The year was 2000, I was in the middle of a six-week long roadtrip on the Baja California peninsula in Mexico. While the trip was surfing oriented, it wasn't exclusively a surfing trip, especially when the only "highway" running the length of the peninsula, Mexico Federal Highway 1, also known as the Carretera Transpeninsular, meandered along the calm coastal waters of the Gulf of California, on the eastern (inland-facing) side of the Baja peninsula. On those calm days when looking for waves was not even on the itinerary, the trip was a chance to soak up the rich cultural and ecological bounty not usually explored by tourists on a week-long vacation in Cabo.
It was on one of those eastern sojourns near the very tip of the peninsula when, after a several hour jaunt through the hot and dusty interior of Baja California Sur, we stumbled upon a humble coastal village with a small market, a tiny palapa restaurant and plenty of good spots to camp for a night or two. The tiny village of Cabo Pulmo was more than a welcomed sight, it was paradise found. But unlike the other small villages we had come across on the Sea of Cortez, this one did not have dozens of pangas loaded with fishing nets pulled up on the shore, or, for that matter, any tell-tale signs that it was a fishing village. That's because it wasn't a fishing village. Cabo Pulmo, we soon found out, was the home of Mexico's only national marine reserve. And while there were, in fact, a handful of pangas, they were all loaded with divers and scuba gear, flying the familiar "diver down" flag.
Designated by the Mexican government in 1995, the waters offshore from Cabo Pulmo were designated the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, to protect a coral reef that, while teeming with marine life, was also home to fewer species and less marine biodiversity than it had been just a few decades earlier. The cause? Unsustainable and unregulated sport and commercial fishing in the area of the East Cape.
Against all odds, the informal and under-funded marine park has been heralded as a success. Right around the time I visited the relatively new park in 2000, marine ecologist visited the area on an expedition to study local fish populations. Sala returned nearly ten years later and was floored by what he saw. Sala writes:
"In 2009 we went back to Cabo Pulmo to monitor the fish populations. We jumped in the water, expecting fishes to be more abundant after 10 years of protection. But we could not believe what we saw–thousands upon thousands of large fishes such as snappers, groupers, trevally, and manta rays. They were so abundant that we could not see each other if we were fifteen meters apart. We saw more sharks in one dive at Cabo Pulmo than in 10 years of diving throughout the Gulf of California!"
By comparison, all other sites in the Gulf of California that Sala and company visited in 2009 were as degraded as they were ten years earlier.
Conservation doesn't always have to be big and flashy to be successful.