Archive for the 'Stories of Pearls & Places' Category
And here I am again, adding the finishing touch on what is my version of the legend of “El Mechudo”. My story is different from all previously released versions, as it has no supernatural elements (“Satanic intervention”).
To add this new twist on the old legend, I will present the evidence used throughout this Blog’s series of “The Legend of El Mechudo”: from the place where these events unfold, to the demystification of the “claws of death” and now the “silent killer” (in this case: it is not stress). I -for one- simply cannot believe that an experienced diver was caught by a pearl oyster and then he just drowned. It takes something much more lethal than a pearl oyster to drown a proffessional pearl diver.
Therefore: if it was not the Devil himself nor a pearl oyster… What really caused the tragic death of “El Mechudo”?
As Delilah to Samson
Just as the biblical Samson, our mythical diver had a magnificent mane of hair which probably had some special meaning to him. And I have reasons to believe that his long hair was partially responsible for his untimely death. If Delilah was the one responsible for bringing about Samson’s misfortune, who was this Sonoran diver’s Delilah? Let us review a bit about the pearl oyster’s natural history to better understand what might have happened.
Habitat of the “Panamic Black-Lip Oyster”
The Black Lip Pearl Oyster -known as “Madreperla” in Mexico- is Pinctada mazatlanica, a bivalve that is found attached -by means of its byssus-to rocks, encrusting corals and other bivalves. As it was shown in the previous post’s video, it is not very difficult to detach them from their anchoring spot. As for the oyster’s habitat: I really do not percieve any danger for a long-haired diver here.
Do remember that “El Mechudo” is said to have secured his long-hair (probably with some rope or even turning his own hair into a knot), but it is not difficult to imagine it could have come loose after hours of diving. Here is where the danger truly resides.
For anyone who has dived or snorkeled in the waters of the Gulf of California, is easy to remember that there’s really nothing in the water or the sea-bed that can entangle you. Due to the lack of rivers reaching the Gulf, there are few contributions of earth-bound material such as tree branches and shrubs, and it is not easy to entangle your hair between stones, so where’s the danger? Let us analyze the next species and its habitat.
The Habitat of the “Rainbow Lip Oyster”
The “Concha Nácar” or “Rainbow Lip Oyster” (Pteria sterna) is a very special animal in regard to its “taste” for settlement. It is adapted to a wide variety of habitats: rocky and coral reefs, on top of the shell of other bivalves, forming “carpet clumps” on sandy-muddy areas and –especially- they can be found living on gorgonian -or fan- corals. Additionally, their byssus is much more stronger than that of the Black-lip pearl oysters, and it takes a lot more effort to detach them from their anchoring spot.
Final Remarks & Video
A fan coral is the “perfect trap” for a long-haired pearl diver. During the shooting of the video about this legendary character I used a doll with a “wig” (one of the most difficult things I’ve recently done: I’d rather juggle with sea urchins anytime), and everytime the fake hair was near the fan coral it would easily entangle itself, becoming a small burden to dissentangle the hair for a new video shoot.
Additionally: I have a video that shows how an oyster is unable to keep their shells closed on an object for more than just a couple of hours. The test was performed, with the help of my assistant Antonio “El Tigre” Mendoza, who helped to perform experiments -both under natural & “laboratory” conditions- and we obtained consistent results in “oyster retention”: usually of less than 60 minutes on each tryout.
The following video was produced in order to show you how the oyster releases its grip after some time. For this I used one of my son’s “GI Joe” action figure, around which we devised a floating system (to simulate the upward flotation pull of a victim) and continuous video filming was performed until the oyster released its “little victim”. As a note of interest, you will notice that there are a couple of “curious sea-hares” (Aplysia californica) that appear during the video…this might be as close as they can get to become part of a “feature film”, hence the attraction (I guess).
Thus, based on all the information we have talked about during this series of blog entries (and in the best “Clue” game fashion) I dare say the following:
“El Mechudo” dove to deeper waters to try and release a “Rainbow Lip Oyster” that was attached to a large fan coral (these larger specimens are usually found in deeper waters) but his hair became entangled. He could not use a knife to cut his hair free (because slave divers were not given such a weapon)…thus the great Yaqui diver drowned. Satan must be declared blameless.
The only way the body of this diver could have remained in the same site for days or weeks (once the body fills with gases form decomposition it would float away) is if it was firmly attached to a coral…any oyster would have released the hand of a dead diver within hours.
And we are back, with what will be the New Year’s first installment of our Cortez Pearl Blog, and for this year we hope to become your source for all interesting pearl related legends & environmental stories, plus other things interest. We truly can be considered a “micro-cosmic-blog” within the Internet, since all the “big bloggers” concentrate on the “macro-cosmic” nature of the internet: computers, smartphones, music, file-sharing and all sorts of money making ventures…this blog is for the few that love and care for this beautiful and unique aquatic gem: Welcome Back!
On October 5 I published the entry about “The Pearl of the Virgin” which detailed the observance of the region’s pearl divers to the Virgin of Loreto, so that she extended her mantle of protection against the dangers of the sea and to help them procure a good yield of pearls. Now it is the turn to talk about the man in whom this legend is embodied, and in order to continue our analysis we must start with a couple of questions: Who was this “Mechudo” diver? and Where did the story/legend take place?
The Identity of “El Mechudo”
On the identity of this man, very little is really known, but some information can be extracted from the myth. One thing is sure: nobody knows his name or his true origin, but all the stories tell of a diver of exceptional ability, most likely he belonged to the Sonoran Yaqui Indian Nation, and we also know that he was possessed of a huge black mane of hair, and hence the nickname of “El Mechudo” or –losely translated- “The mop” or “Long Haired One”, “mechudo” meaning “long & shaggy hair”. It is said that his diver’s was so long and dense that he never used a hat, instead, he tied his hair in a way that it served him as shade and protection from the harsh sun-rays.
Another reason we believed him to have been a native-American man -or mestizo or half-breed- from Sonora is that some sources mention another nickname that this diver also received: “Guama”, an incorrect wording of the voice “Guaima”, which was the name of a band-clan of natives (believed to have been of the Seri or Kum Kaak nation) who lived in Guaymas, at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in Sonora. Here we have a small promotional video about this fascinating culture of the Sea of Cortez…it is in Spanish, but the photography is truly nice:
Anyway, at that the time when the legend developed, the best pearl divers were the Yaqui of Sonora, so it is inferred that he was just one of the thousands who were employed in the extraction of pearl oysters, but he could have been from any other place. But, the “Guama” nickname is basically telling us that he was a “Guaymense”, a man from Guaymas.
The Place of Action
But legend has it that our long-haired diver had no luck in fishing for pearls on a fateful day, in an unknown year of the late nineteenth century (probably in 1897, since this event is recorded in a local newspaper from La Paz), the events probably occurring between the months of May to September, when pearl fishing was practiced in the Gulf of California. But even with this information we simply do not have the way to know the exact day on which this event occurred.
