There was a thief in the aquarium and no one knew what to do. The institution had just recently purchased 10 Australian Pineapplefish at a price per head
California Two-Spot Octopus, The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson
that brought tears to the financial officer’s eyes, and now these expensive beauties were
disappearing – eerily, quietly, and exactly one fish per night. Management’s initial hypothesis was that night-time employees were seeking to boost their fortunes by selling the fish on the black market, so they set up monitoring stations at employee exits to inspect bags and purses. No pilfered fish were found, and they kept disappearing, one fish each evening. Puzzled, and anxious to protect what remained of their investment, aquarium officials finally decided to set up a camera monitoring system at the Pineapplefish tank to try and catch the thief in the act. Turns out, it was the perfect inside job.
Three tanks away the giant Pacific octopus planned and executed the crime. He figured out how to undo the lock on his tank, walk past the (obviously less delectable) Barrier Reef Anemonefish and Bicolor Parrotfish, open the tank of the Australian Pineapplefish, and leisurely enjoy his midnight snack. He then carefully replaced the top of the Pineapplefish tank, walked back to his own tank, and put the lid back in place.
An Octopus planning? Picking a lock? Walking? The aquarium theft story is one that is widely told in marine science circles, although no one seems to remember the name of the aquarium or exactly when it happened. Even Snopes.com is not entirely sure. Yet the story has such wide currency as those who study and work with octopuses (yes, it is “octopuses” as the greek-derived word octopus will not suffer a latin ending like “I”) know an octopus could easily plan and execute such a caper. In fact, the remarkable intelligence of octopuses, coupled with their other-worldly, alien-seeming bodies, has given rise to a spate of books in recent years that explore and celebrate these amazing creatures. In Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith talks about engaging with octopuses as “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” In The Soul of an Octopus Sy Montgomery tells wonderful stories about the octopus friends she made at the New England Aquarium, their personalities and their sophisticated cognitive skills of being able to imagine what is in another creature’s mind. And in Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea, Harmon Courage discusses how “the big-brained cephalopod can navigate through mazes, solve problems and remember solutions, and take things apart for fun.”
Octopuses and humans last shared a common ancestor (a wormlike critter) about half a billion years ago, so minds of the two groups developed into complex, sentient entities completely separately. As did their bodies, which seem to be almost the inverse of each other. Octopuses can shape-shift through cracks no larger than their eyes. Humans lack such fluidity. Vertebrates are structured around a central nervous system centered in the head, while the brains of an octopus – whose neuron numbers are comparable to those of mammals – are distributed, with two-thirds in their 8 arms and only one third in their heads. This means that the arms can engage in independent problem-solving behavior, like how to open the tank of the Australian Pineapplefish, while the owner can be checking to see if there is a similarly worthy object of its attention in another tank. As Godfrey-Smith notes, “An octopus is so suffused with its nervous system that is has no clear brain-body boundary.” Imagine.
And that’s just for starters. Vertebrates have just one heart, while octopuses have three. Two of the hearts are engaged solely in the task of moving blood beyond the gills, while the third heart is tasked with keeping circulation flowing for the organs. When an octopus swims, the organ heart actually stops beating, which explains why in many cases an octopus would rather walk, or crawl, than swim, as swimming is exhausting for them. And walking does come in handy when getting out of the water for an aquarium hunting expedition.
Common Octopus Juvenile, Sea of Cortez. Photo by Kaia Thomson
But perhaps of all the cool things that an octopus’s brain/body can do, the most amazing is its ability to disguise itself by almost instantaneously changing not only the color and pattern of its skin, but the very texture of its skin to everything from small bumps to tall spikes to match its surroundings such that even the most determined and observant predator or prey cannot distinguish it from nearby coral, algae-covered rocks, kelp fronds or the sandy seabed. And color also denotes mood. As Sy Montgomery wrote upon meeting an octopus named Athena, “As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. Later, I learn this is the color of a relaxed octopus.” Alternatively, “An agitated giant Pacific octopus turns red, its skin gets pimply, and it erects two papillae over the eyes, which some divers say look like horns.”
It is tempting to chalk up the body-changing abilities of an octopus to instinct alone, but Dr. Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist who studies octopuses, has found that octopuses use specific disguises for specific species in specific conditions – both offensive and defensive. That is, it is another sign of the octopus’s intelligence. Dr. Mather believes that the octopus’s loss of the ancestral shell is what lead it to develop this intelligence. Being shell-free allows the octopus to be an active predator like a lion, rather than a passive muncher like a clam. But the dozens of different prey species that it hunts require different hunting strategies, just as different strategies are required for defending itself against different predators. Dr. Mather has documented that octopuses will often use what is called the Passing Cloud display – flashing pulses of color that move across the octopus like passing clouds – to startle an immobile crab (one of its favorite foods) into moving and give itself away. To catch shrimp, octopuses have been seen to compress themselves, creep up to the shrimp, extend an arm up and over the shrimp, then touch it – an act which scares the shrimp right into the mouth of the octopus.
