There was a thief in the aquarium and no one knew what to do. The institution had just recently purchased 10 Australian Pineapplefish at a price per head
California Two-Spot Octopus, The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson
that brought tears to the financial officer’s eyes, and now these expensive beauties were
disappearing – eerily, quietly, and exactly one fish per night. Management’s initial hypothesis was that night-time employees were seeking to boost their fortunes by selling the fish on the black market, so they set up monitoring stations at employee exits to inspect bags and purses. No pilfered fish were found, and they kept disappearing, one fish each evening. Puzzled, and anxious to protect what remained of their investment, aquarium officials finally decided to set up a camera monitoring system at the Pineapplefish tank to try and catch the thief in the act. Turns out, it was the perfect inside job.
Three tanks away the giant Pacific octopus planned and executed the crime. He figured out how to undo the lock on his tank, walk past the (obviously less delectable) Barrier Reef Anemonefish and Bicolor Parrotfish, open the tank of the Australian Pineapplefish, and leisurely enjoy his midnight snack. He then carefully replaced the top of the Pineapplefish tank, walked back to his own tank, and put the lid back in place.
An Octopus planning? Picking a lock? Walking? The aquarium theft story is one that is widely told in marine science circles, although no one seems to remember the name of the aquarium or exactly when it happened. Even Snopes.com is not entirely sure. Yet the story has such wide currency as those who study and work with octopuses (yes, it is “octopuses” as the greek-derived word octopus will not suffer a latin ending like “I”) know an octopus could easily plan and execute such a caper. In fact, the remarkable intelligence of octopuses, coupled with their other-worldly, alien-seeming bodies, has given rise to a spate of books in recent years that explore and celebrate these amazing creatures. In Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith talks about engaging with octopuses as “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” In The Soul of an Octopus Sy Montgomery tells wonderful stories about the octopus friends she made at the New England Aquarium, their personalities and their sophisticated cognitive skills of being able to imagine what is in another creature’s mind. And in Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea, Harmon Courage discusses how “the big-brained cephalopod can navigate through mazes, solve problems and remember solutions, and take things apart for fun.”
Octopuses and humans last shared a common ancestor (a wormlike critter) about half a billion years ago, so minds of the two groups developed into complex, sentient entities completely separately. As did their bodies, which seem to be almost the inverse of each other. Octopuses can shape-shift through cracks no larger than their eyes. Humans lack such fluidity. Vertebrates are structured around a central nervous system centered in the head, while the brains of an octopus – whose neuron numbers are comparable to those of mammals – are distributed, with two-thirds in their 8 arms and only one third in their heads. This means that the arms can engage in independent problem-solving behavior, like how to open the tank of the Australian Pineapplefish, while the owner can be checking to see if there is a similarly worthy object of its attention in another tank. As Godfrey-Smith notes, “An octopus is so suffused with its nervous system that is has no clear brain-body boundary.” Imagine.
And that’s just for starters. Vertebrates have just one heart, while octopuses have three. Two of the hearts are engaged solely in the task of moving blood beyond the gills, while the third heart is tasked with keeping circulation flowing for the organs. When an octopus swims, the organ heart actually stops beating, which explains why in many cases an octopus would rather walk, or crawl, than swim, as swimming is exhausting for them. And walking does come in handy when getting out of the water for an aquarium hunting expedition.
Common Octopus Juvenile, Sea of Cortez. Photo by Kaia Thomson
But perhaps of all the cool things that an octopus’s brain/body can do, the most amazing is its ability to disguise itself by almost instantaneously changing not only the color and pattern of its skin, but the very texture of its skin to everything from small bumps to tall spikes to match its surroundings such that even the most determined and observant predator or prey cannot distinguish it from nearby coral, algae-covered rocks, kelp fronds or the sandy seabed. And color also denotes mood. As Sy Montgomery wrote upon meeting an octopus named Athena, “As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. Later, I learn this is the color of a relaxed octopus.” Alternatively, “An agitated giant Pacific octopus turns red, its skin gets pimply, and it erects two papillae over the eyes, which some divers say look like horns.”
