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!!!
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!
Just a couple of days ago a friend of mine –he is a retired Canadian farmer- and I were discussing the way the North American “Meat Industry” (beef, poultry, pork, etc.) had become misguided by the constant search of higher volumes of production (which, somehow, equal MONEY), but this was being done at the expense of both the animals and the consumers (all of us). Kurt began by telling me about his experience when dealing with local Animal Sanitation officers, about the indiscriminate use of antibiotics on cattle and the plain lack of “common sense” on the part of those involved in the industry. He told me: “I did not inject my animals with antibiotics, but instead I offered them land on which to forage, clean straw-bedding and care. My animals never developed the infections I was told they would suffer and they fattened better than those under the strain of antibiotics”. He cared for his animals and treated them with respect. Some in the industry seem to have noticed the same thing and have reverted to “the Old way”.
Just a couple of days later we were reading an “old” article written by Shigeru Akamatsu, a person with much influence in the Pearl Industry (being Counselor of the “Japan Pearl Promotion Society”, and he started as a pearl culture researcher under Kokichi Mikimoto’s leadership) and I felt this article tied in perfectly with the talk I had with Kurt, and thus this entry got its start.
The Reasons Behind the Changes
The article “Pearl Culture and the Biological Environment” (published in “Ship & Ocean Newsletter”#8G March 5, 2004) which can be downloaded in PDF format is quite interesting because it finally approaches the decline of the Japanese Pearling Industry in a way that is finally understood: the industry as a whole has to admit its guilt. No longer is guilt being laid upon the “wrath of Nature” in the way of red tides or mysterious diseases. And although Mr. Akamatsu does not mention it this way, I could read the word “greed” on certain paragraphs…but he never mentions this sin, rather handling it in a more political way by using a term like “in the pursuit of economic efficiency”.
Mr. Akamatsu states in this article’s first paragraph:
“Japan dominated the world’s cultured pearl industry for many years, but in recent times that state of affairs is changing rapidly. Though the rapid globalization of the pearl industry can be considered as one of the reasons, the primary cause is the deterioration of pearl farms caused by the occurrence of harmful red tides and the massive mortality of Akoya pearl oysters due to an infectious disease. Such phenomena relate not only to pearl culture, but also to BSE, carp herpes, avian influenza, etc., and may be the price paid for not treating animals as living creatures, in the pursuit of economic efficiency, as well as for incessantly changing the natural environment for the expansion of production.”
When pearl culture began in the early 20th Century, the overall idea was to produce a natural pearl substitute but that would keep the attributes of the pearl: beauty and durability. Initially, pearl culturing periods were long (2-5 years) but many in the industry noticed that pearls with shorter culture periods still looked nice (1-2 years) but then they saw that most people could not tell the difference between “instant pearls” (4-8 months) and those with a longer culture periods, thus shorter pearl-growth periods became more common…and profits increased. Why would profits increase? This is something that every pearl farmer understands, but let me explain it shortly: each pearl oyster in your farm costs you money, every day.
In order to cope with mounting costs (labor, equipment & fuel) pearl farmers can use many strategies, such as:
- Increase stocking density: you grow more oysters in the space you already have.
- Decrease your Work-force: substituting manpower with machinery and equipment.
- Decrease your Pearl Culture Period: you grow your pearls in less time.
Let us talk about the implications of each of these strategies.
Growing more oysters in the same space you had may sound efficient: If you can fit 10 books in a box that once only held 7 books –thanks to a more clever way of arranging your books- then you have done this in a more efficient manner. But it is not necessarily the same with living organisms: animals –even plants- will thrive under adequate conditions, but overstocking/over-crowding will yield unhappy critters…and this brings about stress.
Imagine you live in a 10 x 10 meter room (sounds like a prison-cell, doesn’t it?) and all of your basic needs are fulfilled in this space that has a toilet, lavatory, book-case, table and chairs, bed and TV set. Now imagine you have a new guest, it may become uncomfortable but livable, but now: crowd the cell with 8 more “guests” for a total of 10 people…1 per square meter. Life becomes unbearable for all: can’t eat, can’t use the toilet nor watch TV nor reach for a book, then there’s the lack of food, stress, the smell and finally disease. Not a nice option…would it be nice for an oyster? Our mollusks don’t have brains nor conscience so they will not suffer any psychological damage, but their bodies will indeed react to overcrowding by displaying less growth (become stunted), will be less healthy and will become sick (ultimately they will die) and their pearls will lack beauty.
We can actually tell when an animal did not enjoy a healthy life when we see its shell and pearl: unhealthy oysters will have dull shells, without intense colors (the trade-mark of our “Rainbow-Lipped Oysters”) and their pearls will have dull luster and light colors. But overcrowding oysters is not the only factor that will affect their health: the environment (pollution, climate change, hurricanes) and disease (caused by parasites), but these are not under the control of a farmer. It is up to the farmer to have healthier pearl oysters by means of adequate stocking densities.
