The World May Be YOUR Oyster, But the Oyster Is the World to Guaymas Pearl Farmers

I tend to be an over planner when we have visitors to our home in San Carlos.  I simply want to highlight all of the attractions in our community that make Guaymas/San Carlos such a special place.  I also want my guests to look beyond the unfinished building projects and the trash blowing around in vacant lots.  Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier to see the negatives than the positives, and it is important to me that friends and relatives are given the opportunity to see past what may be right in front of them.

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One of my very favorite places to take visitors is La Granja de Perlas del Mar de Cortez, the Pearl Farm.  And no, it is not because I am hoping they will thank me for my hospitality with a necklace or a bracelet.  I am most definitely not a jewelry person.  I typically wear the same pair of earrings for at least six months before it even occurs to me to change them.  It is the story behind the success of this business:  the history, the science, and the sheer will and patience, that makes this a must stop on any Guaymas tour.  The jewelry just happens to be an incredible bonus.

That story begins in the 1600’s, when Spanish conquistadors first arrived in this area of the Sea of Cortez.  They could not help but notice the beautiful pearls worn by the Seri and Yaqui Indians.  At first they were content to trade for the gems, but eventually, as demand increased, the Spanish enslaved the Indians and began fishing for the pearls “”themselves”.  The Yaqui were known to be the best pearl divers, and the Spanish took full advantage of their skills.  By the 1800’s, the oyster beds between Kino Bay and Guaymas were completely wiped out.  The Spanish simply moved across the sea to the Baja peninsula.  In 1940 the Mexican government  completely banned pearl fisheries, hoping to preserve the oysters that remained.  It looked like the end for the Sea of Cortez pearls.

Fortunately, two students at Tec de Monterrey University in Guaymas had other ideas.  Douglas McLaurin, a biochemistry engineering student, and his partner, developed a business model based on their belief that the cultivation of Sea of Cortez pearls was possible.  Based on his own research, their professor had little faith that their endeavor would be successful.  The pair earned a “C” on the project.  They did not let the mediocre grade deter them.  In 1991, they began experimenting with the Rainbow Lipped Oyster on the campus of Tec de Monterrey and in Bacochibampo Bay in Guaymas.  

IMG_1510The intricate and time consuming process is detailed here.  In short, it takes four years from start to finish for a Sea of Cortez Pearl to grow.  The oysters are moved four different times, as they develop, starting out in “kiddie condominiums” and eventually graduating to individual “apartments”.  Their shells need to be cleaned every eight weeks, as barnacles andIMG_1505 other sea creatures can attach to them and cause damage and/or death.  Talk about labor intensive!  The team today still relies on the expertise of the Yaqui people in providing care to the oysters as they grow.

At the age of two, the oysters are strong enough to handle the introduction of a nucleus.  A 30 second operation is performed, where a spherical nucleus is implanted into the mantle of the oyster.  A hemispherical pearl may be cultivated by cementing a flat-sided nucleus directly onto the shell.  The shell is opened just enough for a very small tool to be inserted inside.  Quick, steady, and precise.  The grain of sand myth is an insult to the skill required of these men.  And there are no guarantees.  The oysters go back into the water for another eighteen months!

Today, Douglas and his partners, Enrique Arizmendi and Manuel Nava, farm one square hectare with 200,000 oysters under cultivation.  Their process has been honored with a Full Product Integrity Rating from the Fair Trade Gem Federation- -the only pearl farm in the world with this designation.  This is due to the fact that their pearls are not processed with chemicals, bleach, or by burning.   They are merely rinsed under tap water once harvested.  The owners also recognize the importance of being good environmental stewards and promoting a respectful labor environment.

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La Granja de Perlas typically produces about four kilograms of pearls a year, making them the rarest in the world.  Any pearls that do not meet product standards are returned to the ocean.  And those that do make the cut are used in the design of some of the most beautiful jewelry in the world.  The partners work with artists in the creation of very unique pieces, all available for purchase on site.  And I have to admit, each time I visit, I become more of a jewelry person.