It is tempting to chalk up the body-changing abilities of an octopus to instinct alone, but Dr. Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist who studies octopuses, has found that octopuses use specific disguises for specific species in specific conditions – both offensive and defensive. That is, it is another sign of the octopus’s intelligence. Dr. Mather believes that the octopus’s loss of the ancestral shell is what lead it to develop this intelligence. Being shell-free allows the octopus to be an active predator like a lion, rather than a passive muncher like a clam. But the dozens of different prey species that it hunts require different hunting strategies, just as different strategies are required for defending itself against different predators. Dr. Mather has documented that octopuses will often use what is called the Passing Cloud display – flashing pulses of color that move across the octopus like passing clouds – to startle an immobile crab (one of its favorite foods) into moving and give itself away. To catch shrimp, octopuses have been seen to compress themselves, creep up to the shrimp, extend an arm up and over the shrimp, then touch it – an act which scares the shrimp right into the mouth of the octopus.
Common Octopus, The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson
On the other side of the equation, if an octopus is being hunted by a hungry fish it might rapidly change color, pattern and shape; fish have strong visual memories for certain images, and if an octopus is rapidly changing from light to dark, from spots to stripes, the fish can’t place it and moves on to something it can identify to eat. But if that psychedelic display is not enough, octopuses have many more tricks in their bag – including the ability of some species to deploy a pseudomorph, a life-size self-portrait made from a cloud of ink and mucus. This essentially freaks out and disorients the predator, allowing the octopus to get away. It seems that octopuses actually enjoy messing with the (lesser) minds of would-be predators. The mimic octopus, rather than making itself look like something passive such as coral or rock to avoid detection, transforms itself to look and act like venomous creatures such as jellyfish, sea snakes and spiky lionfish to send its would-be predator running the other way.
Octopuses also employ tools for defense. Researchers in Indonesia have documented octopuses lugging half coconut shells across the ocean floor, assembling them into spheres, and climbing inside for protection. An octopus at the Middlebury octopus lab found that a sea urchin was hanging around too close to its den so she ventured out, found a piece of flat slate, and erected it in front of her den like a shield.
As Sy Montgomery notes, “…of all the creatures on the planet who imagine what is in another creature’s mind, the one that must do so best might well be the octopus – because without this ability, the octopus could not perpetrate its many self-preserving deceptions. An octopus must convince many species of predators and prey that it is really something else….(then) assess whether the other animal believes its ruse or not, and if not, try something different. “Writes Godfrey-Smith, “When surviving requires decision-making, brains have developed awareness. Sentience,” he notes, “has some point to it.”
Love and Friendship
Common Octopus. The Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kaia Thomson
Montgomery, Godrey-Smith and numerous others have documented that octopuses can readily distinguish different people, even if they are wearing identical uniforms, and that they have very particular feelings about those different people. With people that they like, they will touch them, hold their hands and arms, give them gentle squeezes, and allow themselves to be stroked. They are friendly and engaged and will readily come to the surface of their tank for interaction. People that they don’t like may be subjected to rude squirts of water and – if the visitor is too close – even a bite. But what about with each other? Every Valentine’s Day the Seattle Aquarium hosts the Octopus Blind Date, in which the partition between the tanks of a male and female giant Pacific octopus is lifted and nature is allowed to take its course – six hearts beating as three might be the romantic view. But in 2016 the blind date was cancelled due to fears that the 70-pound male, Kong, would simply find his 35-pound date a tasty snack, a decidedly unromantic outcome. While it was a loss for Seattle’s octopus sex voyeurs, it was a new lease on life for Kong. Mating, while ensuring the survival of the species, is a death knell for male octopuses, who die shortly thereafter. This close link between sex and death might account for some octopuses rather hands-off approach to sex – literally. The males and females of the Algae octopus will find houses next to one another so that the male only has to reach his hectocotylus (sex arm) out his front door and into her’s to get the job done. The Argonaut octopus doesn’t even get that intimate. Males simply detach their hectocotylus and send it off to mate with a passing female.
Female octopuses can lay up to 400,000 eggs, which they attach to the ceiling of their dwelling and lay in long strings like translucent ropes of pearls. They guard and tend their eggs diligently until they hatch. Sy Montgomery reports how her octopus friend Octavia in the New England Aquarium wove her egg chains and tended them with meaningful rituals, even though there was no male to fertilize them. Of course the eggs never hatched and Octavia succumbed to death a few months later, as do all female octopuses once their reproductive cycle is over.
The Octopus’s Garden
Octopuses are the blue bloods of the marine world. Truly. Octopuses evolved a copper rather than an iron-based blood, and it’s the copper that turns their blood blue. Copper is more efficient at transporting oxygen than hemoglobin in deep ocean environments, where water temperatures are low and there is not much oxygen. But this system also means that octopuses are very sensitive to changes in acidity, and when the ocean’s pH gets too low, octopuses can’t circulate enough oxygen. There is therefore a great deal of concern in the scientific community about what will happen to octopuses with the increasing ocean acidification being brought about by climate change.