Infections are a major headache for producers: infected oysters may quickly infect their sisters & brothers under crowded conditions, and since overcrowding makes oysters weak –due to a combination of lack of food and oxygen- and parasites can easily “jump” from an oyster to many others if the distance is short.
In our case we hold our “Rainbow Lipped Oysters” under more than adequate conditions inside Bacochibampo Bay: we use less than 1% of the bay’s entire area and there are no other mollusk farms in the vicinity (the closest one is an edible oyster farm in Kino Bay, some 180 Km/112 miles away). We are making sure that our fledgling venture will not follow the same course as others, but let us see what has happened in other pearl producing countries:
The Cook Islands: here we’ll cite information about pearl-farming mortalities caused by overstocking (you can read the whole article by downloading the PDF file from the link):
“In Manihiki Lagoon, one potential stressor which may have been related to the onset of mortalities was the high stocking density. Prior to the disease outbreak the number of oysters cultured in Manihiki Lagoon was reportedly at an all-time high. In conclusion, our data suggest that an unprecedented disease outbreak in P. margaritifera [the Black-Lipped Pearl Oyster] in Manihiki lagoon in November 2000 was associated with vibriosis caused by V. harveyi [a species of Vibrio virus] and other opportunistic vibrios.”
Japan: When we began our experimental pearl farm in 1994 we heard about a “mysterious disease” that was killing the Akoya Pearl Oyster and that nothing could be done about this “viral outbreak”. The blame was laid entirely upon an “unknown virus” and you can read some of the thoughts of the time (taken from “NOVA: the Perfect Pearl”) on the following paragraph:
“Experts attribute the initial oyster deaths in 1994 to “red tide,” a bloom of microscopic, toxin-producing animals in the ocean that proved deadly to the oysters. Even after several years of scientific investigation, the specific cause of the disease remains a mystery. The illness first makes itself known when the abductor muscle, which holds the two parts of the oyster shell together, turns a reddish-brown. Ultimately, eight out of ten affected oysters die from the affliction, which so far has only affected akoya oysters. Others feel the oyster farmers themselves might be to blame. “The Japanese have always tended to place too many oysters too close together” wrote Andy Müller in the December 1996/January 1997 issue of Pearl World.”
So, in both instances we’ve seen that over-crowding –both your cages and your bays- leads to severe problems in pearl production. Why do it at all? Many reasons there are, but they are one and the same: the COST of floats, equipment (pearl culture cages), more workers (salaries), of paying for more “sea-rights”, the costs of moving away from densely packed areas into remote areas (devoid of many necessary services), but in the end they are all translated into the cost of producing pearls. If pearls kept a high value you would not need to grow billions of pearls, thus by producing more pearls the industry shot itself in the foot and a vicious cycle began to turn and churn.
Many people believe this is a major solution to a company’s problems, but we believe this is really a big mistake. Companies are nothing if they don’t have people: they are made of people and one of the purposes of any company should be the production of well-paid jobs. Making money is not bad and should be a goal of every company, but it should not be the sole goal: there is a particular pride to producing pearls and the people that help you achieve this… become your trusted allies.
Farm-wise: without workers a pearl farm would just die. Pearl farming is a work intensive operation, involving divers, aquaculture technicians, farm-workers, mechanics, surveillance guards and many other people. Loose one link and the rest will follow. And pearl farmers usually work under very specific time constraints such as: the seeding season, the spat collecting season, harvest season, etc. This means that if you DO NOT finish a certain activity ON TIME you WILL NOT BE ABLE TO FINISH IT AT ALL and will have to move to the next one, ultimately this means it is highly unproductive and foolish.
And something I really want to stress here is that pearl farming is very artisanal in Mexico: very little machinery is employed. And we want to keep it that way for several reasons which many may approve and others will disprove, and it may be one of the reasons why we ended up with the Fair Trade Gems seal of approval (the only pearl –so far- in this list is the “Cortez Pearl”): we have very few jobs in Mexico. Our economy just doesn’t work because it is fueled by our exports (mainly raw-goods such as oil, agriculture goods and metals) and our cheap labor-force (which is also “exported” to other countries) in manufacturing for offshore companies. If we purchased machinery that would allow us to avoid hiring additional workers we would be a part of the problem, not a solution…so, even if this costs us more and makes us less efficient we will continue on this path.
In a future post we’ll explain a little more about our labor strategies.
Pearl Culture Period
The longer the pearl resides inside its “mother” or “host” oyster, the bigger it becomes and the more “pearl” (nacre) it will have…but this also means you must continue to grow your pearl oysters for longer time periods. Many sources state that the pearl culturing period in Japan took between 2 to 4 years to complete, the Akoya pearl ending up with a very good coating of 0.95 mm (Ward, 1995). This good nacre coating made it possible for the pearl to look beautiful, lustrous and have the endurance –basically, to pass the test of time- that all gems should have.