Another unknow fact is the precise spot where this tragic event took place, because some documents state it happened just north of the city of La Paz, in the Baja California peninsula, whereas others went as far as mentioning more precise coordinates:
Southwest of San Jose Island and 12 km from the bay of “La Amortajada”,
40 miles north from the port of La Paz and 50 miles in front of the island of “San Francisquito”
between 24° 42′ 30″ N and 110° 40′ W (according to the old newspaper from La Paz).
However, the site is that is presently called “Punta El Mechudo” (or “Long-haired Point”) is located north of the Bay of La Paz, at 24° 48′ 26.30″ N and 110° 39′ 37.90″ W, and here we have some images of site (courtesy of Google Earth ):
A visual inspection of the area reveals that there is a small sandy beach, a good place for resting and for a fishermen’s camp; but viewed from above we hardly see the presence of “dark spots” in the water, these being an indirect indication that we are in the presence of rocky/coral reefs (or even in patches of algae), which would be suitable for pearl fishing.
Although, at a closer look we can also discover that at a relatively small distance from the point (see arrow), and at a higher depth, there are some kind of aggregates seen on top of the sandy bottom; these could be made of rocks and green coral heads (Porites sp.). These Porites or green corals are very common in the Gulf of California, and they are known to have Black-lipped pearl oysters attached to them. At this point it seems this would be a good area for pearl fishing. In the next photo you can see how these corals are shaped, depending on the environment they grow in: they are sometimes found as encrusting types (when growing on top of large rocks) and they sometimes form “clumps” or “heads” when growing in calm, shallow and sandy areas. We have been in areas where they are abundant in their massive form, as in “Espiritu Santo” Island, while in Guaymas they are often seen encrusting on rocks.
At this moment we know a lot more about the man -the main character- in our story, and we also know a lot more about the location where the legend took place. In the next installment will continue “chipping away” the legend of the “Devil’s Pearl”.
We wish all of our readers a Happy & Successful New Year!!!
Here again with information we believe will be of interest to you, although we are taking a slight detour from our “Legend of El Mechudo” series (while I finalize the short video) and because many have asked us how Mabe pearls (or half-pearls, as they are also known) are produced, and how come they end with with a dome-like or hemispherical shape.
Some people think Mabe pearls are just pearls that have been cut in half (on the first photo we see a pearl cut in half –sometimes called 3/4 pearls- and a Mabe to its right), or when they see the Mabe still in their host-shell they may comment that it is obvious that the pearl is growing from the shell and that it will eventually become detached from it, or that they are “aborted pearls” and they just needed more time to “pop out” of the shell, a fully fledged and normal pearl, but they are mistaken.
Let us begin by explaining a bit about the origin of the equivalent of the Mabe pearl in Nature, followed by some of the initial techniques for their cultivation, until we revisit some of the modern-day techniques employed to grow this beautiful product.
But first: the natural origin of these “attached pearls”… a product that has been known under the name of “Blister Pearls” and of which we have already discussed in detail, but we will shortly review in this post as well.
As the name implies, these natural pearls resemble “skin blisters”. Many of these pearls look like a “bubble” on the inner shell of the pearl oyster, hence the name “blister pearl” is so appropriate.
These pearls are produced when certain boring organisms (such as drill-mussels or boring polychaete worms) produce little tunnels in the shell; eventually they come in direct contact with the soft organs of the oyster, particularly with the mantle: the organ responsible for the production of the nacreous shell of these molluscs. The oyster then uses its mantle to “defend” itself against the damage caused by these organisms.
If these “blisters” reach a good size, have a nice shape and have some beauty, they are then processed (cut from the shell) and then set unto jewelry. Thus, this type of pearl would be the easiest to produce, if ever a person attempted to produce them, both experimentally or commercially.
The First Cultured Blister Pearls
The origin of the first cultured blister pearls emerges from ancient China. That’s right, something like 13 centuries ago (from the V to IX century), when Buddhist monks managed the production of what for many was simply “a miracle” or “a kind of magic”. But to understand this “miracle” we also have to understand the situation of China-and its monks and population- at that time period.
Monks that Monkey Around
As with other monks of the time, these Buddhist monks lived in monasteries, were they practiced the contemplation of nature, meditated and, generally speaking, we can say that many enjoyed a lot of “free time”. Some of the monks may have noticed that in their ponds, where they practiced the cultivation of fish, some pearly mussels also developed, and one thing led to another: they found a way of introducing small lead figurines inside these mussels, and attached these between the shell and mollusk’s mantle; eventually, these little metal figurines were coated with nacre and had the shapes seen in the next image: little “Pearl Buddhas” (image taken from this site).
And what use did these mini-Buddhas served? Well, for many things including:
Religious Propaganda: little has changed over time and even less so among some religions that use some “miracles” to keep their “flocks” or to obtain new followers. A vast majority of the people of the ancient world believed that pearls were of divine origin, so that only a god or powerful spirit being (such as an angel) could produce them. If I happen to have a shell with small pearls with the shape of Buddha, well I’m showing that he has the power to produce pearls in his own image… clearly divine!
Payment of Taxes: Probably more important than the divine origin of the pearls is their use for the payment of taxes. And in feudal China (exactly during that time period) pearls could be used to pay your taxes. We all know there are two things that are truly certain in Life: Death & taxes. This was very convenient.
To Create Jewelry: Perhaps this was also a reason to produce them, but from the quality of the pieces I have seen (mainly in low quality) I don’t believe it. They must have been used mainly to adorn temples (many fine examples can be seen in temples in China today).
But many centuries had to pass… until the 19th century, for the commercial culture and production of the Mabe Pearl. We’ll discuss this in a future entry.
Until next time!
Kicking off with this entry, I’ll start talking about the legend of the Yaqui pearl diver whose name has been all but forgotten and who is now only remembered for his nickname “El Mechudo” or “The Long Haired One”. My previous post contained a small fragment of this legend, as was heard and reported by Fernando Jordan in his book “The Other Mexico” (1967). But today’s audiences may not understand what the story is all about, being so brief and abridged, so I’ll start by first explaining this issue of “the Virgin”… why were the pearl fishermen relieved when they found “the Virgin’s pearl”?
The Virgin of Pearls
The virgin which is referred to in this legend is no other than the “Madonna of Loreto”, which is still inside the temple of the town that was once the capital of the territory of “The Californias” from 1697 to 1777: Loreto . September 8th marks the day of the “patron saint” of Loreto, when the worshipers of this figure walk the streets in a religious procession, carrying the image. This depiction of the virgin Mary and infant Jesus was brought to Mexico on the bequest of Father Francisco Eusebio Kino himself, although some sources state that it was not father Kino who carried it into the Baja California, but the Jesuit Salvatierra in the year 1667.
Here’s a picture of the “Virgin of Loreto” (which I got from this webpage: http://francona.com/travels/mexico/cortez.html ).
