It’s the time of year when droves of homo sapiens inhabiting the upper section of the North American continent give themselves over to the irrepressible urge (what scientists might call a life-preserving instinct) to seek out the warm sand and cool vibes of Baja California Sur. Following the great highway routes mapped out by their ancestors, they migrate south in their Volkswagen campers, Airstreams, and Harleys, the miles made short and their dreams made large by the great beach music of their elders. When they arrive there is much feasting and celebrating (in a greatly reduced version of their native garb) as they share stories of their great migrations, some of which are over 4,000 miles long!
The neighbors are unimpressed. Take the North Pacific loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) for example. These loggerheads begin life on the shores of Japan, and many appear content to spend the balance of their days foraging for crab, jellyfish and other delicacies in the central Pacific. But just as with our homo sapiens, there are some outliers among the loggerheads who feel the irresistible pull of Baja California Sur, and swim 9,000 miles (14,500 km) to the waters of Baja in nothing more than the shell they were born in. Being cold-blooded, loggerheads need warm water to survive, yet this epic journey requires them to pass through 6,000 kilometers of water between Pacific basins that is so cold that Charles Darwin himself pronounced it “impassable” for the likes of sea turtles. Many species, like coral, are unable to cross this divide, yet a small group of loggerheads regularly makes the trip.
For years this feat remained a mystery, with scientists simply unable to account for the Japanese-born loggerheads showing up in the abundant feeding grounds of Baja. Then they got focused, and between 1997 and 2013 researchers in Japan and the US tagged hundreds of adolescent loggerheads and published their findings in April 2021. It turns out that the young loggerheads migrate in the years when the ocean surface temperature is much warmer than usual due to natural phenomena such as marine heat waves and El Niño. These conditions create a thermal corridor that allows the young turtles to keep swimming in warm water all the way to Baja. Mystery solved!
But what prompted the scientists to get focused? Adelita of course. Adelita was a loggerhead turtle who was captured off the coast of Baja as a juvenile and raised in captivity. She was released in 1996 with a satellite tag attached to her back, and proceeded to amaze the world by traveling over 14,000 kilometers across the Pacific Ocean, becoming the first animal to cross an ocean basin while being tracked. It was Adelita who confirmed to scientists that the loggerheads seen in Japan, the central Pacific and Baja all belong to the same distinct population. It was Adelita who led to the knowledge that this population nests exclusively in Japan then spreads out across the Pacific to forage for food. It was Adelita whose journey prompted insight into the bold loggerheads who spend their youth in the blissfully warm, food-rich waters of Baja, then return to Japan at 20-30 years of age to continue the species. It was Adelita who transformed loggerheads into the stuff of migration legend.
For its part, the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) may migrate only a few hundred miles each year from south-central Mexico to Baja California Sur, but the females of the species up the ante by doing it while heavily pregnant. According to Dr. Winifred Frick who has studied the bats of Baja for almost two decades, “In late March and early April the females follow the nectar corridor north from southern-central Mexico up along the Sinaloan coast, and we think they likely fly over the Sea of Cortez to the Baja peninsula. The lesser long-nosed bats are in the last stages of pregnancy when they make these spring migrations. Their feat is made all the more incredible when you realize that bat pups are roughly a third of the mother’s weight at birth – an enormous amount of extra baggage to carry on the migration route. The females then all give birth at the same time in mid-April in what is known as a synchronous birth pulse.” (It is generally acknowledged as a blessing that the migratory homo sapiens do not follow suit.) The babies nurse for 4-8 weeks, during which time it is not unusual for the mothers to fly 60 miles in each direction, each night, to their feeding grounds to obtain the nutrition needed for both mother and pup. Dr. Frick puts this feat into human terms. “It would be like leaving your newborn at home, jogging 60 miles to find a pop-up grocery store, eating all your meals at once, then jogging 60 miles home to your newborn.” In the process of feeding, the lesser long-nosed bats act as major pollinators for Baja California’s agaves and columnar cacti. When the cacti are pollinated and the babies are weaned, the cloud of bats then migrates back to the Mexican mainland. A very satisfactory migration job completed!
