Archive for the 'Tourism & Pearls' Category
And here we are again, bracing for impact but hoping for the best: that Hurricane “Paul” (which is striking the Baja California peninsula as we speak) will keep to its trajectory and will avoid us completely, but it has happened before that some hurricanes simply jump over Baja’s Vizcaíno mountainous range and land square face on us. On the image below (courtesy of The Weather Channel) you can see Hurricane “Paul” is already causing damage on Baja, but the projected trajectory states it will move away from Baja and dissipate as it hits the cold California current.
Anyway, we have to prepare for the worst –as always- and we are removing our farm’s flotation and everything off our land facilities yet again (we had done this twice already in the month of September), so there is this little problem with our Pearl Farm Tours: it won’t be the full experience that we always want it to have, since we will have everything “packed up”. Once more we apologize to our visitors for this inconvenience.
Gilberto A.C.: Helping Others
And speaking of “packing up”, we have to tell you all about our up and coming trip to Mexico City for the week of October 22nd to the 27th, and this of course means we will not have any “pearl farm” tours available during this week. We expect to resume our normal Pearl Farm Tour schedule on October 29th, as soon as we are back from our trip.
If you have read our Blog before you probably know that we sometimes leave the farm to head off to certain events such as Gems Shows & the Pearl Ruckus, but this time we have been invited over to a special event known as “Bazar Gilberto Navideño”. The organizers of “Asociación Gilberto A.C” have been promoting this special Christmas Bazaar since 1993 in a constant effort to raise money to help out the communities that have suffered from the disastrous effects of hurricanes; actually the name “Gilberto” derives from the first time when this association started to help when hurricane “Gilbert” struck many Mexican States in September of 1988, with a destructive force yet to be equaled (at least in this country).
So, once this organization finished helping out there was yet another hurricane the next year, then unusual floods, and ever since we’ve had one natural disaster after another and this organization kept its internal structure and objectives, but with a continuous effort to help those in need. This Xmas Bazaar is a means to raise funds and all exhibitors will be there with the same frame of mind: Helping those in Need. Here you can see some photos and read a bit (in Spanish, but you can easily translate with Google/Bing) about last year’s event.
I also have a video to share: made
by Gilberto A.C. of the Veracruz branch, where we can see how they are helping the poorest communities with housing projects and installing much needed services in order to improve the lives of thousands. It is in Spanish language, but an image is worth a thousand words and not much more is needed to appreciate their work.
So, we feel honored to have been invited by Gilberto A.C. and we hope this event will be as successful as it has been in its 20 year history.
Wish us good luck and we’ll see you soon at the pearl farm in the Sea of Cortez…
And here we are again, trying to explain to the unique feelings we get during the month of September…once again, these being the unique perspective of a Pearl farmer. So, last time I was telling you about how the intense waves caused by a hurricane or tropical storm may destroy our farm (just the way it happened back in 2003) and how we have found a way to avoid this problem; let us continue with this story then.
The easiest strategy to follow is to increase the anchoring on the farm. Each long-line is anchored to the bottom by its ends, so this is so very obvious. Yet, it is not easy. Why? Because we use the anchoring system that is possible for us to us…technically speaking. You see, we live in an area that is basically devoid of certain services that would make our lives easier, so we don’t have specialized companies that have the boats needed to carry the larger and heavier dead weights we would need. If our boats even tried carrying that load they would simply sink!
Since this option is not available we have to find another solution, and the one we found is a temporary one: to reduce flotation (buoys) during the month of September. With this incredibly simple solution we are able of keeping our lines in place, and only if we had a very strong hurricane in our area we would remove ALL flotation and allow the farm to sink. Then it is a Race agaist Time…for our pearl oysters and for us, the farmers.
Why a race? Well, you have to see things as they are underwater…imagine the bottom of our bay: mainly covered with sand, with some areas that have rocks and shells in what seems to resemble some little islands or atolls in a “sea of sand”. This area has quite a good amount of pearl oyster predators, such as: the Octopus, the trigger-fish, starfishes and a whole bunch of carnivorous snails. In the case of the bottom-dwellers (all those predators that cannot swim) just picture them staring up to our protective cages that harbor hundreds of oysters each…as if this was just one immense buffet up in the sky.
