La Ventana Stories


La Ventana Stories, an ongoing series of write-ups, started in December 2018, about the history and the happenings of La Ventana Bay and the surrounding region. Contributed by seasonally resident authors, look for a new story every few weeks during the windy season.

Mobula Munkiana

It is that time of the year again! Every spring we have a very special gathering in our front yard: thousands of rays aggregate in a breathtaking spectacle. They are Munk´s pygmy devil ray or Mobula munkiana, locals know them as “tortillas”, because the sound they make when jumping out of the water, reminds the clapping of hands produced while making tortillas.

They are cartilaginous fish, related to sharks, and they inhabit the Eastern Pacific Ocean, from Mexico to Peru. They reach a maximum disc length of 4.2 ft (130 cm), with an average of 3 ft (100cm). They are filter feeders, and they follow the zooplankton blooms, moving around the Baja peninsula with them. This time of the year, they can be seen in our area, when the conditions are ideal for feeding and reproduction. All around the bay, they can be seen swimming gracefully in the water, hundreds of them together, moving their fins like birds flying, it is truly nature´s wonder. But they can also be seen out of the water: moving their wings and gaining enough momentum to propel themselves in acrobatic jumps, sometimes many of them at the same time. Nobody knows exactly why they jump, there are different theories, but I like thinking it is just pure joy.

For years they were fished till they were put in severe danger of extinction. They are very sensitive to overfishing because they have slow reproductive strategies, like many other cartilaginous fishes. They are aplacental viviparous and they only give birth to one pup, after a gestation period of 12 months, so it takes them a long time to recover after the removal of many individuals. Now they are protected, and we have seen increasing numbers, but they are still listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. One of their main threats is bycatch from coastal fishing nets. Swimming with them is a great attraction for ecotourism, making them way more valuable alive than dead and favoring conservation efforts.

The Cabalerra de Cerralvo (Part 2)

Part 1 ended with Daphne’s recollection of the aftermath of the earthquake… “The next morning, we launched on a tide flowing out of the Gulf toward the Cape. As it carried us back to Delicias, we drifted farther away from land. I screamed at Dana to pull harder, but the current’s grip on us overcame our efforts to paddle to shore, and it began to take us into the dreaded Cerralvo Channel and out to sea.”

Part 2

“I was ready to abandon our life-saving water cargo and swim for the beach, but after praying for help, another current pulled us back, and we beached the boat. Once we arrived, only force-feeding our prostrate burros and horses with a mixture of water, cornmeal, and panocha, a coarse-grain sugar, revived them.” 

Continue reading “The Cabalerra de Cerralvo (Part 2)”

Common Dolphin

Common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) are the most common cetacean in the world, they are found worldwide, through tropical and temperate waters, nearshore and offshore. Despite their name, they are not the dolphin we have in mind as the “classic dolphin”, being this one the bottlenose dolphin, popular in media or aquariums. Common dolphins have a well-defined long beak, a black-grey back, and a dark patch around the eye, they can be easily recognized by a pale to tan hourglass or crisscross pattern on the sides of their bodies.

They form large groups for hunting and socializing, it is not rare to see hundreds of them in a group. Sometimes, they can form bigger groups called “super pods”, gathering thousands of individuals. They are very playful when they swim in groups and enjoy breaching and playing with waves, they are known for swimming along with boats, either racing at the front or playing at the wake that is formed behind.

Because of their wide distribution, they have a varied diet, feeding on schooling fish like anchovies and sardines, among other species, and enjoy eating squid too. They have been recorded to make dives up to 200 meters (660 ft) deep.

Recently we had big groups of common dolphins in the bay, and what is even better: there were many babies with them! Given that newborn calves measure 7 to 100cm (2.3 to 3.3 ft) I would say these babies were recently born, I had never seen such

Paper Nautilus or Argonaut

Today I want to introduce you to one of the most fascinating marine creatures. These beautiful and delicate shells you see, didn´t belong to a snail or a crab, they belonged to an octopus, a female octopus to be more precise.