Given their enormous size and intelligence, it may not seem fair to bring gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) into the Baja migration discussion. After all, over the average gray whale’s lifetime of annually migrating the roughly 12,000 miles roundtrip between the feeding grounds of the Arctic and the breeding grounds of Baja, they will have traveled the equivalent of a return trip to the moon. But the gray whales aren’t resting on their migratory laurels. In 2010 a gray whale showed up off the coast of Israel, then moved on to Spain before dropping off the scientific radar. Three years later a different gray whale swam the longest distance ever recorded in a marine vertebrate, more than 16,700 miles, lingering off the coast of Namibia for a bit before vanishing to parts unknown. (A leatherback turtle had previously held the world record of 12,774 miles across the Pacific. She couldn’t be reached for comment for this article.) National Geographic reports that scientists were so discombobulated by seeing gray whales on the wrong side of the world – they had never seen one outside of the Pacific Ocean before – that one compared the feeling to walking down a street in California and seeing a giraffe.
But these two whales just might just be the vanguard in a new migratory pattern for gray whales. Or, more precisely, the dusting off of an old one. Research suggests that millions of years ago gray whales lived in both the Atlantic and Pacific. The planet later cooled and an impenetrable Arctic barrier formed between the two populations, which then may have evolved into two distinct species. If so, then it is likely that the Atlantic gray whales are what naturalists of the 18th century called “scrag whales” and that they were decimated by the whaling industry while the Pacific whales survived. DNA and carbon isotopes from the bones of Atlantic whales proved to scientists that the Pacific and Atlantic gray whale populations are still closely related. In fact, it shows that the Pacific gray whale was responsible for colonizing the Atlantic Ocean, not just in a one-off, fluke event, but several times across the ages. As National Geographic puts it, the data proves that “Pacific gray whales have periodically swum across the Arctic Ocean and into the Atlantic and established populations that survived for millennia. The scientists can identify several waves of immigration. One took place about 79,000 years ago, and then three others happened more recently, between about 10,000 and 5,000 years ago.”
The loggerheads know how they did it: warm water, at least relatively speaking. 70,000 to 135,000 years ago the climate was so warm that the Arctic Ocean was open all year round, allowing the Pacific gray whales to freely migrate to the Atlantic. A new ice age cut off the Arctic once again, but when it ended 60,000 years later the Pacific gray whales renewed their Arctic passages to the Atlantic. A later cooling again closed the route, but now that the migrating homo sapiens are warming up the Arctic in record time, perhaps more gray whales will follow the lead of their friends spotted in Israel and Namibia, and strike out across the ice-free Arctic Ocean, looking to colonize the Atlantic once again.
Migrations long and short are a theme of life in Baja. In March and June thousands of mobula rays congregate to mate in the Sea of Cortez bays around La Paz and La Ventana, then migrate over 300 miles to the Pacific side of the peninsula. In spring and autumn each year the small Red Knot bird (Calidris canutus roselaari) follows the Pacific Flyway 9,300 miles from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego – then back again – bulking up on nutritious grunion eggs along the Sea of Cortez each way. No matter the species or their origin, the migrators are part of the magic pull and thrill of Baja as we marvel at and celebrate their victories over incredible obstacles to reach the peninsula’s life-giving shores. As Thoreau may have mused, the homo sapiens who migrate to Baja may find that it is not the margarita they sought but the tonic of wildness they found of which they can never have enough. And that is as life-affirming a reason for migration as ever there was.
Thanks to Jose Sanchez of PureBajaTravels.com for inspiration on gray whale travels through the Arctic. Jose runs the best whale watching camp in Baja in Laguna San Ignacio.
Details on the scientific research related to gray whale migrations across the Arctic came from Carl Zimmer’s article in National Geographic, Whales on the Wrong Side of the World.
The Stanford study on loggerhead turtle migrations was originally published in Frontiers of Marine Science.
Todos Santos Eco Adventures (TOSEA) is the leading eco adventure company in Baja California Sur. TOSEA invites you to join them in the following initiatives to help preserve the habitats of Baja California that both our native and migratory species depend on:
Carbon Capture with Tomorrow’s Air. TOSEA is a carbon capture education partner with Tomorrow’s Air, and to date has supported the removal of one ton of carbon dioxide from the air. All homo sapiens who migrate to Baja are invited to join TOSEA in supporting this incredible project that was awarded Newsweek’s 2021 Future of Travel Award in the Visionary category
– it is not carbon offset, it is actually removing CO2 from the air and storing it deep underground. www.tomorrowsair.com.
