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Michael Wall, Ph.D.
Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias

Sea of Cort?s (Gulf of California)
Sea of Cort?s (Gulf of California)


Margi Dykens; Photographs courtesy of Cinema Corp, Inc.

Research conducted under the auspices of the San Diego Natural History Museum played a crucial role in the recent decision by UNESCO officials to list Mexico’s Gulf of California, including 244 islands and coastal areas, as a World Heritage site. As such, the area joins a list of the world’s most spectacular places, including the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Galapagos Islands, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef, and Yosemite National Park. According to a UNESCO statement, “What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.”

Aerial view of the Sea of Cortes
Aerial view of the Sea of Cort?s (Gulf of California)

The Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cort?s, is unique in the richness of its biodiversity: the area is documented as containing 695 vascular plant species; 891 fish species, 90 of them endemic; 39% of the world’s marine mammal species; and a third of the world’s marine cetacean species. That is a dry recitation of what amounts to a veritable tapestry of exotic and unusual plants, reptiles, fishes, invertebrates, birds, whales, and other creatures of every size, shape, color, and rarity. In a research tradition from the earliest years of the San Diego Society of Natural History and continuing today, scientists from the Museum have conducted numerous expeditions and inventories illuminating the area’s vast natural resources.

Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias (the research arm of the Museum) and the Museum’s provost, played a pivotal role in securing the World Heritage designation for the Gulf of California. Dr. Ezcurra, who has recently returned to the Museum after his four-year tenure directing Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology, developed the first environmental impact assessments in Mexico and has been active in conservation initiatives in Baja California over the last 25 years. Ezcurra edited a compendium of recent scientific research documenting the significance of the Gulf, A New Island Biogeography of the Sea of Cort?s, which was published in 2002. This book provided essential evidence in the argument to place the islands on the UNESCO list.

Mural cave paintings
Mural cave paintings

The Museum’s own award-winning giant-screen film, Ocean Oasis, allows the viewer to be visually transported to the Sea of Cort?s and to become acquainted with some of the many animal and plant species that thrive there, as well as the geological forces that created the area. The film has succeeded in introducing the biodiversity and special beauty of this part of northwestern Mexico to thousands of viewers who have seen the film at many international venues. Ocean Oasis presents a compelling argument for preservation of this unique part of the world, in terms a non-scientist can understand and appreciate.

The designation of the Sea of Cort?s as a World Heritage site will focus international attention on the importance of continued conservation of the area, which is currently threatened by development and degradation. The decision to list the area as a World Heritage site demonstrates unequivocally to the Mexican government, the residents of Baja California, and the rest of the world that this area is deserving of protection.