But many in the pearl-industry noticed that most consumers would not be able to tell the difference between a thickly-coated pearl and one with a thin-nacre coating. Thus, a bad practice was initiated in the industry and pearl culturing periods fell to –in some cases- down to less than 6 months (with a coating of less than 0.2 mm, once again Ward, 1995 is the source). This saved farmers a lot of money in wages & cages…but, was it really worth it?
This issue was addressed quite some time ago by many in the pearl industry, but a particularly strong voice was that of the late Australian Pearl Farmer & Consultant C. Denis George, who in 1971 stated:
“The Japanese technicians are insisting that this thin cultivation [of the pearl] does not make any difference in the appearance of the pearl, but in my opinion this is beside the point and does make a lot of difference in the principles involved and their material value in dollars paid by the customer in the belief she is acquiring a pearl of value… This resulted in many losing their trust in pearls, other withdrawing from the industry or going bankrupt; and many scores of thousands of women all over the world…became bitterly disappointed when their treasure faded.” (Excerpt from “The Black Pearls: History and Development”. 1971. Lapidary Journal).
From a farmer’s perspective, there are many situations that will make you consider against having longer pearl culture periods, such as:
- Global Warming & Hurricanes
- Age of your Pearl Oysters
But regardless of these situations, a pearl farmer should have set his farm’s goal for nacre thickness and stick to it as much as possible. For instance, our pearl culturing period ranges from 18 to 24 months (after the moment the pearl oyster is operated), and this allows us to harvest pearls with an excellent nacre coating of 1.5 mm around the nucleus, although many pearls will grow over 2.0 mm of nacre, some will grow less than the 0.8 mm minimum acceptable standard. You really have to stick to this minimum culture period because you simply cannot accept anything below the 0.8 mm thickness mark…if the pearl falls below this number it has got to go down the drain (pearly gehenna: the pearls must be cast to the deep waters of the Sea of Cortez, where bacteria will recycle their materials).
Compare this to the Tahitian Pearl Ministry’s quality check for Tahitian black pearls in the year 2001:
“…the minimum nacre thickness requirement for all exported Tahitian pearls at 0.6 mm went into effect on Sept.1. The assembly voted to bump that minimum up to 0.8 mm beginning July 2002.” (“Tahitian Government to Improve Pearl Exports” by Victoria Gomelsky in Gemstone News. National Jeweler. September 2001 page 28).
This actually means that many in the pearl industry are –or were- producing pearls with a nacre thickness that is simply not adequate, and this affects those producers that are interested in keeping a high quality standard in their pearls, because –in the end- all pearls are considered as equals by many customers. Not so.
- Pearl Oysters are an important species in their local ecosystems, but too much of a good thing can ruin things for all so it is really important that you do not disrupt your environment’s carrying capacity by overwhelming it with billions of pearl oysters: healthy oysters will produce exceptional pearls.
- Keep your Local Jobs: If we were all able of making our companies thrive, then let us keep our local jobs truly local, by offering good wages and good working conditions; we might lose money by NOT having workers in other countries do the work we could on our own, but we would fuel OUR economy. If we all did our part our economy would grow and we would not have people leaving this Country for the one up north.
- Keep your Pearl Quality High: Good pearls are the first to go! Pearl buyers are always looking for the pearl of a lifetime…the pearl that will make them gasp in awe! Low quality pearls are good for trinkets or for feeding your local bacteria. Would like to finish this subject with a mention from the Bible:
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
So, what do you think about this subject? Should producers consider the Environment as their Ally or as a “bloody nuisance”? What should you -as a pearl buyer- consider as a good trade-off? Please let me know your thoughts…in the comments area.
On our next post we’ll detail some of the reasons for not growing pearls for longer periods of time and some of the ways how pearl farming can affect the environment…both in a positive and a negative manner.
On December, 2010, we had an unexpected visitor to our farm: Richard D. Fisher, author of some of my favorite books about Mexico’s Copper Canyon and the Sea of Cortez, such as: “National Parks of Northwest Mexico”, and his latest “Copper Canyon: Chihuahua, Mexico”. Not only is the information on the books interesting and quite accurate, but they also have valuable historical, geological and ethnographic information and EXCELLENT PHOTOS. So, you may imagine my surprise when I met Richard in a Bus Tour group from our friends at “A Closer Look Tours”…I was honored to take the whole group to a complete tour of our pearl farm and –as usual- answer our visitor’s questions regarding the subject of pearls (one of these days I will write a Blog-post with the most common and interesting questions we’ve been asked), and guess who asked one of the “best questions” we’ve been asked over the years? Yes, it was Richard D. Fisher indeed, and the question was: “Did the Japanese really Poison the Sea of Cortez’s Pearl Beds in the 1940’s???”
