Thursday, August 21, 2008

Between the Mountains and the Deep Blue Sea

El Santuario Eco-Retreat, Baja California Sur
by Melissa Gaskill

In a flash of orange and black, an oriole landed on the windowsill of my casita, then flitted to the thatched palm roof, serving as a wake-up call timed perfectly with rays of sun rising over the mountain peaks. A clear Baja California Sur sky turned deep blue as leaves rustled in the breeze over an ever-present whisper of waves.

It wasn’t easy to get to El Santuario Eco-Retreat, six small dwellings scattered discreetly among the desert’s gnarly torote blanco trees and many varieties of cacti, overlooking a crescent of beach lapped by the multi-hued waters of Mexico’s Gulf of California. But that’s part of its appeal. After a flight to the growing village of Loreto, it’s 30 or so miles south by taxi or rental car on narrow paved road, then another unpaved mile to the gate, little more than a gap in the trees with whale bones arching over a sandy path.

More paths of deep, fine sand wander the property to the casitas, each hidden from view of the others. Names like Sueno, Danzante and Escondido, carved on wooden fish with bright glass-bead eyes, point the way. The complex, rounded out by a communal yurt, bath house, and open air kitchen, is framed in on three sides by the steep, rugged slopes of the Sierra de la Giganta and on the fourth by the water, where tall Isla Danzante and long Isla Carmen seem to float in the air just off shore.

It would have been perfectly satisfying to relax on my porch the entire week, emerging only for generous meals cooked by women from the nearby villages of Ensenada Blanca and Ligui, featuring fresh-caught fish, fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market, and a variety of delicacies such as handmade empanadas and fresh tortillas. But the wealth of activities proved too tempting for that. Blue Waters Kayaking, which handles booking for El Santuario, offers planned group tours and guided activities รก la carte for solo guests (some require advance booking). I shared my week here with a group tour, led by a pair of personable and astonishingly knowledgeable guides, Eli Shostak and Erin Bohm. Running down the list of options that first night, Shostak summed it up well: “There are no poor choices here.”

The first day, I walked south on the beach to a series of jutting rock shelves. At their edges, small fish swam in three or four feet of gin clear water. Gulls, pelicans, frigate birds, and a pair of osprey flew overhead, while herons and pipers waded along the sandy part of the shore. Later, I followed the group on a hike up a mountain ridge for a stunning view of island-dotted sea stretching to the east and south horizons. After a gravity-powered shower and dinner, everyone relaxed around a roaring fire and listened to Shostak’s animated reading from Almost an Island, a book by Bruce Berger about the peninsula. After dark, I snuggled into my blankets (desert evenings can be cool almost year-round) under a moon so bright it threw black shadows and made my flashlight unnecessary for a late-night bathroom run. The eco-resort lies so far from signs of major civilization, under such clear air, that stars are visible despite the moon.

The next day I elected to ride horses with another woman retreating at El Santuario. Phillipa and I were picked up at the whale-bone gate by Jorge, who lives in Ensenada Blanca with his wife and two kids. The use of locals is obviously a recurring theme here. Jorge brought two nice-looking horses wearing comfortable saddles, and led us by a different route to the same “vista del mar” as the previous day’s hike. Riding proved much easier than walking on the loose scree and in the deep sand, and our guide pointed out various plants along the way, including pitahaya dulce and pitahaya agria, fruits that are, respectively, sweet and sour, and whose early summer ripening has been eagerly anticipated by Baja California residents for centuries. According to Shostak’s reading, in fact, early Spanish missionaries reported that locals liked the dulce version so much that they sometimes tied a string to the fruit before eating it, so they could pull it up and enjoy the experience all over again, and were also known to pick the seeds out of weeks-old human scat. Fortunately, those missionaries introduced to Baja California a variety of other fruits that are readily available today.

Horseback riding seemed the perfect excuse for a massage, provided in my casita by a very competent local woman with six years of experience under her smock. Her touch was perfect, light and soothing where it needed to be, firmer where required, strong hands softened with refreshing oil. A cool breeze through the open windows and the ubiquitous sound of waves lulled me into complete relaxation. I slept even more soundly that night.