So, the moment all flotation is removed the weight of the oysters in the cages makes the line collapse to the bottom. Again, I imagine all these little predators crying out with pleasure :”Manna from Heaven!”…and this is when the race begins. Starting this moment the cages will begin to be covered up with predators and they will begin to eat the oysters. Of course! We forgot about the protective mesh of the cages, the predators will never catch the oysters! If only this were true…
Most of these predators have some very efficient adaptations that allow them to by-pass the cage’s protections; snails usually have a long proboscis and starfish even have the ability to project their digestive system out of their bodies (if interested, just look at this video, at around minute 1:49 you’ll see the action). So, at this point imagine that our fearsome predators basically take out their straws, they sink these inside the oysters and they just “drink down” a nice protein shake. Just what the Doctor ordered! As you can see, the cages are an excellent protection from fishes, but not from snails nor starfish.
Raising the Farm Up again!
Of course, the best thing to do is just raise up the farm to its normal operation depth. It’s just a matter of diving down to the sunken lines (at a depth between 7 to 10 meters) and start re-attaching the floats. But this is easier said than done. Have you ever tried to sink down a float? It’s really hard and depending on the float’s size it is impossible. So, this is not an option…let’s try something else, but first get your crew ready for work because it is going to be a long day just trying to replace hundreds of floats on all our long-lines. And just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, guess what happens? Your crew, your workers…they don’t show up for work. Why?!?!? Don’t they care for their little oysters?!?!? Well, a terrible hurricane has just struck the area, that means that the city is flooded, roads destroyed, no electricity, no buses…the workers might even have to help their neighbors and friends and relatives since their houses might have become flooded or maybe they are staying over at a disaster shelter. It might take them days to finally come back to work. And during this time…the predators become even more plentiful than before, they can smell death and they –slowly, but surely- reach their destination…
Also, the boats have to be lowered back to the farm’s dock. They have been taken out of the water and into dry land to help them survive the cathastrophe, but without our workers there is not much we can do. The waters are murky and muddied after a storm, so visibility is null: you cannot even see your hand if you extend it in front of your hand. And thus you now understand why prayer is such a great comfort and such a viable option. It is much better to be spared of the wrath of the hurricane than being prepared for one.
In the case of the farm’s undeniable touristic attraction this month is also bad. During this month we give most of our workers a lengthy vacation (paid, of course!) and the skeleton team is left repairing nets and our land based facilities only: the oysters are left in the ocean for the duration of this month and they are neither cleaned nor handled; so when visitors arrive to the farm they just don’t get to see much action. We apologize for this inconvenience, but this is the best thing to do for our Rainbow Lipped oysters: they deserve a vacation as well.
What do I love of this month? Well, besides the food there is this other thing: THE ARRIVAL OF NEW JEWELRY. It is an exciting time to see the new jewelry from our designers! And this year we have some exciting items to share with you, such as:
- The “Opuntia” Pendant by Carlos Cabral: a unique piece of jewelry that clearly cries out “Mexican Gems”!!! This is a hand-forged item made with pure 0.950 Mexican Silver and set with all-Mexican gemstones: it has a big & colorful Blister Mabe Pearl and 3 Cortez Keshi pearls, but it also features a beautiful piece of Amber from the State of Chiapas and a Mexican Fire Opal from Querétaro. The shape of the pendant remembers us of the shape of the prickly pear cactus, and hence the name of Opuntia, which is the scientific name (genus) of this variety of desert plant.
- Our latest Cortez Keshi Pearl Necklace: this very special pearl necklace was made using the best keshi pearls from this year’s pearl harvest. The necklace has 85 keshi pearls starting in size at about 3.8 mm and the larger ones measure up to 6.5×9.0 mm, the necklace has a very baroque Cortez Pearl as well, uniquely colored, that measures 9.1 mm, so the whole array measures 17.5 inches in lenght.
- The New Designs made by Alejandra will be here soon! Just had a glimpse of the new earrings with keshi pearls and they are truly one of a kind!
Anyway, once you get to see this in perspective I do hope you will understand why we have all these “mixed feelings” during the month of September. Shana Tova and see you next time!
After a short absence due to our many obligations at the pearl farm and also at the Gem Show in Tucson, Arizona, we continue to share our experiences in the pearl production. And for us, an important part of our aquaculture process is based on Environmental Sustainability: the production of pearls with full-respect for Bacochibampo Bay’s ecosystems.
