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PEOPLE & VOICES - Sea Change

Sea Change By Paula Brook

It hasn’t been easy explaining to my friends back home why I love living in the Baja despite all the bad news flowing north from here. I go breathless defending my second home, describing the wild beauty of the desert, the astounding sea life, the easy pace, the simple pleasures – until I see their eyes glaze over and I know what they are thinking: that I can have it, they’ll stay home.

But now I have this photograph, and a story that says it all. In the photo my new friend Sujey is smiling broadly, her arms around her two young children, Kimberly and Jorge. They’re on a white sand beach on the tiny perfect island of Coronado half an hour by fishing skiff from the southern Baja town of Loreto where they live, and where my husband and I have built our retirement home on the edge of the Sea of Cortez.

It’s not the picture’s setting that is exceptional, though. There are plenty of white sand beaches in Mexico, though arguably few as pristine this one. Coronado is one of five uninhabited islas protected by the Bay of Loreto National Marine Park. Many gringo tourists are drawn to Loreto for precisely this – the rare chance to cruise unspoiled waters past coral reefs and sea lion colonies, cliffs dotted with blue-footed boobies and topped with osprey nests. The sea here is a giant jack-in-the-box where clownish dolphins pop up by the hundreds to dive and race alongside your boat and manta rays leap and sailfish perform their defiant dance on cue, “catch me if you can!”

Not to mention the whales – humpback, blue, grey, fin, sperm, sometimes it’s actually too much to take in. It can’t possibly be for real. But it is, a treasure chest open to those of us lucky enough to have a boat or the money to charter one. Riches for the rich. Same old story.

But here’s where the story takes a turn. Sujey and her family, like the majority of Loreto’s nearly 11,000 residents, live by the sea but are landlocked by their povery. A recent survey taken by the US-based conservation group Rare, found that more than half the population of Loreto is not even aware there is a marine park here, nor that the view from their noisy little malecon is of a UNESCO World Heritage Site – something to be proud of, to protect.

And this is the challenge faced by organizations like Rare. It is hard to share the conservation message with people whose feet have never touched the white sand where the tiny fragile tortugitas hatch each fall, people whose parents cooked sea turtles for supper. Harder still to convince local fishermen to count and measure their dorado and turn home to their hungry families in mid-morning if they’ve already caught their limit.

Which is why the local staff of CONANP, the federal parks department, applied to Rare for the resources they would need to undertake a two-year “Rare Pride” awareness campaign in Loreto. The program was approved, resources allocated and a local organizer named Perla Lozana Angulo hired to launch the program 18 months ago.

Today, as the Rare Pride campaign winds down, real pride appears to be winding up. You can hardly toss a clamshell in Loreto without hitting a poster announcing “
You digo si a la pesca responsable” (I say yes to responsible fishing) or “Loretanos por un mar lleno de vida!” (Loretanos for a sea full of life!)

Cars sport the slogans on their bumpers; school kids wear them on blue rubber wristbands. Murals at the soccer and baseball parks announce that points are being scored “for sustainable fishing!”

But for Sujey, pride was just a catchy slogan until last month when she boarded a boat for the first time in her life and headed out to sea. It was our boat, with my husband Shaw at the wheel and me on lifejacket duty and seven others on board including little Jorge and Kimberly.

Ours was one of 23 boats recruited for a day of free rides offered to Loretanos who had never been to the islands. Among the captains were local fishing guides, park officials and
extranjeros like us who were keen to offer our Mexican neighbors a glimpse of the magic that is their birthright.

Free sailing and kayaking were also on offer all day at the municipal beach. On the malecon, Perla Angulo was overseeing a giant clam cook-off along with puppet shows and information kiosks. But the longest lineups were for the island tours, organized by Loreto’s Rare director Cynthia Mayoral who could have used 20 more boats to accommodate the crowd. As we set off toward Isla Coronado, we looked back to see people queuing patiently for second and third sailings.

It was to be a very full day for us volunteers, but muy
lleno de vida – and I don’t just mean sea life.

“The idea of the boat rides was to create an opportunity for people to have an emotional connection to the park,” Mayoral told me later. “We got more than 250 people out there, and the reaction was amazing.”

What pleased her most was the pride expressed by the park staff – “guys who do this important work everyday and don’t get much recognition or credit. Out on the water that day, sharing the park with their community, it was a real breakthrough experience for them.”

As it was for us, sharing our passengers’ thrill at discovering the paradise in their own backyard. For Sujey, the best was the exhilaration of flying across the waves at 40 knots, like a ride at the fair, she told me, “
pero mucho mejor!”

Her boss at a health spa gave her the day off for this adventure and she threw herself into it, bringing swimming gear and toys and snacks for the kids – their first island picnic. So many firsts.

Little Jorge, who loves looking at pictures of sea animals and trying to identify them, went into near shock as we neared
el punto de lobos where a dozen-odd sea lions lazed in the sun, some with sleeping infants draped across their great sloping backs. When some of the stinky beasts reared up and barked at our approaching boat, Jorge’s mouth fell open and he dived to Sujey’s feet and cowered there for several minutes, taking cautious peeks over the railing while his mom and three-year-old sister shrieked with laughter.

We must have taken more time than most groups laughing at the lobos and scanning for boobies because by the time we swung around the island to the white-sand picnic spot it was uncharacteristically crammed with beached pangas. Shaw and I have been here dozens of times and rarely encountered more than one or two groups of island-hopping tourists or divers exploring the reef. Today we had to carefully angle-park our boat between two others before inviting our passengers to jump over the bow into the warm shallows.

On the beach, Sujey quickly changed the children into swim suits and, with the most cursory look back at me looking at her, turned seaward and walked straight out into the water in sweatpants and t-shirt. Straight as though mesmerized, drawn by an urge stronger than motherhood – some kind of primal tug out into the clear bay, never glancing back, walking until the water reached her chin, pulling the elastic out of her ponytail, shaking her head and diving down, then resurfacing so far out I found myself holding my breath.

Ten, twenty minutes later and a cool wind had come up. The children paid no notice – sandcastles demanded building and rebuilding – but we adults pulled on sweaters and pulled down our hats. I kept my gaze moving from the shore to the sea where Sujey was now a tiny splashing speck in the distance, rounding the reef with strong strokes. Surely cold and tired by now, I thought. Weighed down by wet clothing, no lifejacket, no one nearby to hear a call for help. But just as I was about to cry for her, she waved – a tiny but patently strong and happy signal from afar, and a shout, almost as shrill as the lobos’ bark: “

Basta!” I shouted back to the waving arm.

Ya voy!” it returned, breathless but clear.

Sujey hardly spoke as we motored back to Loreto. She sat straight up into the bracing wind in her wet clothes, tightly hugging her children who shivered and squirmed on her lap, laughing through booby-blue lips even though they’d been dried and dressed and bundled up in their matching tiger-eared towels. They stayed that way for the 30-minute ride back to town, and didn’t budge until after we had docked in the marina.

Estamos acqui,” I said to Sujey, and it was like I had woken her from a dream. She pulled her wet hair back into a tight ponytail and handed the children up to my husband on the dock – their little arms and legs dangling like wet noodles, so tired they could barely walk back to the malecon. But not so their mom, who glowed with energy.

Asi que es eso,” she said quietly as we embraced.

eso es.

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