Menu

National Geographic Undertakes Science Expedition to the Gulf of California

San José del Cabo, Mexico — Sea lions, whales (blue and humpback), bull sharks, whale sharks, dolphins and sea snakes were among the abundance of marine life observed by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE) on its 2016 field inspection, which ended this weekend on the southern tip of Mexico’s 775-mile-long Baja California peninsula.

The expedition aboard the cruise ship National Geographic Sea Bird sailed for seven days through the desert islands of Mexico’s legendary Gulf of California, a place so brimming with marine biodiversity that Jacques Cousteau called it the world’s aquarium. Some 70 scientists, grantees, National Geographic staff and other guests were shown around by Sven-Olof Lindblad, president of Lindblad Expeditions, which serves as the marine platform for National Geographic Expeditions. (Lindblad-National Geographic, a Ten-Year Expedition of Inspiration and Discovery.) He was assisted by Mexican naturalists from conservation groups active in the region.

Gulf of California seen from space. Photograph courtesy of NASA.
Separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Baja California peninsula, the Gulf of California, which is also known as the Sea of Cortez, is a feeding and breeding refuge for numerous marine mammals, birds, whale sharks, and Humboldt squid. Some of the islands and protected areas along the southeastern shore of the peninsula visited by the National Geographic expedition are UNESCO World Heritage sites, places of cultural and natural heritage considered by the United Nations to be of outstanding value to humanity. Image courtesy of NASA.

“The Gulf of California is one of the biological wonderlands of North America,” Peter Raven, chairman of the CRE and a trustee of the National Geographic Society, said in an interview on board the ship. “It’s much like the Galapagos, in that there’s a whole series of islands, each with its own endemic plants and animals, in a sea, the Sea of Cortez, that formed starting less than ten million years ago when Baja California split off the mainland. So it’s a biological treasure house. If Darwin had been here and had studied the variation between plants and animals on these islands, he probably would have come to conclusions very similar to those he formed in the Galapagos.”

The Gulf and its adjacent peninsula are not only important for biological diversity, they are also critically important for conservation, Raven added. “The islands tend to be rather remote, and although that’s good in the sense that there are few settlements and few people exploiting them on land, there are people exploiting the seas around them. And because it’s so sparsely settled it’s difficult to control that.”

The National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration meets on the cruise ship "National Geographic Sea Bird", under the chairmanship of Dr. Peter Raven, President of the Missouri Botanical Garden emeritus. Photograph by David Braun.
The National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration meets on the cruise ship “National Geographic Sea Bird”, under the chairmanship of Dr. Peter Raven, President of the Missouri Botanical Garden emeritus. Photograph by David Braun.

National Geographic funds many grant programs in the region, Raven said, the majority of them focused on the roughly 30 kinds of marine mammals found in the Gulf of California. “Many other people are studying biological and geological variation on the individual islands and the adjacent mainland,” he added.

Dr. Peter Raven. Photograph by Patricia Raven .
Dr. Peter Raven on the “National Geographic Sea Bird”. Photograph by Pat Raven, copyright 2016 .

National Geographic could do a lot for the Gulf in relation to conservation, Raven said. “There is always pressure on certain places around the Gulf to develop. National Geographic can help to understand the biology and preserve these places where warranted, helping Mexican officials to make the best choices for development. And of course, nowadays, like anywhere else on Earth, we need information to help us understand the changes that are being wrought by climate change. As temperatures and the patterns and amounts of precipitation change, both life on land and life in the see will be severely affected.  Under those circumstances, we will have to redouble our efforts in order to do an effective job conserving as many as possible of these creatures.”

Creatures were much in evidence during the CRE expedition. Large numbers of pelicans, turkey vultures, blue-footed boobies and a vibrant breeding colony of frigate birds were observed by the committee. Among the land animals recorded was the seldom-seen Santa Catalina rattlesnake, the only species of rattlesnake that does not have a rattle, having lost it in evolutionary isolation on Santa Catalina island. (Related post: Finding the Rattlesnake That Lost its Rattle)

Santa Catalina Rattlesnake. Photograph by David Braun.
Santa Catalina rattlesnake. Photograph by David Braun.
Photograph by David Braun/National Geographic
Two familiar species on the southern islands of the Gulf of California are the magnificent frigate bird and the cardon, the world’s largest cactus. Photograph by David Braun.