An It is because of this reason that -through the years- we have carried out an active process of re-stocking of several native species, whose populations have become endangered because of the fishing activities carried out by the locals. Among these species we can list the following: the “Black-lip pearl oyster”, the “Lion’s Paw Scallop”, the “Pen Shells” and the “Sea Cucumbers”.
However, our efforts have not been effectively transmitted to the general public because we basically have a one-man PR department (me!) and that I do spend most of my time working (as expected!) either in the production of pearl oysters and their pearls OR in the process of selling pearls and pearl jewelry; and the little time left from these occupations does not allow us to carry out an effective social communication effort although we do have our website up-&-running, as well as this blog (in two languages), a Facebook page and a Tweeter account.
But this year we have the fortune of having two young, bright and hardworking students helping us out at the farm. These students of the Guaymas Campus of ITSON (a local Public University) are about to graduate as Bachelor’s in Tourism. Thanks to an academic program of this important local institution, this young pair will help us in two very important areas: Sales and Research.
In the Sales area we have the invaluable assistance of Miss Veronica Machado and in the production area we have the strong support of Jesus Antonio Mendoza. Jesus Antonio -known by his nickname “El Tigre”- is helping in data collection and analyzing the important biological information for several small projects, including the “Sea Cucumbers Project” and the bio-cleaning of pearl-cages.
I have asked Jesus “El Tigre” Mendoza to write a bit about his experiences of working in our pearl farm, as their training focuses mainly on tourism and he has a very different way of viewing our pearl farming activities: this is an entirely “alien concept”. And this is his first contribution to the Blogosphere. I hope you will be able to see things through the eyes of this young man:
From a very young age I have had great admiration and respect for nature, especially for all the natural resources that exist in the region where I live; I have always admired the contrasting combination found between the mountains, the desert and the sea. Despite of living in a place where the climate is extreme and where there is almost no rain, I’m always surprised how plants and animals have adapting to survive in these arid lands, and how our people have learned to survive.
I live in a very popular city located in northwestern Mexico: the famous port of Guaymas, located in the state of Sonora, which is situated on the shores of the Sea of Cortez (aka Gulf of California). This port’s economy is largely dependent on fishing, although in recent years has all fisheries have declined, due to over-exploitation, and thus this activity -in turn- came to be partially replaced by the maquiladora industry, but these do not provide the same quality of life –as fishing did- to our community.
It is until now that I have come to understand the great importance of the Sea of Cortez, not only for Guaymas but for the whole world: this sea has a unique biodiversity of marine species, all which are part of a large marine ecosystem on which we all depend for our survival. Species such as the vaquita marina, and the native species that are found at the pearl farm, such as the sea cucumbers, the many starfishes, the Cortez Angelfish, among others are just a part of a long list of flora and fauna that live in our waters.
The Gulf of California is also breeding place for beauty and rarity, the home of a Gem which is produced by a rarely-known pearl oyster species: the “Rainbow Lip Oyster”, an animal that produces pearls of intense and diverse colors: red, purple, blue, green and rainbow-like. Here at the farm they become high-end jewelry items, used primarily by women that visit this farm.
Soon –and thanks to the help of Veronica & Jesus- we will be finalizing details of our next “El Mechudo” video and we will have additional presentations from Jesus and Veronica.
Every day is an amazing opportunity for gazing into Creation and the perfection of Nature. When I look at sea-shells and their amazing patterns and their beautiful symmetry, or when I watch some little scallops swimming with grace or when you happen to see dozens of brown pelicans plunging into the sea all at the same time…well, it is understandable. But, sometimes you’ll end up having the same opportunity when examining the wares of a local street vendor in downtown Guaymas: it happened to me just the other day.
I sometimes walk the streets in downtown Guaymas looking for locally made sea-shell hand-crafts and this time I ended at Mr. Sansón Galindo’s curios shop; he has a nice selection of sea-shells and Mexican coins for sale, but something really caught my eye this time: just over a dozen or so hemispheres that displayed an intense golden color. I had to ask him about these because they looked very much like low-quality Mabe pearls from the “Penguin Winged Oyster” (Pteria penguin), a close relative of our beautiful “Rainbow Lipped Oyster” (P. sterna)… I actually began thinking this vendor was trying to pass off these “junk quality” Mabe for our “Cortez Mabe” but no, he was not. Instead he offered these as “Squid Pearls”.