Let us ponder on this story, so let us go back to the early years of the 20th Century…
From 1900 to 1920:
In those days, the Mexican Pearl Fisheries were still quite active throughout the Gulf of California, but mainly around the Southern tip of the Lower California peninsula (Baja California Sur), with La Paz acting as the main pearl trade-hub. Skin divers were still very much active in the fisheries, but after several hundreds of years of “pearling”, the pearl beds had become less plentiful, thus a new breed of diver was needed: the Helmeted Diver. And these were few in numbers but could work for hours and could go deeper than the typical skin diver, thus it was possible to find larger –older- oysters in deeper waters and fetch some larger pearls.
At the same moment, Dr. Gastón Vivés had his farm up and running quite successfully until 1914 when it was destroyed by the “Constitutionalist Army” during the Mexican Revolution. And from this moment on, the only pearls that could be obtained from these waters were the 100% natural pearls from wild-caught oysters (as opposed to the natural pearls from farm-raised oysters from Dr. Vivés’ black lip farm). And you may imagine that during a civil war people become even more impoverished and will have to resort to sacking their most valuable natural resources in order to obtain funds to sustain them…and this is what probably happened to the pearl beds in the area once the “Pearling Companies” (mostly Mexican, but some even from Great Britain and other parts of Europe) stopped their operations during and after the Revolution.
From 1921 to 1940:
This is a particularly bleak period for the pearl fisheries. The beds on the Baja California side had become commercially exhausted (meaning: no sense in fishing them anymore), but had time to “revive” on the mainland side (mainly in Sonora and Sinaloa). A couple of areas were particularly good “placeres” (name given to places were a given resource is abundant): the waters in front of Caborca and those around “Isla Tiburón”, were the fishery was conducted by the Seri Indian Nation. But in any case, the pearls were on the brink of becoming a legend…then, complete disaster struck the area: in 1939 a “mysterious disease” was traveling from the northern part of the Gulf of California, moving southwards and killing every single black lipped pearl oyster, leaving just empty shells which were identified by the local fishermen due to their silvery shine…
By 1940 the few remaining pearl beds in the Gulf had been decimated and the Cortez Pearl became the newest addition to the vast collection of Mexican fables, stories, myths and legends.
The Japanese Conspiracy Theory
In the late 1930’s most Mexican people were not really thinking of the future “space race” nor with “little green men” and had little interest in such “conspiracy theories”…but this does not mean that our fishermen lacked from imagination nor ideas. They actually began to wonder what some boats with “rising sun” flags and men from a different language and race were doing inside their Gulf…and these men seemed quite suspicious: they anchored here and dropped little devices into the water, retrieved them and then moved to another spot and repeated the process and, yet, they never seemed to fish anything! Also, instead of the friendly exchange of products (cigars, gas, bait, etc.) that they seemed to enjoy with other fishermen –regardless of nationality- these guys were overly serious and would not trade a thing!!! They must be up to some mischief indeed!!!
Back in 1939, many Mexican fishermen still remembered the importance of their pearl fisheries and considered the local pearl oysters as a useful food & shell resource that might reward them with a very valuable gem…if they were truly lucky. Some people had heard that the Japanese had begun producing cultured pearls and that they seemed to be unparalleled in their ability to produce them; still, many believed that cultured pearls were no match to the “real thing” (the natural pearl) and that Mexico would once again become a major league player in the World’s pearl markets.
So, add ingredient #1 (the presence of “tricksy” Japanese in the Gulf) and ingredient #2 (the Return of the Mexican Pearl) and you basically have created a plot, a Japanese conspiracy to POISON the Sea of Cortez and destroy any possible rival for the Japanese Cultured Pearl: the Japanese vessels were dropping poison into the pearl beds to kill their opponent before it had a chance to get back on its feet. And you wouldn’t believe how many people heard of this plot, and how many talk about it as a certifiable truth: people from Guaymas, from La Paz, from Hermosillo, from Mexico City…everyone!
Now, is there any truth in this plot? Could the Japanese have really killed off the pearl beds?
The Facts and the Myths
It is a fact that many Japanese vessels with Japanese men were in the Sea of Cortez in the late 1930’s, and they were definitively up to something, but it is highly unlikely they were sent on a mission to kill pearl oysters. Why? Because with the technology available in those days it is very unlikely they could have possessed a toxin or poison made specially to kill pearl oysters…any other poison must have killed other creatures as well: all sorts of clams, snails and maybe even fish that the fishermen would have noticed. But no it did not. Even today (2011) I am not aware of a toxin that will only kill pearl oysters…and I hope it is never invented!
So, what were the Japanese doing here if not killing oysters?!?! Well, check your timeline and you will notice that the “Pacific War” officially begun in December 17th, 1941 and Japan went into war with the United States of America, Mexico’s northern neighbor. So, could it be possible that the Japanese were taking depth measurements of areas in the Sea of Cortez??? Could they possibly have planned an attack into U.S. soil from Mexico in order to avoid the heavily defended California coast??? It does sound as a possibility…doesn’t it? Unfourtunately I don’t have any information on this subject…so let us hope that Wikileaks will produce these in a couple of years.