Common Octopus, The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson
On the other side of the equation, if an octopus is being hunted by a hungry fish it might rapidly change color, pattern and shape; fish have strong visual memories for certain images, and if an octopus is rapidly changing from light to dark, from spots to stripes, the fish can’t place it and moves on to something it can identify to eat. But if that psychedelic display is not enough, octopuses have many more tricks in their bag – including the ability of some species to deploy a pseudomorph, a life-size self-portrait made from a cloud of ink and mucus. This essentially freaks out and disorients the predator, allowing the octopus to get away. It seems that octopuses actually enjoy messing with the (lesser) minds of would-be predators. The mimic octopus, rather than making itself look like something passive such as coral or rock to avoid detection, transforms itself to look and act like venomous creatures such as jellyfish, sea snakes and spiky lionfish to send its would-be predator running the other way.
Octopuses also employ tools for defense. Researchers in Indonesia have documented octopuses lugging half coconut shells across the ocean floor, assembling them into spheres, and climbing inside for protection. An octopus at the Middlebury octopus lab found that a sea urchin was hanging around too close to its den so she ventured out, found a piece of flat slate, and erected it in front of her den like a shield.
As Sy Montgomery notes, “…of all the creatures on the planet who imagine what is in another creature’s mind, the one that must do so best might well be the octopus – because without this ability, the octopus could not perpetrate its many self-preserving deceptions. An octopus must convince many species of predators and prey that it is really something else….(then) assess whether the other animal believes its ruse or not, and if not, try something different. “Writes Godfrey-Smith, “When surviving requires decision-making, brains have developed awareness. Sentience,” he notes, “has some point to it.”
Love and Friendship
Common Octopus. The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson
Montgomery, Godrey-Smith and numerous others have documented that octopuses can readily distinguish different people, even if they are wearing identical uniforms, and that they have very particular feelings about those different people. With people that they like, they will touch them, hold their hands and arms, give them gentle squeezes, and allow themselves to be stroked. They are friendly and engaged and will readily come to the surface of their tank for interaction. People that they don’t like may be subjected to rude squirts of water and – if the visitor is too close – even a bite. But what about with each other? Every Valentine’s Day the Seattle Aquarium hosts the Octopus Blind Date, in which the partition between the tanks of a male and female giant Pacific octopus is lifted and nature is allowed to take its course – six hearts beating as three might be the romantic view. But in 2016 the blind date was cancelled due to fears that the 70-pound male, Kong, would simply find his 35-pound date a tasty snack, a decidedly unromantic outcome. While it was a loss for Seattle’s octopus sex voyeurs, it was a new lease on life for Kong. Mating, while ensuring the survival of the species, is a death knell for male octopuses, who die shortly thereafter. This close link between sex and death might account for some octopuses rather hands-off approach to sex – literally. The males and females of the Algae octopus will find houses next to one another so that the male only has to reach his hectocotylus (sex arm) out his front door and into her’s to get the job done. The Argonaut octopus doesn’t even get that intimate. Males simply detach their hectocotylus and send it off to mate with a passing female.
Female octopuses can lay up to 400,000 eggs, which they attach to the ceiling of their dwelling and lay in long strings like translucent ropes of pearls. They guard and tend their eggs diligently until they hatch. Sy Montgomery reports how her octopus friend Octavia in the New England Aquarium wove her egg chains and tended them with meaningful rituals, even though there was no male to fertilize them. Of course the eggs never hatched and Octavia succumbed to death a few months later, as do all female octopuses once their reproductive cycle is over.
The Octopus’s Garden
Octopuses are the blue bloods of the marine world. Truly. Octopuses evolved a copper rather than an iron-based blood, and it’s the copper that turns their blood blue. Copper is more efficient at transporting oxygen than hemoglobin in deep ocean environments, where water temperatures are low and there is not much oxygen. But this system also means that octopuses are very sensitive to changes in acidity, and when the ocean’s pH gets too low, octopuses can’t circulate enough oxygen. There is therefore a great deal of concern in the scientific community about what will happen to octopuses with the increasing ocean acidification being brought about by climate change.
Octopuses have existed on the earth for at least 296 million years, the age of the oldest known octopus fossil. That’s over a thousand times longer than humans. “The sea is the original birth place of the mind. When you dive into the sea, you are diving in to the origin of us all’” writes Godfrey-Smith. It is perhaps for this reason that Godfrey-Smith dedicates his book to “all those who work to protect the oceans.” As Carl Safina notes, “As we change the world, let’s bear this in our minds: Other minds are living their own lives here with us on earth.”
In Baja California Sur our two oceans, the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez, are filled with many of the 300 species of octopus that inhabit the world, and it is possible to visit many octopus gardens and match wits with these amazing creatures when snorkeling and diving. Jacques Cousteau, who called the Sea of Cortez the Aquarium of the World, tells a charming story in his 1973 book Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence. “Our friend Gilpatric … brought an octopus home and put it in an aquarium, which he then covered with a heavy lid. A short time later, the aquarium was empty, and Gilpatric found the octopus going through his library, book by book, turning the pages with its arms.” And that’s a true octopus story.
