November 26, 2009

First EcoExpedition to Isla Natividad, Mexico

By Mary Luna    , Reef Check Program Manager, Mexico & Outreach

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Reef Check teamed up with two other organizations, the fishing Cooperativa Buzos y Pescadores and the Mexico based environmental group Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI), to run the first recreational dive trip to Isla Natividad from October 30 – November 5, 2009. This small Pacific island located on the west coast of northern Baja California Sur, Mexico, is part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. The trip is part of a project to use non-fishing activities to earn income for the fishing Cooperativa and pay part of the cost of operating the two marine reserves. Every year since their establishment in 2006, Reef Check California (RCCA), COBI and RCCA certified divers from the Cooperativa monitor the effect inside and outside these no-take zones.


Baja Peninsula with close up Isla Natividad located at the western extent of Vizcaino Peninsula

Our first group of adventure lovers was composed of Dirk Burcham, Sue Chen, Todd Walker, Andrew Wiens, and John Rothman. They flew out of Brownfield Airport in San Diego in the company of RCCA’s Director of Science Cyndi Dawson. After a short stop at the Ensenada airport to clear customs, the group landed on Natividad’s 3600 ft long dirt landing strip. Cameras in hand, and waiting for their arrival were members of the Cooperativa and visiting scientists currently working on the island.

After a delicious meal, the group was invited to attend a welcome reception. Introductions were made among the visiting divers and all those who would be involved in making their stay a pleasant and safe adventure. Ashley Greenley from Hopkins Marine Lab introduced us to her work with abalone larvae collectors. Antonio, the Island’s biologist, provided a short history of the island’s biogeography, fisheries, and highlighted several of the projects the Coop has undertaken to ensure the long term health of the island’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

The next morning we set out to dive Piedra Maria, a deeper reef on the north side of the island, but a lingering swell encouraged us to go back and dive a more sheltered site called La Vela. Abraham Mayoral and Alonzo Ramirez, both RCCA certified divers from the Cooperativa, were our dive guides for the rest of the trip. Their extensive knowledge of the local reefs helped make the dives exciting. The trip included four days of diving at reserve and non-reserve sites; most with two morning dives, lunch at local chef Mari’s, followed by two afternoon dives. Day two was “science day;” in the morning divers helped Ashley and Leo from COBI change the collectors where abalone larvae settle – be sure to check out the video. This is part of an investigation about larval settlement at different sites in and outside the reserves. In the afternoon we conducted a survey at Punta Prieta.

The night after Halloween and under a full moon, we went “trick-or-treating” in Poseidon’s neighborhood. The dive took place at Las Cuevas reserve, and in spite of a little surge, we witnessed the incredible number and large size of the lobsters that came out to greet us. This also became a memorable first experience in night diving for some of us.

The morning of the last day of diving we dove the reserve of Punta Prieta, and on our way to a second dive at an awesome outer reef known as La Dulce (The Sweet One) we encountered gray whales! Andrew and I jumped in the water only to find out that the whales were already moving fairly quickly. By the time we were done admiring them the current and wind had increased, so we headed for a lunch break on terra firma. Our first afternoon dive took place at a gorgeous outer reef known as Loma Linda (Beautiful Hill). The second at La Plana reserve, where Dirk and Alonzo got to see a spotted cabrilla (Epinephelus analogus), a large seabass about 1m long.

On day five Katrina Escalante, our local terrestrial guide, took the group for a tour of the island highlights. The tour started at Punta Arenas – the famous local surf spot, and included the packing, power and desalinization plants, the church, and the decompression chamber where Todd, Andrew, and Cyndi went for a “shallow” one to feel the heat caused by filling the chamber with air and clear their ears. Then we continued to the lighthouse and finished at La Guanera Beach, the first settlement site on the island, and picnic site of the first group of recreational divers to visit! That night some of our super troopers went for a night walk with the biologist Antonio to the nesting site of the black-vented shearwater; over 90% of the world’s population of this threatened bird nests on the island.

After a delicious breakfast and great discussions over coffee about their exceptional adventure, the group flew back to San Diego. Prior to departure, members of the Cooperative came out to the runway to wish the visitors a good flight and to thank them for visiting their island. Divers experienced one of the best preserved kelp forest ecosystems in the California Current System and had a cross cultural exchange with an amazing community. It was a great success and plans are already underway to bring another group of divers to the island in July 2010.

Members of the first recreational dive trip to Isla Natividad. Pictured left to right: Antonio (Island Biologist), John Rothman, Cyndi Dawson (RCCA Director of Science), Andrew Weins, Todd Walker, Mary Luna (Reef Check Program Manager, Mexico & Outreach), Sue Chen and Dirk Burcham.

As the first trip to be organized by the Cooperativa, COBI, and RC, we were very lucky to have a group of outgoing and open-minded guests. In addition, the community of Natividad responded with the upmost care and attention to detail. Except for the transportation to the island via airplane, all services were provided by Cooperative and community members. The long-term goal is to develop eco-tourism on the island to provide an alternate revenue stream for the community. There is a real monetary cost to the community for voluntarily setting aside approximately 5% of their fishing areas for marine reserves. We hope to continue to help support the community to develop sustainable ecotourism both in the water and on the island. Many thanks go to all of those who made this first expedition possible.

We invite you to view pictures and video from the trip. For those interested in participating in future expeditions to Natividad please contact