Just as it was required to pay the “Quinto Real” or “King’s Fifth” (a special tax, typical of feudal Spain’s colonialism in Mexico) when fishing a pearl oyster bed or a in a mining operation or when a “treasure” was discovered; in those days, the pearl fishermen and pearl armada owners would offer up a pearl to the Virgin of Loreto out of the pearls they extracted in a given day (some references cite a pearl for every 10 pearls or 10%, which is equivalent to the traditional “tithe“). In this way, fishermen would have the “blessing” of their “patron saint” and they would have a good pearling season.
Now that we can understand the reference to the “Pearl of the Virgin” within this story’s frame, we can continue to examine other aspects of the legend, such as that of the “Perla del Diablo” or “Satan’s Pearl”, but that will in a future post.
The Mantle of the Virgin of Loreto
Perhaps more famous than the “Maddona of Loreto” herself, is the mantle that she does not have anymore. One of the many thefts of sacred art that have been perpetuated in Mexico (see the entry on “The Virgin’s Pearl”) and many other Latin American countries… but in this case the thieves did not steal the image’s clothing (being just plain textile) but they focused only in its “mantle“, a type of cape that protected the image and on which the wives of the pearl fishermen would sew the pearls offered up as tribute.
Suffice it to say that after decades of adding up pearls to this mantle, it was quite a treasure and thus attracted the attention of thieves; neither the thieves nor the mantle were ever found…
It is interesting to examine historical records and find out that such thefts have been all too common in Mexico and even with several images of the “Virgin of Loreto”: many of these religious images have been stripped of their jewelry and clothing (this link will download a PDF file containing the theft of many religious images throughout Mexico and through the ages). However, I could not find a single reference to this particular theft, and I have been unable to find some of my original sources in our “arcane” (paper) library.
In my next blog-entry I will start by comparing two versions of the “Legend of El Mechudo” and will offer up additional details and I will even propose my version of the tragic events of this great regional legend, but -of course- it will be covered with technical details that I’m sure will be of your interest.
Until next time!
A recurring image I have had in my mind for the last couple of months is that of a drowned man floating in the sea. Grim dream, to say the least. And in connection with this dream, just a few weeks ago I was looking for information on the Smithsonian Museum (will tell the reason in aun upcoming entry) and there I found this photo of a sculpture of one Benjamin Paul Akers, called "The Dead Pearl Diver" and I felt like it was time to talk about the pearl fisheries in Mexico’s Northwestern region and give my try at the legends of the Yaqui pearl divers, including the famous legend of "El Mechudo" (or “The Long Haired One”), which I once wrote about in our official website.
But before touching the subject of legends and myths, let us first talk about facts.
The pearl fisheries in Baja California Sur and Sonora
The Pearl fisheries in Northwestern Mexico depended mainly on the use of Yaqui pearl divers, a native nation of Sonora. At the time when the legend of "El Mechudo" appears into history, many Yaqui were had rebelled against the governments of Sonora and Mexico. The President of Mexico, General Porfirio Diaz – ordered the arrest of all rebellious Yaquis and had them sent off to work at the haciendas of the far off State of Yucatan … and hence comes the name of this sector within the City of Guaymas, Sonora, known as "la Yucatan": this was once a “prisoner camp”, from which the yaqui were sent to Yucatan. This dark period of our regional and national history is known as the "Guerra del Yaqui". Many Yaquis were sent to work for the owners of the pearl fishing fleets of Sonora and Baja California Sur. We are therefore in the period that marks the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th.
In those years, the pearl fishery was an important part of the economy of Baja California Sur but was somewhat less for Sonora (which was already had a more diversified economy), but most of the revenue ended up benefiting a few families: that of the shipowners. The divers obtained work, a roof in a barrack and a few meals, and a very dangerous work environment.
In this situation, it is easy to understand the great enmity that existed between these two groups of Mexicans: the "white" or "Yoris" and the Yaquis . This created for a tense working releationship: how could the men in charge of the fishing crews (usually a “Yori”) give his men (Yaqui) knives for the extraction of the pearl oysters? The knives could easily have been used to cut their hearts out!
But, how could the Yaqui divers protect themselves from the attack of the fearsome sharks?!?! Some sources mention that divers were armed with a sort of "wooden stick" (a stave, which could have also been used to kill a person in true Van Helsing fashion); other authors state that the death of divers due to shark attacks was overrated, so it is very likely that in many occassions divers did not employ any defensive device, altough Vicente Calvo mentions several of the dangers afflicting the pearl divers of Sonora in the 1840′s:
… But the Manta-rays, would quickly throw themselves over them (the divers), and would compress them against the bottom and then they would drown within minutes.
Being truthful: I do not think the latter is possible. I have never seen or heard of a Manta-ray performing this type of maneuver; but if a diver actually believed that his death could happen if attacked by one of these fish, then he might go into a "panic attack" and end up drowning due to his own fears.
Pearl Fishing was carried out from a "mothership" from which descended several small boats, each with 2 to 4 men, and thus they managed to cover most of a fishing area of a "pearl bed”. Divers dressed only with a loincloth, and would throw themselves from the boat, some helped with primitive weigh-stones to help them quickly reach the bottom. We can watch this activity when watching the classic Mexican film "La Perla", if you don’t have access to the movie you can also watch this short video that contains a few segments of the movie (watch the action at around 1 minute & 25 seconds):
The divers descended to depths between 2 and 26 meters ( 6-86 feet) to find their catch of pearl oysters. Sometimes the physical exhaustion caused by continuous fishing (they dived for up to 6 hours daily) and lack of drinking water and food (did you perhaps believe that divers received an adequate nutrition?) caused some to lose consciousness and drown.
Again we have the description of Vicente Calvo on the pearl fishery of Sonora (and I place emphasis here, as many people believe still that only Baja California had a major pearl fishery):
Fishing starts in June and ends in October, using two or three boats from 40 to 60 tons each. In early November, these boats begin to arrive at the Port of Guaymas… the average time spent by the diver underwater is of one and a half minutes, but in such a short dive-time each divers collects many oysters.
Pearl fishing in the Sonoran coast began when the waters warmed enough and stopped when it is cooled off. The Gulf of California is a sub-tropical sea, so we have ample temperature differences between summer (with 32/90 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit on the surface) and during winter we have recorded up to 12/53 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit here in Bacochibampo Bay). Unfortunately, this pearl fishing period also coincided with the breeding season of the "Panamic Black-lip Pearl Oyster" (Pinctada mazatlanica), so that the effects of fishing were doubly harmful to the populations of this particular pearl oyster.
Another interesting description of Vicente Calvo states that:
All divers feel -at the beginning of each task- how blood flows from their noses, and they see this as a good sign, and will continue –happier- with their work, which lasts no more than six hours.
And this brings us to another reference to the hardships associated with fishing for pearls, but this time by an British Lieutenant by the name Robert William Hale Hardy, who in the 1820’s visited various spots within the of Sea of Cortez -including Guaymas- and he even dived for pearls at the bay of Mulege, and so he states about this occassion:
…I felt myself gliding through the slippery water, which, from its density, gave one the idea of swimming through a thick jelly; again I experienced the same change of temperature in the water as I descended; and again the agonizing sensation in my ears and eyes made me waver. But now, reason and resolution urged me on, although every instant the pain increased as I descended; and at the depth of six or seven fathoms, I felt a sensation in my ears like that produced by the explosion of a gun; at the same moment l lost all sense of pain, and afterwards reached the bottom, which I explored with a facility which I had thought unattainable.