It was the days of the Mexican revolution and Juan Cuevas had had enough. La Paz had grown too big and too political for his tastes so he set out to find someplace with no government and no people. A Sea of Cortez fisherman by trade, Juan tried living on the beautiful and unpopulated islands of San Jose and San Francisco; these experiences prompted him to add no mosquitos and no noseeums to his list of requirements. After years of defining his search by what he didn’t want, in 1923 he finally found what he did: El Pardito, a 2.5 acre rock in the Sea of Cortez, 45 miles north of La Paz. There were no structures, no gardens, no electricity, no people, no government, no mosquitos. It was just a rock, and Juan was thrilled. He brought his wife Paula out to El Pardito and in short order they built a wooden house, brought in chickens and pigs and produced 9 children. From that day to this, a Juan Cuevas has lived, worked and loved on El Pardito.
When Juan found his dream location it was still almost two decades before Jacques Cousteau would declare the Sea of Cortez the Aquarium of World due to its great abundance of marine life. A fisherman living on a rock in the midst of such bounty smacked of genius, and Jacques Cousteau himself once paid Juan a visit on his rock. “Most fishing communities in the days of the original Juan focused on shark fishing as shark livers were the main source of Vitamin B around the world until other sources emerged during World War II. Demand was huge and the original Juan was a big part of this trade” notes Amy Hudson Weaver, a marine biologist with the conservation group Niparajá who lived on El Pardito for 8 months in 1995-1996 and continues to work closely with the family. “Juan was so successful that he was able to build a large house for the family on the Malecon in La Paz so they would have a place to stay during their periodic trips to the city.”
Wealth was not all that the Cuevas family accumulated. Notes Amy, “To successfully hunt sharks you have to know a tremendous amount about them. For example, you have to know when they are pupping so you don’t accidentally interfere with reproduction. That knowledge was handed down among the generations in the Cuevas family, and many shark biologists spend time at El Pardito because the family’s knowledge of sharks is so deep.”
Sharks are just one of myriad species for which the Cuevas family has profound knowledge. Don Croll, the former director of the School for Field Studies and current professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has been going to El Pardito for 30 years, and has known the current Juan Cuevas, the 40-year old great great grandson of the original since he was 10 years old. “Juan and his brother Felipe didn’t have much formal education on El Pardito, but their knowledge is astounding. Lots of people can identify a turtle or fish species when they’re holding it in their hands, but Juan and Felipe can identify a species from the boat from really far away, and I rely on them for this. Their marine life capture skills are equally remarkable. When the Monterrey Bay Aquarium needed someone to help them live capture manta rays for their Sea of Cortez display, I didn’t hesitate to recommend Juan and Felipe.”
By the time Don’s doctoral student, Luli Martinez, started field work for her Ph.D. on El Pardito in 2014, the great abundance of the Sea of Cortez was a thing of the past. Notes Luli, “The 1970s to 1990s saw the highest use of resources, and sea turtle, shark and other marine life populations began collapsing. When I first started hiring Juan and Felipe to assist me with my conservation research, they were very passionate about marine species but conservation was not where their hearts were at. Then something happened that really changed their perspective. They were helping Don research a manta ray nursery in the mangroves of Isla San Jose when they discovered a population of hawksbill turtles. The Eastern Pacific population of hawksbills is the most endangered hawksbill population in the world, so this was really an important discovery. Hawksbills are not killed for their meat – they’re really not that tasty – but rather for their shells, which are used to make jewelry, and their skin, which is used to make leather goods. In the course of our research on this population Juan and Felipe really took note of the individual turtles, naming them and getting inside their personalities. They developed a sense of belonging to the hawksbill turtles. Now they are not just working for me for a paycheck, we are a team together. They now physically protect the estuary and mangroves of Isla San Jose. They quit fishing in the estuary to recover the population of commercial fish species, and they are proud because the fishing ban protects the turtles too.”
Says Juan, “All of us on El Pardito used to be the enemies of conservation. But now years of working with Don, Amy, and Luli has really changed our perspective. We no longer have the luxury of the previous generations of fishermen to catch everything without a thought. We now need to give back to the ocean. We don’t use nets anymore and we’re trying to spread artisanal, hook and line fishing throughout the community. Change requires a lot of patience, diligence and effort, and we’re committed to that. Now 70% of our income comes from conservation work and only 30% from fishing.” Now, rather than catching and killing sharks for the market as the original Juan did, Juan and Felipe use their deep knowledge of sharks and mad freediving skills to tag sharks for researchers like Dr. James Ketchum of Pelagios Kakunjá who is working to protect and recover shark species in the Sea of Cortez.
