By Gene Kira, Nov. 15, 2002, as published in Western Outdoors Magazine:
Walking down the beautiful, historic malecon of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico, a couple of weeks ago, it almost looked more like Tokyo than Baja California.
The narrow cobblestone streets were crowded with Japanese tourists--the Hotel los Arcos had a dive group of about a hundred-and-fifty of them--with mountains of luggage and what seemed like millions of yen worth of Nikons and Cannons in expensive-looking underwater housings.
Most of these very welcome tourists were carrying at least two plastic shopping bags bulging with souvenirs, Mexican handicrafts, books, posters, artwork, tee-shirts, hats, and other clothing items. They seemed intent on buying anything in La Paz that wasn't nailed down.
Bless 'em! It's been a tough year for Baja, sensei, and we can use your money.
But really, all this Japanese tourist traffic is just a vestige of what it once was, and what it might again be, someday, if the fantastically rich marine habitat around this town could just get a little break.
Only a few years ago, La Paz' famous "Bajo" north of Isla Espiritu Santo was an underwater mega-attraction for divers from around the world, especially Japanese divers, who literally brought truckloads of camera gear to photograph incredible schools of giant manta rays and amazing concentrations of thousands of breeding hammerhead sharks, plus a lot of other exotic sea life, in one of the best underwater displays to be found anywhere. Dive operations and even a new marina at Pichilingüe popped up to service them, and the Mexican diving guides were amazed by how much dinero could be made off this newfangled thing called "ecotourism"--without spearing or killing any fish.
But then, the hammerhead sharks and the giant mantas (which are able to bear only one young at a time) were gill netted, longlined, and harpooned to a pathetic fraction of their former numbers, and without its big stars, the local dive industry stagnated. Even though La Paz still has gorgeous water and Mexico's largest diving community, the flow of Nikons and Cannons is nothing near what it could be.
So, as I hopped aboard Mino Shiba's brand new Mosquito Fleet panga, the Picudo V, and we shot out across the bay, we were joking about this phenomenon of Japanese tourists in La Paz. Half of you wants to get down on your knees and thank the Japanese for bringing much-needed tourist money, and the other half wants to cuss 'em for being one of the prime export markets for the fish now being decimated by Mexico's out-of-control longliners. It's a very complicated situation with no easy answers.
Anyway, as we neared the south end of Isla Espiritu Santo in Mino's slick new panga, our skipper, Lamberto Ruiz, throttled the almost silent Merc 90 down to idle, and I thought about how the history of La Paz has always seemed to be linked with diving in its beautiful waters--especially as the supplier of the world's most famous black and pink pearls.
In local history, one learns that the historic Rancho las Cruces--scene of Baja's very first remote luxury sport fishing resort in 1951--was originally settled as a pearl diving operation that launched sail-driven canoas across the channel to harvest the oyster-rich beds off Isla Cerralvo.
And, with 2002-2003 being the centennial year of John Steinbeck's birth, one naturally recalls his popular novella, The Pearl, in which a young La Paz diver finds a phenomenally valuable jewel that causes nothing but misery and human corruption.
And, far off on the northern horizon, we could see the distant outline of Punta Mechudo, the first major landmark on the coast north of the city and the setting for La Paz' famously macabre collection of folk tales about young divers driven mad by the pursuit of a fabulously rich supply of giant pearls, perhaps the inspiration for Steinbeck's story.
And in the royal crown of England's Queen Elizabeth, and in the pearl-stiffened vestments displayed at the Vatican Museum in Rome, we see the treasures produced by our very own Baja California Sur pearl oysters, Pinctada mazatlanica, that were once the toast of the world, until a mysterious decline occurred that some unsubstantiated, anecdotal stories have in the past linked to saboteurs from Japan's cultured pearl industry. (Oh-oh! There they are again!).
As we approached the island of Espiritu Santo, our panga was overtaken by a series of gentle tropical downpours. The rain was very, very warm, about 90 degrees at least, and there was no wind at all, as we trolled slowly through it, and the big drops pelted down into a glassy sea.
It was otherworldly and unforgettable, and we were the only fishing boat on the entire north end of Isla Espiritu Santo, except for one lonely panga with a single panguero going out in the rain to set his nets alone. The only other boats out there were--you guessed it--tourist dive boats, carrying mostly you-know-who.
We returned to the city through alternating bands of warm rain and calm, brilliant sun, and I had the fleeting sensation that it had been one of the most beautiful, dream-like days I had ever spent on the Sea of Cortez.
The pearls of La Paz have passed into history, and the sharks and manta rays are struggling to preserve their very existence in this bay that is still so beautiful, and this sea that is so vibrant with life and so able to heal itself if only it is given a chance.
Perhaps that chance will soon be given, for just last week, we learned with great pleasure that Mexico's Department of Fisheries' parent organization, SAGARPA, has at last declared the waters surrounding the historic city of La Paz--from Punta Mechudo in the north, over to Isla Espiritu Santo, and south to Pichilingüe--to be designated as an official "bay," under Mexican law. This is a distinction that will for the first time make the bay off-limits to trawlers and put other safeguards into place that were never possible before. It is a small step, but it is a step in the right direction for La Paz.
I returned to my hotel--appropriately enough, the historic and comfortably appointed Hotel Perla, built right on the bay in 1940 as the first modern hotel in Baja California Sur. I took my favorite table at the Hotel Perla's world famous outdoor sidewalk cafe, the favorite meeting place of La Paz' tourists and leading citizens alike, for more than half a century, and as we watched the sun setting slowly over the bay, I raised a toast to the once and future pearls of this beautiful place.
(Related La Paz articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com's main La Paz information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the La Paz area in "Mexico Fishing News.")