema’s friend and business associate in the Sierra San Francisco since 2005, and she was the main organizer of the trip. The vaqueros nicknamed her “La Caponera” or “the bell-mare” of the trip: the one to follow. She sat next to Chema’s cousin, Bonifacio, or “Boni” on the first flight. “His eyes lit up like a kid as he turned around at lift-off and practically shouted “ ‘Chinga! The cars all look like ants!’ Forty minutes later when we flew over the Sierra San Francisco, Chema and Ricardo (Chema’s son who’s known as Teté) were pressed to the window pane and were practically beside themselves when they saw their ranch from the sky. It was a wonderful experience.”

Chema, Teté and Boni are Los Regionales de la Sierra, a musical group that plays traditional ranchero music from the northwest of Mexico, much of it resonant of eras long gone by. Chema plays accordion and guitar, Boni plays bajo sextoand accordion, and Tetéplays the northern ranchero bass fiddle. In Elko they performed often at schools, juvenile facilities and the Western Folklife Center itself, and were accompanied by singers Damiana and Duna Conde, daughters of the renowned Baja California Sur musician, comedian and political satirist Raul Conde. The crowds and other musicians simply couldn’t get enough of the group, and they were feted everywhere they went. Even Sourdough Slim, an acclaimed western singer who regularly plays the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall Folk Festival circuit invited the vaqueros to jam with him at the historic Pioneer Bar one evening. Observes Meg, “They were a smash sensation.”

Carlos’ stand up paintings of Boni, Chema and Tete. Part of the BCS exhibit.

The great reception to their musical skills wasmatched only by the tremendous enthusiasm for their skills as ranchers and craftsmen. Chema, Dario Higuera Meza and the other vaqueros met with American cowboys and shared information on ranching lifestyles, including working and breeding donkeys and horses. Says Chema of his American counterparts, “They are the same people that I am. I completely identified with them… the only difference is in the way they dance!” Dario, who is one of the few artisans left in BCS who knows how to create traditional ranch crafts using the old Baja California methods (he received an honorary degree from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur in recognition of his unparalleled skills and contribution to BCS culture), gave daily demonstrations on horsehair rope making and leather braiding, and in particular bonded with several native American families over different methods of tanning and spinning rope. They were so enthralled with Dario they invited him to a Navajo festival. Chema’s nephew, Juan Gabriel Arce Arce – nicknamed Biel – gave daily demonstrations on leatherworking and other traditional ranch skills. Biel consistently wins the top prize at state-wide leatherworking contests.A traditionally tanned leather trunk that he made with ornately woven edges and beautiful hand tooling was purchased by a Basque ranching family from Elko for US$5,000.

Biel’s Chest

McKenzie Campbell, one of the people responsible for getting the vaqueros to Elko, is the founder of Living Roots, a non-profit which helps BCS ranch families capitalize on their skills. At the request of the WFC gift shop, she made sure that the group brought many leatherwork pieces made by Teté, Dario, Biel and other ranchers, includingpolainas (leather gators), miniature vaquero saddles, belts and teguas (riding shoes). McKenzie also brought other BCS ranchero crafts including embroidered purses and bags, as well as tepetes, rag rugs that women make with scraps of cloth. It allsold like hot cakes in the gift shop.

The vaqueros are direct descendants of soldiers imported by the Jesuit missionaries in the 1700s. Recruited as part of a deal with the king of Spain that gave the Jesuits administrative autonomy in Baja California in return for protecting the territory from pirates, these “soldiers” were in fact largely people from Moorish Spain who had the excellent ranching and agricultural skills the Jesuits needed to develop their missions. They became known as the “soldiers of leather” to distinguish them from fighting “soldiers of metal”. When the Jesuits were subsequently kicked out of Baja, the “soldiers of leather” who worked the missions were given the lands by administrative fiat and from that point on Baja ranchero culture flourished. Largely forgotten by the rest of Mexico for several

Fermin Building the Rancho Exhibit

generations and isolated by geography, the architecture, ranch tools, farm implements and cookware of BCS ranches remains to this day very similar to that developed by their Spanish forbears 300 years ago. “The BCS rancheros are a piece of the past that has survived until today” says Fermín Reygadas, a professor of Alternative Tourism at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur who has worked with Baja Californiarancheros for over 30 years.