…I no sooner found myself on the surface than I became sensible of what had happened to my ears, eyes, and mouth; I was literally bleeding from each of these, though wholly unconscious of it. But now was the greatest danger in diving, as the sharks, mantas, and tintereros, have an astonishingly quick scent for blood.
R.W.H. Hardy. Travels into the Interior of Mexico in 1825,1826,1827 and 1828.
This was really a risky profession in many ways, and divers would find their lives shortened and their health compromised… in the above cases we can see that the diver’s body is subject to a bleeding nose and the bursting of their eardrums…or even being drowned or devoured.
The Legend of "El Mechudo"
This is probably one of my favorite stories or legends which references to the pearl fisheries in our area, and it’s a very Mexican –and Sonoran and Lower Californian- legend. This story has been described in several other sources, including the blog of my friend Benjamin Arredondo, author of one of my favorite blogs "El Bable". However, I think there are things that should be reconsidered within this legend and then reinterpreted so that it has more shades of reality… and what do I mean by this? There are certain details that make the story quite unrealistic at some points, but by re-focusing these it can turned into a real story.
Well, so far I’ve written a lot about the fisheries… and nothing of the legend. So, this is waht author Fernando Jordan mentions about a site near La Paz known as "Punta El Mechudo" (“Long-Haired One Point”):
Southwest of San Jose Island and 12 km from ‘Amortajada bay’ and at the end of last century (19th) there existed a pearl bed that was a good producer of pearls, and on which hundreds of divers gathered every year. At the end of each season, before the cold north winds made diving impossible, the fishermen would prepare to take one last dive to offer a pearl to the Virgin’. On one occasion a diver was preparing to jump into the sea for the last time, when someone warned him from attempting it, he shouted:
‘No more do you need to dive. We already have the pearl of the Virgin’
The fisherman, made a gesture of disdain, and replied scornfully:
‘I am not going after the pearl of the Virgin, I’ll get one for the devil.
And he jumped into the water.
Satan took him to the sea-floor, and the fisherman did not reappear nor did the sea return his body. This place is now taboo, and no one goes there to look for pearls. Those who have, state that they found -at the very bottom- the blaspheming diver’s ghost, who has grown long hair and a huge beard and a long tongue. It seems alive, and in his hands it holds a huge mother-of-pearl shell. It is the ‘pearl of the devil’ they say, and because of the long-haired ghost the place has been given the name ‘El Mechudo’.
Fernando Jordan “El Otro México”, 1967
This is –if it can be called this way- the “official version” of the legend, and as you’ve read, it is also known as the "Legend of the Devil’s Pearl". In the next blog entries I will begin to “break down” this legend, and will hopefully come up with an alternative ending for the legend, but the next entry deals with this issue of the “Virgin’s Pearl”.
Until next time!
One nice thing about writing this blog is that it has allowed us to dig into a treasure chest of memories that span all the way back to 1993…not a lot for some, but surely more than a lifetime for some. And during these last 18 years we have seen and done many things, but even more importantly: we have met and known many people. This is perhaps the most important thing we have done here, because we know we have been able to touch many people’s lives…hopefully in a positive manner.
In this sense, our “Pearl Farm Tour” has given our “Cortez Pearl” a great audience. In the year 2008 we gave tours to almost 15,000 people, and from 2002 to 2007 our average yearly visitors were some 9,000 men, women and children from an impressive list of nationalities: the United States of America and Canada (together being almost 85% of our visitors), Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru (the Americas) and from the Ole Continent we can list France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, England, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Russia and Turkey. From Asia: China, Japan, South Korea, Philippines and India. From Oceania: Australia, Cook Islands and Tahiti. And we believe this is an impressive list for this “small destination” known as Guaymas.
And what made it all possible? Tourism of course!!! But this area draws a special tourist that caters for a “real” destination, not for the traditional “canned” destination. By this I don’t mean that a “real” destination is better than any other…just different, and there are people that will enjoy both kinds. An authentic destination will give you the whole enchilada: the sights, the sounds, the people…but also the smell, the taste, the heat and the cold & the insect bites. It won’t leave you feeling empty. And what a great opportunity it is to have this enchilada served with the best guacamole, refried beans and horchata: a packaged deal tour known as “The Copper Canyon-Sea of Cortez Tour”. You would get to see and experience the beauty of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, the Majesty of the Copper Canyon, the culture and flavor of towns such as El Fuerte or Álamos, and the peace and serenity of the Gulf of California in the town of San Carlos-Guaymas…this has been an incredibly successful tour since the 1990’s, drawing thousands of visitors to the area.
How the Pearl Farm Tour got its Start.
And this might come as a surprise to all the people that have visited us: it began as quite an accident. Back in 1994, when Enrique, Manuel and I were studying our Master’s Degree at the Guaymas Campus of Tec de Monterrey, we basically worked for hours (even until late at night, with only the moon as a light source) at the school’s dock, with our very basic tools and equipment: plastic buckets and trays, old kitchen knives, calipers and home-made culture cages. So, we spent countless hours getting a nice sun-tan and managing our small farm consisting of scallops, pen-shells and pearl oysters. Neither tours nor tourists…just us and our little critters.
The accident was this: for many years –can’t really say how many- our Campus had a Kitchen-Lab for those students of the “Servicios Alimentarios” (Food Services), and they made all sort of goodies there: bread, wine, fruit drinks, a complete meal and dessert. This was done for them to learn…but after the learning they had all these goodies and they sold them every Thursday at the “Restaurant”. So, many students had a chance to enjoy a nice meal, but the American and Canadian residents in San Carlos would drive to our school to enjoy this good and inexpensive meal as well! Many of these temporary residents would go back to their country of origin –usually during summer- and return when the weather got better, and they would once more visit the “Restaurant”.
But, in 1994, our school suffered at the hands of the vilest enemy you can imagine: a devastating economic crisis. The number of students was suddenly reduced to about 120, because most families were struggling and could not afford to pay tuition & boarding for their kids. So the “Restaurant” closed its doors forever. But, many of the previous visitors were not told of this…and they came back, only to find their favorite lunch spot closed and they just started wandering around the Campus. I mean, you drive some 30 minutes and then: nothing. You have to at least try to justify your fuel usage! And these good folk would just walk down to the dock and saw these 3 tanned, long-haired kids just scrapping and measuring some animals and began asking questions…and that is how the tour got its start!
