And here I am again, adding the finishing touch on what is my version of the legend of “El Mechudo”. My story is different from all previously released versions, as it has no supernatural elements (“Satanic intervention”).
To add this new twist on the old legend, I will present the evidence used throughout this Blog’s series of “The Legend of El Mechudo”: from the place where these events unfold, to the demystification of the “claws of death” and now the “silent killer” (in this case: it is not stress). I -for one- simply cannot believe that an experienced diver was caught by a pearl oyster and then he just drowned. It takes something much more lethal than a pearl oyster to drown a proffessional pearl diver.
Therefore: if it was not the Devil himself nor a pearl oyster… What really caused the tragic death of “El Mechudo”?
As Delilah to Samson
Just as the biblical Samson, our mythical diver had a magnificent mane of hair which probably had some special meaning to him. And I have reasons to believe that his long hair was partially responsible for his untimely death. If Delilah was the one responsible for bringing about Samson’s misfortune, who was this Sonoran diver’s Delilah? Let us review a bit about the pearl oyster’s natural history to better understand what might have happened.
Habitat of the “Panamic Black-Lip Oyster”
The Black Lip Pearl Oyster -known as “Madreperla” in Mexico- is Pinctada mazatlanica, a bivalve that is found attached -by means of its byssus-to rocks, encrusting corals and other bivalves. As it was shown in the previous post’s video, it is not very difficult to detach them from their anchoring spot. As for the oyster’s habitat: I really do not percieve any danger for a long-haired diver here.
Do remember that “El Mechudo” is said to have secured his long-hair (probably with some rope or even turning his own hair into a knot), but it is not difficult to imagine it could have come loose after hours of diving. Here is where the danger truly resides.
For anyone who has dived or snorkeled in the waters of the Gulf of California, is easy to remember that there’s really nothing in the water or the sea-bed that can entangle you. Due to the lack of rivers reaching the Gulf, there are few contributions of earth-bound material such as tree branches and shrubs, and it is not easy to entangle your hair between stones, so where’s the danger? Let us analyze the next species and its habitat.
The Habitat of the “Rainbow Lip Oyster”
The “Concha Nácar” or “Rainbow Lip Oyster” (Pteria sterna) is a very special animal in regard to its “taste” for settlement. It is adapted to a wide variety of habitats: rocky and coral reefs, on top of the shell of other bivalves, forming “carpet clumps” on sandy-muddy areas and –especially- they can be found living on gorgonian -or fan- corals. Additionally, their byssus is much more stronger than that of the Black-lip pearl oysters, and it takes a lot more effort to detach them from their anchoring spot.
Final Remarks & Video
A fan coral is the “perfect trap” for a long-haired pearl diver. During the shooting of the video about this legendary character I used a doll with a “wig” (one of the most difficult things I’ve recently done: I’d rather juggle with sea urchins anytime), and everytime the fake hair was near the fan coral it would easily entangle itself, becoming a small burden to dissentangle the hair for a new video shoot.
Additionally: I have a video that shows how an oyster is unable to keep their shells closed on an object for more than just a couple of hours. The test was performed, with the help of my assistant Antonio “El Tigre” Mendoza, who helped to perform experiments -both under natural & “laboratory” conditions- and we obtained consistent results in “oyster retention”: usually of less than 60 minutes on each tryout.
The following video was produced in order to show you how the oyster releases its grip after some time. For this I used one of my son’s “GI Joe” action figure, around which we devised a floating system (to simulate the upward flotation pull of a victim) and continuous video filming was performed until the oyster released its “little victim”. As a note of interest, you will notice that there are a couple of “curious sea-hares” (Aplysia californica) that appear during the video…this might be as close as they can get to become part of a “feature film”, hence the attraction (I guess).
Thus, based on all the information we have talked about during this series of blog entries (and in the best “Clue” game fashion) I dare say the following:
“El Mechudo” dove to deeper waters to try and release a “Rainbow Lip Oyster” that was attached to a large fan coral (these larger specimens are usually found in deeper waters) but his hair became entangled. He could not use a knife to cut his hair free (because slave divers were not given such a weapon)…thus the great Yaqui diver drowned. Satan must be declared blameless.
The only way the body of this diver could have remained in the same site for days or weeks (once the body fills with gases form decomposition it would float away) is if it was firmly attached to a coral…any oyster would have released the hand of a dead diver within hours.
“A Tiger loose on the Farm”
And on this new post we continue with the description of Jesus “El Tigre” Mendoza’s activities at our Pearl Farm:
All my life I have lived in Guaymas, yet I did not know that there was a place where animals were cultivated for the production of pearls. Of course I knew about edible oyster and shrimp farms, but I never imagined that we had a pearl farm, right here in Guaymas! but we had all heard the faint rumors. It was not until November 2010, when –while attending ITSON- I had a course named “Natural and Cultural Attractions”, the course’s professor being one of the Pearl Farm’s owners. Our new teacher -Douglas McLaurin Moreno- took the whole group for a field trip to this “farm” and was here that I learned how to they raised the “pearl oysters” for the production of cultured pearls.