Fermín, who counts ranchers as some of his best friends in Baja, envisioned and happily executed the task of recreating a typical ranch dwelling with an hoja (palm-frond) roof and palo d’arco walls for the exhibit at the WFC. Working with La Paz artist Carlos César Diaz Castro in Elko a full month before the vaqueros arrived, Fermíncreated a truly astounding exhibit which everyone agrees captures the heart and soul of BCS ranchero life. Says Trudi, “The BCS exhibit was left up for 8 months and a woman from the WFC sent me a special note to say that the local folks from Elko came again and again to see the exhibit, bringing visiting friends and family. They had never seen this type of reaction to an exhibit before.”

Carlos Painting Tete. Photo by Karla Fernanda Amao

The whole project got started when Rick Knight, a professor from Colorado State University and board member of the WFC, went on a mule trip with Trudi’scompany,Saddling South, in the Sierras. Chema was their guide at the Sierra San Francisco rock art sites, and he and his family entertained the group around the campfire at night. Rick informed Meg Glaser of the incredible experience he had had and in 2012 Meg came down to see it for herself. She knew right away she had to get the vaqueros to Elko.Three years later – which included intensive months of effort by Trudi in the quest for Mexican passports and US visas for 5 people who live almost completely outside the system (letters to the US Consulate from Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the BCS State Board of Tourism, the Western Folklife Center and several others all had to be obtained) – the group was in Elko. The connections made between people and cultures moved them all. Says Chema, “The best part is that we went so far and met people we had become friends with at the caves in the Sierras.” Says Meg, “The best part is that the social connections extend far beyond Elko and many people have already gone to Baja Sur to visit the Sierras and learn more about the vaquero culture.” Says Fermín, “The best part was watching the vaqueros bond with the US ranchers discussing knots and ropes, sharing ideas and experiences. It really showed how connected we all are.”For his part, Dario, who is not one of the musicians, had so much fun that he wrote a song about the whole experience.

Elko Group Portrait Back Row, Left to Right: Karla Fernanda Amao (Carlos’s wife), Carlos Cesar Diaz Castro, Dune Conde, Fermin Reygadas Dahl, McKenzie Campbell, Chema (Jose Maria Arce Arce), Damiana Conde, Ricardo Arce Arce (Tete), Juan Gabrial Arce Arce (Biel), Bonifacio Arce Arce (Boni). Seated Front Row: Trudi Angell, Dario Higuera Meza, Teodora Montes Botham, Meg Glaser. Photo courtesy of Western Folklife Center.

Concludes Chema, “I never had a childhood because I’ve worked since I was a little boy. I now feel very proud that people know me and our life here at the ranch, both through the movie Corazon Vaquero and our trip to Elko. We represented the Baja California vaqueros to the cowboys of the US, and they really respect all the things we can do.  It was a beautiful experience. But I’m still the same humble

Chema and his grandaughter Azu. Photo courtesy of Saddling South

rancher I have always been and I haven’t changed my way of life. All of my grandchildren are becoming ranchers and I’m very pleased about that.” Fermín calls the vaqueros of BCS “an oasis of common sense humans.” Maybe Chema’s grandkids will be the next generation of Cowboy Ambassadors, connecting US cowboys to their living roots in Baja California Sur.  Could there be another ride for the bell-mare? Possibly. Trudi says her first thought when she woke up after the trip to Elko was, “We have to take this show on the road!”

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2016

Sea Turtles: A Baja Road Trip

Sea Turtles: A Baja Road Trip

by Bryan Jauregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

This article first appeared in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico

If they had a World Championship for Insult Hurling, China’s entry of “Son of a Turtle!” may not seem like obvious prize material. But a review of sea turtle reproductive habits reveals why the insult might be a contender: A female sea turtle will mate with several males prior to nesting season, storing the sperm of all her paramours in oviducts separate from her eggs for extended periods of time – sometimes years. When the time is right for nesting, her body will allow the sperm to fertilize the eggs, resulting in what scientists like to call “multiple paternity” for her offspring. In other words, little baby sea turtles have no idea who their daddies are. Get it?

