Changing Planet

“The Aquarium of the World” at Risk

The best marine conservation success story in Mexico is Cabo Pulmo, a small no-take marine reserve in the Gulf of California. As reported in the May issue of National Geographic Magazine (in Spanish), 15 years ago Cabo Pulmo was no different from any other reef in the Gulf of California: most fish were small, and the large groupers and manta rays that populated the stories of the old timers seemed just a dream. But in 1995 the reefs and surrounding waters were protected, and people stopped fishing there. In these 15 years, the Cabo Pulmo reefs have experienced the most extraordinary recovery ever reported by marine science.

Now Cabo Pulmo harbors large groupers and snappers, sharks, manta rays, marlin, tuna, and five of the world’s seven endangered species of sea turtles. While the rest of the Gulf of California remained depleted (or got worse), the biomass of fish in Cabo Pulmo increased by more than 3 tonnes per hectare – an unparalleled recovery. Only a handful of uninhabited, unfished coral reefs in the Pacific have so many fish. When fish came back, divers came in to see what the Gulf of California was like before human exploitation – which Jacques Cousteau once called “the aquarium of the world.” Now fishermen have improved their catches around the limits of the marine reserve, because the now abundant fish spill over and help replenish adjacent fishing grounds. Because of all that, the local community can live off their natural capital by keeping fish alive in the water, and enjoy a standard of living much superior to most other coastal areas in Mexico.

However, Cabo Pulmo is now under serious threat. In March, Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources approved a proposal to develop a mega-resort called “Cabo Cortés.” This development would include 15 large hotels with over 30,000 hotel rooms, three to five golf courses, a 490-slip marina, desalination and water treatment plants, a private jet strip, and other infrastructure, adjacent to and directly north of Cabo Pulmo. Scientists and conservationists believe that the influx of mass tourism and population growth will put unsustainable pressure on the protected reefs – through changes in water quality, turbidity, pollution, fertilizers and chemicals used on the golf courses, and illegal fishing. According to experts in the region, the environmental impact assessment provided by the developers does not fulfill rigorous scientific requirements.

Cabo Pulmo is the jewel of the Gulf of California, and one of the few ocean stories Mexico can be proud of. It is an ecological and economic success, and it has fostered social progress in the community. It is a bright spot to be repeated elsewhere in Mexico. The Mexican government should reconsider its decision to allow building that mega-resort. Mexico already has many mega-developments (many of which have become economic and environmental disasters), but how many Cabo Pulmos do they have?


Marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who combines science, exploration and media to help restore marine life. Sala’s scientific publications are used for conservation efforts such as the creation of marine protected areas. 2005 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2006 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, 2008 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.
  • Betsy Stoll

    What a good article. I’ve been visiting Cabo Pulmo since 1970. I can personally attest to the rape and pillage of the reefs prior to 1995 as I watched the 25-year decline from a prolific ocean envrionment to an almost-desert underwater. Since the inception of the national marine park, the recovery is simply astounding. It’s as good as, if not better, that the very first time I dove on the reefs in 1970. Bravo and thank you to the Mexicn government for Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. Thumbs down to the Mexican government for appoving Cabo Cortes. What’s not mentioned in the article is the this mega development will get their water from desalinization plants. To provide this much water from the Sea of Cortes to the hotels and golf courses will greatly upset the salinity balance of the ocean. This alone should be cause for concern. I strongly feel that should development occur at Cabo Cortes that the project be required to be scaled way back to a minimum of 20% of the original size.

  • Gill Raker

    — is there any source of hard data where this 15-year recovery can be actually past-compared and properly documented?

    • Enric Sala

      My Mexican colleagues and I have collected “hard data” in Cabo Pulmo between 1999-2009, and have a paper coming out soon in a peer-reviewed international scientific journal. Stay tuned!



  • Michael Schmaeling

    I plan to visit this amazing place for the first time here in 1 week. I really hope to hear more about this “Resort” and in hopes that it’s not going to fallow through.

  • ak

    No!! I knew there would come a time when the rest of the world would find out about the natural wonder of Cabo Pulmo and try to exploit it. This is one of the most beautiful and untouched reefs of the world, and it should stay that way.

  • Sally Wilkinson

    I way I understand it, Cabo Cortez will get it’s water from the Santiago Aquafer, La Cuenca. This is the aquafer that supplies 70% of Baja Sur. Taking as much water from the aquafer as CC will require will most likely greatly compromise the aquafer and therefore greatly affect all of Baja Sur. The desalination plant I believe would be for the golf courses and the salt that is put back into the ocean would greatly affect the salinity in this area and therefore the reef and fish. As the reef is a nursery for the fish in the Sea of Cortez, the health of the whole sea would therefore be affected. Reefs are one of the most important ecosystems in the world. They must be protected.