So, he told me about how these are collected by some fishermen and then left to dry up, are then “peeled” and finally sold. He told me these were “true Gems” and held up a key-chain of his that had two of these “pearls” crudely affixed with resin. I had to get one for analysis and for just $50 pesos (roughly $5 USD) the price was not a fortune to spend for a “true gem”. So I purchased a few of these for closer examination.
Provenance: the Origin of these “Pearls”
Well, if these belong to a squid, the most obvious source had to be a “Diablo Squid” as some fishermen call them, but more commonly known as the “Humboldt Squid” or Dosidicus gigas. We are quite familiar with these delicious critters because in Guaymas there is an important fishery of these mollusks, and we –even without looking for them- have been able to catch in the vicinity of our pearl farm…without much effort: you just have to be very careful they don’t tear your flesh to shreds with their powerful beak and they terrible spine covered suckers!
Well…these squid don’t have shells and they don’t even secrete any kind of pearl-like substance. The hardest parts of their bodies being the “beak” (looks like a parrot-beak) in the animal’s mouth and the “pen”, a translucent feather-like structure that offers the squid’s mantle a solid attachment point for some muscles (click on the link if you want to learn more about the Squid’s Anatomy). And every time we ate one of these we never found anything resembling a “pearl”. So, where could these “squid half-pearls” have come from???
When I interrogated the street vendor he told me that these “pearls” were found inside the calamari’s eye. He showed me a couple of “untreated pearls” and these had some dried-up crust around them, once this was removed you could see the golden-colored “pearl”. An eye for an eye…aye, Captain! I guess it never occurred to me to cut open a squid’s eye, nor gulp it down with some lemon juice and chili sauce…that’s why I never found this item before!!! Eyes are usually discarded…aren’t they?
So, we now know where they come from…but what are they? Searching in my old textbooks I found that the only possible thing would be the “lenses” (described in some places as: …”a hard, marble-like ball object”). And it is such an amazing object…done perfectly. Its shape is a hemisphere, like that of a high-rise Mabe pearl (12 mm) and with a perfectly round diameter (14.6 mm). The dome of this lens displays a bit of iridescence, although it has cracked due to dehydration. A layer or protein flaked off the pearl and seems to have a thickness similar to that of a contact-lens. Its weight…being made of protein it feels very light (1.3 grams, a similar sized Mabe will weigh 2.2 grams). I just had to give it a name…”lens” is just too cold for this amazing object, so I gave it a new name: “CalaMabe” (joining the word “Calamari” and “Mabe”).
Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
But the beautiful part of it is not really its “dome”, but the flat, bottom portion of the “CalaMabe” this is the part that jewelers would use to attach the Mabe to a piece of jewelry, but this is the part I would NOT cover, this would be the part I would display. Why? Because it is here where you can see the “Eye”. What I call the “Eye” is a weird or perplexing thing because there is a unique optical effect there: you slowly move the “calamabe” to and fro and you will see as if there is a “floating-halo-like-eye” (think of the “Eye of Sauron” in the “Lord of the Rings trilogy”, excluding the Black Tower, the flames and the million screaming orcs) that follows you…truly mesmerizing. It might just…become…my preciousss…
I was unable to capture this effect with my video camera, not having a good close-up focus, but if you still want to review the video it is here for you (the video’s audio is in Spanish at present, but will add subtitles in English in a couple of months, just after harvest):
Eye of Sauron? No! A Calamabe Pearl!
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?!?!?
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.
And now we will continue with last month’s story about our visit to ruins of the World’s first pearl farm and we will go and revisit each area step by step.
Our boat came to rest on the beach, but not a sandy beach but more of a rocky beach full of large oval-shaped water tumbled rocks that make walking quite difficult. Any of you that have visited the local beaches of “Las Saladitas” and “Piedras Pintas” in Guaymas will understand what I mean: the rocks just slide from under your feet and may make you fall. Our boat remained in the water, in an area that once had some concrete and rock slabs that were used as a ramp for loading and unloading boats and other aquaculture equipment.
And it is quite interesting to notice that even tough the ramps are not there anymore (maybe underneath many kilos of rocks there could be something) -or they are simply not noticeable- you can still find indications of their whereabouts thanks to the useful tool known as “Google Earth”. Yes, if you examine the satellite images from Ensenada de San Gabriel you can see some areas -inside the ocean- where some lines are perpendicular to the coastline: one of these being the ramps -they had a lot of use, because they were needed for the farm’s aquaculture operations and to provide food and water to the thousand employees they had on this desolate island.