Octopuses have existed on the earth for at least 296 million years, the age of the oldest known octopus fossil. That’s over a thousand times longer than humans. “The sea is the original birth place of the mind. When you dive into the sea, you are diving in to the origin of us all’” writes Godfrey-Smith. It is perhaps for this reason that Godfrey-Smith dedicates his book to “all those who work to protect the oceans.” As Carl Safina notes, “As we change the world, let’s bear this in our minds: Other minds are living their own lives here with us on earth.”
In Baja California Sur our two oceans, the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez, are filled with many of the 300 species of octopus that inhabit the world, and it is possible to visit many octopus gardens and match wits with these amazing creatures when snorkeling and diving. Jacques Cousteau, who called the Sea of Cortez the Aquarium of the World, tells a charming story in his 1973 book Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence. “Our friend Gilpatric … brought an octopus home and put it in an aquarium, which he then covered with a heavy lid. A short time later, the aquarium was empty, and Gilpatric found the octopus going through his library, book by book, turning the pages with its arms.” And that’s a true octopus story.
The global pandemic achieved something that no political movement, no world religion and no pharmaceutical product has ever achieved before: global agreement from the people of all nations, all regions and all walks of life on a single, inherent truth. The year 2020 sucked.
There were still moments of joy and revelation, and few can match those experienced by Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa, a native of the Baja California Sur town of Constitución and a graduate of the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) in La Paz, one of the best marine sciences schools in Mexico. “My master’s degree at UABCS was on the habitat of beaked, or toothed, whales in the La Paz-Los Cabos region. This is not as easy as it sounds. While 23 species of beaked whales have been documented, they are quite rare to see and we still know very little about them. Unlike the gregarious gray and humpback whales who love to come in close to shore in Baja and spend a lot of time at the surface, beaked whales tend to live really far offshore, in very deep waters, and spend about 90% of their time foraging underwater. When they are on the surface it’s only for a few minutes. All this combines to make them extremely difficult to study.”
In fact, the only reason scientists know about one species of beaked whale, Perrin’s beaked whale or Mesoplodon perrinni, is that several dead ones washed up on a beach in the US state of California. They were initially identified as Hector’s beaked whales or Mesoplodon hectori, and only genetic testing proved that they were an entirely new species previously unknown to man. They had never been seen in the wild. They had never been definitively heard either. One of the defining characteristics of beaked whales is that they communicate and hunt via echolocation clicks that are above the frequency of human hearing, and Perrin’s beaked whales are thought to produce a species-specific FM echolocation pulse of BW43. In 2013 BW43 pulses were recorded off the coast of Southern California, but in 2018 Gustavo’s colleagues recorded BW43 pulses from the US-Mexico border south to the mid part of the Baja Peninsula. They had no DNA or visual proof, but they thought this area might overlap with the limited geographic range of Perrin’s beaked whale. Had they stumbled upon the Mesoplodon perrinni in the wilds of Baja’s waters?
Upon graduation from UABCS Gustavo started working with the Marine Mammal Research Group of the National Institute of Ecology, which became part of CONANP in 2018. He also began work on his Ph.D. at the Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior, CICESE. Through his work he connected with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), which has been working for the last several years to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise in the upper Gulf of California. In October 2020 Gustavo and his colleagues engineered a 5-year agreement between CONANP and SSCS in which SSCS would provide boat time, equipment and scientific manpower to help CONANP monitor whales in Mexico’s natural protected areas. They did two expeditions to Guadalupe Island to study Cuvier’s beaked whales, then in November 2020 started their third voyage as a team aboard Sea Shepherd’s vessel the Martin Sheen. Their goal was to see if they could finally get a visual and/or acoustic match for those BW43 signals recorded in 2018 to determine if they really did belong to Perrin’s beaked whales.
“It was 6:15 AM on November 17, the third day of the expedition, and we were about 100 miles north of the San Benito islands off the coast of Baja when we started seeing marine mammals close to the boat” recalls Gustavo. “It was three individuals and because of their size and their apparent ease at being around the ship, at first we thought they were dolphins. But we started taking photos and deployed a specialized underwater microphone to record their acoustic signals. It was then that we realized that they were beaked whales and it was really amazing because beaked whales almost never come close to ships, and these guys were actually investigating the boat with a great deal of curiosity. It was just incredible.”
