by Tom Gatch
How would you like to travel back in time and pay a visit to Southern California as it was over a century ago? Imagine the unspoiled desert vistas, soaring mountains, and a Pacific Ocean that was teeming with fish, lobster, abalone and whales, along with an abundance of other marine life. While those days may very well be gone along the California shoreline north of the border, that is certainly not the case just off the picturesque coast of the Baja California peninsula only a few hundred miles to the south. All of these amenities, complete with a generous slice of friendly Mexican culture, can still be readily found on the vibrant and remote islands of Cedros and San Benitos: it is the Cedros Island experience.
Located just off the central Pacific coast of Baja California, Cedros Island stretches 24 miles in length, and is characterized by a ruggedly beautiful sloping terrain with a host of native flora and fauna that includes coastal scrub, juniper scrub and sand dune scrub along with dense patches of chaparral and pristine pine forest.
The island’s two communities, El Morro and Cedros Town, are home to most of the region’s 4,500 inhabitants. While the industrial focus of El Morro involves the processing and export of industrial salt, most of the residents of Cedros town pursue the more traditional occupation of harvesting gourmet seafood products, such as abalone and lobster, from the rich waters that surround the island. Somewhat surprisingly, tourism is still in its infancy here; but what does exist helps to bring in supplemental income that is vital to the local economy.
For countless decades, the great fishing that is available around Cedros and San Benito Islands was a relative secret, known mainly by local residents and members of San Diego’s long range sportfishing fleet. The surrounding waters teem with numerous marine species, several of which are comprised of populations that have been either greatly diminished or practically eliminated in more developed regions of our hemisphere. Here, copious schools of large yellowtail and oversized calico bass swim with other popular gamefish such as giant black sea bass, grouper, white sea bass on a year round basis, and are joined by dorado and several members of the tuna family during summer and late fall. In short, it is a saltwater angler’s paradise.
Nonetheless, one of the purest reasons to visit the Cedros Island region is really quite simple; it’s spectacular and unspoiled natural environment. A plethora of desert plants, many of which are endemic, punctuate the landscape in the arid climate at lower elevations, while aggregations of oak and the native Cedros pine sit atop the mountains at an elevation of nearly 4,000 feet, where the primary source of water is the fog-borne moisture that is common to the island. Native animal groups also include specialized species of mule deer, rabbit, pack rat and horned lizard that are also endemic to the island.
Sixteen miles west of Cedros Island lies the San Benitos Island group that is made up of three islands and accounts for nearly 900 hectares. A lighthouse dating back to 1934 overlooks western San Benitos Island. The island offers the greatest diversion of species and topography, and also has one of the islands’ most interesting hiking trails, which circumnavigates the island from the fishing village to the lighthouse on the western side. Although there are no full time residents on San Benitos Islands, up to 70 people live in a small fishing camp on the west island during the duration of the abalone season.
During their respective breeding seasons, expansive colonies of elephant seals and sea lions fill almost every inch of beach on San Benitos Islands. The east island is the only breeding colony of the rare Guadalupe fur seal outside of Guadalupe Island. On the soft terrain, there are literally thousands of holes where species like storm petrels, auklets, shearwaters and murrelets nest. The total population of this group of birds is estimated to be over 2.5 million. And, in 1999, an effort to eliminate the European rabbits introduced to these islands in the 1990s was successful.
Because of this effort, many species of plants, including endemics, are returning from the seed bank, or surviving roots. Without a doubt, the Cedros/Benitos archipelago represents one of the most prolific havens for terrestrial wildlife and marine species this side of the Galapagos Islands off the west coast off South America.
One thing is certain; whether you visit this magical region as an angler or an eco-tourist, you are bound to encounter a beautifully fascinating outdoor experience in one of Baja’s most unique coastal island venues.
Hooked on Baja author & columnist, Tom Gatch, is one of Baja’s foremost writers with a focus upon outdoor and recreational topics in Baja and Southern California.
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