Stephanie Rousso, a marine ecologist who works with Juan and Felipe notes just how far the El Pardito community has come in its relationship to the sea. “El Pardito forms part of the first ever multi-species Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP) initiated by Niparajá and ProNatura to create a system of fish refuge zones for monitoring improvements in fish populations. This FIP was started in 2017 to monitor 33 main species. Participating fishers harvest these species using the more traditional, more sustainable method of hook and line. It is wonderful to see the current generation of fishers in their 30s to 40’s working to replenish the fish stocks and help revive populations overfished by previous generations.”
Says Luli, “The success of my hawksbill project is due to the El Pardito community. When I’m invited to give talks in Mexico City by groups like the WWF I take Juan and Felipe with me, and of course the audience loves them much more than me! They are now so well respected by other conservation researchers and they are increasingly in demand.”
“In demand” seems to be a theme for the Cuevas family. The original Juan might have wanted to get away from crowds, but it seems he was still a social guy. Family lore posits that he had several “wives” in different ports, all of whom produced a good number of offspring. He also developed a strong connection with the community of Las Animas in the mountains of Baja Sur. Amy shares some of the family history she picked up during her 8 months of living on El Pardito. “The Cuevas family needed these large steel hooks for hunting sharks, so they would trade shark, fish and turtle meat with the blacksmith artisans of Las Animas who produced them. When the Las Animas guys were ready to trade, they’d go to the beach closest to El Pardito, light a bonfire to signal the family, then the whole community would sail over. Great parties would ensue on the beach, and this is how El Partido got not only steel hooks, but fresh fruit, vegetables and meats. The ranches in the Sierras were also where the younger generations of Cuevas men would go to find wives. They would sail across to the mainland from El Pardito, hike into the Sierras, then stay for a couple of weeks on the ranches while they courted their sweethearts. This was a very successful strategy.”
Living on a small rock with the Cuevas family might not seem compelling to all but it appears to be irresistable to most who get the opportunity. Recalls Don, “An American couple, Jaime and Heidi Schultz, were boating near El Pardito in 1976 when they got into trouble. The Cuevas family rescued them and sheltered them on the island. The Schultz’s loved the family and El Pardito so much that they built their own house on the island, and would come down for extended periods every year.” Don, Amy and Luli all understand the pull. “The Cuevas family is my family. My kids have grown up with their kids,” says Don who still brings groups of students to the island every year. “Juan and Felipe are like my brothers” says Luli. “They are my family.” Amy is all in too. “El Pardito is one of my favorite places in the world. I love this family.”
Juan is open to seeing you too. “We are available to anyone who wants to know how to survive in the world. Today so many people live in their phones, not in the world. We have a lot of things to teach people about how to survive outside a city, so please leave your phone at home and come visit us.” The original crowd-shunning, people-embracing Juan couldn’t have issued a better invitation himself.
The global pandemic achieved something that no political movement, no world religion and no pharmaceutical product has ever achieved before: global agreement from the people of all nations, all regions and all walks of life on a single, inherent truth. The year 2020 sucked.
There were still moments of joy and revelation, and few can match those experienced by Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa, a native of the Baja California Sur town of Constitución and a graduate of the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) in La Paz, one of the best marine sciences schools in Mexico. “My master’s degree at UABCS was on the habitat of beaked, or toothed, whales in the La Paz-Los Cabos region. This is not as easy as it sounds. While 23 species of beaked whales have been documented, they are quite rare to see and we still know very little about them. Unlike the gregarious gray and humpback whales who love to come in close to shore in Baja and spend a lot of time at the surface, beaked whales tend to live really far offshore, in very deep waters, and spend about 90% of their time foraging underwater. When they are on the surface it’s only for a few minutes. All this combines to make them extremely difficult to study.”
In fact, the only reason scientists know about one species of beaked whale, Perrin’s beaked whale or Mesoplodon perrinni, is that several dead ones washed up on a beach in the US state of California. They were initially identified as Hector’s beaked whales or Mesoplodon hectori, and only genetic testing proved that they were an entirely new species previously unknown to man. They had never been seen in the wild. They had never been definitively heard either. One of the defining characteristics of beaked whales is that they communicate and hunt via echolocation clicks that are above the frequency of human hearing, and Perrin’s beaked whales are thought to produce a species-specific FM echolocation pulse of BW43. In 2013 BW43 pulses were recorded off the coast of Southern California, but in 2018 Gustavo’s colleagues recorded BW43 pulses from the US-Mexico border south to the mid part of the Baja Peninsula. They had no DNA or visual proof, but they thought this area might overlap with the limited geographic range of Perrin’s beaked whale. Had they stumbled upon the Mesoplodon perrinni in the wilds of Baja’s waters?
Upon graduation from UABCS Gustavo started working with the Marine Mammal Research Group of the National Institute of Ecology, which became part of CONANP in 2018. He also began work on his Ph.D. at the Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior, CICESE. Through his work he connected with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), which has been working for the last several years to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise in the upper Gulf of California. In October 2020 Gustavo and his colleagues engineered a 5-year agreement between CONANP and SSCS in which SSCS would provide boat time, equipment and scientific manpower to help CONANP monitor whales in Mexico’s natural protected areas. They did two expeditions to Guadalupe Island to study Cuvier’s beaked whales, then in November 2020 started their third voyage as a team aboard Sea Shepherd’s vessel the Martin Sheen. Their goal was to see if they could finally get a visual and/or acoustic match for those BW43 signals recorded in 2018 to determine if they really did belong to Perrin’s beaked whales.