Paper nautiluses or argonauts are a group of pelagic octopuses. Unlike their ground dwelling cousins, they spend their lives drifting in the water column, so they evolved in clever ways to adapt to this environment. Argonauts exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism in size, lifespan and features. Females can grow up to 30 cm (12 inches), with their shells while males rarely reach more than 2cm (0.8 inches). Males only mate once in their short lifetime, but females can reproduce many times during their lives. Females have been known since ancient times, because of a unique characteristic, while males were only described in the late 19th century.

The most particular feature of these animals belongs to females too: they have two special tentacles that secrete calcite. After mating, they start producing a delicate papery shell, lay their eggs inside it and get cozy themselves. They capture air at the surface and then seal it inside the shell, using it for buoyancy control, like a hot air balloon. They can control the size of the air bubble to keep their position in the water column. This way they travel, following the current accompanied by their eggs without expending energy.

A paper nautilus’ shell is a rare finding, if you are lucky to find one, treat it carefully, it’s a little and delicate treasure, a part of a creature with a unique life story!

Blue Whale

Just a few days ago we had an incredible encounter: while out on a boat, we found not one, but two blue whales in our bay. We were observing a humpback whale when suddenly, we heard a very loud blow close to our boat: there it was, a gigantic creature just at our doorstep. The sound of a blue whale´s breath is incredible, it is so loud it gets inside your chest, no doubt a powerful feeling to hear one close by.

Blue whales are the largest animal known to have ever existed. They can live up to 80 or 90 years and reach a maximum length of 30m (98 ft) and weigh up to 200 tons. Their heart is the size of a car! They perform long migrations, traveling from their summer feeding grounds in the polar regions to their winter breeding grounds in waters near the tropics.

Despite their size, much of their life story remains a mystery. They are generally solitary or gather in small groups, mothers with their calves being the most common aggregation. They migrate during winter and spring to the Gulf of California for feeding and breeding. In Loreto area, females with their newborn calves have been observed.

They are baleen whales, meaning they do not have teeth, but baleen plates that they use to filter their food. Their diet consists almost exclusively of krill. Their stomach can hold one ton of krill and they need to eat about 4 tons of krill each day.

Blue whales produce some of the loudest and lowest frequency vocalizations in the animal kingdom, and their inner ears appear well adapted for detecting low-frequency sounds. They emit a series of pulses, groans, and moans, and it’s thought that, in good conditions, blue whales can hear each other up to 1000 miles away. Scientists think they use these vocalizations not only to communicate but, along with their excellent hearing, to sonar-navigate the lightless ocean depths.

Like other whale species, they were abundant in nearly all the Earth´s oceans, until the 19th century, when they were hunted almost to extinction. The International Whaling Commission banned blue whale hunting in 1966, but they’ve managed only a minor recovery since then. Today they are listed as Endangered and face man-made threats such as ship strikes, pollution, ocean noise, and climate change.

Gray Whale

This time of the year we receive one of the most popular visitors of the Baja Peninsula: gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Every winter, gray whales embark on an epic trip from their summer home in Alaska´s waters to the warm waters of Baja California´s lagoons. This is one of the greatest migrations in the animal kingdom, a round-trip of around 20000 km (12000 miles), an epic journey full of dangers. This week I would like to share their story, because it is one of hope, one that shows us that if we act soon, there is still time for life to bounce back.

During the mid-1800s and early 1900s, gray whales were slaughtered for their meat and fat to almost extinction. In their nursing lagoons of Baja California, they were easy prey. Fishermen called them “devil fish” because when losing their calves to whalers, the mothers would destroy their boats. There was an open war between whales and humans, one that whales were losing.

Finally, gray whales became internationally protected in 1947. After almost disappearing, the population rebounded, going back to almost pre-whaling numbers.

The war was over and, after decades, the whales changed the way they saw humans: in San Ignacio, gray whales started approaching fishermen’s boats, not to attack them, but to greet them. The whales seemed to want people around and even allowed fishermen to pet them. Such a special interaction brought ecotourism to the fishing villages, which are visited every year by people from all over the world.

Today, gray whales and people are intimately connected, they are part of the local culture and are highly regarded, being one of the most iconic species in Baja California.

Whale Sharks

Whale shark (Rhincodon typus), 0% whale and 100% shark, whale sharks are the largest fish in the world, reaching up to 18m (60 ft). Primarily pelagic, they can be found in both coastal and oceanic habitats. They lack proper teeth having only tiny ones and filter pads in their gills. They are filter feeders, one of only three known filter-feeding shark species (along with the basking shark and the megamouth shark). They feed on plankton and other small animals like baitfish and squid. They swallow water either by opening their mouth and swimming forward or by active suction, opening and closing their mouth. The water is then expelled through the gills, which filter the food. A juvenile whale shark is estimated to eat 21 kg (46 pounds) of plankton per day.

Whale sharks are found in tropical areas around the world, including the warm waters of Mexico from the Sea of Cortez to the eastern Mexican coast in the Caribbean. They are generally solitary animals but sometimes gather in large groups to take advantage of good feeding opportunities.

They are gray or gray-blue with a beautiful pattern of white lines and dots. This pattern is unique to each individual, like a fingerprint, and can be used for identification. In La Paz area they gather from November to April to feed in the plankton-rich waters of the Bay. Despite their enormous size, we still don´t know much about these animals, and their growth, longevity, and reproduction are poorly understood. They are classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Winter reptiles

As it is now wintertime, most resident reptiles are hibernating here in LV/ES. On warm sunny days, however, you may get a glimpse of a few soaking up the warmth. Today I will go over some of the winter-active reptiles in the area.

In my experience, the most common lizard throughout the year is probably the Orange-throated Whiptail (Aspidoscelis hyperythrus). These beautiful little speed demons are some of my favorite lizards. If you watch them for long enough, you will probably see them stop moving in a sunny patch of dirt, dig for a minute and then splay their little legs. If a lizard has a blue tail, it is probably an Orange-throated Whiptail. As with many lizards, only the young ones will be common this time of year..

Another winter friend is the Zebra-tailed Lizard (Callisaurus draconoides), little brown lizards that live in sandy soils all around La Ventana, including on the beach! They like to wiggle their tails around, displaying the black and white bottoms. 

You also may see iguanas, geckos and the occasional spiny lizard, but the only other really prominent winter lizards are the Black-tailed Brush Lizards (Urosaurus nigricauda). These little gray lizards like to hang out on trees, bushes and rocks. They are quite camouflaged, but can be found pretty easily.

As for the snakes, most are hibernating, but I have heard stories of people finding all kinds of snakes in the winter here. The most common seem to include Cape Gopher Snakes, which are large, beautiful and harmless, as well as night snakes and sand snakes.  

I hope this new format is enjoyable, as I am running out of new reptiles about which to write.

Two Tailed Lizard!

This column is about a special lizard I call Martha. Usually, I write columns about reptile species, but I believe this lizard deserves her own personal column. 

It was a nice morning in early November and I was hanging out on our property in El Sargento. Our cats started batting a tarp on the ground and I quickly realized this was probably a reptile in need. So, I flipped the tarp and saw a Baja California Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus zosteromus) sitting on the ground. It seemed cold, and I was able to catch it quickly. At first, I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. But then, as I looked closer, I discovered that this lizard had two tails!

This discovery led to a shocked silence and dropped jaw. After a moment, I rushed to find a camera and started taking tons of pictures. Martha seemed very calm, and she behaved perfectly for the photos. She would look up at me with an intelligent and somewhat bossy manner and then return to her pose; this was probably because she was cold, as spiny lizards are usually hard to photo shoot.

It turns out that this two-tailed phenomenon isn’t actually all that rare. It’s a bit complicated to explain but, basically, this is how it works: if a lizard loses its tail completely, it will regrow a new tail. However, if a lizard’s tail breaks but does not fall off, the original tail may heal and, at the same time, a new tail may grow at the point of breaking. Since I first found Martha, I have seen her a few times hanging around our trailers and, last time we met, she still had two tails!