Desert Mexico

Isla Espiritu Santo Sketch
and Photography Journal

Notes and sketches from the Sea of Cortez.

I am on a skiff flying through the Sea of Cortez from the capital of Baja Sur, La Paz. Destination is Isla Espiritu Santo. It's a large island just off La Paz, and I've hired local divemaster Lucio to guide me into its shallow lagoons and bays.

Espiritu Santo Map

Our objective is to photograph the island's landscapes in large format, with an old style camera.

The problem is that in my four days of shooting with Lucio, I wouldn't know that each of my sheets of film wouldn't be 'catching.' That's right, the camera is shooting blanks.

Bahia Puerto Balandra

The island of Espiritu Santo is isolated, in the very fact that it is an island, but it also sits in between two landmasses; the Baja peninsula and the Mexican mainland. Combined with the fact that the island sits just north of the Tropic of Cancer, Espiritu Santo is ecologically rich. Recently, the Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups helped the Mexican government purchase the island in an attempt to maintain its ecological integrity. It is now a United Nations Biosphere Reserve and a Flora and Fauna Protection Area.

The island is home to some very unique wildlife, including the blacktailed jack rabbit, a cactus endemic only on Espiritu Santo, the round-tailed ground squirrel, blue footed boobies, two snake species endemic to the island, a ring-tailed cat known locally as the Babisuri, and huge colonies of sea lions.

Because of all these facts, Isla Espiritu Santo and the islands that dot Mexico's Sea of Cortez are valued and studied by a field called island biogeography. Biogeography is a science that concerns itself with the distribution of species; why they exist in one place and not another. And also, to explain why species' may have existed in a place, and why they exist there no longer. Island biogeography, then, is this same science focused on islands. Why this science is important is probably best described by science author David Quammen, in his well-known island biogeography piece called Song of the Dodo. "Many of the world's gaudiest life forms," he writes, "both plant and animal, occur on islands."

Tricolored Heron, La Paz

Small ecosystems compound the effect of evolution, so they make great laboratories of the bizarre.

After hours of crashing surf, Lucio and I arrive on the eastern shores of Isla Espiritu Santo. We dock the boat near the shore and wade towards a white-sand beach. Immediately, the beach declares itself uninhabited with millions of unpicked shells, the half-eaten skeletons of balloon fish, and the unusual-looking skeletons of perished brown pelicans.

I pick up the sunbleached head of a former brown pelican. It is unusually light, as far as skeletons go. Even so with its long beak. Brown pelicans reach up to eight pounds, but the skeletons of these 7.5 foot wingspan birds are only nine ounces. In Baja, the brown pelican is brilliantly colored in red, yellow and white. He hunts for fish by gliding low over areas he suspects to hold a catch. He may glide for minutes, or simply fold his wings and 'bomb' himself into the water. This amazing act occurs all day long near the shores of the island. This constant act of a fragile creature literally crashing himself into the water almost constantly seems impossible. But the brown pelican is equipped with internal air-chambers that act as miniature shock-absorbing air bags.

Conservationists involved in Isla Espiritu Santo also seek to protect the habitats of seals and sea lions in the area. What's always interested me is what is the difference between the two, and are they related?

Shrimp Boat in Sea of Cortez

Mammal lineages have regularly evolved to become aquatic, sub-aquatic and pure land animals. Some have switched back and forth. The human species itself is thought to have shed its fur as it became a subaquatic hunter and gatherer, spending much of the day foraging in the shallows of East Africa.

Elephants, too, were once aquatic animals; their skin is testament to this. Fossils found on both sides of the Pacific indicate they were actually deepwater creatures who swam the entire ocean.

Mammals are though to be so adaptable in the regard of switching from land to sea, that a possible transitional species may exist today. In the Tokelau Islands of the Pacific, a species of hog is known to forage for crustaceans in the low tide coral reefs. These hogs have adapted the ability to swim with their head submerged.

La Paz, Mexico

Fossil records of the intermediary species between whales and their ancestors are relatively intact. With all this evidence, scientists believe that whales are the great-grandchildren of species' related to wolves. At one time, the whales were coastal creatures who dwelled near the coast and picked off monkeys from tree branches in mangrove-like terrains.

The evolution of mammals into sea creatures fascinates scientists, but none seems to create as much controversy as the seals and sea lions. A lot of scientists believe the two evolved completely separately. The seal and sea lion families are different in many ways. Sea lions have developed, noticeable ears, while seal do not. The two also have very different flipper systems. Because of this, seals cannot really walk on land; they just kind of bounce their blubber forward. Sea Lions, like the California Sea Lions hanging out on the rocks beside us, evolved their land walking abilities relatively intact.

Our boat reaches the small islet called Los Islotes, which is filled with mating blue-footed boobies. These birds virtually symbolize the coastal waters of western Latin America. They spend most of their lives at sea, but come to these isolated islands to mate and lay their eggs. Their famously aqua feet are used to wrap, warm and hide their eggs. Both mom and dad hold onto these delicate blue eggs with their feet. When the young booby is about the hatch, they place the egg on top of their blue feet.

We notice some of the boobies enduring some sort of strange ritual of courtship. The males place their wide blue feet high in the air, facing the female while switching from foot to foot. Meanwhile, the female cranes her neck out and faces the sky. In turn, the male does the same and whistles at the heavens.

The strangest ecology of these Mexican islands lies not on these cactus-riddled shores, but underneath. Lucio pulls the skiff to a sandy break and we anchor there. These waters - filled with brilliant fish, whale sharks and hammerheads, pacific mantas and giant tuna in the deeper water.

Much of the diversity of the Sea of Cortez comes because of massive volcano-like underwater sea mounts, strewn about and acting as magnets for life. It is simply amazing then, to surface from the water again and see, just a few miles away, a number of shrimp trawlers, their nets scarring along the bottom, grabbing everything.