Another thing of interest is that, after almost a Century of abandonment and being exposed to countless hurricanes, you can clearly what is left of masonry work and even of the more modest wooden buildings.
Walking to our right (to the west of our landing site), at about some 100 meters from the coastline we found a heavily impacted land area: scarce vegetation, some “Chivato” bushes (Calliandra sp) and “Choya Cactii” (Opuntia sp), a marked difference with the typical Sonoran desert vegetation found in the surrounding area: large columnar cactii -mainly Organ-Pipe catus and Barrel Cactus- and spiny shrubbery. Clearly, this land was compacted for use as sheds, shaded storage area and maybe even for barracks for the farm’s workers.
This small video (part 1) of our visit to the farm may give you better insight:
For the most part, the storage sheds must have been built with commercial wood (which we found in a very deteriorated state, possibly cedar wood) with the roofs being built with palm fronds and/or wood planks. What was stored under these? You can imagine that many were used to house your average tools, such as axes, saws, mallets, etc., one of them must have been a small forge to produce nails and work on chains and cages, some used for living quarters and cooking, but what was the purpose of this unique farm? To produce a valuable commodity: mother-of-pearl shell (MOP). We have fist hand information (from writings by Dr. Vivés himself) that shed some light on this beautiful natural product (plastic became an alternative for MOP shell, thus many nacre/MOP producing regions closed-down).
The MOP produced at this farm came from the farm-raised Black-Lipped Pearl Oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica). The company had 4 different grades (or qualities) for MOP shell. This is the information they provided at the end of the Mexican Revolution as to the value for MOP at the International markets:
- “Extra” Grade: made up of large shell (over 15 cm in diameter), with very regular/uniform shapes, without spotting nor drill-worm holes.Valued at $1,000 USD per metric ton.
- “First” Grade: shells with sizes between 9 to 14 cm, without spotting nor holes. Valued at $400 USD/ton.
- “Second” Grade: mainly small shells (sizes between 7 to 9 cm) and “clean” (no spots nor holes), but also mixed in with larger shells (9-15 cm) but with defects and imperfections. Valued at $200 USD/ton.
- “Third” Grade: Mainly consisting of broken shells or with shells with considerable damage (spots & holes) in at least 50% of its surface. Valued at less than $100 USD/ton.
We did find evidence of MOP shell mounds throughout the entire area. Most of the shells having suffered from weathering effects. It is hard to say if these shells are all that was left behind after the destruction of the pearl farm in 1914, or if these are more “recent” shells (no older than 30 years) left behind by fishermen that were illegally fishing them for their pearls. The shells are brittle, have a warm coppery color and most of their protein coating (periostracum) has dissapeared…but are still beautiful and shinny.
MOP shell had a very important economic value before the use of plastic and was used intensively for the manufacture of buttons, jewelry boxes, knife/firearm handles, jewelry (cameos), chess-sets and even for traditional Asian medicine. Several places flourished economically due to this demand: Broome in Australia (using the large Silver Lip Oyster or Pinctada maxima), Muscatine in the United States of America (using many species of pearly mussels) and -of course- La Paz, Mexico.
As a matter of fact, the main economic source for the farm was the production of MOP shell…the pearls were a much welcomed by product: a gift from God or Nature. In those days only natural pearls existed (cultured pearls were in a research stage in Australia and Japan). Some sources state that the quantity of MOP shell that was exported from the Gulf of California (mind you: these figures do not include the shell that remained in Mexico) between the period comprised by the years 1580 and 1857 was of 95,000 metric tons, roughly converted to 277 tons per year. If we converted this volume to monetary value -using a 3rd grade figure- we are talking about $28,000 USD of 1910 (we would have to convert this figure to its present economic value) which is not bad for those days: $101 USD per ton or…
|$2,350.00||using the Consumer Price Index|
|$1,770.00||using the GDP deflator|
|$10,100.00||using the unskilled wage|
|$15,100.00||using the Production Worker Compensation|
|$12,900.00||using the nominal GDP per capita|
|$43,100.00||using the relative share of GDP|
I would personally stick with the “Unskilled wage” indicator… but would really appreciate hearing from others and see if we can come up with a better figure or even for a “real market price” for MOP these days.