Loggerhead Turtle. Photo by Colin Ruggiero

(more…)

The Star of the Sea of Cortez: Estrella Navarro Holm

The Star of the Sea of Cortez: Estrella Navarro Holm

by Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

This article first appeared in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico

She’s been free diving since before she could walk, but every time she gets in the water for a competition she reflects on the old nightmare: She’s swimming peacefully at the shore when the ocean suddenly starts retracting away from the beach at great speed like it does before a tsunami. She’s caught in the enormous power of the angry water, completely out of control. She’s filled with dread of the cold and the dark, terrified of being so absolutely alone.

“But competitive free diving is at least 70% mental” says Mexican free diving champion Estrella Navarro Holm. “And it was free diving that finally put that old nightmare to rest. In competition they allow us a few minutes on the rope at the surface before the dive, and I use that time to do my deep breathing, face any fears I may have, and relax into the dive. Once the count reaches zero, the rules allow only 30 seconds to get your face in the water, so you have to be ready.” Ready to dive 70 meters (230 feet) into the black of the ocean with no oxygen, no light, no friends,  just the air in your lungs and your wet suit to protect you? Fear is the only rational response.  “Yet”, says Estrella, “once my face is in the water the training kicks in and my diving reflex is activated. My whole system has a physiological response to my mental state and I am completely prepared to go. The first few meters are hard because my body is heavy and buoyant with air, and I have to really work to get down. But then at about 30 meters the free fall starts. It’s as if the wet suit and my skin fall away, and the water in my body merges with the water of the ocean.  Each molecule of water feels very intense. It’s like flying, but in slow motion. The free fall is the most beautiful, spiritual experience – it’s what makes people free diving junkies.” Knew there had to be a payoff.

And that payoff has paid off big time for Estrella. The La Paz native has broken the Mexican national free diving record 21 times, she was the first Mexican on the medal podium in a free diving world championship, and she’s the first woman in Latin America to medal in the discipline of constant weight no fins. And unlike most world champion athletes, she didn’t enter her first major competition until she was 24. This gave her the time to earn a degree in marine biology from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) in La Paz, widely acknowledged as one of the best marine biology programs in the country. And she’s using that degree to pursue her other great passion in life, ocean conservation. Among other accomplishments, she is co-author of a paper titled Global Economic Value of Shark Ecotourism: Implications for Conservation, that appeared in Oryx, The International Journal of Conservation, published by Cambridge University Press. Yes, the one in England.

It is often the case in life that we don’t fully appreciate what we have at home until we travel elsewhere. And as Estrella traveled the waters of the globe for competitions, she found that her fellow athletes scarcely believed her when she described the riches of the Sea of Cortez, marveling – some skeptically –  when she told them about diving with sea turtles, sea lions, whale sharks, whales, dolphins and more. Their wonderment (incredulity) gave her an idea for combining her passions: invite the best free diving athletes in the world to La Paz to share the wonders of the Sea of Cortez and, at the same time, promote ocean conservation. Says Estrella, “I sent out 250 personal invitations via Facebook to my free diving friends, and I was so thrilled that 24 of the best athletes in the world accepted the invitation to compete in our program, Big Blue. But I was even more excited that they took up the call to be ocean ambassadors, to return to their home countries and promote strong ocean conservation measures. This is really the success of Big Blue.”

Indeed, as part of the Big Blue program in November 2015, Estrella, working in coordination with the tourism board of Baja California Sur, organized a conference on ocean conservation where she presented the shark research in which she and her co-authors demonstrated that shark ecotourism around the world currently generates US$314 million a year and supports 10,000 jobs – a vastly higher and more sustainable number than those associated with shark landings each year. That is to say, as is generally the case when speaking of wild flora and fauna, the living, breathing resources of the world are worth more to mankind alive than dead.

