Changing Planet

An Ocean Miracle: Discovering the Hidden Jewel off the Coast of Baja California

By Mera McGrew of Mission Blue

In full scuba gear, we roll off a small open, outboard-powered boat into the clear water. We’re in a shallow bay near the southern tip of Baja California, in the middle of the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. Here, the Sea of Cortez blends with the Pacific Ocean.

Looking back to the shore one last time before we submerge, we see stunning mountains, undeveloped desert and jagged cliffs that give way to a pristine white sandy beach.

The boat’s bottom grows smaller as we descend slowly toward the reef below, where we begin to catch sight of coral colonies, marine terraces and basalt bars.

A slight undercurrent pushes us through the water, schools of big-eyed jacks, yellow snappers and amberjacks seem to swarm around us as they swim by in groups of more than 40. Looking down at the reef, hogfish peak out from behind large sea fans. Upon closer exploration of the volcanic reef, single coral polyps become visible and small invertebrates seem to scurry over the coral’s surface. Following a sand channel that winds through the reef, we spot a sea turtle that appears to be resting on a reef ledge. Together, the variety of species, colors, shapes and sizes bring this underwater park to life.

This thriving coral reef is estimated to be 20,000 years old. But, as we stop to watch the sea turtle, a small golden grouper swims by and I am reminded that it was not that long ago that this reef was on the verge of collapse. In the 1990s, decades of destructive overfishing in the area left the coral reef degraded and the ecosystem depleted.

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle explores the reef.

When locals recognized the damage being caused by rampant overfishing they petitioned the government to make the area a national park, which it did in 1995. A 17,560-acre strip of marine and coastal habitat was established as a Marine Protected Area (MPA). Fishing was banned within the park and the local communities began to take stewardship of the marine area and reoriented their economies away from destructive fishing practices.

As the ecosystem began to recover from certain demise, others took notice of this unique and valuable area. In 2005, UNESCO named Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park a World Heritage Site and in 2008 it became a Ramsar Wetlands Site of International Importance.

Today, the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is a conservation success story of local, national and international significance. A 2011 study, from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, found that within the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park an unprecedented 463 percent increase in biomass of fish was observed since the creation of the no-take marine park. The study called it the “most robust marine reserve in the world.”

Floating slightly above the reef, the diversity of coral species and abundance of fish that now thrive make it easy to understand why some people refer to this, once depleted, area as an “ocean miracle.” Though as I relish in the beauty, diversity and splendor of this living reef ecosystem I reflect on the real miracle — that people recognized the need to protect this amazing marine ecosystem before it was too late.

No-take marine reserves have been proposed as one of the most successful tools for conservation and restoration of coastal and marine ecosystems. The thriving, diverse and plentiful reef system seen in the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park today shows that with support and protection, degraded marine areas of great environmental and economic importance can bounce back.

As we begin our ascent, the boat’s bottom begins to appear larger. Reaching the surface we leave the beautiful underwater ecosystem behind, but we take with us the knowledge of this beautiful world beneath the waves — an ecosystem that has been seen by so few, yet overlooked by so many. Climbing back into the boat and beginning the trip back to shore we are tasked with helping to identify more “hope spots,” such as the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, and ensuring they too are protected.


Read more about the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park on National Geographic and see an amazing photo taken in the park by clicking HERE.

Photos: (c) Bryce Groark / Hope Spots — Mission Blue



Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media.

Assignments in 80 countries/territories included visits to a secret rebel base in Angola, Sahrawi camps in Algeria, and Wayana villages in the remote Amazon. Braun traveled with Nelson Mandela on the liberation leader’s Freedom Tour of North America, accompanied President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton to their foundation’s projects in four African countries and Mexico, covered African peace talks chaired by Fidel Castro in Havana and Boutros Boutros-Ghali in Cairo, and collaborated with Angelina Jolie at World Refugee Day events in Washington, D.C. As a member of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, and media representative to the Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, he joined researchers on field inspections in many parts of the world.

Braun has been a longtime member/executive of journalist guilds, press clubs, and professional groups, including the National Press Club (Washington) and editorial committee of the Online Publishers Association. He served as WMA Magazine of the Year Awards judge (2010-2012), advisory board member of Children’s Eyes On Earth International Youth Photography Contest (2012), and multimedia/communications affiliate of the International League of Conservation Photographers (2015-2017).

David Braun edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world.

He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience.

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  • Eloisa Ortiz

    It is so nice to see good news written about my Mexico.

  • Eloisa Ortiz

    It is so nice to see good news written about my Mexico.

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