LA PAZ, Mexico — Several small boats are clumped together in one area of an otherwise deserted stretch of sea, the fishermen expressionless as they use their hands in a sweeping motion to pull their lines from the depths.
At first sight, a normal looking scene. But upon closer inspection, it becomes obvious that these fishermen are hauling up slithering globs of something red and rubbery.
Cephalopods! It's squid, as unsettling a creature as there is in all creation.
Some go four feet long and weigh 40 pounds. They have eyes as big as billiard balls, with a stare incessantly blank.
The water is thick with these 10-tentacled torpedoes. They are brought to the surface in great numbers. They try to escape, collapsing their bodies with such force that they send jets of water in every direction. Some expel large clouds of black ink, as if to purposely make a mess of things.
They writhe and squirm when stuck by the gaff, their blood-red color flowing the length of their slender bodies as they are hauled over the rail. Their tentacles probe desperately for any possible means of escape. It's a sticky situation to say the least.
"OK, send it down," Mario Coppola says, instructing one already intrigued fisherman aboard one of Coppola's fleet of \o7 panga\f7 boats. The fisherman has brought along a conventional rig, a rod and reel. Guide Marcello Geraldo has baited the angler's iron jig with a strip of freshly cut squid and tosses it over the rail. "They think very highly of themselves," Coppola jokes of the species' apparent cannibalism.
Coppola then sends down a rig of his own, as does Geraldo.
A slow and steady tug from 80 feet below indicates a strike. What ensues is not a fierce battle, though, but a challenging one nevertheless. Pumping and reeling, as one would a fish, is futile. Too much pressure and the hook tears from the squid's clammy flesh. The fidgety animal often spits the hook but, reluctant to let go of its meal, it waits to be brought to the surface, then spits the presentation back at the presenter.
Several are lost before the game is figured out: It takes a steady yet slow pressure, like that used by the commercial hand-line fishermen, to bring a squid to the surface.
The appearance of jumbo squid in the gulf represents another way for the local commercial fishing fleet to make money, one that entails little work and brings fair return. And in most seasons, one that should have ended months ago.
"They should be in Costa Rica right now," says Coppola, 40, whose family-owned Los Arcos Hotel in town is headquarters for his fleet of \o7 pangas\f7 . "They just haven't left. We had the same phenomena about eight years ago. They were almost all the way up to San Felipe."
The squid remained in the gulf for three years, even though the Mexican government contracted the services of a Korean fishing vessel, which used its bright lights to attract them to the surface and its sophisticated gear to pull them out by the thousands.
"We were eating squid in this town like jerky," Coppola recalls with a smile.
Dr. Eric Hochberg, curator of the Department of Invertebrates at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, remembered the phenomenon Coppola spoke of and said that the squid may be here to stay, for a while anyway.
"We don't know quite what's going on there," he said. "We think there probably got to be some oceanographic conditions that are setting the population up in that area, because normally that (type of) squid is found down off the coast of South America."
Hochberg said the squid made it as far north as Southern California during \o7 El Nino\f7 , the warm-water condition several years ago, adding, "It's probably something associated with that phenomenon that brings them into the (Sea of Cortez) and they're able to grow and probably reproduce in that area for a few years until the conditions change or the population dies down."
In any case, the presence of squid represents a change of pace for the recreational fisherman, a chance of doing battle with a legendary creature that at one time was labeled a sea monster.
At times during the late summer and fall the squid were so thick that calamari steaks were replacing the fish fillets on the seaside cutting boards. Apparently, they still inhabit a wide section of the Sea of Cortez.
"We're still catching them," says Richard Castanada of the Hotel SPA Buenavista, a resort 65 miles south of La Paz. "I've heard of instances where guys were trolling marlin lures and those things would come up and strike the marlin lures. It's awesome.
"Some of these guys are just having a ball, yo-yoing jigs up and down and just getting nailed, because they put up a hell of a fight."