What caused the Mass Mortalities???
This is also an interesting subject. The “official” explanation given by the Mexican Government was that it had been caused by an unknown epidemic (epizootic disease), but they never gave any scientific proof to the fact or they just wanted an easy explanation to what seemed to be a lost cause, because from that moment on (1939) the Pearl Fishery was considered officially closed and a fishing ban was imposed on the capture or fishery of the Mexican Black Lipped Pearl Oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica).
But there were other interesting things happening at the same time, such as…the operation of the United States’ great “Hoover Dam”. Let me place a quote from Wikipedia’s here to further explain:
The changes in water use caused by Hoover Dam’s construction has had a large impact on the Colorado River Delta. The construction of the dam has been credited as causing the decline of this estuarine ecosystem. For six years, after the construction of the dam and while Lake Mead filled, virtually no water reached the mouth of the river. The delta’s estuary, which once had a freshwater-saltwater mixing zone stretching 40 miles (64 km) south of the river’s mouth, was turned into an inverse estuary where the level of salinity was higher close to the river’s mouth.
The Colorado River had experienced natural flooding before the construction of the Hoover Dam. The dam eliminated the natural flooding, which imperiled many species adapted to the flooding, including both plants and animals. The construction of the dam decimated the populations of native fish in the river downstream from the dam. Four species of fish native to the Colorado River, the Bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, Humpback chub, and Razorback sucker, are currently listed as endangered.
If “Hoover Dam” began operating in 1936 and it is known that 6 years later (1942) there was no more fresh-water flowing unto the Gulf of California, then we can begin to imagine the environmental consequences. The “Colorado River” had its waters discharging into the Gulf for millions of years and then…kaput! No more water for you! So, what are the possible consequences: the impact was felt almost immediately on the Gulf’s northern region and its wetlands, but the effect had to creep down as the lack of freshwater made the Gulf of California “saltier” (the “average” salinity of the world’s ocean is 3.5%, with that of the Sea of Cortez being almost 3.6%) and a higher salinity level usually means less dissolved oxygen (which marine animals will use to breathe from the water). Besides this fact we can imagine that many other substances came with the river’s waters, including silt and many minerals…all these possibly very important to sustain a variety of marine plants and microscopic algae, creatures that are considered the basis of most marine ecosystems.
You may say “but the river’s water stopped flowing in 1942 and the oysters died in 1939!!!”, and yes…that is a fact, but the fact remains that there was less water available each year since the dam’s inauguration and by 1939 this was already causing havoc on our local ecosystems.
Have we finally pinpointed the truth to this dire plot or conspiracy theory? Not at all. I believe that there is still much to be done to reach this point, but a possibility would be that we could have indeed had a negative effect from “Hoover Dam” and this combined with the overfishing of the pearl beds and maybe we even had an epidemic or –just to make matters worse- an unknown environmental change. In any case: the Japanese are not to blame. They did not poison the Sea of Cortez to kill off a potential commercial threat.
I would also like to point out that I am in no way now blaming the American people for this disaster (we played our own part in this tragedy), and in those days (1930’s) few people knew or cared or understood how significant something like this truly was. Even now, few Nations are willing to consider Nature as a “User” of a given natural resource. In the meantime, we might speculate that our pearl oysters have had time to adapt to their “new” environment and –if given the opportunity- they will be able to repopulate our waters once more.
Here we are once more with the intention of sharing information about these beautiful marine gems. On this occasion will continue with the subject of natural pearls and specifically about how these gems are created in nature.
During the era scientific enlightenment in the late 1800′s, scientists from all over the world were searching to understand how pearl oysters were able of producing pearls, and their discoveries were fascinating. But some of the first things they discovered at to do with the internal structure of the pearl, since in order to obtain the truth it was necessary to cut open pearls and inspect their core. And what they found is that pearls are very much like onions, at least structurally.
When an onion is cut in half what we see inside are numerous concentric layers, each stacked on the previous one, and in a similar manner pearls are produced: the original seed that caused the pearl to originate will be found at its core, surrounded by millions of micron thin layers of Aragonite. Perhaps this is a reason why the ancient Greeks gave the name “Margarita” to the pearl, since this is also the word for “onion” (hence the name “Margaritifera” that was given in early times to many pearl producing mollusks, meaning “pearl bearer”) in that language.
In the above images of an onion and a natural pearl (both cut-in-half) we can see their internal resemblance, and going further into the deeper core we can also appreciate how their core is not round, but with each additional coating of nacre (in the case of the pearl) the shape becomes rounder, softer, although most natural pearls I have personally seen are rarely 100% round, most being baroque and a good proportion of them being semi-baroque in shape (mainly in the shape of buttons, bullets and drops).