“It was 6:15 AM on November 17, the third day of the expedition, and we were about 100 miles north of the San Benito islands off the coast of Baja when we started seeing marine mammals close to the boat” recalls Gustavo. “It was three individuals and because of their size and their apparent ease at being around the ship, at first we thought they were dolphins. But we started taking photos and deployed a specialized underwater microphone to record their acoustic signals. It was then that we realized that they were beaked whales and it was really amazing because beaked whales almost never come close to ships, and these guys were actually investigating the boat with a great deal of curiosity. It was just incredible.”
More incredible than he could have imagined in fact. “Of course, we all thought that we’d finally found the elusive Perrin’s beaked whale which was amazing enough as one has never been spotted alive. But then we started analyzing the photos and realized that the morphology of these whales was quite different from that of the Perrin’s. One of the beaked whales that we saw was a male, which means that it had teeth in the lower jaw that we could compare to other species. And its teeth were in an entirely different location from those of the Perrin’s. The Perrin’s beaked whale has teeth right at the end of its jaw, while this whale had teeth much further back. Moreover, the acoustic signal we recorded is not BW43. In fact, it is not a sound previously known to science. Add in the fact that there were differences in skin color and size and we realized that not only were these whales not Perrin’s, they were most likely an entirely new species!”
Gustovo and the science team carefully storing the cable and removing the recorder from the array Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd/CONANP
“We didn’t see any other beaked whales for the remaining two weeks of that expedition” continues Gustavo, “but we did take water samples from the area where we saw the whales and our hope is that there will be some genetic material like sloughed skin that will allow us to analyze the whale’s DNA to determine if they are definitely a new species. But we feel pretty confident that it is.”
So for Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa 2020 was definitely a banner year. Not only did he discover a potentially new whale species, he successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis less than a month later and is now, according to the Sea Shepherd web site, “renowned beaked whale researcher, Dr. Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa.” But it was still 2020 after all and the genetic testing lab at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) – which also had a scientist on the expedition – was closed due to the global pandemic. So Gustavo and his colleagues are just having to cool their heels until the pandemic releases its grip long enough to allow the lab to reopen and test the water samples to see if they have really discovered a new species. When will that be? It’s anybody’s guess, but the potential discovery of Gustavo and his team has given a weary world a happy reminder that the earth still has joyful mysteries to share, that local boys from small towns can still make huge contributions to science, and that in Baja, right when we need them the most, the whales can still be relied upon to appear to fill us with wonder and inspire us with their 50 million years of sustainably inhabiting the earth. It’s almost enough to make you consider 2020 in a new light. Almost.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That may be the fate of the mortal coil, but humans have never had much truck with letting flesh have the final word. “Rock, stone, mosaics, ceramics. These are the lasting materials of any civilization,” says Donna Billick, the founder of Billick Rock Art in Davis, California and Todos Artes in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. “Rock art is the only uninterrupted communication throughout human history of who we are culturally. It is a statement of who we are in our time as well as the transmission of ourselves through time. When you look back across the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, China, Mesoamerica, you will find ceramics and mosaics embedded in the culture, still informing us today in vibrant and dynamic detail about those ancient lives lived.”
In fact, ceramics – clay hardened by heat – are so durable that NASA incorporates the material into present-day spacecraft engineering. The space agency actually has a page on its website devoted to “Superhero Ceramics!” noting that ceramics are “stronger than aluminum, fireproof and able to withstand meteoroids.” Among many other uses, the entire lower surface of a space shuttle orbiter is covered with ceramic tiles as part of the spacecraft’s thermal protection system. But there is another material that is equally compelling to NASA and that is “pound-for-pound more effective for shielding against cosmic radiation than aluminum.” Plastic. In fact, the same material used to make household trash bags, polyethylene, can be chemically modified into a material that has three times the tensile strength of aluminum and is 2.6 times lighter.
That type of durability is highly desirable for space travel, particularly for any humans interested in traveling to Mars who would have to endure high levels of radiation for up to 30 months. But the very durability that makes your plastic trash bag seem like Superman’s cape in space, makes it a more of a Lex Luther-grade menace when it simply envelopes your trash in a landfill on earth. It can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and in the process it can release toxic pollutants into the air, ground and water that threaten our very existence on the planet. It is probably safe to say that we would all rather have our first trip to Mars be by personal choice then by mandated evacuation order.