I mean, we got asked all sorts of questions such as: are these for eating? Do they taste good? Why do they move like that? Whoa! Can they squirt water that far?!?!?! Does it hurt when it bites your fingers? Are you married? Or –my favorite- How can you get such a beautiful golden tan? (Answer: spend three years working under the sun for at least 8 hours a day). And the weird part is that many found our work interesting (we were yet to generate results)…so they told other Americans and Canadians, and –by word-of-mouth- many more came and we began to enjoy their company (bivalves are good natured creatures, but not very talkative) and one thing lead to another: quite unexpectedly we started giving “5 minute tours”, explaining what we wanted to do and how we were going to “Revive Mexico’s Pearling Industry”. But, you cannot seriously expect such a small thing to become a “Major Touristic Attraction”. Another ingredient was yet needed…
The Main Course
In the meantime, there were several major tour companies using the area for its attractions, but mainly focusing on the State of Chihuahua’s Copper Canyon (not really one canyon, but actually 6 series of interconnected canyons that are about 5 times larger than the “Grand Canyon” in the United States), and these companies realized the potential of using Mexico’s Northwestern States to have one huge “Copper Canyon Tour”, that would draw the attention of a larger crowd: it would grow to include the beautiful Colonial Town of El Fuerte in Sinaloa and include the Sea of Cortez at Guaymas-San Carlos, and utilize Chihuahua’s strong-points such as the Canyon at Divisadero, Creel, the city of Chihuahua, the ruins of Paquimé and the Mormon and Mennonite communities in Nuevo Casas Grandes. And their Tour Directors were looking for new attractions…and somehow they heard the story of these naïve researchers that had begun growing pearls in Guaymas, and so came the first “scouts”.
And the first to come were Sergio Corona and Carlos Gaytán (in those days they worked with Grand Circle Travel, now they work for “A Closer Look Tours”). They met with us, asked about our research and the things we were doing, saw our jewelry (at about that time -1996- we had already produced a line of Mabe pearls in Sterling Silver Jewelry) and they gave us a bit of “coaching” on how to present our pearl farming venture and ourselves to their tourist groups. And that is how this unique link between a group of Pearl Farmers and dozens of thousands of tourists was forged. Just a couple of years later we were included in these companies official brochures, websites and catalogues.
The Good, the Bad and…the Ugly
Once we had a good idea of how to promote and offer a Good tour, we took some steps to make it available not only to those travelers enjoying the comfort of a fully guided tour, but to ANY PERSON that wanted to enjoy the same experience. Thus the tour was offered for FREE and people just had to ask for their tour. And it happened: success!!! We were having more and more people daily and we would be inside our “pearl lab” and we would have people knocking on the door, the door would open and a human head would stick inside saying: “Is this the Tour???” Needless to say, we started doing tours over and over…sometimes up to 7 times a day per person, 6 days of the week. Enrique and I started hallucinating: sometimes I would dream I was doing tours in hell, and we would dread the sound of a knock-on-the-door (even when in our homes). We just could not keep up, it was unhealthy. This was the BAD.
The new strategy was to have just one tour every hour on the hour. This helped a bit, but it still took too much of our time –and concentration- when we were doing the seeding operation; under such conditions we would begin to make more mistakes in our seeded oysters, reducing the amount of pearls we were supposed to produce. A tit for a tat, some may say…but inefficient for us. So we decided to hire some help and have a professional guide (after months of training) to help us with the small tours and this was… a blessing!!! We finally could devote our time to produce beautiful pearls, without the pressure of taking care of every single person that came to our farm. This was the GOOD. And we had many people in this position, some good, some not that good, and some very good. So, using this small place I would like to thank three of the best: Rocío, Karla and Diana. I really miss you gals…
And just when we thought it was safe to keep touring the pearl farm…we were struck full-force with “Murphy’s Law”. It all began in early 2009 when our country –Mexico- was struck with the “Swine Flu Virus” or AH1N1, and this event paralyzed the country and scared many of the tourists away. It took months to see a small recovery in the number of visitors…and then we were once more hit by a pair of unbeatable foes: the World Economic Crisis –that begun in the United States in 2008 and affected the entire planet- and we shall not forget “Mexico’s Drug War” that has not been truly effective in destroying the drug cartels, but has been incredibly effective in DESTROYING our touristic industry, regardless of the fact that the State of Sonora is considered as a “Safe State” or that our National Homicide Ratio is smaller than those of many other countries, but I’m not really going into detail with statistics, I’m just going to lay it down the way it is: we lost 80% of our visitors in 2009 and the trend continued in 2010. This is definitively THE UGLY.
The New Situation
Yes, we continue to have tours thanks to many brave Canadians and Americans that are not fearful of the machine guns, grenades and killings that take place…in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. It is quite peaceful down here, regardless of the news. The cruise ships have kept coming into Guaymas (we’ve got 6 this year) and we still have one important tour company coming in with busloads of tourists: A Closer Look Tours.
But, the reality is that we have had to downsize and we began enjoying the Bad again and we cannot take the beating: we have a pearl farm to run and operate. So, we have once more had to focus our efforts and have introduced a minor change to our “Pearl Farm Tour”, in effect since March 28th of 2011:
- Weekdays (Mon-Fri): Guided Tours from 9 am to 2 p.m. One Tour every hour on the hour.
- Weekends: Saturdays the Tours are from 9 to 11 am (also on the hour). Sundays we are CLOSED.
- Tour Rates are $2 USD per person (children under 5 do not pay).
At any rate, if you purchase your Pearl Tour and you decide to purchase an item at the Pearl Store, you will be able to redeem this amount off your purchase.
So, our apologies to all: we kept our Pearl Farm Tour fully FREE for ONLY 15 years, but now we hope to have 15 more years to offer you a great, educational and entertaining Tour on the new schedule. I hope you didn’t find this Blog entry to be too lengthy or perhaps a bit boring…it has not been boring for me to share this abridged story to you: it has been a quite a journey –still in the making- for us and it was worth telling it.
So, to sum it up: if you do have the chance to visit our Pearl Farm please do so. If you haven’t been here in a while take the time to bring some friends over, if you have never been here…what are you waiting for?!?!?
This is a subject that we wanted to discuss since quite some time ago, but instead we have been discussing various topics in order to be able to capture the attention of as many readers as possible, especially since talking and educating about pearls is somewhat complex and requires greater intention. So far, despite the fact that we have already talked about “Pearl culture” and “natural pearls” -such as those once produced by Don Gaston Vivés in Baja California- (see our entries on this topic) there are still many people who are confused or who have received incorrect information on the subject. We have found that on Spanish language sites –by the way: this Blog is primarily for Spanish language readers, but we do some effort to have an English version in order to be a bit more “universal” -there is from none to very little information on the subject of natural pearls in Spanish on the web, but in English this is not the case (some very good sites on the subject are: Kari pearls and Love to Know 1911), but you can never have enough information, so here we will try to answer all questions or -at the least– will help you to find new questions (not a bad thing per se).
So let us start this fascinating topic of natural pearls. First, we’ll start with a bit of history, we then will examine certain features of pearls and finally talk about how the natural pearls are formed and we do hope we can help to do away with the incredibly popular myth of “pearls are formed with a grain of sand”… I’ll try my best.