Guests at El Santuario can opt for longer hikes, including those that start off-site and explore canyons where waterfalls or ancient cave paintings await, or boat rides to Cosme, a natural tidal hot springs and a great snorkeling spot. Other options are exploring the coastline by panga, snorkeling around the shore or nearby islands, kayaking, fishing and scuba diving. All are dependent on weather conditions, of course, as well as availability of guides and local services, but there are always plenty of options.

Denise and Bill Jones, a veterinarian and psychotherapist in San Luis Obispo, Calif., started El Santuario in 1999 as a way to step out of the rat race they no longer enjoyed. They wanted to get closer to nature and provide a place for others to do so as well; simple living close to nature became their theme. The retreat was designed to blend in with the natural surroundings, built largely with indigenous materials by local laborers, and crafted to minimize use of water. The couple intentionally bought supplies locally where possible and trained and employed residents of the nearby villages. El Santuario is also solar-powered, and while there are lights, hot showers, and refrigeration for the kitchen, there are no phones, televisions, or computers to disturb the tranquility.
“It is a wonderful feeling living off the grid,” Bill says, “and while we’re far from self-sufficient, we’re very self-reliant, with the help of the community. We were thrilled to get away from all the consumption of LA and become part of the Ensenada Blanca community.”

For decades, if not centuries, little has changed in Baja California, but today change looms for even the most remote places on the peninsula. A steadily increasing trickle of visitors is turning into a torrent. FONATUR, an agency founded by the Mexican government to create infrastructure and promote tourism, seems to have a single-minded view of what that tourism should be, and it isn’t places like El Santuario. The agency has invited U.S. firms, primarily from California, to develop choice spots. Even Donald Trump is in on the rush. This creates the very real possibility that every beach in Baja California will, before long, sport rows of high-rise hotels and condominiums with incongruously green golf courses carved in the desert scrub. Heavy equipment recently appeared not far up the beach from El Santuario. A slick Baja publication aimed at potential real estate clients in the U.S. — thousands of Americans already have purchased high-end second homes here — is liberally sprinkled with words like “exclusive” and “luxury.”

But Baja California and places like this retreat offer singular luxuries no development can ever create: That of a peaceful night with only the gentle lullaby of waves falling on your ears. Serene bays of water in shades of blue defying description, punctuated with hazy, pointed islands marching to the horizon. Sunrise over rugged mountains whiskered with stately cardon and wild cholla cacti, and that same sun setting over a different ridge, neither horizon marred by the hand of humans. In between, the music of birds in the air — or on the windowsill — and the sigh of whales and splashes of dolphins in the water.

So come to El Santuario now, while these luxuries are still available, no extra charge.

Whale Camp
One of this area’s most popular diversions is whale watching in winter, when lagoons on the Pacific side of Baja California are home to hundreds of gray whale mothers and calves. The baleen whales, which grow up to 50 feet long and 40 tons, migrate here from summer feeding grounds in the far-north Bering and Chukchi seas. Calves are conceived during the previous year’s migration and born in the lagoons during winter after a 13-month gestation. Fifteen feet long and 1500 pounds at birth, the calves nurse on milk that is 53 percent fat, gaining 200 pounds a day and sufficient blubber to travel thousands of miles to the cold, Arctic waters in late spring.

One of the lagoons, Bahia Magdalena, or Mag Bay, is a two-hour drive from El Santuario. You can rent a car or taxi to go there yourself and hire a panga (boat) guide for whale watching, or sign up for whale camp, all-inclusive excursions that feature sleeping in tents on uninhabited islands along the bay, whale-watching by boat several hours each day and from shore other times, kayaking, bird watching, and hiking in the dunes. Blue Waters offers camps as an extension on either end of your stay at El Santuario.

