The Gulf of Santa Clara and the gold rush

There is no other place on Earth where pelicans have a flashlight embedded in their foreheads and fly low lighting the night as fishermen go to collect their nets and check their hooks before the sun rises. My compadre, a fisherman from El Golfo de Santa Clara, Sonora, told me, and I have no doubt that it is true.

And there is no other place on this planet where a queen fish emerges from the sea, holds its breath for several minutes, climbs half a meter from the beach when the highest tide falls and buries itself to lay eggs. My teacher, an ichthyologist from Tucson, Arizona, told me that I also believe. Up to ten males coil around a female to ensure fertilization, while expelling their sperm.

It is the silverside, one of the only two fish in the world that leaps out of the water to fulfill this exotic reproductive ritual – the other is its cousin, another silverside that only lives in California, that extensive golden coastline that used to be Mexican, but now he is American.

In El Golfo de Santa Clara, the pejerrey celebrates a furious two-hour beach bacchanalia, a popular festival in which more than 350 fish per square meter participate. This occurs immediately after the full moon and the new moon, from January to March, year after year. Since ever. While thousands of birds of more than thirty species go wild in a feast of real fish and eggs – gulls, long-eared cormorants, sea cocks, terns, pelicans and reddish and white shorebirds that depend on the wild and successful reproductive performance of the silverside.

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The Gulf of Santa Clara is the most important place in Mexico where spring migratory shorebirds refuel before flying back north.

The same place where I met Pipilo, El Peludo and many other fishermen. My compadre Chiruli and my godson Macario were born and live there, whom I have neglected, but have not forgotten. Where, many years ago, the Wafles, the Charly and many other passionate students without nicknames were initiated into that strange profession of seeking scientific knowledge.

That hot and humid armpit of the Sonoran Desert, between the Baja California Peninsula and Sonora — where the majestic Colorado River once emptied the waters of the melting snow of the Rocky Mountains. The river whose mouth those fucking dams dried up in America. The same river that, 173 years ago, flowed through nearly half of Mexico – Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California – until our neighbor to the north took it from us in 1848. The United States had already taken New Mexico and parts of it from us. Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma — a total of two million square kilometers added to Louisiana, bought from Napoleon, and Florida, whose property rights were ceded by Spain.

The Upper Gulf of California is a land of swamps, bays, beaches, estuaries, dunes and a dying delta nestled between a yellow desert, a russet sea and the blue skies of the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve . It is part of the islands and protected areas of the Sea of ​​Cortez, one of 53 extraordinary world heritage sites that UNESCO considers in grave danger.

Enchanted lands baptized to honor saints – El Golfo de Santa Clara and San Felipe – in a region that Europeans first explored 340 years ago, by Father Eusebio Kino, who will soon be canonized. Two fishing villages that were started by intrepid adventurers and that have survived ninety years of loneliness and the hubbub of recurring marine gold fever. Periodic episodes of legal and illegal fishing for totoaba, sharks and manta rays, shrimp, curvinas, milkfish, sierra and sea cucumbers – responsible for the birth, heyday and decline of El Golfo de Santa Clara, now home to four thousand Mexicans.

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Today, the Upper Gulf of California and its inhabitants are mired in poverty and hopelessness resulting from decades of neglect and government mismanagement. Due to the lack of economic opportunities and rampant corruption that have fueled the overexploitation of its rich natural resources and destroyed its livelihoods. A crisis that has decimated their biological diversity and brought endemic species to the brink of extinction.

Like the Yuma clapper, a bird that nests in the nonexistent marshes. Or the desert puppy, a fish that swims in waters almost as hot as its Chihuahuan cousin and world thermal champion (46 ° C), Julimes’s puppy. Or the cow, the porpoise transfigured into that fairy-tale elf that the villagers saw years ago, but no one sees anymore.

The Upper Gulf of California has become a lawless marine land where the worst gold rush – drug trafficking – arrived like the last nail in the coffin of this amazing region.

For more than half a century, many Mexican and American biologists and conservationists passed through the Gulf of Santa Clara. They all brought something, they all took a lot. Some lost their minds because they wanted so badly that other dangerous gold rush: the quest for knowledge. I affectionately dedicate these first lines of 2021 to all of you.


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