History of the discovery of the Pearl
Who discovered the first pearls? When did people begin to show an appreciation for pearls? What are we having for Lunch today? These are probably the questions that many have pondered upon for ages and for which we do not have a fulfilling answer, but let us “travel back in time” to about 10 thousand years ago (and even before that), when human groups in coastal areas or even in areas with rivers began to swim in search of food (notice the importance of question #3?) and under the philosophy of “everything that can be eaten must be eaten” they began to collect pearl oysters and mussels for lunch. Occasionally, they would find a Pearl inside and this could either become a happy moment or a time of huge annoyance… since one hard bite on a pearl can easily cause a dental crack. But let us suppose they did happen to find a “little pearl”: perfect, beautiful like the Moon, or as green as the sea, or able to display rainbow-like flashes or they were able of seeing their face reflected on it… to our ancestors this was Pure Magic. Let’s say that it could have been a good start for the discovery of the Aesthetics.
Now, how did that appreciation and admiration for these small nacreous orbs became an item used as a gem or for personal adornment? Most likely human beings were already using varied “ornaments”: shells, wood, leather, teeth, bones, stones… (it is stated that the oldest pieces of jewelry found are about 100 thousand years old and were made using snail shells, for more information click here) but the Pearl would become the highlight among any other decorative items because it was much more beautiful and would arrive in an “almost ready” state for its use: while almost all other items (corals, gemstones, ivory, etc.) would require many work-hours in order to end up used in an ornament. But the Pearl was a truly a gift of Nature… and had a value-added feature that today is not easily appreciated: its hardness (this topic will be discussed in a future blog delivery).
Once the Pearl became more and more popular in the taste of our ancestors it also became a “sacred” or “holy” gem, thus many legends and stories about pearls exist and there is not a sacred book that does not include our beloved Gem within its pages, and this also generated many theories about its formation: that its origin it was purely divine, that when angels shed tears these would fall into the sea and became pearls, or that when lightning struck the surface of the ocean pearls would be formed and would fall into the oyster’s gaping mouths (the lightning being produced by the Greek god Zeus), etc., and these ideas eventually evolved up to the this point in civilization until we finally arrived to the widely accepted idea that “a grain of sand enters the oyster’s body and irritates the animal unless it coats it up with nacre and thus…becomes Pearl”. How did we ever get this idea? Let us look into this account more closely.
The theory of the Grain of Sand
What is interesting about this idea is that most people consider it as a very logical and sound theory, and so it must be true. Let us analyze this “theory”, step by step:
- Pearl oysters live in the sea, in shallow coastal areas and are found attached on hard substrate (rocks, reefs, shells of mollusks, etc.), and in these areas there is enough sand for the purpose of “stuffing” the pearl oysters.
- It is logical to imagine that in a day with appropriate environmental conditions (waves, wind, strong currents) some sand will become suspended in the water and could travel –using sea currents- until some grains of sand find their way into an open oyster.
- At this point, the oyster is starting to feel irritation from the roughness from the grain of sand and -as a consequence- the oyster will have to defend itself from this “painful foreign body” by secreting a smooth and delicate substance –nacre- around the grain of sand in order to form a soft and delicate pearl… easy, isn’t it?
But I am sorry to say that this is not the case and I’ll be emphatic and will just say NO NO and NO!!!! That is simply not true nor accurate. And in fact, we have reliable and accurate scientific information about what actually happens to an Oyster in order for it to produce a Natural Pearl… but for some unknown reason –could it have been a marketing scam? –”the grain of sand theory” is the one that won and it ended up established in the collective conscience of humanity. How can we prove this theory as incorrect? We have two tools: the first would be using logic and the second one by means of experimentation. Let’s do this step by step.
Natural pearls were almost always scarce. Most sources mention obtaining only ONE (1) natural pearl from every 10 thousand slaughtered oysters. One Pearl for every 10 thousand little animals…. But how much sand do we have available at sea? Why so many grains of sand reaching so very few pearl oysters? How come we can’t find many more pearls?
In our experience -from what we have seen by working for over 18 years here in Bacochibampo Bay- is that water conditions can be severely affected by a change in tides, a swell or due to tropical storms, or even due to strong Northwest winds, and the change can be so severe that sea-water conditions can change from its normal blue-green color to a “caffé latté” (brown) color due to the immense amount of suspended -containing large quantities of sand and mud- sediments. At times like these, the amount of pearls which should be formed definitively has to be huge, simply because of the potential “sand-grains” in the waters. Now, this kind of phenomenon is not uncommon: it happens very often in our location, especially during winter months. That means that any Pearl Oyster in the Bay might receive from just several thousand to millions of grains of sand per week; and keep in mind that if an Oyster can live about between 6 to 16 potential years…this rises to the amount to that of billions of grains of sand = billions of pearls PER OYSTER.
Thus each pearl oyster should be the equivalent of a treasure chest: it is simply a question of diving for one Pearl Oyster in order to obtain sufficient pearls for several necklaces, bracelets, earrings and gift-sets for the whole family and –why not?- even for the pesky neighbors!!! …but, again, this is not the case: only one of every 10 thousand oysters produces a quality Pearl.
This post started in an odd way because I was thinking about a nice, fresh, red wine than anything else. Thing is I was working on my pearls, sorting them for a photo session and both things -pearls & wine- became entangled in my day-dreaming, and since one thing leads to another I ended fantasizing about Cleopatra’s wager against Marc Anthony, which became the Myth of the “Most Expensive Dinner the World has Seen”.
The story -in case you haven’t heard it- goes a bit like this: the Roman General Marc Anthony is seduced by Queen Cleopatra and she wagers that she can offer him the most expensive dinner in the world. Marc Anthony, a man accustomed to Roman Power & Wealth, accepts because he does not believe the Egyptians can equal the excesses of a Roman bacchanalia. So, dinnertime comes and he is greeted by Cleopatra at an almost empty table (perhaps a small platter with dates, grapes and “Ibis wings”). They start with some nice cups filled with splendid Greek wine and finally he has to ask -being a Man, of course- “Where’s the Beef???”. Cleopatra languidly reaches for her earlobe and retrieves her earring, then removes the large natural pearl from it -again, very languidly- and drops the pearl inside her wine cup. She then says “Cheers” and gulps it all down in a noisy slurp-gulp.
At this sight Marc Anthony was probably very impressed -possibly with eyes the size of a Japanese Animé character- and with a dropped jaw. Cleopatra removes her second pearl earring to offer the Roman General his share of the fancy dinner but -in a non languid way- he lays a hand on the cup and tells her: “You have won. You have offered me the most expensive dinner in the World.”. So basically this is the story that has been heard by millions all over the World and throughout history. Some believe it to be 100% accurate, others think it is a very romantic story and others feel it is just “junk”. Regardless of your interest in the story what we offer you here are facts: Could this dinner have taken place in the way depicted??? Let us see…
First, the pearls are described as “large” so we would say that the pearls measured at least 12-14 mm in diameter and would have been difficult to swallow (although we certainly don’t have a clue about Cleopatra’s swallowing abilities) and the “Heimlich Maneuver” had not been invented so my guess is: why risk it? Some say the pearl was dissolved in the wine, so the next question would be: How long does it take for a pearl to dissolve in wine? Finally a question about the value of a pearl: we cannot compare the value of today’s pearls to that of pearls in Ancient times, when their worth was so high they could have been used to purchase a entire country or send a full military invasion (you may read the shortened account of General Vitellius and how he sold one of his mother’s pearl earring to start his military campaign here).