More incredible than he could have imagined in fact. “Of course, we all thought that we’d finally found the elusive Perrin’s beaked whale which was amazing enough as one has never been spotted alive. But then we started analyzing the photos and realized that the morphology of these whales was quite different from that of the Perrin’s. One of the beaked whales that we saw was a male, which means that it had teeth in the lower jaw that we could compare to other species. And its teeth were in an entirely different location from those of the Perrin’s. The Perrin’s beaked whale has teeth right at the end of its jaw, while this whale had teeth much further back. Moreover, the acoustic signal we recorded is not BW43. In fact, it is not a sound previously known to science. Add in the fact that there were differences in skin color and size and we realized that not only were these whales not Perrin’s, they were most likely an entirely new species!”
Gustovo and the science team carefully storing the cable and removing the recorder from the array Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd/CONANP
“We didn’t see any other beaked whales for the remaining two weeks of that expedition” continues Gustavo, “but we did take water samples from the area where we saw the whales and our hope is that there will be some genetic material like sloughed skin that will allow us to analyze the whale’s DNA to determine if they are definitely a new species. But we feel pretty confident that it is.”
So for Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa 2020 was definitely a banner year. Not only did he discover a potentially new whale species, he successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis less than a month later and is now, according to the Sea Shepherd web site, “renowned beaked whale researcher, Dr. Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa.” But it was still 2020 after all and the genetic testing lab at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) – which also had a scientist on the expedition – was closed due to the global pandemic. So Gustavo and his colleagues are just having to cool their heels until the pandemic releases its grip long enough to allow the lab to reopen and test the water samples to see if they have really discovered a new species. When will that be? It’s anybody’s guess, but the potential discovery of Gustavo and his team has given a weary world a happy reminder that the earth still has joyful mysteries to share, that local boys from small towns can still make huge contributions to science, and that in Baja, right when we need them the most, the whales can still be relied upon to appear to fill us with wonder and inspire us with their 50 million years of sustainably inhabiting the earth. It’s almost enough to make you consider 2020 in a new light. Almost.
Like many of the best things in life, Mar Libre was born over drinks by friends kvetching about the state of things. “When you get biologists together, the conversation invariably veers to how bad things are in the natural world” says Pablo Ahuja, one of the founders of Mar Libre. “On this particular night we were all complaining about how we couldn’t enjoy diving at San Rafaelito in the Sea of Cortez anymore because every time we went, we’d have to spend all of our time and air picking fishing line off the coral. This is painstaking work that must be done very carefully so the coral doesn’t get damaged.” Pablo continues, “Right then and there we decided that instead of cleaning up areas incidentally when we were out diving, we’d start diving with the purposeful intent of cleaning these natural areas.”
Pablo and his friends decided to set a date right then and there. “On the night of July 3, 2015 we posted on Facebook about a clean-up dive for July 21, 2015, and by the next morning we had over 20 divers and dive companies saying they wanted to participate. By the time July 21 rolled around, there were 8 boats and 70 people volunteering to help. That day we cleaned the reef not only San Rafaelito, but La Gaviota as well.” That was a little over 6 years ago and Mar Libre has done a monthly reef or mangrove clean up dive every month since then. Says Pablo, “There are so many rents that we pay on a monthly basis like housing, electricity, and telephone, so we decided that we would also pay our monthly rent to Mother Nature.”
The Mar Libre crew understood from the beginning that conservation without education is not productive or sustainable, so in October 2015 they started going into the schools to educate students and staff on the issues, using the photos and data they had from the July, August, and September clean up dives. Pablo, a marine biologist with a background in science education, lead the charge. “The school directors in Baja California Sur have been great to work with. They will give us 45 minutes per classroom to discuss the problems and the solutions. Very often after a visit an entire school will go on a cleanup. Cleaning a mangrove or reef really changes their views. They simply cannot believe the amount of trash that there is, and they realize that only they can really be the agents of change. So far we’ve engaged with over 24,000 students in BCS.”
Just how much trash is there? Recalls Pablo, “We did a cleanup at El Magote in La Paz in March 2021 with 200 volunteers and 8 boats. We took that trash to the La Paz dump which has a scale. That is how we learned that we had collected 8.4 tons of trash on just that one day. We estimate that we’ve cleaned over 140 tons of trash from the reefs and mangroves since we started the project in 2015.” Some of the things that they find in a mangrove that has never been cleaned might seem surprising to the uninitiated. Recounts Pablo, “We’ve found fax machines, washing machines, electrodes, 50 year-old mason jars. We pulled 4 porcelain toilets out of one mangrove. We figured folks had gone camping and were just looking for a little privacy. It’s fun to date stuff that comes out of the cleanups. There is a brand of beer called Carta Blanca that used to make its bottles with a little indentation on the side. The idea was to use one bottle to take the cap off the next. They stopped making those bottles in 1970 so when we find them we know that trash is at least 50 years fold.”