Baja Expeditions, the first outfitter to offer Bahia Magdalena whale-watching tours way back in the 1980s, has whale watch and kayak excursions originating in La Paz, a four-hour van ride away. Guests stay in cabin-style tents with cots. The company also has five-day whale-watching trips out of San Diego to San Ignacio Lagoon, north of Mag Bay.

Sea Kayak Adventures has a Mag Bay whale camp on Isla Santo Domingo, a barrier island with more than 12 miles of beach and wind-sculpted dunes. A typical day begins with coffee at 7 a.m., followed by a hot breakfast, then loading into pangas for whale watching. Grey whales come quite close to the boats, sometimes near enough to touch, and calves often spy-hop, raising their heads high above the water for a good look around. The pangeros, or boat drivers, from nearby Lopez Mateos have an organized rotation for taking out groups, and the best among them have a real eye for spotting surfacing whales and a sense of a respectful distance from the big animals.

After whale watching, lunch is ready, and the afternoon may be spent walking along the beach, hiking the ever-changing dunes, or paddling kayaks to mangrove areas, excellent places to bird watch. You may spy dolphins and sea lions from kayaks or the beach. Happy hour at 5 p.m. is followed by a hearty supper, then socializing or a talk on whales before everyone retires. Sea Kayak offers itineraries with three, four and five days of whale watching, sightings guaranteed. After spending a few days in such close proximity to these whales, so huge and yet so gentle, it is hard to say goodbye. The sights and sounds of the grays remain with you, and the urge to return, just as the whales do, is strong. Perhaps annual migration is a good idea for all of us.

If You Go

El Santuario Eco-Retreat
Ensenada Blanca
Baja California Sur, Mexico
Casitas start at $80 per person in high season (Thanksgiving to April 30). One night stay includes three meals per day and snacks. Some guided activities extra. Children and pets welcome.

Sea Kayak Adventures
PO Box 3862
Coeur d’Alene, ID 83816
Magadalena Bay whale-watching wilderness camps, January through March, start at $895, not including airfare. Sea of Cortez kayak tours offered October through April.

Baja Expeditions
2625 Garnet Avenue
San Diego, CA 92109

Delta, Alaska, and Continental Airlines serve Loreto. Rental cars and taxi service available at the airport. Loreto is 700 miles from San Diego on Baja’s paved Highway 1. Passports are now required for travel to Mexico. Bank services (ATM, money exchange) available in Loreto, and most places accept U.S. dollars.

Gray Whale Facts from the American Cetacean Society, San Pedro, California,

Gardens of the Gulf

A mass coral spawning event is just one of many marvels at the Flower Garden Banks.

By Melissa Gaskill

The Jell-O blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico undulate like a shaken carpet, a few boats rising on swells that roll from one watery horizon to the other. From the surface, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, roughly 110 miles from the Texas shore, looks no different than the miles of gulf surrounding it.

But on this August night, some 60 feet below, a frenzy of activity begins — a mass coral spawning, or simultaneous release of eggs and sperm into the water column by millions of coral organisms. First documented here in 1991, the phenomenon occurs annually between seven and 10 days after the full moon in August. Spawning times for individual species are extremely consistent, often predictable within a few minutes. With a single exception, each species has a unique window of time in which it and no other species spawns, the chain of reproductive events filling the water with clouds of particles from tiny round pearls to irregular blobs, rising above the reefs like slow-motion rain in reverse.

"The reef is typically very quiet at night, except on the night of the spawn," says Peter Vize, professor of biological sciences at University of Calgary in Canada, and lead author of a research paper on the event. "All of a sudden, a large percentage of one species starts blowing out these giant clouds. When that species is finished, they all shut down and there is a little gap, then the next species goes off. It is an incredible transition over hours of crazed activity, quiescence and back to crazed activity, until after midnight. It is so intense that the water gets murky, and in a good year, the entire surface of the ocean is covered by a slick."

Three factors trigger the activity: water temperature cycles, phases of the moon and time of sunset. While research suggests that water temperature sets the month, moon phase the day and sunset the hour, scientists don't know how coral can tell water temperature, phase of the moon or time of day, Vize says. There are good reasons, though, for them to do so.