I scheduled a nine o’clock tour for my aunt, uncle, and myself.  The two of them looked at me like I was crazy.  Fortunately, Perlas del Mar de Cortez offers multiple tours daily to accommodate all guests, even those who like to sleep in!

 

A Whale of a Time

Caleb has always been a reader.  He favored non-fiction, so I had the opportunity to learn alongside him when he was small.  His interests varied, but there was usually an animal book or two in the large stack we brought home from the library or purchased ourselves.  We were both fascinated with whale sharks, and he owned multiple books about this amazing animal.

IMG_5423So there was absolutely no way we were going to miss out on the opportunity to snorkel with them while we were in Baja California Sur- -even if it meant Caleb needed to wake up two hours earlier than he would have liked to during a break from school and spend hours in a cramped van with 15 strangers.  Interestingly, we had no problems locating him this time when our ride picked us up at the hotel.

We were first taken to the company “hub”.  While Steve and I checked in, Caleb located a Starbucks.  (His day just kept getting better and better).  We met our fellow snorkelers and guides and loaded onto another van for the trip to La Paz, about an hour and forty-five minutes north of Cabo San Lucas.  We scanned the Pacific Ocean on our left for humpback whales and enjoyed the beautiful desert vista on our right.  It was the best of both worlds, and the trip went quickly.

Once we arrived in La Paz, we did not mess around!  We lined up for wetsuits,DCIM100GOPROG0049310. flippers. snorkels, and masks.  In mere minutes, we were heading down the malecón toward the panga boats waiting for us at the dock.

During our walk, our guide explained that La Paz had recently moved to protect the bay where the whale sharks feed.  Mangrove trees, lining an island in the middle of the bay, were important in the creation of plankton, the whale sharks’ food source.  All boats entering the bay were chipped and monitored from shore to insure they did not violate the rules in place.  If they did, captains risked losing their boating licenses for the following year.

Due to the protections, there was a limit to the number of boats allowed in the bay at a time.  While we waited our turn, we chatted with the guide and learned that his parents lived in Guaymas.  Granted, we probably should have used this time to cover snorkeling basics, but it was much more fun to listen to him reminisce about his favorite beach bar in San Carlos and discuss other hot spots.  Hindsight being 20/20, the tips probably would have been a better idea!

DCIM100GOPROG0179375.Basically, our instructions were to jump over the side of the boat and move toward the whale shark, giving him six feet of space on the sides and front and nine feet around the tail.  That sounded simple enough.   I jumped in, not at all expecting the entire Sea of Cortez to come streaming in my snorkel.  As soon as I cleared it out, I was smacked in the face by a wave.

Some whale sharks stay in one place and feast; others like to play tag.  We had a lot of swimmers!  This meant we were constantly on the move (and constantly being smacked in the face by waves).  Cough, clear snorkel, take a breath, get hit in the face with a wave, drink some sea water, repeat.  Eventually, I abandoned the snorkel and just held my breath.

I am not complaining.  I had it much better than the guy whose wife planned thisDCIM100GOPROG0209392. outing for their second wedding anniversary.  While she gave chase to the whale shark, he was pummeled over and over by the sea, never once getting the opportunity to catch his breath and never getting further than three feet from the boat.  I have a feeling he will be planning next year’s anniversary trip, if the marriage survived this one.

Fortunately, we had one older whale shark who was not at all bothered by people watching him eat.  The sea was teeming with plankton.  He found his spot and was not moving.  I was in awe.  There could not be anything more incredible than experiencing this.  I was completely lost in the moment…

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Until I remembered the six/nine rule!  Holy crap!  It looked like I was close enough to touch this guy.  I vaguely remembered the guide mentioning that the whale shark might startle and accidentally hit a person with one of his fins.  The current that had been feeding me waves was now holding me in place under water!  Or was it moving me even closer?  (It is, of course, quite possible that I had no idea what I was doing with those flippers and causing my own problems.)  Eventually, I surfaced and made it back to the boat, only to learn that our face masks made things look closer than they actually were.