But of course we do have several types of natural pearls. Many don’t look like the image that we have in our brains as being a pearl, but they are nonetheless pearls. We basically have two major groups of natural pearls: blisters and loose pearls. Of these two groups we would have subgroups as well. Let us begin with the pearls that could be considered the most common.
Perhaps some of the most common natural pearls are those usually referred as blister pearls in English, “ampollas” in Spanish or as “ampulles” in French, and we could even say that these laid the foundation for the eventual production of mabé pearls (also known as blister or half pearls). These pearls are commonly found formed on the pearl oyster’s shell, as a response from a very active “Bio-terrorist” (usually an animal that actively drills through the oyster’s shell). The reasons for this active attack on the oyster’s shell are varied and depend on the species that attacks the oyster, blister pearls being the result of the oyster’s defense mechanism against these intruders.
The varieties of organisms that “attack” the oyster’s shell are huge and include animals such as sponges, polychaete worms and drill mussels. Many of these creatures are not really after the oysters flesh, meaning there not there to actually eat the oyster but that they are actually just looking for a “home” and have been known as “domiciliares” because they usually make their homes inside the oyster’s shell and -unfortunately for the pearl oyster-these actually weaken the shell, making it really brittle and easy to break. Of course, these “Bioterrorists” will also come in direct contact with the oyster’s flesh and this interaction will almost certainly produce blister pearls.
There’s a variety of sponge known as, usually colored with a bright orange red or yellow with a sticky consistency, which grows on a large variety of shellfish here in the Sea of Cortez, and it seems to have a preference for the black-lipped pearl oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica). It can cause small lump like blisters, but I have never seen any pretty specimen of pearl caused by this sponge.
Another creature capable of causing blister pearls is the infamous drill mussel or pholids. These creatures –and here I also have to include the Cliona sponge- are actually filter feeders just like pearl oysters are, so we can be sure that they don’t attack the shell to eat the oyster’s flesh, but they have brittle shells so they need the protection of a hard substance around them. These little creatures can actually bore stone, wood as well as sea shells. We have seen numerous blister pearls formed by the attack of these agents, as well as in one loose pearl. These creatures also have a preference for black-lipped pearl oysters, but may occasionally attack older individuals of the rainbow lipped pearl oyster variety (Pteria sterna).
The group of organisms which we find more interesting in the case of pearl formation of the polychaete worms, mainly those of genus Polydora: slender worms usually with a bright red coloration. These worms have the capacity to infest pearl oysters to the point of weakening them and causing their death and in the process making the oyster produce numerous “mud blisters”, which may eventually become coated with nacre.
We have examined several varieties of the so-called mud blisters and in most instances where we have found are the remains of dead drill worms, as well as good quantities of very organic mud. It would be difficult to fully identify what causes this variety of blister pearl, but I believe that it is safe to say that it is a combination of the worm´s drilling activity and the entrance of mud due to the disappearance of the drill worm. What caused the drill worm to disappear? Well, we have also seen large numbers of predatory polychaete worms on the oyster’s shell and these may very well go after the drill worms and kill them, leaving their home vacated.
When removing a mud blister and cutting it in half we usually find a protective coating of protein secreted by the pearl oyster that that helps to coat the organic mud and that is in turn coated with nacre.
Unusual blister pearls
Some very unusual specimens have been found that include other varieties of animals as the cause, these include fish and crustaceans. Perhaps the most interesting specimen is that of a small fish that was found in the shell of a Mexican black lip pearl oyster that was fished in Baja California during the last days of the 19th century (this specimen is still kept in the American museum of natural history in New York). The fish was identified as a “pearl fish” (family Carapidae), which are usually associated with many species of clams and oysters and sea cucumbers (please use this link if you want to see an animated diagram of a pearl fish, if you’re a proctologist you will enjoy this). And although we have seen these fish inside oysters we have never had the fantastic opportunity of finding a “fish pearl”.
Pearl fish are not parasitic but instead they find shelter within the oyster’s shells. I believe most oysters would not be offended by the presence of this little fish, but in this particular case may be the little fish died and the oyster preceded to rapidly coat it with pearl or nacre, I don’t believe this could’ve ever happen with a live fish.
Other possible sources for blister pearls
Other organisms that could be turned into pearls -but that I have never seen turned into pearls- are the little shrimp and crabs that are found inside pearl oysters. The little translucent “pearl shrimp” are also found in many other species of clams, such as pen shells, and are typically found within the large Pinctada oysters. The species we find in the Sea of Cortez is Pontonia margarita, and we can usually find two individuals within an oyster (one male and one female, the male usually being the smaller of the two), this species does not seem to affect the pearl oyster.
