As the northernmost and westernmost state of Mexico, Baja California is a peninsula that stretches from the southern tip of California to Baja California Sur, the lower half of the isthmus, which extends farther south into the Pacific while running along the Sea of Cortez to the east. Also known as the Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortez separates Baja from mainland Mexico with one of the most ecologically diverse environments on the planet. Five Mexican national parks are situated along the eastern coast of the Baja Sur Peninsula alone. Above: The waters are so clear, a kayaker seems to hover over the water near Punta Baja Norte on the southern tip of Isla Carmen in the Loreto National Marine Park, Baja California Sur.
Wildflowers bloom at Bahia Los Triangulos, Isla Carmen, Loreto National Marine Park
Often referred to as our "best idea," America introduced the world to the concept of national parks with the formal designation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Perhaps inspired by our utilitarian quest to conquer and subdue every last square inch of the "howling wilderness" that greeted the first European settlers and the realization by the end of the 19th century that we were doing an exemplary job of it, a small group of visionaries began to realize that if future generations were going to have any chance to witness for themselves what Lewis and Clark saw, it would be through the formal protection of some of the most magnificent landscapes in the American West.
Shortly after Yellowstone was established, the rest of the world climbed onboard, with Australia declaring the world's second national park in 1879 and Canada announcing Banff National Park in 1885. Today, nearly 7,000 exist worldwide, with the largest in Greenland at 375,000 square miles.
I often tip my hat to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. for the financial muscle he provided to help expand the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park to include the valley of Jackson Hole. I shudder to think of the water parks, golf courses, convenience stores, billboards and flashing neon signs that would fill Jackson Hole today without his extraordinary efforts. As photographers, we've benefited greatly from visionaries like him, as confirmed by the fact that one of the most often used keywords we apply to our images is "national park."
Sunset over Sierra La Giganta from Punta Baja Norte on Isla Carmen.
Which brings me to Mexico, the Baja Peninsula and the ongoing efforts of visionary citizens there to protect its unique land and seascapes. With its southern tip barely dipping into the warm tropical waters south of the Tropic of Cancer, the dry, rugged jag of land that forms the 800-mile-long Baja Peninsula was torn away from mainland Mexico about seven million years ago by the same tectonic forces that created the San Andreas Fault in Southern California. The sea that now fills this gap is known as both the Sea of Cortez and the Gulf of California.
In recognition of the exceptional ecological and scenic values of the land adjacent to the Gulf and the rich marine life within its waters, Mexico has established five national parks along the eastern edge of the peninsula since 1995, including Archipiélago de Espíritu Santo, with its turquoise water, white-sand beaches and productive mangrove forests; Bahia de Loreto National Marine Park, with its diverse underwater life and large, uninhabited islands; Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, with its tropical reef and legendary diving; and the rich avian and marine diversity of San Lorenzo Marine Archipelago National Park.
As the flagship in Baja's new national park system, Bahia de Loreto was established in 1996 and encompasses an 800-square-mile swath of Gulf waters and five of its most beautiful islands. Beginning just north of the small town of Loreto, a 30-mile stretch of coastline forms the park's western boundary. As with other marine parks around the world, one of its primary goals is to help restore the species-rich marine environment by eliminating commercial trawling operations. In order to counter the ongoing threat of large-scale resort-development projects along the coast just south of the park, local groups have offered a proposal to double its size by extending its southern boundary by 40 miles to include the longest remaining stretch of undeveloped coastline on the peninsula.