For the botanists in the group, a daily and impressive feature of the expedition was the ubiquitous Mexican giant cardon cactus, which routinely grows to 20 feet or higher. The islands may be challenged for water, but they are covered with desert plants that thrive and provide shelter and sustenance for numerous animal species. UNESCO states on its World Heritage Convention site that the Sea of Cortez and its islands are home to 695 vascular plant species, more than in any marine and insular property on the World Heritage List.

Highlights of the field inspection for those CRE scientists particularly interested in the distant past included a visit to a rock shelter used by fish-eating people thought to have been among the first to populate North America more than 10,000 years ago, and to uplifted ocean sediment deposits crammed with fossils of sea shells and marine animals such as turtles, dolphins and whales that were buried in the floor of the Sea of Cortez millions of years ago.

Photograph by David Braun.
Photograph by David Braun.

At a ranch on the peninsula, the CRE was given a presentation and shown live specimens of bats that feed from the nectar of the cactus blooms. There was also a talk on the foraging of fish-eating bats, followed by an extensive tour of Baja’s unique botany.

Field Inspection linkLectures on board National Geographic Sea Bird were given by CRE grantees and other experts on the region’s marine birds, jumbo squid, blue whales, hammerhead sharks, and aerial and underwater robotic monitoring of the vaquita–the world’s most endangered marine mammal. (How Trafficking a Rare Fish Threatens an Even Rarer Porpoise.)

Photographers and artists also made presentations of their programs to promote awareness and appreciation of the Gulf of California’s natural environment.

“These islands are very famous to scientists studying evolutionary biology and systematic botany,” said Janet Franklin, a member of the CRE. “So to have read about them my whole life and to finally be here is just amazing.” Franklin is a professor in the Department of Geographical Science and Urban Planning at Arizona State University and is a distinguished sustainability scientist in ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

Photograph by David Braun
Photograph by David Braun.

While noting that there are signs of the impact of ongoing coastal development, climate change and other pressures caused by humans, the committee was generally encouraged by what could be observed from the ship and on the islands — but somewhat concerned by some of the reports received from researchers, including about declining populations of animals and the shrinking in average size of Humboldt squid (and the possible consequences that may have for sperm whales which feed on the squid). The observations and reports reinforced National Geographic’s long-standing support of science and conservation initiatives to study and protect such a uniquely important and beautiful part of the planet.

“We’re very happy about the amount of research that goes on here in Baja California,” said Peter Raven, the committee chairman. “We’re particularly pleased that it’s all joint Mexican-U.S. cooperative research of the very best kind. We don’t fund any proposals in countries unless there is a cooperative program, but the cooperative program here is just about seamless between the biologists of the United States and the biologists of Baja California. It’s just an incredible place to study biology, and there are so many teams that are doing it so well.”

Photograph by David Braun.
Boisterous California sea lions at Los Isolates, the southernmost of 13 sea lion rookeries in the Gulf of California. Here members of the CRE and others spent an hour or so snorkeling with the sea lions swimming about them, and occasionally also being dive-bombed by pelicans taking the opportunity to snatch a fish or two stirred up by the activity. Photograph by David Braun.
Photograph by David Braun.
Photograph by David Braun.

The National Geographic Voices blog will be reporting in coming days in more detail about the experiences and lectures of the CRE field inspection to the Gulf of California, including interviews with experts who presented to the committee. Some participants in the expedition will blog directly. Readers may send questions via comments on the posts or to dbraun@ngs.org.

For a gallery of pictures from the CRE field inspection to the Gulf of California, visit my Facebook page. We will be adding video and more photos to the expedition blog as we get them.

Photograph by David Braun.
Photograph by David Braun.

Read more posts about the CRE field inspection in the Gulf of California.

Additional Information

National Geographic Sea Bird in the Gulf of California, January 2016. Photograph by David Braun.
“National Geographic Sea Bird” in the Gulf of California, January 2016. The expedition ship accommodates up to 62 passengers on cruises up and down the North American coast. Photograph by David Braun.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn