Wild Life

Dead birds on the beaches – an ominous sign of gill net fishing

I have had a number of emails from people wondering about the number of dead sea birds washing up on the beaches around San Felipe. This has been a problem in previous years and it is becoming a big problem again. Most of the deaths are caused by the birds diving to steal the fish caught in the gill nets that are used by fishermen in the northern Gulf. The birds get caught in the nets and drown. They are discarded by the fishermen and the bodies wash up on the shore driven by the prevailing easterly winds. 

The birds, many of which will be the blue-footed Boobies, are not endangered but the major kills are a very bad sign for San Felipe. Gill net fishing has been prohibited for some time but it is still widely used and is causing havoc with other species.
Gill nets are being used to illegally catch the giant Totoaba (totuava – sometimes euphemistically referred to as “white sea-bass” in restaurants) whose swim bladder may be worth $10,000 dollars on the Chinese market. Other fish trapped in the nets are almost considered “bycatch”. Penalties for catching totoaba are very severe because of their endangered status and the result is that reporting the inadvertent catch of such a fish is not possible.
It is believed that many gill nets are now being used in the prohibited zone set aside to protect the critically endangered Vaquita porpoise. Less than 25 breeding females of this species are thought to exist and the northern Gulf of California is their only known habitat.

The Sidewinder Rattlesnake

Desert Life in the San Felipe region


The Sidewinder is a rattlesnake that is highly adapted to the desert conditions. Another accepted common name is the Horned Rattlesnake. There are three identifiable varieties of Sidewinders found in the southwestern deserts of North America. San Felipe is located in the Colorado Desert and the local subspecies is appropriately named the Colorado Desert Sidewinder. The scientific name is Crotalus cerastes laterorepens.

The sand dunes surrounding San Felipe makes it ideal as a domain for the sidewinder. It gets its name because of the side winding motion that it employs when attempting to maneuver across the very loose sand, although it is very capable of typical snake locomotion also. Other snakes that encounter loose sand would have to turn away as they cannot maneuver due to lack of traction. The sand tracks that Sidewinders leave resemble the letter “J” which makes it easy to determine the direction in which the snake was headed. The curved or lower part of the letter is made by the head so that curve is pointing to the snake’s travel direction. The photo below showing the track illustrates this very well. This picture was taken just south of San Felipe close to the airport.


Although sidewinders are primarily nocturnal, they may be found out in the daytime usually coiled under a bush in wait for their favorite food, lizards. They will eat rodents also but the prey would have to be small. Sidewinders are very small snakes. An 18 inch Sidewinder is considered an average size. A Sidewinder that is two feet long is a very large example.

A lie-in-wait Sidewinder buries itself in the sand with its head about the level of the sand surface. Only its horned head sticks up. Why the horns is a mystery. Some speculate that they help deflect sand that may blow by its head during a sand storm. Others say that the horns help protect the eye as they snake goes down a hole. The snake cannot close its eyes for protection as they have no eyelids. If fact, no snake has eyelids. This fact makes it easy to differentiate between a snake and a legless lizard.

The venom is not considered to be very potent. In fact, I know of no human deaths from a Sidewinder bite. The venom appears to have evolved mostly to subdue lizards. Typically, the snake will strike at a passing lizard and hold onto the lizard in its mouth while injecting the venom. As with all snakes, the snake has many smaller teeth that are curved backwards or towards the snakes throat. This makes it difficult for the prey to escape. The harder the prey fights, the deeper the teeth can penetrate.


David Spiteri is a retired professor of biology with Herpetology as his specialty. He is a desert lover who lives both in the high Mojave Desert of Southern California and also in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. He owns property in San Felipe and plans to combine both beach and desert exploration in the near future.

Grunion Runs in San Felipe

Chances of catching a Grunion run in San Felipe are in the full or new moon periods between February and April.


Showing up the next 3 days following the full moon or new moon cycles would be within the typical grunion pattern. My experience is that the best run is on the first of these days during the full moon period. Winds may also come into play because of their effect in pushing the water further up the beach and delaying or postponing the days run. In this regard, March and April are better (less windy) than February.

The best leads come from retired Americans who may be sitting at home and happen to notice the run when they get up to change the channel or to refresh their Margarita. In short, the whole observation system is pretty haphazard.

From the photographer’s point-of-view, however, the big problem is that the grunion run just may not happen on that lunar cycle – or it may happen many miles away from where we can observe it.

Grunion runs can be spectacular and may stretch for several miles along the beach. Generally the best shows occur on the beaches south of town from the harbor towards Punta Estrella.

You should look at our tide calendars for February, March and April and pick days that are 2-3 days after the full or new moon. Days during the middle of the week are better (fewer people).


Check for the grunion run on the afternoon tides, 2-3 hours after the high tide, i.e around 4-5 pm.

Conjoined Whale Twins

It’s the beginning of gray whale calving season in the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico, and fishermen there recently had a rare find: conjoined whale twins. Some scientist are wondering if this is already probe of the Fukushima radiation levels affecting the west coast of the northern part of the continent.

It would have been virtually impossible for the whales to survive, indicating they were probably born prematurely or stillborn, scientists added.
 Read the full report on KPBS >>



Ocotillos – More Than Meets The Eye

The Ocotillo plant is a common sight in the deserts around San Felipe, with its tall, spined stalks that reach toward the sky. While it may look barren and near-dead during dry times of the year, a good rain will cause it to suddenly burst into green leaves. Often in Baja you will see fences made of Ocotillo stalks, some of which may be alive and growing.


While it may not be the most dramatic plant, there is a lot more to the Ocotillo than meets the eye. Known scientifically as Fouquieria splendid, it has a variety of nicknames including candlewood, desert coral, coachwhip, slimwood, flamingsword and vine cactus. When it grows, it adapts itself according to the direction it faces, like cacti do, to moderate the amount of sun certain sides of the plant absorb. It is not a type of cactus, but actually a shrub. Ocotillos only grow in North America, and are a favorite plant of hummingbirds.


Ocotillo flowers are a vibrant reddish-orange color and when they bloom, they add a flair of color to the desert. They are also edible, and can be eaten fresh (add a splash of color to a salad), or dried to make tea with.


So the next time you see an Ocotillo, take a moment to appreciate this beautiful desert plant!


Jellyfish Around San Felipe

Dead Blue Cannonball Jellyfish – Not as pigmented as usual

The blue cannonball jellyfish has been present in particularly large numbers in the waters around San Felipe this summer. This round jellyfish is not particularly dangerous and while it can sting humans, it usually does not, though it is always best to avoid contact with jellyfish. The cannonball jellyfish is actually edible and is fished in some areas of the world. Apart from the blue variety seen around San Felipe, cannonball jellyfish can range from yellow to whitish-brown.


Blue Button Jellyfish washed up.

Blue Button Jellyfish or Porpita Porpita
A few of these vibrant small jellyfish have washed up on San Felipe’s beaches lately. Measuring only an inch wide on average, these are not true jellyfish, but are known technically as Chondrophores, and are made up of colonies of polyps. They are often found in large groups. Blue button jellyfish have a very mild sting that may irritate the skin.

Mesoglea sac

Also, if you have taken a walk when the tide is at its lowest, you may notice what looks like clear pouches of jelly along the beach. These jelly pouches are actually called mesoglea, and are the remains of jellyfish that have died. The mesoglea is simply the last part of the jellyfish to break down. It is mostly made up of water, and it was once the “jelly” looking part of the jellyfish. While it may feel uncomfortable if you accidentally step on one, it will not sting you.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has taken up the cause of Vaquita

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has taken up the cause of some of the world’s most critically endangered marine mammals by calling on governments to keep fishing nets out of their waters to prevent entanglement deaths.

Mexico’s vaquita porpoise and the Maui’s dolphin of New Zealand were a focus of discussions between countries gathered in Panama City for the commission’s annual meeting. Governments urged Mexico and New Zealand to take all possible measures immediately to save the animals from extinction.

“It’s time for diplomatic niceties and step-wise strategies to take a back seat to immediate, concrete action with no compromise,” said Michael Stachowitsch, delegate of Austria to the IWC.

Scientists say that unless immediate action is taken the vaquita population could soon be extinct. The only known loss of a mammal species from human causes was the Chinese baiji, or Yangtze river dolphin, which was declared functionally extinct by the IWC in 2006. Governments cautioned that this worst case scenario is near for vaquita.


You can read the whole report in its original version at the WWF Global website HERE. You can also follow the works on saving Vaquita in Vaquita.TV


Special Visitors

Every so often, San Felipe has had some very special visitors. The spotting of a pod of lithe, grey dolphins in the San Felipe bay is always a joyful sight. Our last visit was by a pod of 15+ that visited us a few months back, following the rowing team as they exercised out on the ocean. While several sleek dolphins trailed the rowing sculls, further out to sea, many more dove and leaped out of the water.

The Sea of Cortez is home to several species of dolphin, including the bottle-nosed dolphin, the common dolphin, the spotted dolphin, and of course, the rare vaquita, Phocoena sinus, also known as the Gulf of California harbor porpoise. It is the smallest and rarest cetacean in the world, and exists only in the northern area of the Sea of Cortez.

 The dolphins visiting us this past time were the much more social, plentiful and well-known bottle-nosed dolphins.  Curious and fun-loving, they ventured around the bay,  a beautiful and unexpected sight. Hopefully these adventurous creatures will return soon! Text and this photo by: Anita Net. Reference: Alles, D. (2007). The Sea of Cortez. Western Washington University Biology Department.

Planning on vacationing in San Felipe? Check out our Accommodations page. 

Whale beaching

Monday afternoon an emergency call reported to us what appeared to be a beached baleen whale down the beach from the Marina Resort Hotel. We requested help both from Profepa and the 066 emergency service. The Fire department and San Felipe’s mayor were the ones to quickly attend to the situation, however, the whale turned out to be long deceased, likely brought to shore by the fierce winds over the weekend.

The Sea of Cortez is home to many species of whale, including the California Gray Whale, Humpback Whale, Blue Whale, Fin Whale, Sperm Whale and Killer Whale.

Apart from death from natural causes, whales can become tangled in fishermen’s nets, and some whale beachings have been related to noise created by human activities, such as seismic surveys or the use of sonar.

In 2011 one such humpback whale, snared in a fisherman’s net in the Sea of Cortez, was able to be saved by a boatful of whale observers from The Great Whale Conservancy who happened upon it.