Another type of crustacean we have seen inhabiting the oyster’s body is the “pea crab”; these little crabs are somewhat soft and quite clumsy, no wonder they need the protection they find inside an oyster’s shell. These little crabs have only been reported as found living inside the Australian silver lip pearl oyster (Pinctada maxima), but the Sea of Cortez has a variety that is only found within the rainbow lipped pearl oyster (Pteria sterna) and this will be the first time this will be reported in writing. The name of this species is still unknown (Pinnotheres sp.) and we usually only find one inside an oyster. We have seen some crabs causing a disturbance within the oyster that could eventually lead to the production of blister pearls, but we have yet to find a “crab pearl”.
So, what do you think about all the life-forms that depend or use a pearl oyster -in a way or another- for their survival? Life is indeed a web, and if you can save one species you will be offering an “umbrella” of protection for many others…
In our next chapter will continue talking about natural pearls and their possible origins, in the meantime I will continue hunting for additional facts and -of course- searching for more mythical pearls: I can clearly see myself wearing a pea crab pearl pendant.
Taking a small detour on our discussion about methodologies to identify between fake/imitation pearls and genuine pearls, we’re going into a more “historic mood”. We recently had a lively discussion with some friends about the name of our beautiful sea: the world-famous “Gulf of California” or “Sea of Cortez“.” Thus, we believed that this information would also be of interest to others who enjoy a more historical theme and because this year -2010- we celebrate the Mexico’s Bicentennial, which makes it all the more appropriate. If you want to be part of this debate, do take some time to place your comments.
Where do we get the name of “Sea of Cortez”?
The answer is almost obvious, although there are those who want to “forget” that Mexico is a country that resulted from being conquered by Spain about 500 years ago. This conquest was military and cultural, and gave origin to the country we now know as “Mexico” (although it is officially called “Estados Unidos Mexicanos” or “United Mexican States”) and the reason to why the official language is “Spanish” (or “Castillian”), the dominant religion is Roman Catholic and our “race” (or “races” some would say) and culture, including our renowned cuisine, is of “mixed-ancestry”: a multi-regional fusion of races and cultures. The name of “Sea of Cortez” then, pays honor to the Conqueror of Mexico, Don Hernán Cortés, a man very much interested in expanding the borders of the Kingdom of “la Nueva España” or “New Spain” and exploit its newfound wealth, including its “black pearls”.
“Official” versus “Popular” Names
Now, the debate arose because some feel that this name – “Sea of Cortez” – is not official and therefore must not be used or even be “remembered”, other consider that it should be “wiped out” unto oblivion. Our answer would be the following: we (Mexicans) have an Official Country Name: “Estados Unidos Mexicanos” which is used before international organizations (such as the United Nations) and even in a few federal institutions (such as INEGI), but we also have a common use or “Popular Name“, the latter being the one in the heart-and-minds of the common folk. Popular names are the ones meant to be savoured when used.
For us, it really would be the same case as in the use of “Mexico” and “Sea of Cortez”. There is really no reason to exclude one name over the other… both name can be used and they are in no way mutually exclusive. Thus it is almost impossible to imagine celebrating one of our National Holidays (such as “16 de Septiembre” or “20 de Noviembre”) to the cry of “¡Vivan los Estados Unidos Mexicanos!” (“Long Live the United Mexican States!”) instead of the most widely used “¡Viva Mexico!” (“Long Live Mexico!”).
Verifying the name of “Sea of Cortez”
This was the most heated debate point because it should focus on historical references on the use of the name of this area, and there are many references to varied names used by a large number of historical figures who visited this region during its exploration. Amongst these different names, we find some that specifically point to certain areas within the Gulf of California and do not make reference to this geographical area in general (the Gulf). Just to mention a few: “California” (which refers to the peninsula with the same name), “Calafia” (in reference to a mythical Queen of the exploits of “The Sergas de Esplandián“) and even other less popular as “Sea of Anian” (in reference to a mythical “ Strait of Anian“) and “Island of Pearls” (a very popular name for many great pearl producing areas). Under this frame of mind, another very appropriate name should also be that of “Sea of Seas” (using as a reference the name of “Puerto de Puertos” or ”Port of Ports” given to the Bay of Guaymas by Francisco de Ulloa in 1539). Which of these –then- is the most appropriate reference?
The answer cannot come neither from myths or tales… these were all necessary to inspire the “Conquistadors” unto action, but our references should have greater solidity. Who in New Spain had the skills to write down and record important events and references? Would the Spanish “soldadesca” (grunt soldiers) have these abilities? Probably the most robust and strong references would be found within religious missionaries (mainly Jesuits) and the public notaries that accompanied the conquering armies of Spain.