Donna, who has a degree in genetics in addition to art, started the Art & Science Fusion Program during her tenure as a professor at the University of California Davis. It is therefore not surprising that she and her Todos Artes “quaranteam” of artists, surfers and environmentalists Isabel “Issy” Von Zastrow and Will Worden, saw their two worlds happily collide around the durable properties of ceramics and plastic. It all started with the ecobrick. Explains Will, “An ecobrick is a plastic container like a Coke bottle or a garafon (large water container) stuffed to the brim with non-biodegradable plastic waste. This makes a very strong, reusable and long-lasting building material that can be used to make many things including furniture, garden walls, and sculptures. Issy and I were working on ecobricks for our new home, when we happened to observe Donna giving a ceramic mosaic workshop. The lightbulb kind of collectively went off for all of us, and we all saw a great way to mitigate the extremely negative impact of plastic waste’s durability, with the culturally positive impact of ceramic’s durability. When we take the ecobricks and encase them in concrete and ceramic mosaics, it makes a beautiful and enduring piece of art. From the basic building block of an ecobrick, you can make lamps, tables, chairs, really all kinds of beautiful, functional pieces.”
When Donna got out of graduate school in the mid-1970s, the governor of California at the time, Jerry Brown, mandated that 2% of the budget for all public buildings be devoted to art. For Donna, this was the answer to her father’s daily question during her childhood, “so what is your big idea?”, and she’s spent the last 42 years producing large scale art for public spaces. But having her art enjoyed by everyone, not just a few private collectors or gallery owners, is only part of Donna’s Big Idea. “Community build is really where it’s at. Jerry Brown saw public art as a key component of an enlightened, vibrant and thriving society. And when the community itself participates in making a piece of art, it creates a sense of collective ownership and pride in the art that is simply not possible any other way.” Donna, a founding member of the Community Built Association, brought community build to Todos Santos through Todos Artes and her annual Heaven on Earth workshop. Two of her ceramic mosaic pieces built by Todos Santos community members, the Aztec Calendar just off the Todos Santos town plaza, and the Los Todos Santeños wall along the well-traveled route of lower Topete, are now some of the most-photographed, most-loved, and iconic images of the town.
Issy outlines how the ecobricks can fit into a long-term community build program for our tourism-driven area. “There is a difference between impact and influence. One way that the communities of Baja California Sur can influence the impact of tourism on our towns is to invite all travelers to contribute to the ecobricks. Each hotel, restaurant and Airbnb rental can have an old garafon in a central area and invite travelers to stuff it with their plastic waste. When the garafon is full, either we at Todos Artes will come pick it up to turn it into functional art, or we can share with the proprietors how to do it themselves. We invite visitors into our communities to experience the area’s great natural beauty, and this is a great way for them to help ensure that the place will be just as beautiful the next time they visit. They can influence the impact they have on the community in a lasting, beautiful way.”
There is a group called The Long Now Foundation that is in the process of building the 10,000 Year Clock – a clock it expects to keep time for 10,000 years – with the help of ceramic bearings of course. The clock is a monument to long-term thinking and Alexander Rose, the executive director of the project notes, “It is not the engineering [of the clock] but the civilization around it which we hope to shape as one that cares for both the present and the future. We hope that by building such things…they challenge us to become better ancestors.” The Todos Artes team sees ecobricks in much the same light. Says Donna, “The ecobricks are a great way to increase the environmental literacy of our community, to engage the current generation in a completely fun way in the preservation of the stunning nature all around us for future generations.”
Perhaps when the 10,000 Year Clock strikes its last hour all those centuries into the future, and the archaeologists are writing their books on the ancient artifacts of the 2020s in Baja California Sur, they’ll be struck by the care that society took to turn one of its most enduring problems – plastic waste – into some of its most enduring works of art. Rock, stone, mosaics, ceramics. With ecobricks we’ll be transmitting who we were culturally to all the generations to come. We’ll be proving ourselves good ancestors. And, if all goes according to plan, those receiving the message will still have the option to live on a vibrant, thriving and enlightened Earth.
Chito. In Baja California Sur, if you’re talking about Chito, it’s the same as if you were sitting in the offices of Rolling Stone talking about Sting or Bono. Surnames are simply superfluous. Chito is the owner of Rancho Santo Domingo, 2,500 hectares of spectacular land in the Sierra La Laguna mountains that has been in his family since the 1700s. Like most rancheros in Baja Sur, Chito (christened Alfredo Orozco Castro) has all the skills he needs to thrive in a remote area: he knows how to build houses, run a business, train horses, lasso cows, deal with snake bites, make cheese, handle poachers, distill plant-based medicines, fight forest fires, roast pigs and track missing hikers. And that’s just for starters. Ranching has been his way of life, all his life, and when he looks to the future he sees, well, something different.
“Around 35 years ago things started changing,” says Chito. “We used to have rains every January and February, sometimes three times a week, but now we really only have rain during the summer hurricane season. Water, of course, is life, and with this much longer dry season we can’t have as many cows, we can’t make as much cheese, we don’t grow as many vegetables – the impact on the ranching way of life is huge.” Right now selling cows is Chito’s main source of income but, at the age of 60, he’s ready to embrace a post-cow future. “I really see the future of Rancho Santo Domingo in ecotourism.”
