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Cabo Pulmo: The Jewel of Mexico

By Dawn Pier

Cabo Pulmo National Park in the East Cape is the most successful marine reserve in Mexico, possibly worldwide. It contains the northernmost coral reef in the eastern Pacific, and, at around 20,000 years old, is considered the most important reef in the American Pacific. Only a handful of uninhabited, un-fished reefs found in the Pacific Ocean exhibit the abundance of fish you will see in the waters of the bay on which the picturesque community of Cabo Pulmo sits.

Image courtesy of Nikki Goth Itoi

However, it has not always been the teeming underwater garden it is today.

By the 1990s, decades of overfishing and anchoring damage left the coral reefs here almost void of life. The coral was bleached and broken, appearing grey or white in most places. Fish were present, but mainly in small sizes and numbers. The large groupers, whale sharks and reef sharks were gone. Sea turtles were a rare sight. In 1995, In hopes of reversing the damage they saw, the local community, along with scientists from the university in La Paz, convinced the Mexican federal government to establish a marine protected area of 7111 hectares that includes the bays at Las Barracas, Cabo Pulmo, and Los Frailes.

Fishing was banned inside park boundaries and local residents’ vigilance to stop anchoring, aquarium fish collecting and other harmful activities helped to bring the reef back from complete destruction. As a result of their efforts, between 1999 and 2009 the abundance of fish increased an unprecedented 463 percent. This is particularly amazing because since its declaration the park has received few resources from the Mexican government. According to Enric Sala, Scripps Institute researcher involved in conducting the study, “In 2009 …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 15 meters apart. We saw more sharks in one dive at Cabo Pulmo than in 10 years of diving throughout the Gulf of California!”

In 2005, CPNP was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the “Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California.” In 2008, Cabo Pulmo became a Ramsar International Wetlands Site. In 2011, renowned ocean conservationist Sylvia Earle described Cabo Pulmo as a “Hope Spot,” a place she deems to be critical to the health of the world’s oceans.

Diving in Cabo Pulmo is an incredible experience not to be missed. If you don’t already have your dive certification, all three of the local dive shops offer “Discover SCUBA” packages that include an on-land detailed lesson followed by a shallow dive. If breathing underwater is not your thing, then rent some snorkel gear and hire a panga to take you out to the reef. The great thing about Cabo Pulmo is that most of the reefs are located in relatively shallow waters, so anyone can see the incredible results of this little community’s gargantuan conservation efforts.

Take a look under the sea:

We’d love to hear from readers who have dived the reef and perhaps have even witnessed changes in fish abundance over the years. What was the most incredible creature you’ve ever seen in CPNP? For me it was a Goliath Grouper – so IMMENSE and yet with such tiny little eyes. They are truly prehistoric looking.

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About Dawn Pier

In 2002, I packed the remains of a life I no longer wanted into the bed of my silver Nissan pickup and drove west across Canada, South down the Pacific Coast Highway and on into Mexico

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