Back from the Dead

The once zombie-like coral around Cabo Pulmo is alive and well again.

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Day of the Dead is a tradition throughout Latin America. The idea is that, once a year, some of the dearly departed have 24 hours to come back to life for a visit. But at Cabo Pulmo, everything has come back to life — for real!

The coral reefs at Cabo Pulmo are estimated to be 20,000 years old, according to biologists at Scripps Institute of Oceanography at La Jolla. What’s unique is it’s the only living hard-coral reef system on the west side of North America.

For eons, the multifingered coral has thrived while perched on a narrow, sandy ledge next to open-ocean currents. The coral’s lattice-like structure nurtured an unusually wide range of marine species — from pelagics such as bluefin tuna, dorado and sea turtles to many regional varieties of grouper, shark and other predators.

Coral heads, sea fans, sponges and colorful mollusks clad the reef as it sprawled and branched like a lush forest, providing food and shelter for all marine life. Measured in biomass, the 875 different species that spawned in the safety of Cabo Pulmo Reef were about equal to those that hatched and grew to maturity here and spread into the Pacific and Sea of Cortez. John Steinbeck, in his book “The Log of the Sea of Cortez,” raved that the colors of Cabo Pulmo Reef were electric.

The coral forest was a prolific nursery for many of the fish humans learned to love to catch and eat. Baja soon developed an industry for a dozen species of eating fish and feisty gamefish.

Downward Spiral

Death crept up slowly. It wasn’t just the obvious: commercial fishing with long lines and shrimpers dragging heavy sledges through the brittle calcite arms. It was also 50 years of recreational vessels inadvertently smashing the delicate corals with anchors and chains, suffocating them with prop wash and discharging toxic bilges near the living coral. By 1995, the reef looked bleak as a “dead zone,” and the fish were gone.

In 1999, Cabo Pulmo Reef and its surroundings won federal protection as a national marine park, thanks to efforts of the local Castro family and Scripps biologists. Newly trained park rangers began enforcing the no-fishing and no-anchoring rules within the park boundaries. Boy, did I hear complaints.

Life returned. Ten years later, Cabo Pulmo reef had came back from the dead. Recent analysis revealed that the corals had begun to spawn again and the total amount of marine life (biomass) had boomed more than 460 percent. Today, the fish food chain has returned. The coral reef at the heart of Cabo Pulmo National Park is again a thriving marine sanctuary, as well as a World Heritage Site.

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Where Is Cabo Pulmo?

On your Baja chart, look for the point farthest east on the East Cape bulge. Well, that big rectangular point is actually Cabo Los Frailes, a prominent headland that marks the easiest place to jump off from Baja and sail toward Mazatlan on the mainland. But look right next to Los Frailes, about two and a half miles to the north. See that very next tiny point of land? That’s the actual cabo they call Pulmo.

It’s even less impressive in person. Cabo Pulmo is an anthill of a point that blends so well with its mountainous background that it’s practically invisible from sea. Cabo Pulmo National Park is about 30 nautical miles up from Cabo San Lucas, 25 up from San Jose del Cabo, 15 miles down from the marina at La Ribera or 100 miles down from La Paz harbor.

My GPS position in deep water just outside the park’s eastern boundary was 23 degrees, 25.88 minutes north, 109 degrees, 22.70 minutes west.

Cabo Pulmo National Park

Coral-Cabo-Pulmo-MapIf you get to Cabo Pulmo in your own boat, don’t anchor inside the No Anchoring Zone (see chart.) Anchor either south of the park in Bahia Los Frailes (on the narrow shelf above the submarine canyon) or north of the inconspicuous Cabo Pulmo (open roadstead). If you’re unsure where to anchor, drift just inside the park’s two-and-a-half-mile eastern boundary (see chart) and hail “Cabo Pulmo park ranger” on VHF Channel 16. Park rangers and guides in uniforms should zoom up in marked pangas and ask to see your SEMARNAT park permits (they sell single-day passes here). Then they will help you find a safe place to anchor.

Park rangers hand out the latest park map, which shows two activity zones. They can link you with a park guide to go snorkeling or scuba diving (0600 to 1700) over the amazing reef system. It’s what underwater cameras are made for. Corridors of coral castles fly red fans and yellow sponges. Crannies are packed with shy anemone and brilliant tropical reef fish. Docile whale sharks and sunfish glide by.

 

Experienced scuba divers can explore the wreck Colima, a 1929 shrimper that sank in 1980 in 45 feet of water, just on the edge of the No Anchoring Zone. Night dives (1900 to 2200) should be scheduled in advance at the park office in the village center.

Beachcombing, surfing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and kiteboarding are other activities. Playa Los Arbolitos and Playa El Rincon are pristine beaches to stroll. Several times a year, visitors can help rangers carry the newly hatched nestlings to the water and launch them safely away from the gulls and frigates. Use binoculars to see the “Friars” climbing the rocky profile of Cabo Los Frailes.

Some things are prohibited within the park: fishing, PWCs, two-stroke motors, non-biodegradable sunscreens or bronzers. If you’re anchored nearby, turn off your bilge pumps and don’t let sinks, decks or laundry detergent drain overboard.

What’s Ashore?

At the north end of the park shoreline, the village of Cabo Pulmo has about 50 homes, a few rustic hotels, cabins and bungalows (Cremin’s, Nancy’s, Castro’s, Juanito’s, Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort), Jill’s Bakery and six casual restaurants. South of the park at Bahia Los Frailes, one large villa and one small hotel are situated among the scattering of nice beach homes.

Resort courses are available for scuba novices, and tank fills and dive equipment are available in the village. I can recommend Cabo Pulmo Divers (612-157-3381), which is owned by the Castro family who helped establish the national park, and Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort, also longtime residents. Check out Cabo Pulmo Dive Center and Cabo Pulmo Sports Center.

For more information, visit CaboPulmoPark.com

2 thoughts on “Back from the Dead

  1. We travel to Cabo Pulmo every year in October- November (huricanne dependent) when the water is clear and warm (86 Deg). Every year the fish population has grown. We now see consistent schools of jacks, Rays, puffers, bullhead shark, and an abundance of sardine. Cabo Pulmo has now become our preferred dive site of any other destination in the world. While other world renowned dive sites are on the decay, Cabo Pulmo has been revitalized. This is one healthy ecosystem and gets bigger and better every year. This is all available to us thanks to the Castro family, Scripps, the Mexican Govt and the compliance of the local operators to preserve this amazing ecosystem. If you can’t see it in person, watch it on YouTube.

    • Hi, Scott Belknap, Thanks for your comment on Cabo Pulmo. The improvement is amazing, a great example for other areas that need help. I hope to get down to Cabo Pulmo again in May 2017 and write more about the area. … Meanwhile, if you have a few colorful high-resolution photos – underwater or shore areas – that SEA can use in the future, please send them in care of me, Pat Rains / Mexico Report, at the magazine’s new office
      SEA Magazine
      18475 Bandilier
      Fountain Valley, CA 92708

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