Magazine article Sunset

Puerto Penasco's Natural Side: Famed for Sportfishing, This Mexican Port Is Now a Great Place to Learn about the Sea

Magazine article Sunset

Puerto Penasco's Natural Side: Famed for Sportfishing, This Mexican Port Is Now a Great Place to Learn about the Sea

Article excerpt

It's a seaside-postcard Saturday afternoon in Puerto Penasco, where the Sonoran Desert meets the 700-mile-long Gulf of California, 60 miles southwest of the Arizona border with Mexico. In front of the Plaza Las Glorias Hotel, rusting shrimp trawlers ride at anchor, their nets stretched to dry in the sunshine. Brown pelicans dive into glistening sapphire waves to grab tiny silvery fish that jump from the water then fall back with a soft plop. Weekenders beachcomb and barter with vendors for souvenirs.

The town Americans know as Rocky Point has been a popular vacation spot since Prohibition times. As the story goes, gangster Al Capone smuggled mescal across the border and stayed in the village's first permanent rock structure, the Marine Club, a casino in Old Port. Americans still flock here for the sportfishing and for the beaches. But now Puerto Peneasco is receiving acclaim as a center for marine research.

A legacy of fishing

The sea that Puerto Penasco fronts, the Gulf of California, is one of the richest marine environments on earth, with 6,000 named species of invertebrates and vertebrates, 2,792 of which inhabit the upper gulf. But all is not well in paradise. Puerto Penasco got its start as a fishing camp based around the totoaba, a large corvina fish that spawns in the upper gulf's shallow, sediment-laden waters, and around shrimp. But now the totoaba has been fished to the edge of extinction, and shrimp have drastically declined. Of equal concern is the disappearance of the vaquita, a small porpoise endemic to the upper gulf that frequently becomes tangled in gill nets. It's estimated that fewer than 600 vaquita remain, making it the world's most endangered marine cetacean.

Explore tidepools at a marine research center

Paradoxically, these wildlife crises have also brought opportunity to the region. At the forefront of international conservation efforts is the intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts & Oceans (CEDO), a marine-biology field station located in the quiet community of Las Conchas, just outside Puerto Penasco. Founded in 1980 by Tucson marine biologist Peggy Turk Boyer and her educator husband, Rick Boyer, CEDO has grown from a modest university field station into an international nonprofit research, education, and conservation organization.

There's a lot for visitors to do at GEDO. The Boyers' field station has grown from its original whitewashed, two-story building to include a visitor center with exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the Gulf of California, a gift shop, and a fin whale skeleton. Public talks on the area are given regularly in English and Spanish. Most popular among CEDO's scheduled excursions are tidepool explorations, kayak trips in the nearby estuary of Estero Morua, and tours of the Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, a dramatic volcano-and-dune preserve adjoining the marine reserve to the north.

Working with international government agencies and local fishers, the indefatigable Boyers have helped establish voluntary no-fish zones and helped adjust fishing seasons, and they have improved education within the fishing community Biologists use CEDO's wet lab and library--and take advantage of some of the greatest tidal fluctuations in the world--to study unique marine life. …

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