It was impossible to keep up with what Caleb and Steve were doing underwater, IMG_5421so I was very pleased to see the two of them on the boat and happy as we headed back to shore.  The trip included a delicious fish taco and fettuccine Alfredo lunch.  Wait.  What?  And the tequila shots took the taste of any salt water out of Steve and Caleb’s mouths.   And they also probably saved that one marriage.

It was an unforgettable day on the water.  The ride back was very quiet (again, thanks to the tequila).  I said a little prayer thanking God for making my son a reader and an animal lover. I also thanked him for giving me Steve, who should have learned his lesson by now but continues to let me plan our vacations anyway.

Man Overboard!

We planned a couple of special activities while we were in Cabo San Lucas.  The first was a glass-bottomed kayak and snorkeling trip to Land’s End and Cabo’s “famous” arch.  Our guides arrived a tad earlier than we expected them, and Steve and I had a moment of panic when we could not locate Caleb.  After waking his neighbors pounding on his hotel room door, Steve found him in the restaurant (wondering what all the fuss was about, no doubt).  We all loaded ourselves into the van, picked up the remaining members of our group, and headed to the beach.

Steve and Caleb must have discussed logistics and kayak assignment beforehand because the next thing I knew I was being pawned off on the guide.  The joke was on them.  Here was my chance to receive expert one on one training!  As it turned out, in addition to paddling tips, I also received a history and geography lesson of the area from our guide.  And there no fear of falling out of the kayak this time.  This trip was definitely a win-win for me!

thumbnailThe bay was full of boats:  pirate ships, pangas, sailboats, and other kayaks.  Due to the number of boats, the water was a bit choppy near the Arch, so we waited for some of the traffic to clear out before entering the somewhat enclosed area where it is located.  I was hoping for an excited reception from the sea lions who lounge in the area.  Unfortunately, we were not the first visitors of the day, and they were no longer interested.  I guess if you have seen one tourist you have seen them all!  It was at this point, Steve most likely questioned his judgment in choosing Caleb over me for the first time.  A lone male sea lion dove into the water.  Like a flash, Caleb maneuvered their kayak closer.

Meanwhile, I was benefitting once again from being with the guide.  He held us steady so thumbnail-1I could focus on taking photos.  It was a bit intimidating to think there was nothing but water, a lot of water, beyond the last rock outcropping.   Instead, I focused on how small the Arch looked.  (Of course, anything in the Pacific would look small.)  I felt immediately guilty for expecting something bigger because it truly was amazing and beautiful.  Then I wondered if I was the sort of person who would see Mt. Everest and comment on how I thought it would be taller.  This led to an internal lecture on being grateful and appreciating the miracle of nature, blah, blah, blah.

We did not have far to paddle before stopping again to snorkel.  Given that we did not pull our kayaks out of the water, I opted to stay aboard and continue to serve as trip photographer.  Honestly, I could just not get past the vision of myself splayed across the thumbnail-2kayak trying to get back in.  Yes, I have been doing some arm work.  No, I was not quite ready to power myself out of the sea onto a boat.  Sea lions look cool sprawled out on the rocks.  Me, on the back of a kayak, not so much.  Steve had never snorkeled before, so I documented this “first”.  Caleb had snorkeled plenty, but it was a terrific opportunity for a new “Insta” photo!

Everyone made it safely back on and in their kayaks, and we headed to shore.  I was preening, listening to the guide tell me what a strong, consistent paddling form I had, when we were surprised by a sudden splash.  Apparently, while I was contemplating asking the guide if he could repeat this in front of my family, one of Caleb’s flippers slipped off the back of his kayak.  In an effort to save his parents the cost of replacing it, he reacted quickly to get it back, losing his hat and sunglasses in the process.  Caleb jumped off of the kayak and into the water, without giving Steve a head’s up.  The kayak was thrown off balance, and Steve was thrown into the water.  The flipper and hat were saved.  The sunglasses and Steve’s dignity were not.

I tried really hard not to gloat on the van ride back to the hotel.  The guide did indeed inform my family of my mad kayak skills.  And I was completely dry.