Pablo takes the long view on his quest to clean the reefs and mangroves of Baja California Sur. “When we go to a new spot, literally no one in human history has ever cleaned that place before. It can seem overwhelming at the first cleaning, but subsequent visits are encouraging. Pargo Villa Reef near Isla Ceralvo is a good example. In September 2015 we cleaned that reef for the first time and took out 100 kilos of fishing line alone. In September of 2016 we cleaned again and took out 10 kilos of fishing line, and we think this was mainly because we didn’t get it all the first time. In September 2017 we cleaned again and there was only one kilo of fishing line. And with education, 100 kilos of fishing line will never build up in this spot again.”
Mar Libre exists only in the hearts and minds of the kayakers, surfers, divers, sailors, biologists, students and other ocean lovers who volunteer their time, energy and resources to cleaning our local reefs and mangroves. There is no office, no staff, no NGO status, no budget, no funds. Pablo’s goal is to wipe out even that reality. “We want to clean and educate ourselves out of existence.” But that moment is not yet at hand and much work remains to be done. Everyone is invited to join the Mar Libre movement and participate in the monthly reef and mangrove cleanups. Invite your friends, your family, your school group, your office mates to join you!
A tumultuous, exhilarating, infuriating and irrevocable shift of population, outlook, culture and vision is sweeping the lower part of the Baja peninsula. Some residents who have been here for a time are eagerly embracing the evolution, spreading the new concepts one joyous Instagram post after another. Others remain faithful to the old days and ways, testily resisting the transformers one grumpy Todos Santos Newsfeed post after another. Who is really a Todos Santeño? Paraphrasing Colson Whitehead’s beautiful tribute to New York, “No matter how long you have been here, you are a Todos Santeño the first time you say, ”That used to be Café Santa Fe” or ”That used to be Santana’s.” … You are a Todos Santeño when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now….You start building your own private Todos Santos the first time you lay eyes on it.”
For Greg Schredder the first time he laid eyes on Todos Santos was in 1961 from the sea, but he’d been driving down the Baja peninsula for a couple of years by then. “A bunch of us southern California surfers started coming to Baja in 1959” recalls Greg. “Because there was barely a road and certainly no gas stations at that time, we retrofitted our old truck with a custom-built 55-gallon gas tank and brought what we called our Tijuana credit card, a one-inch tube that we’d use for siphoning the gas we bought at the ranches. The ranchers were always incredibly welcoming and ready to help us with gas and anything else we needed. Of course, we didn’t always find them in time and we were often stranded for days. We didn’t care, we were just always looking for waves.”
The fishermen were equally welcoming. “We would travel with 10-pack cartons of unfiltered, Delegado cigarettes, and one carton would get us up to 50 pounds of lobster. Everything was so abundant then. We’d actually get tired of eating lobster and so we’d use it as bait to go fishing. It was not uncommon to see 600-pound groupers in the Pacific lagoons in those days, and the fishermen would actually catch these giants with their hand lines. We loved staying in the fishing villages on these trips. We would surf, dive, fish, and learn incredible stories of these people living in the most remote locations. You could hear your heartbeat for a quarter mile it was so quiet and still. We would always bring baseballs, gloves and Playboy magazines, and we made friends and had a great time everywhere we went.”
Greg’s introduction to Todos Santos was rooted in much more glamorous transportation than the type that required a Tijuana credit card. “In the 1950s and 60s, most of us surfer kids in Newport, California worked on the yachts of famous people like André Previn, Julie Andrews, and Humphrey Bogart to make money, and they really treated us like family. In 1965 I came to Cabo on Ralph Larrabee’s yacht, Goodwill, and stayed for about a month. At that time Cabo was really just a small village with no electricity. Larrabee’s friends like Donald Douglas (of Douglas Aircraft fame) and John Wayne would fly in to spend a few days partying and fishing, then fly back home. It was during these downtimes that I first explored the Pacific Coast between Cabo and Todos Santos. It was a surfer’s paradise.”