In 2019 Chito started working with Todos Santos Eco Adventures (TOSEA) on a luxury tent camp in the avocado, grapefruit and mango orchard that his grandfather planted for his grandmother at the ranch. (Disclosure: the author is a co-owner of TOSEA). With his own hands he built a traditional ranch kitchen with a beautiful brick, wood-burning stove that is the heart of the camp, and this is complemented by walk-in tents throughout the orchard that feature locally made furniture, real beds, rugs, lamps, rocking chairs and other details that make staying on Chito’s ranch not only incredibly fun, but super comfortable. Chito often guides guests on hikes and mule rides throughout the mountains, and loves chatting with folks around the campfire at happy hour afterwards. His incredibly accomplished 7 year old grandson Alfredito often accompanies him, always making sure that there is enough wood for the stove and always ready to share a laugh with camp guests. Together they demonstrate a truth that has been known in the area for centuries: the ranchers of Baja California Sur are some of the most gracious and welcoming hosts on the planet.
They are also accomplished artists. Using the tools handed down from his father, Chito is a master leatherworker and his beautiful saddles, bridles and other leather items are highly sought after. He is also a natural teacher, and a leather working workshop with Chito is the highlight of many guests’ stay at Camp Cecil de la Sierra, the luxury tent camp on his property.
Chito inspires his fellow artists as well. Renowned ceramic mosaic artist Donna Billick, the founder of Todos Artes in Todos Santos, was so impressed by the time she spent with Chito that she created the BioSphere, a magnificent ceramic homage to Chito, his ranch, his cowboy roots and his ecotourism future. And she’s not stopping there. Todos Artes artists Isabel “Issy” Von Zastrow and Will Worden will be working with Donna to lead plein aire watercolor workshops at the camp, where visitors can seek inspiration and subject matter from the ranch and the fantastic natural beauty of the area. Alfredito took one of Issy’s first watercolor classes at the camp. He was so impressed that he came back the next day with his cousin Damian and demanded another one. Alfredito’s stated goal in life is to follow in Chito’s footsteps. With his natural gifts for people, ranching and art, we can all look forward to Rancho Santo Domingo’s continued success as a joyful place where visitors can seek respite and inspiration. In the generations to come, ranching ecotourism may well come to be encapsulated in just one name. Alfredito.
Mahi mahi straight from Agustin’s boat, strawberries with crème freche right out of Agricole, Nasturtium-adorned salads fresh from Jan’s farm, zillions of mangos, right from your own tree. This is the type of food security enjoyed by many residents of Baja California Sur (BCS). All fresh, all delicious, all healthy – and always obtainable in season.
BCS is the fastest growing state in Mexico, with vast sums of tourism-driven dollars flooding the state. This growth, rapid and seldom interrupted over the last few decades, has acted as a beacon to people across Mexico, drawing thousands of immigrants seeking economic opportunity. The Ministry of Economy reported a population increase in BCS of over 25% between 2010 and 2015, a rate which does not appear to have slackened. Yet BCS does not have the infrastructure or resources to adequately feed and house all the new arrivals, a fact that has given rise to a slew of informal settlements across the lower part of state, many without even the most basic of public services. Not coincidentally, the government agency CONEVEL states that in 2020 roughly 29% of the population in BCS was living in extreme poverty, with almost 35% of the population suffering from social deprivation, including deprivation of food access. In this land of plenty, accessing fresh, nutritious food is an extreme challenge for many.
“The International Community Foundation (ICF) founded the Alianza Para la Seguridad Alimentaria (ASA, or BCS Food Security Alliance) in 2014 as an alliance of nonprofits, business owners, government agencies and individuals committed to addressing food insecurity in southern BCS” notes McKenzie Campbell, a program officer with the ICF. “When the pandemic slammed into Mexico in March 2020, BCS was one of the hardest hit states because of its heavy reliance on tourism. Food assistance groups exploded across the state, and by December 2020 many of these groups were serving more than twice their pre-pandemic population.” Because BCS did not have a state foodbank, these groups were spending precious time and resources sourcing ingredients. ASA mobilized to effectively become a mobile food bank for these groups, supporting their efforts with the distribution of despensas (packages of donated food and hygiene essentials) to the informal communities. Continues McKenzie, “It was when we were actively distributing despensas that we realized that without a formal government safety net or a reliable food supply, these communities would be in a constant state of crisis. The pandemic really showed that we needed a permanent solution to addressing food security in BCS.”
Luis Garduño, the director of ASA who was in charge of distributing despensas during the pandemic, says that the ICF doubled down on its commitment to food security during the pandemic. ASA had been formalized as an independent Mexican nonprofit in 2019, so it was the perfect platform from which to accelerate food security efforts in the region. Says Luis, “The first thing we did was conduct a series of diagnostic studies looking at all facets of the food system in BCS from producers, to distribution points, to consumers. Based on what we learned through these studies, ASA is focusing its efforts in three main areas: creating a Sudcaliforniano food bank, fostering community health and resilience, and piloting local foodsheds.”