Zero Waste Alliance of Todos Santos and Pescadero (ZWA). TOSEA is a proud supporter of the ZWA which is actively working to reduce the amount of waste that goes to the local landfill and build circular economies around that waste. All homo sapiens, both native and migratory, are invited to join the movement! www.facebook.com/alianzacerobasuratodossantos
In 1976 Hurricane Liza slammed La Paz so hard that Griselda’s entire neighborhood was washed out to sea when the dam burst. Her parents put her and her brothers in the family Plymouth and for three hours they watched as the bodies of people and animals rushed by in the churning waters, fearing the worst for themselves as the water crept up past their knees. The Plymouth began to float away and was about 30 meters from what had once been their yard when the soldiers came to their rescue. A fireman put her on his shoulders and carried her to safety. She knew then what she wanted to be when she grew up.
Hurricane Liza is still cited as the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Baja California Sur and one of the deadliest recorded cyclones in the eastern Pacific. The official count was 1,263 fatalities and over $100 million 1976 US dollars in damage, but many thought it was more. Where the home of Griselda’s family had once stood there was now only sand so they, along with hundreds of other families, founded a new neighborhood constructed entirely of cardboard houses. They called it the 8th of October. The government later upgraded them to a sheet rock house with one bedroom, a living room, a kitchen and an outdoor bathroom. The 4 kids slept on the floor in the living room. Despite the sub-par housing and a father devastated by loss, Griselda thrived. She rescued animals at the nearby ranches (yes, there were ranches on the outskirts of La Paz in those days), adopted a falcon named Kila, and did all the dancing, art and writing she could in school. When she was 18 she was crowned queen of the 8th of October Festival and inaugurated the 8th of October Bridge with Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. She worked ceaselessly to get baseball and soccer fields built in her neighborhood. Griselda had emerged from her childhood disaster smart, popular and a resourceful force for community betterment. The world appeared to be her oyster.
Then, at 22, she got married. By 33 she was divorced. She had 3 great kids but no job, no home, no source of income. It was 2001, her father was gone and her mother was living in a tiny trailer in Pescadero. As her family had done after Hurricane Liza, she built the only shelter she could for her family – a cardboard home – around her mother’s trailer. But she still had no money to feed her children so when she learned about the Internado, the boarding house for ranch kids in Todos Santos paid for by the state, she jumped at the chance to enroll them. Every Monday she would walk from Pescadero to Todos Santos to put the kids in the Internado, and every Friday she would walk to pick them up and walk them home. She had no money for the bus. “All I asked from God was work, a paying job. One of my kids asked me for an apple and I didn’t have the money to buy even that. This was a huge sadness for me, not to be able to provide for my children.”
Now it is a known fact that if your God is prone to answering prayers, the delivery system can sometimes be a bit surprising. For Griselda, the answer came through a real estate agent operating out of an office near the gas station in Pescadero. He was looking for someone to paint his office, and even though she’d never held a paint brush in her life, she pressed him for the job. He was ultimately so impressed with the work she did that he gave her a hundred dollar bonus. That money changed everything; she was able to take her children out of the Internado and bring them home to live with her.
Then the angel showed up. As she was minding the real estate office one day an American named Gary Falcon walked in. They struck up a conversation and he invited her to come work for him as a housekeeper at his rental casitas. From there, the world opened up. Her children learned English from Gary and through him she soon had connections throughout Todos Santos and Pescadero which lead to continuous work cleaning and painting houses. In this way she met Cathy Fleischman who was in the process of opening Spa Cielo and needed someone to help her do hair and nails. Even though Griselda had never done this type of work before in her life, she put on the kimono and soon was making enough in Spa Cielo tips, painting and cleaning income that she was able to buy some land and build her own house. A real home. And she could buy her children all the apples they wanted.
Before she completed her house, Griselda used to house sit on the beach in Pescadero. She loved to walk the beach at night, and one evening came upon a female leatherback who was missing a part of her back fin. “I saw the turtle working so hard to make her nest but she couldn’t dig well because of the injury to her fin so I got down and helped her. There were tears on her face. I felt such a great connection with this turtle, with her struggle, with her determination. It was truly magical. It was like God was telling me that helping turtles is part of your mission in life.”
