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OUTDOORS PETE THOMAS

Cabo Pulmo Is a Pearl in Sea of Cortez

July 05, 2002|PETE THOMAS

LOS BARILLES, Mexico — There's a sprawling blue bay about 20 miles south of this small Baja California town, a haven for colorful creatures both wild and wonderful.

Tourists from as far north as La Paz and as far south as Cabo San Lucas are brought there to swim among the creatures and to marvel at what a little protection can do for an ecosystem.

On a recent boat trip to Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, with Mark Rayor of Vista Sea Sport (www.vistaseasport.com) in nearby Buena Vista, a group of divers took the backward plunge over the rail and followed the sun's rays down, only to find that rays of a different sort were following them.

They were bat rays, about 10 of them, shy but curious, hovering in the distant haze like alien space vessels suspended in flight. They watched the bubble-blowing intruders for only a few moments, then turned as one and, with a few flaps of their wing-like fins, blended back into their shadowy surroundings.

The divers continued downward to about 45 feet, to a coral floor teeming with reef fish and harboring dozens of green morays, holed up in their classic ambush position, champing at water as they waited for something more substantial to pass.

Most amazing, though, were giant groupers, some measuring five feet and weighing more than 200 pounds. They were encountered at almost every turn, poised almost motionless just above the reef, pointed in various directions as if on sentry duty, which, in a way, they were.

After the dive, Rayor and John Ireland, owner of Rancho Leonero Resort (www.rancholeonero.com), explained that these magnificent behemoths, so powerful and yet so vulnerable to fishing pressure, had all but disappeared before the establishment of the reserve in 1995, an area 10 miles long and extending three miles out where neither commercial fishing nor sportfishing is allowed.

Now the groupers are back, as are many other species of fish that have taken up residence in the reserve, which features nearly a dozen dive sites and boasts visibility ranging from 30 to 80 feet.

Even more remarkable than the comeback of the groupers, Rayor said, is the seasonal presence of hammerhead sharks.

"We never used to see them, and now we're seeing more and more. In fact, they're starting to become predictable," he said.

This at a time when sightings of schooling sharks at other Sea of Cortez dive sites, such as El Bajo to the north and Gordo Banks to the south, are occurring less frequently. Sharks are among many embattled sea creatures in the Sea of Cortez, victims of overfishing and the indiscriminate nature of gillnets and long-line gear.

"It used to be that Cabo Pulmo was not any more special than any of the other dive sites we go to because there were fish everywhere," Rayor said. "But that's not the case anymore. Cabo Pulmo has become the main event."

*

Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is home to the only living coral reef in the Sea of Cortez and the only substantial living reef on the west coast of North America. As such, it is a special place worthy of protection.

Mexico deserves credit for recognizing this. But the local hotel owners, their captains and crews, and the dive community, deserve as much credit for helping to make the marine park flourish instead of founder, as one up the gulf in Loreto seems to be doing.

Those on the fishing boats and dive boats are the watchdogs and caretakers.

"I've personally pulled up nets and turned them in to authorities," Ireland said. "I've done it before and will do it again."

Somewhat surprisingly, local sportfishing leaders, although they squawked initially, have accepted the idea of a no-take zone in their midst. Some even believe it has proved beneficial to the surrounding fishery.

Now they are among the driving forces behind a mounting push to ban gillnets, as was the case 10 years ago in California, when a drive organized largely by sportfishermen led to an initiative that ultimately led to the banning of gillnets in coastal and island waters.

This kind of conservation ethic, not something for which Mexico has been known, is particularly evident in the East Cape, a region spanning about 50 miles from Los Frailies at Cabo Pulmo's southern edge to El Cardonal, just north of Los Barriles.

Last spring, in response to a public outcry over the deaths of three whales, whose net-mangled bodies had washed ashore, Mexico's department of fisheries outlawed gillnets in East Cape waters.

"Now the whole area is kind of like a marine park, and whoever tries to do something illegal is in deep [trouble]," said Bobby Van Wormer Jr., secretary of tourism for the state of Baja California Sur. "If any citizens witness any poaching, all they have to do is find a couple of policemen with pistols and they'll stop the boat doing the damage and get an inspector from Cabo [San Lucas] or La Paz and they'll confiscate the boat."

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