Orion was anchored off the north side of the tiny uninhabited island of San Francisco or San Francisquito (every island seems to have a name the gringos use and a local name, both in Spanish). No one was around but the two of us and some scary nesting seagulls. Our view to the north was made up of one tiny island, named Isla Coyote or Pardito, with an incredible number of houses per square meter and a few small islets in front of it that looked like prime spearfishing territory. Jonah jumped in the dinghy and headed over to check it out, deciding last minute to stop at Coyote to check with the locals if it was ok to fish at the islets in front of their island. As he neared he saw a few people at the water’s edge and called out “hola.” The responding “hola” sounded resoundingly gringo and familiar. Jonah took a closer look and “Diana, is that you?” “Jonah, is that you?” A chorus of “What are YOU doing here?” Somehow twelve of the twenty people on this small island were friends of ours! Their group was made up of researchers from Moss Landing Marine Labs and from UC Santa Cruz and their families. The group was lead by Don Croll, one of Jonah’s old professors, and his wife Diana Steller, one of my old professors and colleagues the last few years with Reef Check, as well as other colleagues and old friends from each school. We knew that Diana and Don come to Baja from time to time for ongoing research projects and they bring classes down as well…I have even been to Baja with the two of them several years ago when I took a class with Diana… but we had no idea when they’d be here or where. It was such a sweet surprise to see these guys on this random little island! After the initial shock Jonah made plans for us to return that evening.
When we arrived the sun was setting and the pangas were returning from the long day of diving and collecting in the field. The group was conducting a study of sea turtles inhabiting the extensive mangrove forest of the neighboring island, San Jose. They were particularly interested in hawksbill turtles, which are critically endangered and of which very little is known about, at least about this particular population. The group set nets in the mangrove channels, checking them every two hours for the turtles, who are air breathers but can hold their breath for several hours. On this day they happened to have hit the jackpot and came home with six turtles, five hawksbill and one green. We were excited to watch and learn during the hours of processing that took place that night in lieu of a campfire. They measured and weighed each turtle and took a tiny tissue sample for genetic analysis. Then they epoxied a small transmitter with a unique signal to each shell to be able to identify and track the turtles for the life of the transmitter batteries. Because the shells were covered in a rich ecosystem of invertebrate and algal life, samples were taken and preserved for later identification. They even removed heavy barnacle growth if it looked like it was hindering the movement of the turtles, particularly around the flippers. They returned these turtles, with harrowing abduction stories, to their home the following morning.
The purpose of this study is to track the movement of the turtles, to see what their ranges are in a day, a week, a month, a season. All of the turtles caught were juveniles. Before sexual maturity most turtles stay in one area for years, usually a large estuary or somewhere protected with lots of food, just eating and growing. Once they reach sexual maturity they begin their long annual migrations bringing them back each year to the beaches that they were born on to lay their own eggs. They are finding that hawksbills have a remarkably long juvenile phase and may not reach sexual maturity until around 30 years of age. That is a long time to wait to find a mate! This characteristic is likely a factor in their critically endangered status, as they have a high rate of mortality before having the chance to reproduce. The data from this particular study was showing that these juvenile turtles have a very small home range. They don’t move much more than a kilometer or two, finding plenty of food and shelter within the mangrove channels. This type of information is very important for conservation purposes. Setting aside a protected area is easier if it is small and discreet, and this type of data can help to make sure the lines are drawn on the map in the most effective locations. Fortunately the mangrove area on Isla San Jose is already protected.
Speaking of marine protected areas (MPAs), it was a good thing that Jonah asked about spearfishing because he found out that those islets he wanted to fish are protected… and so is the NW side of our anchorage on San Francisco but not the SE… and so are several other postage-stamp-sized areas on the surrounding islands and mainland points that are ecologically important in some way. The sad and scary thing is that we believe wholeheartedly in fishing rules and regulations, but I’m not sure how we would have ever found out without asking the right questions of the right people… or unless we got caught fishing and had our gear and dinghy taken from us (which happens). Our friends gave us a brochure with maps and regulations of the MPAs and we were thankful to know and to help spread the word to other boaters. It is a shame that this info is not listed in our cruising guides (I will be contacting the authors) or up on signs in the more popular or populated towns. Even folks that know are not sure exactly what is allowed and what isn’t. Unfortunately, once the fishermen on the island found out we were friends of friends they gave us permission to fish in their island protected area, which pretty much defeats the purpose. It just goes to show that it is as important to educate ocean users (locals and visitors) on regulations, as it is to create them. Maps, rules, and consistent messaging can go along way in at least helping rule followers to do so.
It was so fun to unexpectedly run into friendly, familiar faces on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere. We spent a couple of nice evenings together, eating delicious seafood, catching up, playing with the kids in the bioluminescent nighttime waters. We learned a lot from this chance encounter from biologists who spend a lot of time here (for example, there are fish-eating bats endemic to the Sea, and we are going to find them!). We do really like it here in the Sea of Cortez… perhaps if we stick around long enough we’ll see them again.