The next day she met with a biologist, Professor Carlos Ramirez Cruz, who told her that the turtles in Pescadero were largely unprotected and suggested creating a group focused on defending them. So even though she had no experience in working with turtles, in 2004 she found herself the President, secretary and Treasurer of Tortugueros de Pescadero and by 2005 she was the president. The other person in the group gave her a lot of moral support. “In those days the people of Pescadero ate a lot of turtle eggs and there was a lot of hostility to the work we were trying to do, especially since I was not from the area. But once I started giving presentations in the schools and getting the kids involved with the hatchling liberations, the situation really changed. The kids educated their parents and now very few people in Pescadero eat turtle eggs.”
While the real estate agent and Gary Falcon were the emissaries who answered the financial how of caring for her children, the crippled turtle just may have been the spiritual one. “I love turtles because they helped me keep my family together, integrated. I didn’t have the money to give my kids a great education, but I could give them experience to make them good people. They grew up with the ethos of conservation and the desire to help others.”
The turtles also lead Griselda to realize her childhood dream. “When my children and I patrolled the beaches together at night helping the turtles, we would sometimes find people drowning or in accidents on the highway. We would help them all as there were no first responders in Pescadero in those days.”
In 2007 Griselda, with the assistance of her children and a group of young volunteers, established Patrol 64 Preservation and Rescue (her house is at KM 64). She petitioned the governor for an ambulance, and two months later a very old one with no gear arrived. It wasn’t much, but it was something. In the early days of responding to emergencies, Griselda and her volunteers would call a local Pescadero doctor, Dr. Idelfonso Green, and ask him how to help the injured people in their care. But once they got to the point where they were answering four or more emergency calls per day, they knew they needed more intensive training to continue. Therefore in 2009 Griselda and her son Fernando, along with 6 other volunteers, took a one-year course at the Academy of Firefighters in La Paz. At her graduation Griselda became the first female commander (comandante) in Latin America, and remains the only one in Baja California Sur. Now all 3 of her older children are firefighters, first responders and paramedics, and Rescue 64 is now Bomberos Voluntarios de Pescadero, the official, all volunteer firefighting unit of Pescadero. Their logo depicts a turtle on a fireman’s hat.
Turtles remain Griselda’s passion. She still works with them every season, protecting their eggs from predators, and continues her educational campaigns and hatchling releases with local children. “The turtles give me strength and energy. We now have 15 firefighters, 8 of whom have attended the Academy of Firefighters, and they all eat, sleep and shower at my house. The turtles give me the peace and serenity I need to keep doing Patrol 64. I’m not alone – many of our firefighters are also tortugueros. Developing an empathy with nature and animals is such a key part of creating good human beings.”
The firefighter who once lifted Griselda up on his shoulders and carried her to safety would surely be pleased to know that that little girl has carried her own family to safety by doing exactly what he inspired in her that day – helping others in need. Could helping turtles and/or firefighters bring unexpected treasure to your family? It’s certainly worth finding out. You can contact Griselda at or 612-154-2044 to learn more, and also check out their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AmgiosBomberos. A new firetruck, more gear, turtle volunteers and more all needed. Being part of the answered-prayer delivery system is surely a worthy endeavor!
This is not a fish tale. It’s an immigrant story any American could tell. “In 1860 my great grandfather Esteban Puppo arrived in Cabo San Lucas from Genoa, Italy. He brought money and a son with him and purchased a hacienda in Caduaño, near Miraflores. He raised cattle and built a good life. His son Santiago grew up, married a beautiful woman from the coast and had my father, Pedro Puppo, in 1889. But it was a troubled time in Mexico and the government took away the hacienda, so Pedro went to La Ribera where he opened a general store. There he met and married a young shop attendant, Seferina Marrón. They moved to La Paz in 1910 where my brother Santiago was born in 1929 and I was born in 1939. My father became a fisherman, as did my brother and I. Santiago has been fishing the waters of Isla Espiritu Santo and La Paz for 80 years. My father would be sad to know that we are the last independent fishermen of Isla Espiritu Santo.”