"Eggs and sperm have a limited life span, so fertilization has to happen within a limited window," says Vize. "In the ocean you also have diluting effects, and currents and waves carry things off, so if a coral spawns more than half an hour off from its reef-mates, it won't have much chance of reproducing. "As different species of coral developed, the triggers for spawning couldn't change much if the species was to survive, ultimately producing this chain reaction — which also occurs on coral reefs throughout the Caribbean and on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. A number of other Flower Garden Banks residents, including fish, brittle stars, sponges and Christmas tree worms, join in the reproductive frenzy. One advantage to piggy-backing on the coral's show could be protection from predation. With such a lavish buffet served all at once, predators fill up and simply can't eat it all.

The Reef Ccosystem
The frequency and volume of the annual spawning event are important indicators of the robust health of this reef ecosystem, according to Emma Hickerson, research coordinator for the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary is actually three separate areas taking in the northernmost coral reefs in the continental United States. The 100-acre West Flower Garden Bank and 250-acre East Flower Garden Bank grow on the caps of salt domes rising from the gulf floor 450 feet below and include some 21 species of coral. Stetson Bank, 30 miles closer to shore, is a 1,500-foot-long ridge of pinnacles jutting from the sea bottom, populated by fire coral and sponges. The closest coral neighbors lie off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, 400 miles away and the likely source of polyps that initially populated the Flower Garden Banks, and the Florida Keys, 750 miles distant.

These sessile inhabitants of the Flower Garden Banks — corals, algae and sponges — provide habitat, protection and food for a vibrant community of mobile creatures, including worms, crabs, shellfish, sea urchins, at least 280 species of fish, 20 of sharks and rays, loggerhead and hawksbill sea turtles, marine mammals and birds. Large schools of jacks congregate here. Surveys also indicate that this is important habitat for spawning aggregations of grouper and for juvenile red snapper. And while many reefs in the world are more diverse, the Flower Garden Banks are a healthy, well-populated marine environment that plays a vital role in the larger ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico.

Threats to the Flower Garden Banks
Data have been collected on the Flower Garden Banks since the 1970s. One of the most sensitive biological communities in the gulf, its exceptionally good condition is largely thanks to geography. A northern location in waters cooler than most reefs offers protection from common coral diseases, and its remoteness reduces some other threats. The sanctuary is not, however, completely immune to damage. It is near oil and gas operations and shipping lanes and is affected by outflow from the Mississippi River basin, which carries runoff from cities, industry and agricultural operations in roughly two-thirds of the United States. A major oil spill in the gulf could have drastic effects, as could discharge of pollutants from ships.

Coral reefs globally are in decline due to disease, pollution, increased extraction and increased use, Hickerson says. "In comparison, the coral reefs of the Flower Garden Banks are very healthy, evidenced by high coral cover of between 50 to 70 percent. However, warning signs of declining health have been observed."

The principal threats to the Flower Garden Banks are climate change, pollution and fishing, says Jack Sobel, Ocean Conservancy senior scientist. Any type of stress, even slight changes in water temperature, can cause coral polyps to bleach, or expel their symbiotic algae. Without the photosynthetic algae, taking in enough food is difficult for coral and they usually die. Hickerson reports that temporarily elevated temperatures were documented at the Flower Garden Banks in association with a bleaching event in 2005, with 45 percent of coral in the sanctuary affected. Once temperatures returned to normal, the majority of bleached coral recovered. But that year, Hurricane Rita caused serious mechanical damage to the reef, tumbling coral boulders, causing loss of large barrel sponges and flattening fields of delicate finger coral. For the past four years, Hickerson and her colleagues also have been studying a condition suspected to be coral disease.

An invasive coral native to the Indo-Pacific was documented at the East Bank in 2002. Likely brought in on a ship's hull or discharged in ballast water, the species is common on oil and gas platforms in the gulf, which played a role in its spread. Invasives can upset the balance of delicate ecosystems like coral reefs.

