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Exploring Mexico's Wild Side

By ship in the Sea of Cortez, by rail to the Copper Canyon

Spirit of Endeavor
Photo credit
Photo: Cruise West
Photo caption
A cruise ship plies the waters of the Sea of Cortez.

Many reports, both ancient and modern, suggest that looking for and then contemplating natural wonders is the principal reason we travel for pleasure. Objectively, this is a rather odd cause for wanderlust since wherever one is there are many more curiosities—animal, vegetable, and mineral—than can be considered in any lifetime. As poets are supposed to, Walt Whitman once pondered this truism and then wrote, "A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels."

It is also true that most of us need novel and exotic things to jump-start our imaginations, to sharpen our appreciation of the wonders of creation. With sufficient poetic insight, a gray mouse or even a drop of water should serve as well. But being what we are, we go off to marvel at, say, gray whales or magnificent frigate birds in the Sea of Cortez, or the river-cut gorges of the Copper Canyon.

To accommodate such interests Cruise West, best known for conducting scenic summertime tours between Puget Sound and Alaska, recently began operating during the winter in the Sea of Cortez with a 100-passenger ship The Spirit of Endeavor. For a week, the vessel proceeds slowly northward from Cabo San Lucas and then back southward, hugging the dry peninsula. At the end of this tour Cruise West offers—for those interested—a three-day train trip into high canyon country to the Copper Canyon.

In 1535, seeking new riches, Hernando Cortez left Acapulco with three ships and 500 prospective colonists. Sailing across the narrow sea that was to bear his name, he landed on the coast of what is now the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. The conquistador found the peninsula (then thought to be an island) impossible—hot, dry, infertile, and already occupied by fairly hostile natives and numerous rattlesnakes. Disappointed, Cortez left, never to return. After several difficult years, surviving colonists did likewise. For the next four centuries foreigners largely ignored the place. Settlement and development were minimal until after World War II when the government began subsidizing facilities for tourism.

The real riches of this area were in the waters adjacent to the hot and dry land. A marine sliver wedged between the Mexican mainland and Baja California, the Sea of Cortez is more than 700 miles long and about 100 miles across at its widest. Warmish, deep, and fed by the Colorado River, the sea was found to be one of the most fertile marine ecosystems in the world, supporting some 3,000 animal species. Among others were 25 different cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), some 800 kinds of fish (including sharks and rays), squids, shrimps, and oysters, and accompanying flora. During the 19th and 20th centuries, commercial fisherman from around the world hooked, netted, and harpooned the heck out of the wildlife in the Sea of Cortez. Populations of some species inevitably declined—in some cases by 90 percent—but marine life was initially so prolific that the place was called "God's Fish Tank." Which is why John Steinbeck came here in the spring of 1940.

Having recently published The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck chartered a fishing boat, the Western Flyer, in Monterey, Calif., engaged a crew, and headed south. His partner was Ed Ricketts, a philosophically inclined marine biologist who was something of a guru and whom Steinbeck used in several of his novels as a homespun wise man character. After returning, the two of them wrote the extensive Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. Steinbeck later compiled The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Ostensibly, this is a straightforward account of collecting specimens of marine life. But as he confessed, formal biology was an excuse, not the main reason for the voyage.

Cruise West brought The Spirit of Endeavor to these waters two years ago. Despite the up-and-at-'em name of the ship, the outings are rather laid-back. In the morning, The Spirit anchors near a deserted island or beach and the crew begins shuttling passengers—in small boats—back and forth to sunbathe, swim, snorkel, kayak, botanize, and look for birds, whales, and sea lions.

On board many of the Cruise West trips is a naturalist who also serves as an activities director. On our voyage this person was Sally Wenning. A summer resident of Montana and a fisheries biologist, Wenning is a perpetually and genuinely exuberant young woman. She and others of the 30-person crew made arrangements for people to play golf, shop, or sightsee, but mainly what they did was point out natural wonders.

"Gray whales on the port side."

"There is a pod of dolphins, about 50 of them, riding the bow wave." "At three o'clock off the stern, low on the horizon, Mars, Mercury, and Venus are lined up in a perfect isosceles triangle. That is really rare."

I have spent considerable time following migrating waterfowl, banding birds and bats, being an obsessed falconer. But of animals I know, the most impressive aerialists are the aptly named magnificent frigate birds, some of whom are usually in the sky over the Sea of Cortez. With wingspans of more than 7 feet (about same as the golden eagle) but weighing less than 4 pounds, they drift like thistledown, landing only at dusk to roost. Frigates do not swim or float. Mostly, they are parasitic predators. Having made a catch, a pelican or some other bird rises from the water with its meal. Then frigates, much more agile, will swoop down and begin to harass the creature as English privateers once did Spanish galleons in these same waters. On a frequent enough basis to support the feathered marauders, the discombobulated pelicans or other birds drop their fish, which the frigates catch in the air and eat. Anthropomorphically, frigate birds may seem morally challenged but aloft they are marvels.

I had never paid much attention to stingrays until I snorkeled in the shallows of Isla Partida, at the north end of Espíritu Santo. I spent most of a morning trying to find them on the sandy bottom. Sometimes I came within 6 or 8 inches of one of these tawny, pancake-sized and -shaped creatures, but because of their superb camouflage saw the ray only after it had exploded out of the sand to dart away.

Wings, stings, color, movement, ferocity, timidity, bigness, littleness: Underlying all the wonder of what nature hath wrought are the diverse survival strategies of organisms. Each is more effective in some ways and some circumstances than any other living thing. (If it was not, it could not be.)