Mario Puppo Marrón, the younger of the two famed Puppo brothers, tells his family story with humor, passion and a keen understanding that his family history is the history of Isla Espiritu Santo and the fishing industry in La Paz. When his father Pedro became a fisherman in 1910, he and his colleagues would row or sail their boats – crafts that were more like canoes than pangas – to Espiritu Santo, often taking two days or more to reach their destination. That trip now takes less than an hour by motorboat. They would stay on the island for months, camping wherever they liked, salting the fish they caught to keep it from rotting. They could sell the salted fish for 1.5 pesos per kilo (4 pesos per kilo for shark) and in two months they could make 1,000 pesos. In those days the pesos were silver and living was cheap, so 1,000 pesos was a lot of money. It had to be to motivate the fishermen to endure months on the island.
Recalls Mario. “I was 10 years old when I started working with my father on Isla Espiritu Santo. There is very little fresh water on the island and the water from home was sent in cans so it rusted quickly. Therefore almost every day we would eat tortillas, fish machaca, and turtle. We would have vegetables for the first few days after arriving on the island, then nothing for the remaining weeks or months. We couldn’t make beans because there was no water to cook them. Our only “spices” were onions and chiles. It was exciting when we were able to catch one of the wild goats on the island for the pot.”
When Mario’s father Pedro started fishing in 1910, an entrepreneur and local politician named Gaston Vives had a concession in San Gabriel Bay on Espiritu Santo for cultivating pearls. It was a substantial operation that included homes, offices and a 500-meter-long dike which turned the bay into a lagoon. There he created a massive system of 36 roofed canals through which he steered the waters of the Sea of Cortez to supply the necessary nutrients and oxygen to his oyster beds. He was wildly successful, selling his cultivated pearls throughout the US and Europe. Mario’s father, who sometimes dove for pearls, saw a different side of the operation. “The workers recruited for the pearl operation at San Gabriel Bay were all people from the bottom of society with no families, no one asking after them. They were forced to work naked so they couldn’t steal the pearls. But as they were only paid 20 pesos a month, the temptation was too great and many of them would swallow the pearls in an attempt to smuggle them out of the bay. These workers suffered a great deal and many of them died and were buried on the island. Until the 1960s and 1970s when Americans arrived and started taking away the bones, there were lots of crosses in the dunes of the island. Many of the beaches still have the shells from this operation, which was destroyed in 1914 by an enemy of Gaston Vives.” Today Isla Espiritu Santo is a national park with no permanent structures, and only the ruins of the dike remain of the Vives empire.
The Puppo brothers’ father fished with spears and handlines using hooks made by blacksmiths, as did Mario and Santiago when they were old enough to join him in the sea. The 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s were bounteous years for fishermen in the Sea of Cortez. Recalls Mario. “There was so much great fishing. We would often spear 100-kilo groupers and of course they were too big to take into the boat so we would just keep them alive in the water next to the boat and take them straight to the Hotel Perla on the Malecon in La Paz where they always bought all we could catch. The owners there really valued the fishermen and not only would they pay us, but they always fed us well too. Of course, it’s been well over 20 years since I’ve seen a fish that big around Espiritu Santo.”
Fishing techniques changed through the decades. “From 1945 to 1970 the fishermen of La Paz began using dynamite to fish, and of course that was extremely dangerous” says Mario. “The dynamite was unstable and many fishermen ended up blowing themselves up along with the fish.” That was not the only threat for the fishermen. In the old days the fishermen didn’t have a way to track the weather and many died in hurricanes. In 1976 Mario rode out Hurricane Lisa, the worst recorded storm in the history of Baja California Sur, in a cave on Isla Espiritu Santo with his wife, 3-year old daughter, and dozens of snakes who were also seeking refuge. While Mario laments many of the changes that have affected fishermen at Isla Espiritu Santo, accurate weather prediction technology is not one of them.
In 1977 Isla Espiritu Santo and 897 other islands of the Sea of Cortez were designated a Flora and Fauna Protection Area (Zona de Reserva Natural y Refugio de Aves Migratorias y de la Fauna Silvestre) and in 2005 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Conservation became the driving force and where once Mario and Santiago had camped wherever they liked on the island, in 2007 they were restricted to one piece of land on the back side of Gallo Bay where they keep their fishing shack and, at 81 and 91 years of age, continue to fish the waters of Isla Espiritu Santo. While nylon fishing nets have been in use around the island since the 1970s, Mario and Santiago command a premium for fish caught with hand lines so that is generally how they ply their trade. But they are the end of the line.