Estrella wants to keep bringing that message to the world, and plans to make Big Blue an annual event in La Paz, her home town and a great staging area for exploring the Sea of Cortez.  Estrella is part of a growing cadre of world class athletes that grew up in La Paz and the Sea of Cortez (Mexican board diving champion and Olympian Paola Espinosa’s dad was actually Estrella’s competitive swimming trainer when she was a little girl, and the two champions remain friends) and their love for their home town is helping to fuel growing interest in La Paz as a destination for top competitions in many sports including stand up paddle boarding, water polo, swimming and, of course, diving.

But unlike her fellow champions in other sports, Estrella doesn’t worry so much about the march of time. One of the greatest female free divers of all time, Natalia Molchanova, became the first woman to dive 100 meters (328 feet) at the age of 44, and continued to dominate the sport for another decade. (Her son Alexey swept the Big Blue competition in La Paz and is the reigning world champion.) So that means that for the foreseeable future, Estrella can continue to both compete in oceans around the world, and create the knowledge and ambassadors to help protect them. Saving it all for the generations to come. That’s what truly makes the champion Estrella Navarro Holm the Star of the Sea of Cortez.

To learn more about Estrella and Big Blue please visit:

www.estrellanavarro.com

www.bigblue.com.mx

 

Saving Espiritu Santo

Saving Espiritu Santo

by Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

Espiritu Santo photo by Carlos Gajon

If famed aviator Charles Lindbergh had not fallen in love with the daughter of the US Ambassador to Mexico, the story of Isla Espiritu Santo might be just another sad tale of extraordinary natural beauty undone. But the courtship of his future wife in Mexico instilled in Lindbergh a lasting affection for the country. So when in 1973 his friend and fellow conservationist George Lindsey invited him on a scientific exploration of the Sea of Cortez, Lindbergh jumped at the chance. The two men and their scientific team wended their way through numerous islands between Bahia de Los Angeles and La Paz, ultimately arriving at Espiritu Santo. Lindbergh was enthralled. The islands made such an enormous impression on him that during a trip to Mexico City a few months later, Lindbergh requested a meeting with the president of Mexico to discuss protecting what he now considered one of the most beautiful areas on the planet, the Sea of Cortez. Four years later the Mexican government issued a decree establishing 898 islands of the Sea of Cortez a Flora and Fauna Protection Area (Zona de Reserva Natural y Refugio de Aves Migratorias y de la Fauna Silvestre). George Lindsey, then the Director of the San Diego Natural History Museum, strongly believes that Lindbergh’s intervention helped to create the governmental awareness needed to get the decree enacted. It was a good beginning.

Espiritu Santo photo by Cabo Rockwell

Around the same time as Lindbergh’s transformational trip to Baja, a former Grand Canyon river guide named Tim Means was setting up the first major ecotourism company in La Paz, Baja Expeditions. Means’ business thrived as word of Baja’s remarkable flora and fauna spread, and demand grew for access to the natural wonders that the area’s remote location had kept pristine long after the west coast of the US had been heavily developed. But conservation-minded eco adventurers were not the only ones attracted to the area, and by the 1990s the pressure on Isla Espiritu Santo was intense: a real estate developer wanted to create a resort casino on the island. From the outside it seemed absurd that a casino had even the remotest possibility of being approved in a natural protected area, but Mexico’s traditionally lax approach to conservation enforcement afforded the developer optimism.

Espiritu Santo photo by Craig Ligibel

While most of the islands in the Sea of Cortez were federal lands, a few were privately owned, and Espiritu Santo was owned by an ejido.  Ejidos, created as part of Mexico’s land reform movement after the Revolution of 1910, are rural collectives of people who own property communally. Traditionally ejidos were not allowed to sell their property, but the constitutional obstructions to ejido land sales were removed in 1992, and the ejido owners of Espiritu Santo lost little time in taking advantage of this new freedom. By 1997 they had sub-divided 90 hectares around Bonanza Beach into 36 lots and were selling them off. Cabins were actually constructed on some of the lots, but in a move that would have made Lindbergh proud, a federal judge deemed them illegal under the 1978 decree and they were torn down. But the real estate developer who owned some of the properties was pushing hard on his casino proposal. Tim Means was prepared to push back.