It was a great experience to learn about pearl farming. And then, after almost two years of having visited the site, I finally had the opportunity to “work” here doing my “professional stays” at the pearl farm; in January of this year I became a key part of several research projects for the company, including one that aims to monitor the many marine species that grow alongside the oysters in the pearl culturing cages.
From that moment I began to understand the great importance of having a pearl farm in Guaymas, and later I began to think that this benefit is not solely for Guaymas, but for the entire Sea of Cortez. When we take the culture cages from out of the sea, to evaluate the growth of the “Rainbow Lip Oysters” (also known as Pteria sterna) there is always a great host of marine fauna alongside the farm-raised mollusks; it was impressive to see that in a such a small space –that of the cage- you can find such a great variety of animal species, in what appears to be complete harmony.
So I was tasked to keep track of all these species, keeping track of all vertebrate (fish) and invertebrate fauna: the different species found as well as their number, but being specially on the lookout for these 3 main species: the “Panamic Black Lip Pearl Oyster” (Pinctada mazatlanica), the “Pen Shells” (Atrina maura, Pinna rugosa) and the “Sea cucumbers” (holothurians). I still monitored dozens of other species such as: crustaceans (Spiny Lobsters, pistol shrimps, banded ghost shrimps -Lysmata californica- and swimming crabs), several fishes (Angel fishes, Soap-fishes, Groupers, Snappers, Catfishes, Eels & Blennies) bivalves (mussels, scallops, Blood Cockles, Chocolate clams) and many others.
It was very interesting to notice how many of these species grow, some even attaining large dimensions -as in the case of the Sea Cucumbers- of up to 20 centimeters (7.8 inches) in length. Holothurians are animals commonly known as “sea cucumbers”, due to their elongated bodies with a shape similar to that of that vegetable. They are related to starfish and sea urchins (Echinoderms).
Holothurians, have a very important biological function in coastal areas: they clean the seabed of those accumulated organic wastes. They belong to a group of animals referred to as bottom-feeders: they just basically eat the organic material found within the sediment (sand), and what they excrete is just clean sand, without any organic matter. And here why these animals have such a great biological importance: if a bay has an adequate amount of sea cucumbers, its sand will remain cleaner and we will be able to enjoy white sand, not the “dark and sticky” sand we sometimes find in some areas. This is what I was told here at the farm: that these animals are providing us all of with this free environmental service.
Just in the month of January, this pearl farm was able of “rescuing” (meaning: they were returned to their natural environment) some 2,262 sea cucumbers, which averaged 11 cm (4.3 inches) in length; if these creatures had been returned to their environment while still young they would have had become food for predators since their defense mechanism is not yet sufficiently developed (when a sea cucumber is attacked, it can expel its viscera (guts) which are sticky and mildly-toxic, but the sea cucumber does not die because it can regenerate its guts in a few days and just like that), but by growing them in a farm they will be able to escape their natural predators.
Although in Mexico Sea Cucumbers are not considered valuable (because people here do not eat them nor can they be used for souvenirs), in many Asian countries (such as China, Japan and Korea) they are used in their cuisine and they are also considered to be an aphrodisiac. Such is their demand in Asia that they have been fished out of our waters, these animals no longer doing their environmental service for us.
So this is where I began to understand the other great benefit of this pearl farm: not only are its benefits coming directly from the jobs that come with the production of the pearls, but the farm is also helping towards the reproduction and growth of other wildlife fauna, since the aquaculture cages offer protection and security to many species -providing refuge from predators- until they can return to the sea to continue their natural processes. The farm offers a free environmental service as well.
Therefore, this company does not just favouring the recovery of some animal species -such as with sea cucumbers- but it is also benefiting the local fishing industry; from my perspective I believe that the farm protects many species of fish that are commercially caught for human consumption or fish that become food for these and that are later released back into the Bay. This seems to be a true sustainable industry, not only for Guaymas but for the entire Gulf of California: an industry that does not lead to the extermination of marine life and where it will become protected for all future generations.
To finalize this article: staying in a pearl farm is for nature lovers, because you are next to the sea in a place where can protect marine species, ensuring a future for all. And this is something that I have learned while working at the “Sea of Cortez Pearl” farm in Guaymas.
And now we have come to the end of Jesus’ personal contribution to our Blog. I thank him for giving us his unique perspective. In future posts we will –once more- continue with the “El Mechudo” saga and more Mabe Pearl production, so keep visiting and do take the time to let me know your thoughts.
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!!!
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.