“Fishing at the island as we know it is over. Once Santiago and I are gone, there will be no more permits for fishermen like us. Now only cooperatives are able to get fishing permits. And that would be OK if the system was effective, but fishermen from outside of La Paz come in the night to fish our waters and nothing is done to stop it. We are sad to see this happen.”
Mario has been married to Rosa Maria Murillo Martinez for 56 years. Together they have 5 children, 9 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. One of their daughters married an Italian immigrant, and Mario loves that the family story has come full circle. While it is the end of the story for the independent fishermen of Isla Espiritu Santo, the American story of immigration, integration and intrepid determination continues to thrive in Baja California Sur. It’s a tale for the ages.
When Dr. Peter Klimley, AKA Dr. Hammerhead, was studying the scalloped hammerheads of El Bajo seamount near La Paz in the late 1970s, he attached little compass sensors to some of the sharks and made an amazing discovery. “The sharks were swimming like we would drive a car down the highway, directly from one point to another.”
The sharks would leave El Bajo seamount, go out for 10 miles or more in the middle of the night, and return in the morning with no problem at all. How could they do that? Two things. Firstly, the Gulf of California is filled with magnetic fields of lava flows around seamounts, and the sharks use the magnetic fields to navigate, like following neon signs along the highway. Secondly, the whacky shape of the hammerhead’s head means that the shark’s sensors, known as ampullae of Lorenzini, are spaced widely apart over a larger surface so the sharks can better detect variations in the magnetic field, reading the lava flows as clearly as a white line down the highway.
The result, demonstrated by Klimley and published by National Geographic, is that hammerheads are using seamounts alike El Bajo as hook-up joints along established migration routes. Interestingly, the vast majority of the sharks gathering at the seamounts are female, and Klimley found that they are fighting each other to establish dominance as the males prefer to mate with the strongest females. 400 million years of evolution at your service ma’am!
Swimming with the sea lion puppies at Los Islotes, the southernmost rookery of the California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus, is truly one of life’s great joys. The puppies are often playful and naughty, nibbling on the flippers and fingers of human visitors, while their teenage siblings like to sidle up to humans for a good belly rub or game of chase. Their mothers may be found sunning themselves on the rocks, enjoying a snooze, while the males who rule the 20 territories of Los Islotes indefatigably patrol the waters to ensure everyone’s safety. It is a scene of utter Baja bliss, and humans can’t help but feel a magical glow from this most wondrous of wildlife encounters.
All of which begs the obvious question: Why are the males working so hard when everyone else is just having a good time?
Claudia J. Hernandez-Camacho, a professor of biology at CICIMAR in La Paz, has been studying the sea lions of Los Islotes and the Sea of Cortez since 1990. In particular, she has studied the entire lifespan of 190 sea lion individuals (94 females, 96 males) who were hot-branded by her professor between 1980 and 1984. Her findings, based on these specific sea lions and others, tell a complicated tale for our pinniped friends.
“Sea lions are polygynous, meaning that one male mates with several females in the territory that he defends on land and sea. It takes an enormous amount of energy to defend this territory, and in the breeding season a territorial male, who is so focused on his job that he barely eats or sleeps, can lose up to 30% of his impressive body weight (400 to 500 kilos, or about a ton) in just a few weeks.”
Photo by Colin Ruggiero for Todos Santos Eco Adventures
One would assume, of course, that the males are spending this incredible amount of energy to defend their harems and offspring, to ensure the survival of their genes. “But this is not exactly the case” says Claudia, “they are defending the territory, not the females.” The science proves this out. “Genetic studies show that just 15% of territorial males are the fathers of the newborns the next breeding season. It is not just that the females hook up with and get impregnated by wandering, opportunistic males when they slip off for their 4-5 day feeding trips, which they do, but in some cases the territorial males are not even copulating with the females in their territory.” All that work and no sex?
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” says Claudia. “There are 600 individual sea lions at Los Islotes, and every year around 170 pups are born. Almost 30% of the pups die in the first two years, either from disease or because they or their mothers have fallen prey to predators. But that means that 70% are surviving. With this type of situation, many of the sea lions are, by definition, related. It could be argued that the Los Islotes males work so hard not just for their own offspring, but because they are protecting their extended families. This would also explain why they do not copulate with all the females in their territory. They are avoiding inbreeding.” This is an approach to collective living that we generally only associate with high intelligence mammals like primates, elephants and dolphins.