Let us try some math here again. This pearl farm (CCCyP ) is said to have had between 8 to 10 million black-lip oysters under culture conditions. Documents from the farm and Dr. Gastón Vivés state that the annual harvest consisted of some 5 million oysters. An average 4 year-old shell measures some 12 cm in diameter and weighs 10 grams and each organism has two of these (=20 grams of MOP per oyster), thus if we extrapolate we will have 200 kilos per thousand oysters, so 1 million oysters might have produced 200,000 kilos and multiplied by 5 we get 1,000 tons of MOP per year. Of course, this information is not accurate because we lack information on the percentage of shell that was discarded due to low-quality (and some other figures that would help have a better price estimate, such as the percentage of their sizes and their grades) but what I want you to NOTICE is how this one farm could have been able to supply the entire export of MOP shell and the domestic market as well, WITHOUT fishing out the local pearl beds.
A pearl farm can indeed have a positive impact on the local environment if managed in a sustainable manner.
On this occasion I would like to talk about the experience that Enrique and I had whilst visiting the ruins of what once used to be the First Commercial Pearl Farm in the World. My friends Enrique and Manuel always mention that this farm was more of a “Mother-of-Pearl Shell farm” than a true “Pearl Farm”…but I have always considered this to be the World’s first Pearl Farm and -perhaps- you may concur with me after you read the entire thread, which I will separate into sections, with this one as an Introduction. Let us begin with this new story.
On July 24th, 2009, we had the opportunity to travel to La Paz, Lower California, in order to be at the most important gathering of Mexican pearl farmers and researchers. This meeting being one of many to follow and promoted by the Federal Fisheries Administration (Instituto Nacional de la Pesca). The reason for the meeting? To establish a new regulatory scheme in order to protect our native pearl oysters -on the coasts of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean Sea- from unethical human intervention: no more fisheries, avoid the introduction of exotic pearl oysters and displacement of genetic populations, and -very importantly- find a way to maintain our Quality standards and avoid the hazards that have plagued other pearl-producing regions like Tahiti or the Cook Islands. We will write about this subject in a future post…right now I am detouring.
So, once more on the path, we visited La Paz…and it was necessary to take the time for our pilgrimage to the ruins of the greatest Mexican pearling emporium.
Using the services of a local tour operator –”Espíritu & Baja Tours“- we enjoyed a most pleasant trip to the Island of Espíritu Santo, just outside the Bay of La Paz.We arrived at the “Ensenada de San Gabriel” and you could immediately notice that the calm & clear waters are a perfect place for raising Black-Lipped Pearl Oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica): the beautiful white sand contrasting with what seemed to be large emerald green rocks, but are in reality a normal Gulf of California inhabitant: the Porites coral. Our local black-lip has commonly been associated with these corals.
It is more than likely that the man that selected this site as propitious for a sustainable pearl farming venture was none other than the famous Dr. Joseph Gastón Vivés Gouyorieux, a Mexican citizen of French ancestry and the main promoter of the once famous “Compañía Criadora de Concha y Perla”. I will not spend time on a biography of this very notable individual, because this has already been done and because I simply do not have the time for this…our intentions are to describe our findings at this often forgotten historical site. The first “man-made” features we might recognize from the photos are the zig-zag pattern of the “aquaculture-channels” (I would call them “raceways”), that are being reclaimed by the mangrove forest (that we found in excellent health!). Another area is almost barren and with just mounds of sea-shells, rusted metal remains, and dried wood remains. We will talk about each area -and our findings- individually and in different posts.
BUT, before we proceed with the details I would like to jot down my general impression of the site. SILENCE…blessed silence that seems to permeate into every detail, silence that seems to drown the sound of your footsteps…similar as to when you enter an ancient temple and you feel that it demands respect from you: leave it all as it is, do not disturb our slumber…similar to what I once felt when visiting the old graveyard in Álamos, Sonora, but without the aggressive sensation. Yes, it felt very much like a cross-less graveyard, with only porous mounds of shells, rusted metal and decaying wood to serve as gravestones. Everything at Peace, and, there we were…disturbers of this peace, like treasure hunters, but instead of searching for pearls and treasure we were looking for questions and answers…the kind of “treasure” that would not elicit much response from a text-book historian, but that to Us represents wisdom, cunning and a part of our almost forgotten regional lore.