Recreational scuba divers are the largest user group in the sanctuary, with around 3,000 divers visiting each year. Potential negative impacts of this activity include sound from boat engines and generators, light from underwater photography and the introduction of pathogens from other dive sites carried on diving equipment such as wet suits. Coral reefs in other parts of the world have suffered ill effects from increased recreational use.

Helping the Reefs
The Flower Garden Banks NMS is one of 14 underwater areas protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuary Act. Eight full-time employees, based in Galveston, monitor the health of the reef and manage activities that can affect it. Marine sanctuary designation provides certain protections, with regulations prohibiting taking or injuring coral or coral reef organisms, discharging pollutants or disturbing the sea floor in the sanctuary. Oil and gas exploration and development are prohibited in "no activity" zones, but these do not include all of the sanctuary. Anchoring is also prohibited; one boat anchor can destroy thousands of years of reef growth in minutes. Spearfishing and trawling are prohibited, but conventional hook-and-line fishing is still allowed.

A Texas Parks and Wildlife Department program has created 30 artificial reefs, mainly from obsolete oil and gas platforms, between Stetson and the East and West Banks. These provide additional habitat that may take some of the fishing pressure off the banks, says John Embesi, diving safety officer of the TPWD Artificial Reef Program.

Protection would be greatly enhanced by additional restrictions, Sobel says, including prohibiting the taking of anything from the area. But enforcement of even existing regulations is difficult in an area located between 70 and 110 miles from shore and with limited staff.

Activities outside the sanctuary boundaries affect the reefs as well. "Through satellite imagery, use of tracking devices and anecdotal observations of freshwater vegetation floating near the sanctuary, it is generally accepted that freshwater from shore reaches far offshore," Hickerson says. Analysis by Kenneth Dunton, professor at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, confirms ties between estuarine sources and the Flower Garden and Stetson Banks, with Stetson showing a higher connection. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, satellite imagery clearly showed plumes of discolored water extending from the shoreline to the Flower Garden and beyond.

"Coral reefs are groups of organisms that live and work almost as a single system." Sobel says. "Having all the parts of that system in place and intact makes them much more resistant to pollution, climate change and other issues, and we have good science to back that up.

"We need to protect the area surrounding the sanctuary as well," he says, "including other reefs and hard bottom areas that attract the same life." Boundary expansion is, in fact, one of six priority issues identified by sanctuary staff and members of the sanctuary advisory council. Currently, staff is developing a list of nominated sites to be considered for inclusion. The other priority issues are law enforcement, education and outreach, and the impacts of fishing, pollutant discharge and visitor use.

"The banks are little storehouses of biodiversity, key areas that sustain and replenish the gulf as a whole, even though they take up a relatively small area," Sobel says. "They are truly the jewels of the gulf." Jewels that need protection, for the enjoyment of future generations and the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico.

Year of the Reef
The year 2008 is International Year of the Reef, a worldwide campaign by the International Coral Reef Initiative to raise awareness about the importance of coral reefs and the things that threaten them, and to motivate people to take action. Coral reefs, often called the rainforests of the sea, are some of the oldest and most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Reefs provide resources and services — from food to storm protection, medicine and recreational opportunities — worth an estimated $375 billion a year, even though they cover less than one percent of the earth's surface.

According to Status of the Coral Reefs of the World: 2004 (published by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and the International Coral Reef Initiative), 70 percent of the world's reefs are threatened or destroyed, 20 percent of those damaged beyond repair. In the Caribbean alone, many reefs have lost 80 percent of their coral species. Individuals can help protect coral reefs without ever leaving land, though.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Conservation Program offers a number of ways, including ensuring that sewage from boats and homes is properly treated, avoiding use of pesticides and fertilizers (even if you live thousands of miles away), buying marine life for aquariums only from suppliers that collect in an ecologically sound manner, recycling and conserving water. Those who visit reefs can help by supporting reef-friendly businesses, hiring local guides and never touching coral or anchoring on a reef. Find more information at .