So, we devised a small experiment using 3 cultured pearls (all rejects, without commercial value) and 3 different substances: red wine (pH= 3.4), white vinegar (pH=2.4) and dilute Chlorhidric Acid (pH=0). So, let us describe what happened in a period of 24 and 48 hours of the pearls being exposed to these substances).
pH is a system to measure how acid (how corrosive) or how basic is a substance. Each number in the scale represents a ten-fold increase -or decrease- of the intensity or “power” of the substance, thus a pH=1.0 substance is 10 times more acidic than one measuring 2.0. Basically, that is it. So now, let us go into the experiment with pearl #1 into red wine.
Pearl in Wine:
Pearl #1 was a white pearl measuring 8.7 mm in diameter and with a weight of 1 gram. The pearl was placed inside a wine glass with a nice Chilean Merlot (pH=3.4) and…nothing happened. We could not see any activity on the pearl. After 48 hours the pearl measured and weighed the same, and once it was cleaned we could observe some small pock-marks on the pearl. This means that wine has little power to damage a pearl, thus I don’t believe wine could have been used to dissolve the pearl in time for dinner (after all: they had an Empire to rule).
Pearl #2 was a dark-purple pearl measuring 8.4 mm and with a weight of 0.6 grams and was introduced into white vinegar (pH=2.4) for 24 hours. The pearl was immediately attacked by the Vinegar’s acetic acid and we could see many small bubbles forming on top of the pearl: CO2 (carbon dioxide) that is released when an acid substance attacks the pearl’s Aragonite crystals. The results were conclusive: the pearl lost some weight and became smaller: 7.8 mm and 0.5 grams. The pearl formed a very weird looking “cocoon” on its surface, that basically made it look like it had been “bubble-wrapped”. This cocoon or sac is basically made of conchiolin, a protein employed by the oyster to bind the tiny hexagonal shaped aragonite crystals and form the pearl. Once the mineral is removed from a layer, the protein will float in a ghost-like manner around its pearl.
After 24 hours the pearl’s appearance changed dramatically, exposing a large protein based area, the surface became deeply affected and even the color changed! (to a more green color). After 48 hours damage was more profound but the vinegar’s power had been spent. Adding fresh vinegar to the cup ensured the total destruction of the pearl after 72 hours, when we finally reached the pearl’s nucleus.
Pearl in Acid
This test only has a scientific purpose, since it is unbelievable that Cleopatra & Marc Anthony would have used acid to dissolve the pearl and then drink it…at the risk of first loosing their teeth and then their lives. Also, Hydrochloric acid (pH=0) had not been invented in Ancient times, so it was not an option. What we wanted to find out with this experiment is: How long does it take for a pearl to dissolve in a strong acid???
Results: the pearl for this experiment (#3) was a beautiful oval shaped pearl measuring 7.7 mm and with a weight of 0.6 grams. After 24 hours, the pearl was severely damaged -its surface appearing like the walls of certain areas of the “Grand Canyon”- and it lost much of its size ( 7.0 mm) and weight (0.5 grams). After 48 hours the pearl’s destruction was complete.
Some things to notice about this experiment are: as soon as the pearl touches the acid, the attack is noticeable by the intense bubbling effect (just as with vinegar). After 24 hours we were able of noticing the same “protein sac/cocoon” that was seen in vinegar, but the bubbles were larger. After 48 hours, the pearl had been dissolved but we could still see the little “cocoon”, but now floating on the surface…having lost its weight. Once extracted from the acid we extracted the remains of the pearl: basically a dark colored protein…
So, now I invite you all to watch a 5 minute video of these little experiments. I wish to take this opportunity to thank Jazmin Rangel for playing the part of Cleopatra for our video. I wanted to play the part of Marc Anthony but found not a single “Roman” costume available in my size, but then again…there are many more myths that must be addressed so I will eventually have the chance to play a “Yaqui diver” or “Spanish Conquistador”.
Well, hope you liked the video. I had fun making it. Did you notice “Cleopatra’s solution” to the “pearl dinner” dilemma???
The Final Solution
What would have been Cleopatra’s solution? She could not wait for the pearl to dissolve in wine nor vinegar, so the obvious solution was to pound and pulverize the pearl and pour the “pearl dust” into the wine, ready to be gulped down and become the “World’s Most Expensive Dinner”.
Thus another “pearl myth” is demystified, but we still have quite a few left… so keep visiting us.
Returning to the subject of hurricanes and tropical storms … a subject that causes our skin to start prickling . For years we have suffered from the ravages of hurricanes, which mostly visit in the shape of tropical storms here in Guaymas. But for some unknown reason, at least for us, some of the most devastating hurricanes have been those that have hit other regions, far from Guaymas, such as 2005′s Hurricane “Wilma” in the Mexican Caribbean (which destroyed our sales store in Cozumel.)
This time we go back to 2001 when a hurricane called “Juliette” struck the coast of Baja California Sur, Sonora and Sinaloa, causing heavy rainfall and leaving behind a trail of death and destruction: perhaps Cabo San Lucas was one of the most affected sites in northwest Mexico (since the hurricane formed off the coast of Central America and also hit the coasts of Oaxaca and Michoacan). Precipitation on top of Cabo was of 449.6 mm, since the hurricane lost strength just above this small town and it remained “parked” on top for several days.
Barely a week after the celebration of traditional festivals of Independence, on September 25th to be precise, this typhoon was dangerously close to the coast of Baja California Sur. In Guaymas, Sonora, felt the effects of “Juliette” with the presence of heavy rains, but … how did our Pearl Farm become affected? In those days we had a Jewelry-Boutique that sold our “Sea of Cortez Pearls” (jewelry and unset pearls) smack in the middle of Cabo San Lucas. This was our first foray into the retail sale of pearls and jewelry in a “foreign” setting, and after having tasted success in our first location within Tec de Monterrey-Campus Guaymas.
Pearls of the Sea of Cortez – Cabo San Lucas
Our store was opened in January 2000, with the local manager of our friend, Mr. Rodolfo Brajcich, and with the presence of Dr. Alberto Bustani Adem, Rector of the Tec de Monterrey, Dr. Guillermo Soberon Chavez then Director of the Guaymas Campus, and Mr. Farell Sergio Campos, leader of our team.
Among the many visitors to our jewelry store, we had a good friend and his team of students: Dr. Carlos Rangel Davalos (co-authored the technical book of pearl oyster aquaculture). Among this group of students was Hugo Ruiz Rubio (another good friend of La Paz, BCS) … who visited with their first batch of experimental Mabe Pearls, produced for the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS).
There were great expectations for this store site, due to the presence of cruise ships in the area, but unfortunately this commercial experiment came to an end with Hurricane “Juliette” and the responsability to close this store fell to the new manager, Miss Monica Ocon … and here we closed yet another historical chapter.