  • Ron S

    I’m glad I ran across this article. I’ve got to get me and my family there before everyone spoils it. Sounds wonderful

  • Isabel Rickers

    This gigantic development simply MUST BE prevented. Mexico has a glut of expensive resorts which all are struggling for break-even status. One cannot underestimate the value or the importance of this magnificent yet vulnerable reef system – man has allowed too many earth treasures to be forever lost – due to ‘development.’ This is NOT the place for such a mega-metropplis. People must unite, take a stand and prevent a disaster from occurring.

  • Victoria Carpenter

    I have also have been fortunate enough to spend time in Cabo Pulmo. One of my most memorable visits was as a volunteer with el Grupo Tortuguero to assist members of the town in helping protect sea turtles and their nests.
    There should be a total moratorium of any new building on the East Cape. There is enough as it is. However the absolute shortsightedness and stupidity of this particular development is beyond comprehension.
    What more can I do to help stop this development? If it goes through it will be a tragedy.

    When will Mexico see the need to protect it’s coasts from this continued destruction? When will it realize that the remarkable Marine environment is what draws visitors not new hotels next to a dead sea. I can no longer visit San Jose del Cabo because of the ruined estuary. It breaks my heart.

  • Andy H

    I couldn’t get to the link to the original article. But more importantly, and on a related note, is there a petition drive online (or Facebook or anywhere else) where shocked people of conscience can register their opposition to such a plan? Sure, it’s a Mexican decision, but sometimes seeing that the world abroad cares can be a helpful reminder to do right.

  • Christina

    Dont they have enough buildings???!! the reef has done good for 15 years, and now they want to risk it all because of a hotel? It sad that people dont care about the oceans anymore, all they care about is making money. Dont get me wrong I love money just as much as the next person but not at the expense of Nature.

  • Erika G. Ballinas Niño

    Here is the site you can sign a petition where we, people, ask to stop the construction of CABO CORTÉS.
    Please sign the petition to stop this madness.

  • Dawn Pier

    Gracias Enric for your voice in the struggle to get Cabo Cortes stopped. This kind of development is out-dated and was never sustainable, however in a region where water is such a limited resource and already under great pressure from existing development, it just does not make sense to allow a development of this size to be created next to Mexico’s greatest conservation success in history. I am excited to learn that CPNP is now a WORLD example of the recovery of fisheries due to protection…and in this case 100% due to COMMUNITY efforts to stop fishing and anchoring on the reefs. There was NO FUNDING for the park until 2004 and then only modest investment by the federal government. The local community has a huge stake in the health of this reef and should be allowed a greater voice in the decision making process for development in the region.
    Dawn Pier, Former Director Amigos para la Conservacion de Cabo Pulmo, A.C.

  • Deep Diver

    Been diving in Baja for over 30 years. Cabo Pulmo is fantastic and full of marine life in contrast to many other places that have been over fished. Some of the best diving on the entire west coast is right here. Hope the Mexican government stops the mega development Cabo Cortez on the northern boundary of this amazing sanctuary before it too is destroyed.

  • Cecilia Fischer

    Thank you all who speak here and those who have read only. We need your voices! Try, you can get info in twitter @SalvaCaboPulmo or you can try or simply place Cabo Pulmo and lots of info will bounce back on Google.
    Im a Mexican, living in Baja for the last 26 years and I appreciate the bilingual and bicultural community we have become. This is an international issue because our stakeholders are international. “Cabo Cortes” proyect and now “Coral Grand Los Cabos” proyect (just submitted docs for review) are both from Spain, with a history of fiscal failings, problems abiding to construction code in Spain, problems for building in UNESCO sites in Spain just as in Cabo Pulmo and yet they are considered the Mexican solution by many (not just by mexican gov´t). Developers and those backing them will have us belief that land speculation leads to economic development and they aim at finding investors and potential buyers or creating the right buzz for their real estate through people like you. Development isnt bad, its the type, the location and the size of these proposed cities that cannot be.
    Those who want to live in beautiful Baja (who wouldnt?) will be asking people like yourselves about your experience in Mexico – you are the experts! (if u want to stop poaching of turtles, go to the consumer = if u want to stop the offer of toxic development, go to the buyer). We need your advocacy, our shared environment will benefit. Gracias!

  • […] The “Aquarium of the World” at Risk (Ocean Views post by Enric Sala, 2011) […]

  • […] The “Aquarium of the World” at Risk (Ocean Views post by Enric Sala, 2011) […]

  • loscabosag

    Thankyou for sharing…Los Cabos is a wonderful place to live for retirees or those looking for a better quality of life. It’s also an area that makes sense financially to invest in, one must visit..!

  • […] fisherman town with many aquatic activities. Jacques Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez “the aquarium of the world,” because of its abundance of sea creatures and picturesque beauty.  Scuba divers and […]

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