We therefore present an indisputable historical reference: a document written by the Jesuit priest Miguel Venegas, originally written in 1739 (although published in Madrid until the year 1752). This manuscript consists of 5 volumes and is entitled “News of the California and their temporal and spiritual conquest to the present time” and in volume 1 it records the following reference to this geographical area in general:
“The old discoverers called it “Vermillion Sea” and “Red Sea” because of the similarity of its figure and some color or appearance of its waters… they named it also “Sea of Cortez” in gracing the commitment with which the Conqueror of the Mexican Empire sought to advance through the glories of his conquests”
Thus we have reliable evidence on the name of this beautiful Mexican sea: “Vermillion Sea” or “Sea of Cortez”, and we can avoid any review of cartographic maps made by Europeans who –very likely- never visited this region (as it would be the case of Frederick de Wit, a famous Dutch cartographer who made the famous map indicating the mythical “Strait of Anian”).
You can use both names to suit your taste or preference, if you are doing any sort of “official work”, then by all means employ the name of “Gulf of California”, but you may use the name “Sea of Cortez” to your heart’s content, especially when you feel your heart’s beat increase when you contemplate a majestic sunset in Bacochibampo Bay, Guaymas, or when you enjoy a leisure stroll on the beautiful waterfront of La Paz, or when you gaze at the mystic beauty of Mexico’s largest Island: “Isla Tiburón” or when you simply enjoy a refreshing dip in “Rocky Point” (Puerto Peñasco)… no matter what part of the Gulf you’re in, you will always find a place for the “Sea of Cortez” within your heart.
We were also questioned about our pearls’ trade-name: why did we call them “Sea of Cortez Pearls”??? The answer: it was important for us that every single one of our pearls to have their historic legacy in their name; just as a child receives a name from its parents.
For us it was simply not dignified to brand them under a typical commercial name (they actually could have ended with a name like “Perliva“… a “Pearly Diva”) like any other mass manufactured product. We believe in our Pearl and we regard it as a true heir to the pearling heritage of Mexico, and we are proud to be able to produce limited quantities of these beautiful gems in Guaymas, Sonora, right in the heart of the Sea of Cortez…
I now invite you to make a small -5 minute- video- about the history of the “Sea of Cortez Pearl”… until next time…
That’s right, we have already published on the web -thanks to YouTube- our Original video on “Sea of Cortez Pearls.” This was a project we had in mind for several years, but we never had the time to invest in an “original production”. The video reached a good compromise between what we wanted to play on the video, yet we could not achieve such as: we wanted a video clip of a hurricane in action on the pearl farm … but when this happens one usually take refuge, or we wanted ”special clothing” (we could not shoot a troop of “Spanish Conquistadores” trudging through the desert) and, we have not been able of finding a professional narrator (primarily due to time constraints) for the Spanish version of the video… but the English version has superb narration.
Despite being produced in 2008 (it achieved “Gold” status on December of that year) we had the video available only on DVD throughout 2009, and it was until this year that we decided to share it publicly. The video is presented in two parts due to time constraints imposed by YouTube. The first part is a presentation of the Gulf of California Pearl:its lore and History; the second part deals with the commercial cultivation of pearls in Guaymas, Sonora. So, with no more hesitation: we hope you enjoy the video…
UPDATE (APRIL 2011): Well, YouTube has increased the time limits on videos to 15 minutes and now offers HD… so, I have been able to update the video and now you only have to click on it to watch the full version (13 minutes) in Hi-Def. Hope you like it!
We thank all those who participated directly in this beautiful project, specially the staff at “Cheque’s Films”: our good friends Ezekiel “el Cheque” Núñez and Esteban Ibarra (who were in charge of cameras and video editing); the original “Perlas del Mar de Cortez Soundtrack” was the work of Jaime Delgado Avelar, the excellent voice narration by the professional narrator Charlie Bloomer, and photos taken by yet another good friend, Alberto “el Gordo” Tirado. Another couple of good video details provided by our friend Benito Sarmiento (thank you for allowing us to use your videocam and “underwater casing” as well as for lending us your aerial video of Bacochibampo Bay), and finally, the great 3-D work of the “Spanish Galleon” done by Abraham Castro of “Onix” fame. In all, this video was fully made in Guaymas, Sonora.
The script for the video was produced by us (“pearl trio”), in addition to some video footage and photos that we did and incorporated into it.
Additional thanks? Sure! There are many people who we would like to give special thanks, and amongst them we have:
“The Yaqui Diver”/Adrian Amarillas Casillas, our friends Rocio Mendoza and Diana Alvarez, as well as to Karla Valdez, Sergio Farell -our friend and former mentor- the “Tec de Monterrey” for showing faith in our school project and, of course, our group of “Yaqui Workers” led by Jesus “el Pipi” Valenzuela.
I invite you to please leave your comments … I know that in order to leave a comment you are required to use an e-mail account, but for those who do not want to leave a comment because you will “need” to use your e-mail, you can do the following: there is no need to enter a real email … instead use this fake e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org (“copy & paste” and place in the appropriate field) and you will see that it is not necessary to use your personal mail.
See you next week!
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.