The food bank program is a remarkable testimony to ASA’s focus. Says Luis, “We are really excited about the progress that’s been made with the Sudcaliforniano food bank, and we expect it to be fully functioning with a presence in La Paz and Los Cabos by the end of 2022. We have secured warehouse space in both locations, and we’re working hard to source necessary items like trucks and cold storage.” The core of the food bank program is food recovery and redistribution, salvaging food that is deemed unsellable or unusable by producers and getting it to vulnerable populations. Notes McKenzie, “Around the world 40% of all food produced in the world is wasted and all those inputs lost. In Mexico, 20 million tons of food are wasted every year, enough to feed 70% of the population living in poverty. One of ASA’s first efforts was to assess food waste hot spots in BCS, then implement recovery, redistribution and prevention strategies.” Continues Luis, “In 2021 ASA provided 34 tons of recovered food to 5,800 individuals. Our goal is to be providing recovered food to 12,000 people on a regular basis by the end of 2022.” The Sudcaliforniano food bank is now affiliated with BAMX, Mexico’s national food bank program, and partners with its prepared food donation program, Al Rescate. It also receives and distributes regular donations from several Walmart-affiliated stores, Carl’s Junior and Earth Ocean Farms.
“Another thing we found when distributing despensas to the informal communities during the pandemic was that women were taking leadership roles and doing what needed to be done to protect not just their own families, but also the most vulnerable in their communities” recalls McKenzie. ASA’s second key initiative, community health and resilience, is designed to amplify that leadership, and give these women the tools they need to be even more effective. Continues Luis, “This program is multifaceted. Not only do we work with these women on leadership skills like decision-making, negotiating, effective communication and teamwork, but also on personal finance skills and small business administration skills. We help develop their skills to determine what is the most nutritious food they can buy for their families with the money that they have.” The program also teaches hurricane and emergency preparedness and response, including basic first aid, fire management, hurricane alert and preparedness systems and control centers for emergency response.
One of the key focus areas of the community health and resilience platform is nutrition and healthy cooking. Local groups like SINADES in Pescadero are at the forefront of this effort. Under the leadership of founder Inés Melchor Pantoja, with assistance from her husband, Julio César Rivas García, SINADES has been working with women in the community for almost two decades on a Conscious Cooking program, making healthy foods affordable, desirable and an integral part of family life. So that they could procure organic produce at a reasonable price, SINADES and the 18 women of the Conscious Cooking program started building greenhouses at their homes a decade ago. The greenhouses have given these women and their families much greater food sovereignty and economic stability, and 3 of them are now expanding into raising chickens. They are currently looking to formalize a point of sale for their chickens, eggs and chicks, and to expand the program to other women in town. SINADES is attacking food insecurity at its source.
Raíz de Fondo is another community force based in La Paz. Founded by Erika Goetz 12 years ago as a community garden in a dirty, abandoned lot in downtown La Paz, Raíz de Fondo is now a driving force for nutrition, food security and sustainable living across the city. The group provides workshops to schools and communities on how start their own gardens, providing garden kits as well as on-going instruction on composting and nutrition. The program has been so successful that when the Secretary of Education (SEP) decided to launch a nutrition and wellness curriculum in elementary and preschools, Raíz de Fondo was tapped to train the teachers in their school garden program to deliver the curriculum.
Another key Raíz de Fondo program is “Cocianado para la Colonia”. Based at the outdoor kitchen of one of their community gardens, Jardin Guamuchil, chefs prepare meals made with ingredients from the garden, as well as rescued food, to support community kitchens with limited resources. Erika says they plan to support 3 groups this year with a total of 3,000 meals. The team is further using this platform to teach healthy recipes to cooks from participating institutional kitchens. To support these programs, Raíz de Fondo has created a network of vegetable farmers who often have perfectly edible food that they cannot sell. They are thrilled to have Raíz de Fondo redistribute this food to those in need, and even get a tax deduction for their donation. Because of their extensive experience with local producers, Raiz de Fondo is a key partner in ASA’s food recovery and distribution program in La Paz.
The third pilar of ASA’s food security platform in BCS is creating thriving local foodsheds by boosting the capacity of small and mid-sized farmers to produce healthy food for the local market. In June 2021 ASA started an “Agroecological Learning Collective” focused on the transition to a regenerative production model, employing farming techniques that improve soil quality. Currently 7 producers from 3 farms are participating in the pilot collective and have received 60 hours of technical assistance and 30 hours of regenerative management consulting. There is a great deal of excitement around this project, and local businesses like Sueno Tropical, Rancho Cacachiles and Baja Regenerative Farms are all pitching in with invaluable advice on production planning, crop selection and marketing. ASA’s Food Hub goal is to be the currently missing link of aggregation, distribution and marketing between local small and mid-sized producers and regional buyers and consumers.
How can you help ASA implement this comprehensive approach to food security in Baja California Sur? Connect with these programs and lend your time, money, expertise, and enthusiasm: