Ocean Happy Places: Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, Mexico

Location: Cabo Pulmo, Baja California Sur, Mexico

Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is a hidden oasis located in a truly striking landscape in the southern portion of the Baja California peninsula. It stretches five miles from the most northern tip, Pulmo Point to Lost Frailes, the most southern tip. This Marine Park is surrounded by a truly stunning desert mountain range. Although Cabo Pulmo is in fact only 60 miles away from Los Cabos it feels isolated. The park is only accessible through a wobbling 10 km dirt road that tends to discourage a few visitors. The ones making the effort will be granted with the most beautiful white sand beaches of clear blue waters! The rugged sandstone rocky coast simply gives you an opportunity to escape the world we live in for a few hours or a few days.

Photo credit: Sylvie Mastellone

Here there is no ATM’s. This nature gem has not been devastated by outrageous tourism infrastructures because of its relative remoteness and the fierce commitment of its community.  As you get there you will find along the sandy dirt road a few camper vans, a couple of small restaurants, several bungalows and a bunch of houses home to a hundred or so full-time residents. The place has a unique chill, a delightful and peaceful charm. As you arrive one thing could strike you: no power lines. The street lights of the little community as most houses and accommodation facilities are actually solar or generator powered. The land fringing the Marine park is mostly privately owned and actually not under any regulation or protection. Cabo Pulmo is a small community of Mexicans and a few long time local foreigners, many of whom devoted to their family owned tourism businesses: restaurants, bungalow rentals, cottages, and shops that provide diving, kayaking, bike rentals and horse riding services.

Photo credit: Octavio Aburto

The Park

Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park was create as a result of the joint efforts of the local community, its fishermen, scientists and the government in June 15, 1995. The rich biodiversity of the area was targeted by overzealous sport and commercial fisherman during the 80’s which translated in a tremendous decline in fish population and caused great concern in the local community. Cabo Pulmo residents decided to lobby the government to protect the region. A series of studies at UABCS were also providing strong evidence supporting the biological relevance of Cabo Pulmo to the Sea of Cortez. 7,111 hectares and waters surrounding Cabo Pulmo we designed National Marine Park.

Ten years later in 2005, UNESCO recognized Cabo Pulmo as a World Heritage Site and was designated as a Ramsar wetland site of international importance in 2008.

Restrictions and guidelines were put in place for developers to protect the Marine Park and the Reef. There are included in the Management Plan. Basically it sets  limitations on the size of hotels or bungalows, the total number of rooms and tourists at one time and bring other regulations involving water use and treatment.

Cabo Pulmo Reef has eight fingers of hard coral reef providing a safe haven for many of the 800 species of marine animals found throughout the Sea of Cortez. The coral reef is one of the oldest in the Eastern Pacific and the ocean bottom presents a series of basalt bars. On three of these bars there is a coralline community offering habitat to a large flora and fauna. These bars extend offshore at a maximum depth of 20 m in the north and a minimum depth of 2 or 3 m in the central and southern zones, to the point that the upper part of coral colonies is exposed during the low tide in some portions of the bar closest to the coast. Throughout the year the park’s marine biodiversity changes depending on the season.  Migratory species use the area for food, shelter and breeding.

The park is divided in mainly 2 zones labelled under different designations, rules and regulations.

– Restricted use Zone 1: the marine part adjacent to the coast in which is encountered the coral reef and coral heads distributed in an isolated manner and underwater scenery that offers elevated value in scenic and environmental terms. This area has been designated for marine conservation and marine research but allows also educational and recreational activities under strict supervision and regulations. (Non-permitted activities for example are: jet-ski use, commercial fishing, sport/recreational fishing, construction of private or public buildings, anchoring in reef areas, discharge contaminants, use of explosives, aqua-culture, construction of artificial reefs)

– Restricted use zone 2: the marine area and federal marine land area included, from Miramar to Las Barracas. This  zone of public use that begins at Cabo Pulmo Point and extends along the coast line until the beach of Los Arbolitos is designated more strictly for conservation, marine research and park management. (For example the following activities are prohibited: sport/recreational fishing, anchoring in reef areas recreational activities like scuba diving or freediving, kayaks)

Map – Rogelio Magos – Photo credit: Pilar Hermosillo

In Mexico, a management plan is the main tool that determines the kind of uses that are acceptable in protected areas. It is important to mention here that law in Mexico forbids no-take zones; all protected areas should be able to produce some kind of economic benefit to their residents. However in the core zones (“zonas nucleo”) of the parks extractive activities are prohibited.

Although conservation efforts are heading in the right direction, federal enforcement and financial aid remains scarce and the quest to protect Cabo Pulmo National Park falls heavy on the shoulders of the local community of just 113 residents. But the people here are positive and La Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas or CONANP has appointed the first official Park Director, Carlos Narro to direct conservation efforts in the park. Citizens, local and international conservation groups and the park director are working together to implement programs such as Park Enforcement, Reef Monitoring, Nest Monitoring for Sea Turtles and Beach Clean-ups.

Photo credit: Sylvie Mastellone

Highlights: Marine life and activities

Cabo Pulmo offers some great snorkelling but most of all beautiful diving opportunities. The clear waters and coral reefs below the surface provide outstanding scuba diving and snorkelling views. It’s a nice and healthy marine ecosystem; Thousands of different marine organisms live here, including 236 species of fish, many of which are protected.

Aside from the species that depend directly on the reef, there are others that visit the Park on a temporary basis, making use of it to find food, reproduce or migrate. Among them, worthy of special mention manta rays, yellow jacks, chubs or striped mullets all gathering for the abundance of food. Seasonally, whales and other large marine life arrive here, many of which are protected by Mexican and international legislation, such as the whale shark and marine turtles.

Kayakers regularly arrive here and enjoy close sightings of the sea lion colony nearby. It is also a good spot for whale watching from January through March. Several turtle species periodically visit the shores to reproduce or to look for food. From July to January one can find the Olive Ridley sea turtle and the Leatherback turtle which come to the Park to spawn. From May to June the Black turtle, the Hawksbill turtle and very sporadically the Loggerhead sea turtle go there to look for food.

Near the coast we also find other marine mammals that travel within and near the Park’s boundaries, such as the Bottle-nose dolphin, the Spinner dolphin and the Rough-toothed dolphin. In addition, during the winter time we can observe the humpback whale, the fin whale and the Bryde’s whale, a tropical rorqual whale.

Diving: There’s a few dive operations in Cabo Pulmo: Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort, Pepe’s Dive Center, Cabo Pulmo Divers and Cabo Pulmo Water Sports.

We highly recommend Cabo Pulmo Diving. Their enthusiastic dive instructors Pilu & Henry are very knowledgeable and provide great guiding for a unique experience. They truly love and respect Cabo Pulmo waters and marine life. They also offer dives in “real” small groups from typical boats (‘pangas’). Not only they explain carefully how to preserve and respect the reef, they follow the rules set by the national marine park authorities and also try to make sure everybody in the group does. They are involved in marine conservation programs and collaborate to sea-turtles and reef monitoring.

Conservation local organizations

For more information we recommend also the ‘grupo tortuguero’ and the Amigos para la conservación de Cabo Pulmo (friends of the conservation of Cabo Pulmo) both doing an amazing job in environmental conservation and education.

Success

This Marine Park actually presents the best recovery profile of all marine protected area in America. The Reef compared to when it was first declared a National Marine Park is doing really great. Fish communities (species richness and abundance, size of organisms) are among the best in the entire Gulf of California.

Enric Sala / Ocean Great IdeasDr Enric Sala, Marine ecologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence share this enthusiasm with Cabo Pulmo spectacular recovery:

“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!

Our research indicated that the fish biomass increased by 460% at Cabo Pulmo–to a level similar to remote pristine coral reefs that have never been fished. In contrast, all other sites in the Gulf of California that we revisited in 2009 were as degraded as ten years earlier. This shows that it is possible to bring back the former richness of the ocean that man has obliterated, but that without our dedication, the degradation will continue.

Most importantly for the people of Cabo Pulmo, since their reef is now the only healthy reef left in the Gulf of California, it has attracted divers, which bring economic revenue. And fishermen around the marine reserve are catching more fish than before thanks to the spillover of fish from the no-take marine reserve. It seems like a win-win to me!”

Full article: National Geographic

Threats

The park is under constant pressure of large-scale tourist complexes developments of a Cabo San Lucas style. Some representatives of the state government and many developers want to continue the Corredor del Cabo del Este from San Lucas to Cabo Pulmo and even further to the north, in order to continue their large-scale tourism policy. Any of these projects with their planned excessive use of the area and dramatic input of nutrients would cause irreversible damages to the ecosystem and would ruin all the work and efforts deployed in the past 2 decades.

For more information visit Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo ( in Spanish) and Cabo Pulmo Park

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