Means started his onslaught by personally buying two properties smack in the middle of the developer’s proposed casino area.  This immediately diminished the attractiveness of the project for the developer, and inclined him towards negotiation. Means then enlisted the aid of leading Mexican businessmen in the area, who retained and paid for the law firm that was ultimately able to arrange the buy out the developer and all but one of the remaining properties for sale on Bonanza Beach. This all took a great deal of time and maneuvering, but Means and his team persevered. All the properties they bought  were donated to the federal government.

Espiritu Santo photo by Carlos Gajon

When the immediate threat of the casino was neutralized, Means and a coalition of conservationists were able to put together a deal to purchase the rest of the island, which they bought from the ejido for US$3.3 million. Their subsequent donation of Espiritu Santo to the nation is commemorated by a famous sculpture of a dove on the malecon in La Paz.

The purchase structure that resulted in Espiritu Santo’s conservation in perpetuity demonstrates the power of collaboration among a diverse group of constituents when fighting to preserve wilderness areas: about one third of the money came from Mexican funders, another third from American funders via the Nature Conservancy, and the rest through an anonymous gift to the World Wildlife Fund. The David and Lucille Packard Foundation then donated US$1.5 million towards the future management of Espiritu Santo. This type of international cooperation set the stage for future and ongoing battles against mega-developments  elsewhere in Baja California Sur. As a direct result of Means’ successful activism, Espiritu Santo and 244 other islands in the Sea of Cortez were subsequently named a World Heritage Site in 2005.

But none of this would have happened without the will of the Mexican people.  As a result of colonial rule, the Mexican citizenry traditionally felt they had no voice in government, so agitation for change was not a big feature of public life. But in the 1970s this started to change, most notably in the environmental  arena, and Mexicans began to create organizations committed to protecting the country’s immense natural resources. This process lead to the creation of the Secretaria de Desarollo Urbano y Ecologia (Secretary of Urban Development and Ecology) in 1983, and in 1987 the general law of ecology and natural resources. One of the early successes of all this effort was the 1988 declaration of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the states of Mexico and Michoacan.

Worthy of Protection. Photo by Carlos Gajon.

The people of Mexico in general, and of Baja California Sur in particular, are now intently focused on protecting their natural heritage. In Baja California Sur residents have banded together in recent years to defeat mega-developments in Balandra Bay, El Mogote and Cabo Pulmo, using the reach and resources of both local and international NGOs to aid their cause (See our blog post Conserving the Beauty of Baja). Public outrage and grassroots campaigning have stymied the efforts of companies seeking to operate open-pit gold mining companies in the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains. Like Lindbergh and his nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, they are succeeding against considerable odds. Like Tim Means and his environmental coalitions, they are hunkered down and ready for the long haul. As the great conservationist Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Great thoughts speak only to the thoughtful mind, but great actions speak to all mankind.” The protection of Isla Espiritu Santo and the islands of the Sea of Cortez wrought by Tim Means and his coalition will speak to the world for generations to come.

Sources: Two excellent books and Tim Means provided the source material for this article. The books are Isla Espiritu Santo: Evolución, rescate y conservación by Exequiel Ezcurra, Harumi Fujita, Enrique Hambleton and Rodolfo Garrio; and Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition with essays by Tom Butler and photographs by Antonio Vizcaino.

Todos Santos Eco Adventures operates a tent camp on Isla Espiritu Santo from which visitors can explore the wild natural beauty of the island and the Sea of Cortez.

Why do we care about Espiritu Santo and other areas of Mexico?

There are over 200 countries in the world today but only 12 of them can claim to be “mega-diverse”. A country is considered mega-diverse if it has between 60% and 70% of the total biodiversity of the planet, and Mexico is one of only 3 such countries with coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific (the United States and Colombia are the other two). Mexican government sources indicate that Mexico’s global ranks for biodiversity are as follows:

  • Reptiles: #2
  • Mammals: #3
  • Amphibians: #5
  • Vascular plants: #5
  • Birds: #8

That’s something worth bragging about – and protecting!

This article was first published in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2015

Loading...