An Undersea Jewel in the Desert: The Gulf of California’s Secret World

The eight hundred mile Mexican peninsula of Baja California is one of the most forbidding deserts on Earth. But just to the east, the water separating it from mainland Mexico teems with life and is an ancient hotbed of geologic activity. Join Nat Geo WILD as we explore one of the world’s youngest and most dynamic seas.

The Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, was formed approximately seven million years ago when tectonic forces tore the Baja peninsula from mainland Mexico. The ocean quickly rushed north to fill in the land that had fallen below sea level, creating the Gulf.

Brown pelicans in the Gulf of California.
Brown pelicans can dive from heights of one hundred feet to scoop their prey from the surface waters. (Photograph by Johnny Friday)

Since then, the Gulf of California has hosted an astounding diversity of aquatic life, from the Magnificent Frigatebirds in its mangrove forests to the California sea lions, humpback whales, bottlenose and common dolphins, and giant manta rays in its open waters. But all are dwarfed by the whale shark, the largest fish in the ocean at over 40,000 pounds and thirty feet in length.

In the sunny surface waters of the Gulf, warm water rises and is forced southward by winds sweeping off the mainland, with cool water from the depths rushing upward to fill the void. This cold water pulled up from the bottom of the gulf powers a phenomenon known as upwelling, bringing nutrients with it that feed microscopic phytoplankton (such as algae) and zooplankton (tiny shrimp-like animals), in turn feeding fish and allowing animal communities to thrive.

Sea turtle swimming with school of fish.
Sea turtles have heritage reaching back 210 million years to their first appearance in the ancient oceans. These magnificent elders can swim up to 10,000 miles each year. (Photograph by Johnny Friday)

Making their first appearance 210 million years ago during the dinosaur-dominated Triassic, turtles are some of the most ancient species still on Earth. Five of the world’s eight species of sea turtles make their home in the Gulf of California: loggerheads, leatherbacks, green sea turtles, olive ridleys, and hawksbills. Conservation efforts have helped these threatened species to make a comeback in recent decades, but the future of these quietly majestic creatures is still uncertain.

Another ancient silhouette stalks these waters: great white sharks, at the top of this food chain, have terrorized the seas for nearly four hundred million years. But even the fiercest sharks have a thorn in their side: for hammerheads, parasite infestations can bring endless misery, with the only relief coming from angelfish and hogfish that come by to clean—really, to eat—up the little critters.

Hammerhead sharks swimming in Baja California.
Schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks patrol the Gulf of California. (Photograph by Johnny Friday)

This amazing biodiversity extends past the sheltered waters of the Sea of Cortez. Outside, along the western coast of Baja California, gray whales come to give birth in shallow, salty lagoons where their young will be protected from passing orca whales. Along the west coast, from Alaska to Baja, ocean currents are once again the driving force behind the life that fills these waters. The California Current, a rush of cold water from the arctic, surges down the west coast with nutrient-packed waters that aid the growth of miraculous undersea kelp forests. In these now-rare communities, thousands of different fishes, anemones, jellyfish, squid, and plankton hide in the enormous forests of algae, which reaches heights of 150 feet.

Each plant and animal, no matter how small, has a vital role in this complex undersea ecosystem. Meet them all and discover the threads linking every life in this thriving marine world.

Don’t miss Kings of Baja, airing this Sunday, August 2nd at 10/9c only on Nat Geo WILD!


  1. John H
    Huntington Beach, California
    August 3, 2015, 1:49 am

    To Whom it May Concern,

    I was extremely disappointed with the Kings of Baja which premiered earlier this evening on 08/02/15.

    The narration was extremely lacking regarding factual information for the fish species being filmed.

    During the stripped marlin segment, the narrator states stripped marlin can grow as large as 1,000lbs. To date, the largest stripped marlin ever caught is 494lbs.

    Please be responsible and take the time to research the information associated with your programs.

    Thank you,

    John H