The Sea of Cortez Islands: 5 Extreme Islands Within a World of Whales

The Sea of Cortez Islands: 5 Extreme Islands Within a World of Whales

Of the 922 islands in the Sea of Cortez, 244 make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site, classed with the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon, and the Galapagos Islands.

“The Galapagos of North America” is what biologists call this archipelago. The islands harbor plants and animals unique to each, reminding us of Darwin’s finches. Here you can see evolution in action, how isolation drives plants and animals to evolve into species found nowhere else on the planet.

Within the Site, the Loreto National Marine Park protects 800 square miles (2,065 square km). Local citizens and The Nature Conservancy rallied to form a national marine park in 1996. The preserve excludes large-scale commercial fishing and shelters five dramatic islands.

From north to south, they are the volcanic Isla Coronado; the largest island, Isla del Carmen; the ancient dance site, Isla Danzante; snorkel heaven Isla Monserrat, and evolutionary oddball Isla Santa Catalina. What makes them “extreme”?

Their bizarre landforms attest to a violent geological past, formed at the crossroads of restless tectonic plates. Islands remain where mountains sank into the sea. Others rose as volcanoes.

Above all, they are desert islands, averaging an extreme 1 inch of rainfall per year. At first glance they appear lifeless. Yet thriving here are 695 vascular plant species—a third of them cacti.

Extreme levels of sunlight – the Sea receives more than any other in the world—creates the paradox of whales leaping in a desert. Sea life flourishes because sunlight spurs vast crops of plant plankton.

An extreme variety of whales—the most varied in the world— feed in Loreto Marine Park. The huge and endangered finback and blue find sanctuary here. A pod of orcas—killer whales—romp in these waters, too, as one boat captain caught on film.

Isla Del Carmen is the largest of the five—18 miles long. A 1,000-foot peak looms over fine beaches, sea caves, and vast salt flats. The island is owned by the salt company that once mined there. Heaps of oyster shells at Puerto Balandra cove testify to thousands of years of harvests.

The much smaller Isla Danzante was named by a Spanish explorer Francisco de Ulloa in 1539. He reported seeing men jumping up and down on the beach and speculated they were dancing.

Much older are the oceanic islands Monserrat and remote Isla Santa Catalina , never part of mainland or peninsula. Isolated for millennia, Isla Santa Catalina is a biological treasure chest.

All ten of its reptile species are endemic, famously a rattleless rattlesnake. Bird life flourishes here, as does the giant barrel cactus—up to 12 feet high—and accordion-pleated cardon.

A spine of rugged mountains—Sierra Giganta—runs down the Baja peninsula. The best views of this dramatic jagged backdrop are from Isla Monserrat.

Odd landforms, layers of pastel rock, caves and coves, bizarre cacti, birds, lizards and mangroves make the islands a treat to explore. Clear waters reward snorkeler and diver alike. Vast silences surprised by whale blows—such experiences make the islands of Loreto Marine Park an extreme adventure indeed.

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