And now many will be able to understand our reluctance to open a new branch/store outside of Guaymas, Sonora … we have already done this twice and the stores have had to close for the same reason: Hurricanes …
Until next time!
Once more we are here, sharing our thoughts and hearts with you…hoping you will allow us to guide you into the history of the Gulf of California Pearl. I hope you find the story of Dr. Gastón Vivés feats as enthralling as we did when we first learned of his existence in 1991. So this week we continue with the most important area of the “CCCyP” or “Pearl Farm”: the “Raceways” or aquaculture channels.
When flying over Isla Espíritu Santo you will easily be able to distinguish the little bay and estuary where this famous pearl farm once stood, this because you can clearly distinguish the man-made shape of the culture station. This part of Dr. Vivés’ operation was a special as all others, but this one is the one most people can see, touch and easily comprehend in its operation. After almost 100 years of abandonment, harsh weather and even hurricanes, this area is still in good condition but slowly being overtaken by the mangrove forest.
This little “ensenada” or harbor has a small mangrove forest growing in typical estuarine fashion: you have a little inland lagoon with its sides all covered with mangrove trees. Gastón Vivés must have “cleared” some of the mangrove forest in order to improve the pearl culture environment, because pearl oysters are not commonly found inside these lagoons. The problems you usually have when you work in an estuary such as this one are the following:
- Increased salinity levels during summer months
- Decreased salinity levels after the rainy season
- Higher/Lower temperatures than those in the ocean
- Reduced oxygen levels.
- Lots and lots of mosquitoes and some terrible little -almost invisible- bugs we call “jejenes” (No-see-ems???)
But on the other hand you also have important benefits such as:
- Higher than average productivity levels (food)
- Easier handling of animals in shallower water
- Secluded area, easier to protect
So, it is obvious Dr. Vives decided to remove a portion of the mangrove forest and use it to grow his black-lipped pearl oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica) instead. It is hard to know if they dredged the bottom of the lagoon in order to remove the usually black-muck (highly organic mud) that is commonly associated with these forests. It could have been, but maybe they just closed the communication between the ocean and the lagoon…then they cut the trees, allowed the bottom to dry and have workers remove the anoxic muck and then prepare the bottom with more adequate conditions such as “tepetate” rock. This also gave them time to work with the masonry.
I can imagine this was a very intense workload for those involved. Why? Let us go back to 1890 and imagine that the World was different: sailboats on the remotest part of Mexico, a desert island with little or no food and fresh-water available, high temperatures of 45 Celsius (over 120 Fahrenheit) during midday, poisonous snakes and arthropods, mosquitoes, no medical help…you can keep adding it up. So, you not only needed workers, but logistics that are similar to those needed to fight battles and win wars: those that cannot supply their armies are the ones that will loose. And it was an army that Gastón Vivés had to take care of: at the height of the farm’s operation it is said it had over 1,200 men working on the Island.
So, among all the things he had to do is have his workers build barracks and other areas needed to establish and serve a large contingent of people. The docking area would have been important as well, because you need constant transportation of people and goods from La Paz to Espíritu Santo, and drinking water would have been a problem (although several fresh -and some briny- water springs are identified on the island). In order to obtain meat, goats were introduced and allowed to forage the desert shrubbery…something that nowadays is considered an “ecological nightmare” (but in those days the notion of “ecology” was non-existent). Once the whole site was constructed it would no longer be the peaceful island but a noisy bustling place of activity (heck! we’ve got towns in the “sierra” that have only some 88 people… and this place had hundreds of workers!): cooks cooking, iron-smiths bashing iron, carpenters nailing planks, divers, packagers…everything but plumbers and electricians.
The Nursery System
About the Masonry work: marvelous. He had great stone-smiths (for a lack of a better word) that -in my opinion- were serious artists and cared about quality. They used dark/red volcanic rocks to form the canals. Their amazing masonry work looks quite sturdy in most places, but the roots of the mangrove are slowly destroying them…
Inside the canals or water-channels it was possible to see some fish darting in and out (usually the common “Lisa” or “Mullet”), as well as an aggressive little Blue-Crab (Callinectes bellicosus). The water is mainly murky-green: thick and rich with nutrients. The water is shallow and has very little movement, the bottom seems more sandy instead of the black pudding-like muck you find at other estuaries (maybe I just needed to stand there until I sank…but did not have much time).
This place would have looked somewhat different some 100 years ago, because this part of the farm was entirely covered: it had a great “palapa” roof made with palm fronds (I did not see a single palm tree here, so the fronds would have been transported from the mainland as with most other things such as wood) and wood beams (very much like the palapa we employ at our Guaymas pearl farm today).
The reason for these roofs is simple: the sun is strong at this latitude and it warms the water; warmer water usually holds less oxygen and some creatures can suffocate… so, just add some shade and the water’s temperature will be cooler. Smart man. In winter you would have the opposite problem (cold water) so you can remove the palm covering and the water will warm up.
This raceway or canal system was very important because it was the “nursery system”, the place were the delicate little juvenile black-lips would be kept under constant surveillance. Why? Well, he did choose a lagoon…and these are well stocked with blue-crabs and these just adore little oysters for their “botana” (tastier than nachos). So, guards were places on top of the canals, armed with fork-like lancers and ready to defend the little pearl oysters. But many other creatures could have wanted to enjoy a free lunch as well: but mainly the octopus, snails and starfish.
The canals had wooden planks to allow the guards to move easily from one place to another and chase the intruders. Also, when the water from the canals was taken out (during the low tide) people would be able to jump inside and work with the animals, perform close inspection and even remove some predators that could have escaped from the guard’s watchful gaze.
The bottom was “conditioned” as I mentioned before, but the little juveniles were not left on the bottom just sitting. Nope. This was all worked out in detail. The little oysters were introduced inside small metal mesh cages, shaped like rectangles. We found the remains of several of these cages at the island…all oxidized, but of course plastic was unavailable in those days.
These juvenile oysters were obtained using special “spat collectors” (of a special design, and we will talk of these in the near future), and the little creatures must have measured some 3 cm (about 1 inch) when caught.
At this stage, the oysters are quite delicate because their shells are not hard enough to protect them and they have a special “anchoring” system (the bissus) they employ to grab a hold of a rock or coral and it is quite delicate: you should never pull them. Also, their small body size does not give the oyster enough protection from sudden temperature changes (they can heat easily under sunlight, and if placed rapidly in cold water the shock can kill them)… so it seems very likely Dr. Gastón Vivés’ medical training might have given him a very sound foundation to understand the oysters and give them the best possible conditions to improve their growth and survival.
By means of the mesh cages, it was easy to handle many oysters at once and protect them from most predators and he would have been able to reduce mortality rates to very tolerable levels (5-20%) at an age when -if you don’t do the right things- you can have a mortality rate of up to 80%.
Truly a revolutionary man and way ahead of his time… let us continue with this account in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can watch a small video about our visit to this historical site. The video has titles in Spanish only, but if you read this entry you will be able to grasp the meaning…I will add sub-titles to the video in the future.