Greg’s friendship with the likes of Douglas and Wayne ended up lasting decades and inspired many of his business ventures across Mexico and Costa Rica. “I would often travel with them over the years, and they are the ones who motivated me to get a real job. As a surfer and diver I decided to set up factories in La Paz and Tijuana to make rubber products related to those activities. We expanded that business into setting up factories for many Fortune 500 companies who needed inexpensive, repetitive labor. We were the largest employer in La Paz and Ensenada for over 20 years. Of course, before the highway came in, it could take up to 2 days to drive to Todos Santos for some surfing.”
“I have always loved the Pacific side of Baja, and in 1979 I bought Rancho Gaspareño, 50 acres of remote land along a quarter mile of the Pacific coastline, not too far from Todos Santos. One of the people who drew me to the area was Carmen Salgado Agramont. She had a little cantina with a hitching post out front for horses where she’d serve up warm beer and hot food. She was quite savvy, and bought the first gas refrigerator in the area. She almost couldn’t keep up with ranchero demand for cold beer after that, and there were always dozens of horses around her cantina. I loved that place, and it was Carmen’s son who set me on the path to buying the ranch, which actually has the name and signature of Benito Juarez on the original land grand title. Since then I’ve been growing coco palms on the ranch, and have also been experimenting with growing plants from Hawaii like breadfruit that have excellent potential in Mexico.”
Greg loves the history of the area. “Rancho Gaspareño was named after a Spanish galleon that went aground on the point, the Gaspareño. It was one of the so-called Manila galleons, Spanish ships that sailed between the Philippines and Acapulco for 250 years, bringing spices, silks and other luxuries from the far east to New Spain. All these galleons sailed the Pacific coast of Baja on their way to Acapulco, so naturally enough the area became riddled with pirates, many of them English and Dutch. There are many tales of buried pirate treasure in the area, and local school groups still come to explore the cave at Rancho Gaspareño each year to tap into the lore. Treasure hunters have reason for optimism; in 1974 when the road from La Paz to the ferry terminal at Pichilingue was being built, a pirate chest of plundered loot was discovered by road workers.”
“I think of this part of the Baja coastline as the forgotten area” continues Greg. “People drive past Rancho Gaspareño going a hundred miles an hour on the new 4-lane highway and have no idea of the history of the area.” The Guaycura and Pericue Indians were the original inhabitants before the Jesuit’s arrival in 1697, and they were essentially wiped out by the time the Jesuits left in 1768. The Jesuits built their theocracy based on a promise to the King of Spain to get rid of the pirates who were plundering his ships, and the pirates faded away with the demise of the Manila galleons in 1815. Dominican Padre Gabriel González had a ranch near Gaspareño from 1825 to 1850, and the tobacco, rum, sugar, corn, and livestock he produced there made him the richest man in Baja California. From his ranch the padre engaged in espionage and guerilla warfare during the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848, and – thanks in part to the Padre – Mexico won a major victory near Gaspareño (but lost the war). By 1855 the Padre had lost his political backing and left Baja for good. For the next one hundred years entrepreneurs made fortunes in the sugar cane industry with fields in areas like Gaspareño, but in the 1950s a severe drought and price drop lead to the demise of the industry; the last sugar processing plant closed in 1974. In that same year the trans peninsular highway made its way to Todos Santos, bringing new life to the town, and in 1985 renowned artist Charles Stewart arrived from Taos, planting the seed for Todos Santos’ current incarnation as an artists’ colony. It remains an agricultural center and surfing hotspot, only now it is firmly on the radar of major developers.
62 years after his first trip down the Baja peninsula, Greg is ready to carve out a little hacienda for himself and his art collection, but let someone else take over the bulk of the land that is Rancho Gaspareño. He has kept his 50 acres wild and free, but would love to see someone with vision and passion create a place of beauty that celebrates the area’s thrilling past, and embraces an artistic, sustainable future. Someone who started building their own private Todos Santos the first time they laid eyes on it.
Of course, letting go of a big piece of the ranch is bittersweet for Greg. Paraphrasing Colson Whitehead’s tribute to New York once more, “We can never make proper goodbyes… Maybe we become Todos Santeños the day we realize that Todos Santos will go on without us. …. Naturally we will cast a wary eye toward those new kids on the block, but let’s be patient and not judge too quickly. We were new here, too, once.” Yes indeed. A tumultuous, exhilarating, infuriating and irrevocable shift of population, outlook, culture and vision is sweeping the lower part of the Baja peninsula. It always has.
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
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!