Editor's Note: William Gilly, a professor of biology at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, embarked on new expedition this month to study jumbo squid in the Gulf of California on the National Science Foundation–funded research vessel New Horizon. This is his fifth blog post about the trip.

SEA OF CORTEZ—Once again dawn finds us escaping from our overnight acoustic-transect box, and we head north from San Carlos, running about five miles from the coast.  From here you can see all the way from Cabo Virgenes, just north of Santa Rosalia, to San Fransquito—70 miles of roadless coast that is essentially pristine. This coast is rough and rocky to about 10 miles south of San Carlos, where the plunging cliffs and headlands rather suddenly change to rolling, terraced foothills that slope upward to the massive Reforma dome and the distant Tres Virgenes. Several more rocky headlands lie to the north before San Francisquito, but the massive cliffs are gone.

Despite the remoteness of this region, if you are close enough to the shore you will see a good number of small arroyos and pocket beaches with signs of temporary fish camps … places out of time with no names. Such camps have always been part of the Gulf landscape. During the first circumnavigation of the Gulf in 1539, Franscisco de Ulloa describes in his log the scene at such a beach:

     "They had a little enclosure of woven grass without any cover on top, where they lodged, some ten or twelve paces from the sea. We found inside no sort of bread nor anything resembling it, nor any other food except fish, of which they had some which they had killed with well-twisted cords which they had and with some thick hooks made of tortoise shell bent in the fire, and with others, smaller made of thorns. They kept their drinking water in certain skin pouches which we thought must be the stomachs of seals. They had a little raft which they must have used in fishing. It was made of canes tied in three bundles, each part separately, and then tied all together, with the middle section being larger than the laterals. They rowed it with a slender oar, little more than half a fathom long, and two small badly made paddles, one at each end. We judged these people to be nomads, possessed of little intelligence."

Clearly the Spanish explorers did not see far enough into a future that would lead to expansive development of beach-front hotels, condos and homes from which many sport fishermen would set to sea in small, but expensive boats. But until this recent explosion and the availability of outboard motors to the local communities, the deeply ingrained tradition of subsistence from the rich waters of the Gulf persisted.

Steinbeck and Ricketts noted in Sea of Cortez:

      "Above Santa Rosalia very few trading boats travel. One would be really cut off up here. And yet here and there on the beaches we found evidence of large parties of fishermen. On one beach there were fifteen or twenty large sea-turtle shells and the charcoal of a bonfire where the meat had been cooked or smoked. In this same place we found also a small iron harpoon which had been lost, probably the most valued possession of the man who had lost it."

These fishermen were indeed nomadic, departing from a place like Santa Rosalia in a small, open boat with only oars and a small sail, some bottles of water, and crude fishing gear. They traveled the waves, often for months at a time, existing on whatever nature provided—caguama (turtle), lobster, fish, bird eggs collected from islands. Ray Cannon called them "vagabundos del mar" in his classic 1966 Sunset Book, The Sea of Cortez:

      "Vagabundos del mar, or sea gypsies, are men who prefer to roam the Cortez alone. You may get close to one sometime, and if you do, you'll find them friendly and helpful, but he will not seek your company. The vagabundos stop their roaming only when they die and are buried on the southernmost tip of Isla Ceralvo."

Despite the unlikely scene of a mass vagabundo burial site on Isla Ceralvo, these men of the sea are not a myth. I have spoken at length with two of them, both from Santa Rosalia, and their independent accounts tell the same story. These men know the Gulf like no others, and there is a regal quality to their wisdom.

I met one of these treasures, Guillermo Castro Miranda, also known as Memo Playa, in Loreto last month at the Conservation Science Symposium. Memo was born in Santa Rosalia in 1938, spent his life fishing and has collected his experiences into Memorias de un Cachanía, published in 2005 by the Gobierno del Estado de Baja California Sur/Instituto Sudcaliforniano de Cultura. In 2009 he won first prize in the First National Literary Competition, "The Old Man and the Sea," with an essay, "Un día de pesca," that has been translated by Susana Mahieux of La Paz.

"A Fishing Day" begins:

      "I go with the wind and sometimes against the wind. I plough the Sea of Cortez, but the waves erase my tracks and the silence of its immensity swallows my jubilant cries when I catch a good fish. Although my tracks cannot be seen, my presence is always there, in the depth of its blue horizon. I do not feel alone, because the sea gulls and pelicans accompany me. In an environment without smoke, dust or bad smells I only perceive the odor of fish, of sea weed and the salt in the sea.

     I am not afraid to fish at night because when I look at the stars, I am certain that amongst some of them, the eyes of God are watching me with indulgence.

     My life has passed according to the tides... "

And the essay ends with a eulogy for the rich Sea of Cortez he knew so intimately:

     "We squandered it in only fifty years, with noxious fishing methods and no control. With wire traps, kilometer long lines with hundreds of hooks, with crawl nets, gill nets, boundless use of gunpowder, and lately with compressors and harpoons, we are emptying what remains.

      With sadness I realize that like this abundance, my strength and youth have also gone. I am left with nothing.

      Death I do not fear you. What I fear is the time it will take for you to come."

Perhaps Ray Cannon was right—Ceralvo is a symbol rather than a place on a map. None of us will never now the truths that the vagabundos lived. Their recollections are our only link to a vanished past.

Susanna and I are currently trying to help Memo with translations of additional pieces and to find a publisher for a bilingual collection of his work. 

Photo credits:

North slope of the Reforma caldera: W. Gilly, Nov. 2007

Punta Trinidad with Reforma and Tres Virgenes in background: Nancy Burnett, May 2004

Small arroyo and beach: Lauren Bell, June 2010 New Horizon Cruise

Guillermo Castro Miranda (Memo Playa): Susana Mahieux, May 2011

Gulls and Pelicans: Ted Uyeno, Northern Arizona Univeristy, June 2011