The Los Islotes territorial males are so successful in their defense of the colony, and have made conditions so conducive to survival, that Los Islotes is actually full to capacity now. In fact, two new satellite colonies have been created nearby in recent years by all the young males who are no longer welcome at Los Islotes, but who are still too young and slight to fight older, larger males for territory. Sea lions are philopatric, meaning that they stay in or habitually return to the area of their birth, so it is possible that these satellite colonies will only continue to grow.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that it is happening at a time when the overall population of California Sea Lions in the Sea of Cortez is dropping dramatically. Between 2000 and 2018, 40% of the population of other colonies disappeared. Are those males falling down on the job? Not likely says Claudia. “We are analyzing a lot of
Photo by Colin Ruggiero for Todos Santos Eco Adventures
environmental variables right now to determine the main factor causing the decline of these colonies, but one of the most likely culprits is the food supply” she observes. “It is not that the fish populations in the other parts of the Sea of Cortez are declining, they are not. It is that the fish are moving further south. While the sea lions of Los Islotes, the southernmost California Sea Lion rookery, are benefitting from this trend, it is proving lethal to others. Healthy females will travel up to 60 kilometers away from their colonies to find food, but further than that is not feasible. They need to conserve energy to produce milk for their pups. And even in those more northern locations where there are still fish, there are a very limited number of fish species, and this relatively poor-quality diet means that the females are not gaining enough energy from their food to productively nurse their pups. On the opposite side of the coin, the sea lions of Los Islotes are getting an increasing number of fish species in their diet, with the result that population density has reached an all-time high.”
Female sea lions are not only philopatric, i.e., prone to stay in the area where they were born, they are attached to very specific real estate in that area, with many staking one specific rocky outcropping for their own. So with the increasing density of the population at Los Islotes, it is not surprising to learn that sea lion attitudes are becoming a bit more aggressive. Add to that the fact that the entire colony of females either a) goes into estrus, or b) has newborn pups to defend at exactly the same time and breeding season, which generally takes place June 1 to August 31, becomes a time when human body parts might best be kept at a distance from the sea lions of Los Islotes. In fact, Los Islotes is now closed to snorkelers and scuba divers during this period.
Los Islotes is regularly listed as one of the top diving/snorkeling spots in the world, and Claudia and her students are launching a study to evaluate the effects of all these visitors on the sea lions. The tourism hiatus being imposed by the authorities during breeding season offers them the perfect opportunity for their research. “We have already collected fecal samples from the sea lions during the tourist season, and will now do so again when the colony is closed to tourists. We will then test the level of cortisol, a stress indicator, in both sets of fecal matter to determine if tourism increases stress in sea lions. We have already observed some differences in behavior in the sea lions at Los Islotes. While at other, more remote colonies, the sea lions will copulate during the day, at Los Islotes they only engage in this behavior at night. We hope to be able to determine if tourism is having an impact on the sea lions.”
Claudia at Los Islotes
Of course, liking your loving in the evening time is a common enough attribute of many healthy mammals, but if other colonies are also enjoying some afternoon delight, have the sea lions of Los Islotes gone too far in adapting to the presence of humans? Will the territorial males one day snap back to impose a more natural environment for their territories? Human males have certainly done battle over lesser issues.
Tourists have been visiting Los Islotes on a regular basis for roughly three decades, and sea lion males live an average of 19 years. There is therefore not yet a deep institutional knowledge about humans among the territorial males, and they could still be giving us the opportunity to demonstrate our worthiness as visitors to their home. Will we make the cut? We can’t be sure what the sea lions have learned about humans over the years, or what Claudia and her team will demonstrate, but the strong pull of Los Islotes on humans is easy enough to understand: it is a place where joy and spontaneity rule, and we thrill to that vibrancy. While the territorial males are likely not motivated by their roles as life coaches for humans, it is enticing to think that maybe just one of the reasons they work so hard is to protect such a joyful lifestyle for their families. Claudia and her team are working hard to do the same.
VISIT WITH CLAUDIA AND HER TEAM!
Todos Santos Eco Adventures is the leading eco adventure company in Baja California Sur. On Isla Espiritu Santo we operate Camp Cecil, a luxury tent camp, and Camp Colossus, a moveable glamping operation. Claudia and her students will be spending time with us at our camps throughout the season as they conduct their sea lion research, so you may find them at the dinner table if you spend time with us at the island!