Editor’s Note: Marine biologist William Gilly is on an expedition to study Humboldt squid on the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System research vessel New Horizon in the Gulf of California. He and other scientists are learning about the giant squid, their biology and ecology on this National Science Foundation-funded expedition. This is his seventh blog post about the trip.
GULF OF CALIFORNIA—Day 14 The voyage home: Dawn of the last full day of our expedition found us close to shore, north of Santa Rosalia. This is an area of fantastic geology. The sharp peaks of Tres Virgenes, semi-active volcanoes, are visible from halfway across the Gulf—the tallest is more than 6,000 feet in altitude. It can be seen from Guaymas on a clear day, so they say. But I believe it. On certain, rare days the air over the Gulf crystallizes as cleanly and suddenly as if you had wiped the salt spray off your glasses and peered through good binoculars. On one of those days a few years ago—for a few hours—we could see the south end of Isla San Lorezno from where we are now. That’s the island across the Salispuedes channel from Bahia San Rafael, our land of big squid—80 miles away. Steinbeck called it "miraculous air"—check out a book with that title by C.M. Mayo.
Although the Tres Virgenes are the tallest local peaks, they are 30 miles or more from the coast and therefore seem smaller than the massive Caldera Reforma that rises right out of the sea, its eastern flank scoured by arroyos leading down to the beach. You can hike up these spectacular canyons until you are stopped by sheer cliffs where waterfalls have sculpted the rocks. This is the spot chosen by dawn to illuminate, perhaps my favorite in the Gulf.
So far, this region north of Santa Rosalia has remained largely untouched. Protected from a land assault by the volcanoes, it must be approached by sea. Boaters avoid the area, because unpredictable, stiff winds funnel in from the Pacific side through the volcano guardians and rush down the eastern slopes, especially at night when the air cools. Only panga fishermen seem to camp on the rough, cobble beaches. There is no access to the coast by road between Santa Rosalia and San Francisquito, a distance of 75 miles or so. It is fitting that this section should be included in the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. Although this area was primarily set aside to protect the great breeding lagoons for gray whales on the Pacific coast, somebody had the good sense to extend the boundary across Baja California Sur to the Gulf Coast and thereby this unspoiled region. Exactly what reserve status will mean in practice—as development comes knocking —remains to be seen. But a framework is there. We need to worry about all features of this amazing region.
Soon we cruise by the town of Santa Rosalia itself. Steinbeck and Ricketts didn’t visit here, because they said it was not a real Mexican town. It was largely built by a French mining company, El Boleo, to develop vast copper deposits. This copper is geologically unusual, being formed in hydrothermal vents deep in the Gulf at plate-spreading centers and then uplifted and transformed. The Gulf is geologically young, and its deep basins are the source of Alta California’s San Andreas Fault. As spreading continues, the Baja peninsula and much of coastal California will move westward and eventually become an island.
Certain features of Santa Rosalia from sea probably look much like they did in 1940. The great smelting works, smokestacks, mountains of slag, wooden office buildings and the pier made of obsidian-like slag are still there. But the French mines have been quiet since the 1950s, and the town revived its stalled economy with fishing for Humboldt squid. Today, it is arguably the most truly Mexican town in Baja. There are no U.S. chain stores (not even an OXXO, the ubiquitous Mexican equivalent of 7-11), fast-food dispensaries or tourist developments. Everyone who drives down Mexico 1 to Loreto, La Paz or Cabo San Lucas (all heavily anglicized) goes right through Santa Rosalia, but most never stop. Like the stark beauty of the Caldera Reforma at dawn, the town’s charm glows from its rough edges.
Santa Rosalia’s history is intriguing and tightly wound up with that of squid. As far as I can tell, big Humboldt squid arrived in commercial quantities in the Guaymas Basin sometime in the late 1970s. They have since become year-round residents, migrating between Santa Rosalia (summer and fall) and Guaymas (winter and spring) —at least in a normal year. Could the apparent sudden appearance of squid less than 50 years ago be due to a primary invasion from the eastern tropical Pacific that resulted in a population of squid taking hold? In that way it could be analogous to the invasion of Bahia San Rafael that we have been studying for the last two weeks. It has been difficult reconstructing the ecological history of this region, but we know that Steinbeck and Ricketts did not see Humboldt squid in their 1940 expedition. And although we have seen no big Humboldt squid in the Guaymas Basin on this cruise, we have seen many small ones darting around the boat at night. They would be impossible to miss even by the most casual observer.
Mining of course has also been a key element of local history. A nice account was recently written by one of our Holistic Biology students as his final project, and I need to encourage him to disseminate it somehow, perhaps on the web. Certainly the most interesting new development is a massive new effort to rework the old mines that has been initiated by Baja Mining, a Canadian corporation. This project will bring several thousand workers and large changes to a place that now bustles at night when the squid boats come in.
At the south end of town, just beyond an estero lined by green, we pass gleaming new buildings on a bluff overlooking the sea. It is ITESME, Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Mulegé, a relatively new four-year technical college with more than 500 students. There are at least two great opportunities here. One is to develop education and technology as a local economic driver—it would seem to be inherently good for the community and provide a source of adaptability to changing conditions—unlike reliance on mining or fishing. The second is the chance to develop a partnership between ITESME and Stanford that would allow construction of a modest marine laboratory with holding facilities for live animals. This would greatly facilitate our work on Humboldt squid, but there is a bigger picture. Such a facility would allow marine biology research and technology to be incorporated into ITESME programs, providing new opportunities to their students. They could participate in visitors’ research projects—not just with our group but with scientists from other institutions as well. Potentially the facility could be developed as a research gateway for the entire Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve—the location is perfect. Finally, the ITESME mission includes a strong community outreach element, and the potential here is also great. I suspect very few local school children have ever been to an aquarium to see live marine animals or examined an intact Humboldt squid up close. We have brought the latter activity to many schools across the U.S., and it is incredibly popular with students.
On the day after I disembark in Cabo San Lucas, two weeks from now, I will make my way to La Paz for a meeting with the director of ITESME as well as state education and fishery officials to discuss implementation of these plans. It is an exciting development, and it will take not only hard work and commitment but also resources and funding. We will move on, just as if we were searching for big squid in a temporarily vacated basin.
And now we are winding down our expedition and carrying out a final acoustic transect across the Gulf to Guaymas. It will be a long ride at 4-5 knots. Perhaps that is how it should—watching the volcanoes slowly shrink and dissolve into that final sunset. But we will be back—as Steinbeck knew, we must come back if we are to live.
Image of sunset over Tres Virgenes, courtesy of Captain D. Murline; image of Caldera Reforma, courtesy of Capain D. Murline; image of Vizcaino Reserve, adapted by William Gilly from www.cetaceanhabitat.org; image of Santa Rosalia, courtesy of William Gilly; image of ITESME, courtesy of Captain D. Murline