Until the next post…
Well now, 2010 has finally arrived…this year at least promises much more “excitement” than last year. We do wish you all a great new year… and I hope we’ll have more time on our hands to write down many more stories that we’ve had the intention of sharing, but in the meantime an update on the “Virgin’s Pearl”:
1) On December 18th, 2009, we found another Natural Pearl. Yep! And this one was the ONLY natural pearl we were able of harvesting from our farm-raised Rainbow Lipped Oysters (Pteria sterna). We caught the moment on video and have shared it on YouTube.
Once more, just like in 2008 and in the same day: the Day of the Virgin of the Solitude of Oaxaca. This pearl measures 8.5 x 8.7 mm (diameter), and weighs in at 0.9 grams. Not exactly a huge pearl, nor was it perfect…but there is too much a coincidence there.
2) The Virgin’s new gold & gem studded attire is almost ready for her new “coronation”. Our friends from Oaxaca were kind enough to send us some photos of our pearl (have to get used to say “Her Pearl”) on its brand new gold setting. It looks very nice…an excellent job!
And we keep going back in time, delving into our memory to bring you the emotional experiences of being “real pearl farmers”: and by this I mean that we are entirely detached from the “glam” associated with this beautiful pearl we produce. Once more then, we begin this chapter by reviewing another hurricane that carved itself unto our memory and souls: “Hurricane Marty” – the deadliest hurricane of 2003 (death toll: 12 people).
On September 2003, a tropical storm named “Marty” was born in front of Mexico’s Pacific coast (near Jalisco) and as it feed off the warmer waters it began growing until we had a Scale 2 hurricane near the Cabo area in the Baja’s tip. This is certainly not a “terrible” scale for a hurricane, but in this case it was more a matter of technique over size…it was more than capable of causing serious destruction in 4 Mexican States (Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora & Sinaloa), some 12 deaths and the destruction of 80% of our pearl farm’s rainbow-lipped oysters. This hurricane is a dividing moment for Mexican Pearl Farming.
On this occasion, the hurricane’s effects were supposed to arrive in a deteriorated state to our locality (Guaymas): the hurricane touched land on the Cabo region, then visited La Paz and became -once more- a mere “tropical storm” when it entered the Gulf of California and began snaking its way upwards into the Colorado River’s mouth. The hurricane’s short lived time frame (September 21-26) gave it time enough to cause havoc in many small cities and towns like Los Mochis, Navojoa, Guaymas, La Paz, Mulegé, Loreto and San Felipe. Somehow the storm’s path inside the Sea of Cortez created a “channel of destruction”: encased between the “Sierra de la Giganta” on the left and the coastline of Sonora to the right. Thus, the rainfall, winds and waves became amplified throughout the area.
Bacochibampo Bay has been -traditionally- safe haven from the negative effects of storms and hurricanes. The reason for it is the way its “mouth” opens to the greater Bay or “Ensenada de San Francisco”: slightly northward, with a curve to the left. This is great help because most storms approach the area from the south, and a good assortment of hills surround the bay as well, thus offering ample protection. But this was not enough for this tricky hurricane because it snaked upwards and was -eventually- north of our position and its effects radiated downwards and then we experienced its effects in full force: tremendous winds, downpour and waves of up to 10 meters…
Under this punishment, our farm became entangled, torn from all sides, our culture cages flung over and our oysters dispersed to the bottom. The dock -with our beautiful palapa built in 1996- was leveled: the damage we saw seemed more like an attack with missiles. The school’s boat could be seen lying on the bottom, our pearl lab was greatly damaged and our boats (taken to higher ground) suffered damages due to the big rocks (60 kilos or more) that were flung as if just tiny peanuts. It was a disaster…
Rescue labor was difficult because our land based facilities were destroyed, we had nowhere to place our oysters and nets, our boats had been damaged and water visibility was really bad. I have to mention here that my friends Enrique and Manuel, as well as our “Yaqui” workers gave a grand effort and endured more diving hours than those deemed “safe” in order to salvage as many oysters as possible. It was a race against time, but the snails won out in the end…80% of our oysters died.
But such is Life: out of a tragedy something good will arise (is this like a “blood sacrifice”???). This event made it possible for us to become independent from Tec de Monterrey (an event that materialized in May, 2004) and to finally become “owners” of our Pearl Farm. And just like a Phoenix arises from its ashes…the Sea of Cortez Pearl farm has recovered.