In her line of work, Sally Wenning sees lots of cetaceans and tourists.

Unquestionably, she thinks, the former are the principal attraction for the latter. It is hard to imagine anybody cruising on the Sea of Cortez who would not be excited by the whales or porpoises cavorting about like playful torpedoes. The recent natural histories of two of these animals, the gray whale and the vaquita porpoise, are especially instructive.

Weighing 25 to 35 tons and stretching some 30 to 45 feet in length, gray whales migrate back and forth between their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic and the warm lagoons of Baja, where they winter and bear their young. Finding great congregations in shallow, easy-to-hunt waters, 19th-century whalers slaughtered the creatures by the thousands. By the midpoint of the 20th century, grays were close to extinction, one of the most endangered marine mammals (only a few hundred were thought to be living when they were protected in the 1940s). But because of their coastal habitats they are perhaps the most popular of the big whales. Their plight became an environmental cause célèbre. Driven by growing public concern, international agreements were negotiated for their protection. The recovery of the gray whale is counted as one of the most significant accomplishments of the marine conservation movement. Today an estimated 26,000 exist, and the population is increasing. Catering to tourists who want to see these creatures in their winter waters has become a substantial industry—probably a more lucrative one for Baja residents than whaling ever was.

The problems and prospects of the vaquita are much different. Found only in the northern reaches of the Sea of Cortez, they are the smallest of the cetaceans (about 100 pounds, 4 to 5 feet long), were the last to be scientifically identified (in 1958), and may be the first to become extinct. The vaquita (little cow) seldom plays about on the water's surface and in fact is rarely seen except by field biologists who have to look hard. The estimate is that now only 200 to 800 of them remain and the population could be declining at an annual rate of about 20 percent. Vaquitas have never been intentionally hunted but they get caught and die (at least 25 of them a year) in nets set for other species by commercial fishers. There is also evidence that vaquitas once foraged in the estuaries of the Colorado River. Now, because of upstream dams and irrigation works, water from the Colorado only occasionally—at high flood stage—flows into the Sea of Cortez.

Both Mexico and the United States have declared the vaquita endangered and adopted protective federal regulations that are legally stern but indifferently enforced. Unlike the whales, these little porpoises are not objects of worldwide sympathy and they do not help to support cruise ships, hotels, or travel agents. In truth, whether vaqui-tas survive or expire, chances are none of us will be materially affected. But it has long seemed to me that such cases are of considerable moral importance.

The overland, rail leg of this trip on the rather grand South Orient Express commences at Los Mochis on the mainland side of the Sea of Cortez. The destination, 200 miles to the east, is the rim of the Copper Canyon—a section of North America's largest canyon system. The larger system of canyons that holds the famed Barranca del Cobre is actually the convergence of many deep gorges, cut by rivers such as the Urique, Tara-récua, and Batopilas. Four of the many gorges are deeper than the Grand Canyon and together are considerably more extensive in volume.

Travelers whose experience allows them to compare say that the train ride into these highlands is one of the most spectacular to be had anywhere. With mountain walls closing in, the train climbs about 8,000 feet from the sea, ascending through 87 tunnels and across some of the world's highest bridges, making sharp, sometimes 180-degree switchbacks. Along the way are glimpses of spectacular canyons—the Septentrión, Urique, and Tararécua. Then the Copper—named not for its minable minerals (which were gold and silver) but for the colors of its walls. This section of rails, completed in 1961, was the last link in a line that began a century earlier, created originally to provide a shortcut from Kansas City to the Pacific.

Now the South Orient Express and associated highland hotels operate so that visitors can come and look into the awesome canyons. But the Tarahumara people who reside in these parts are also a frequently promoted attraction. Renowned for their endurance, Tarahumara are best known for their ability to run for 50 or 60 miles through the sierra to hunt, to carry messages, or simply to enjoy the sport of it. As these feats are not easily converted into foreign exchange, Tarahumara women sell baskets and carvings outside hotels, and men dance briefly and pass their hats. Neverthe-less, these are a most unusual and distinguished people.

When Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, the Tarahumara were settled farmers working flat, fertile fields in central Chihuahua. To put it bluntly, they found the Europeans abhorrent and left their ancient homeland to retreat into the high canyon country where Spaniards and Mexicans could not or would not follow. There they foraged, hunted, and practiced slash-and-burn agriculture as they still do. They lived in scattered family groups hidden from authorities. However, to the extent they have explained their beliefs to interested anthropologists, the Tara-humara do not think of themselves as marginal refugees but as the first people to be created by Father Sun and Mother Moon. Over the years many of them have retreated farther and farther into the Sierra Tarahumara, as this region of Mexico is called. Today the area is considered the traditional homeland of 50,000 Tarahumara.

Whatever it is that encouraged or compelled the Tarahumara to do as they have, they are certainly wonderful in the way Walt Whitman had in mind.

Getting There

Cruise West offers a series of seven-day cruises on the Sea of Cortez, each of which can be extended with a train excursion to the Copper Canyon. The cruises begin in Cabo San Lucas and head north along Baja's eastern shore. The next week is replete with stops in towns like Loreto and La Paz; kayaking, snorkeling, and exploring tiny islands; and whale-watching. At the end of the cruise, travelers can head to the Copper Canyon in vintage railcars. Other cruise lines that operate in the area include Linblad Expeditions and Clipper Cruises. For help planning your trip, visit your local AAA branch.

This article was first published in September 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.