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BAJA Expedition 2022

Continuing Walter Munk’s legacy of daring exploration and discovery… Baja Expedition 2022 was sponsored by the Walter Munk Foundation for the Oceans (WMFO).

Our Team (left to right): Giuseppe di Sciara, Abel Trejo Ramirez, Carl Glowienke, Paula Selby, Patricia Cowett (WMFO Board Member & Retired Judge), Nerea Lezama Ochoa, Mads St Clair, Melissa Cronin, Marine Bruges, Dee Verlinden, Chris Verlinden, Kelly Zilliacus, Josh Stewart, Felipe Cuevas, Mary Munk, Juan Cuevas, Martin Amador, Marta Diaz Palacios.

It included a team of marine scientists, PhD and Master’s candidates, and several Explorers Club Members (Chris Verlinden FN'19, Paula Selby MN'18, Dimitri Deheyn FN'17, Mary Munk MN'17) studying the ecology and conservation of Munk’s pygmy devil rays, Mobula munkianas in the Gulf of California off La Ventana, Baja California Sur. We were joined by Italian ecologist, Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, who discovered the species in 1983 and named it for his teacher and mentor, Walter Munk, dubbed “Einstein of the Oceans” by the NY Times. Giuseppe, who only had access to dead rays caught by the fishermen at that time, said that “Having the blissful opportunity of being in the water surrounded by a multitude of happy Munkianas swimming around me was something quite different, as you imagine. That experience provided me with a sense of accomplishment for having introduced the species to science through my formal description, because I realized that by describing it I have managed, perhaps unwittingly, to also diffuse its extraordinary beauty and natural value.” Giuseppe added, “It was a heartwarming experience, providing even more value to my initial efforts so many years ago.”

Kelly Zilliacus, M.S. (UC Santa Cruz Project Manager of the Conservation Action Lab) and Marta Diaz Palacios (Ph.D. Candidate at Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas (CICIMAR)) led the Team of extremely capable and passionate young scientists carrying forward the baton of the commitment to understand and care for Munk’s devil rays.

As part of her Master’s Thesis, Marta discovered the first nursery area for Munk’s pygmy devil rays at Espiritu Santo Archipelago, Mexico, and the potential importance of shallow bays during early life stages for the conservation of this species. ( Description of first nursery area for a pygmy devil ray species (Mobula muniana) in the Gulf of California, Mexico published January 8, 2021).

Marta releasing a Mobula munkiana. Photo by Mary Munk

Mobula munkianas are currently classified as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Marta and the Team have been working closely with government officials, local fishermen, community members and school children to educate them about their local natural resources and encourage them to incorporate best practices in fishing and to shift their livelihoods to ecotourism where possible. Nerea Lezama Ochoa, PhD is studying the impacts of fisheries (though direct targeting and incidental mortality) causing the decline in manta and mobula populations and is working to reduce unintentional mobulid by-catch in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Melissa Cronin, PhD is focused on mapping and mitigating marine fisheries bycatch, mainly looking at manta and devil ray bycatch in industrial fisheries. Her past research has aimed to quantify the impact of evidence-based marine conservation strategies, and to map global marine aquaculture expansion.

We were especially fortunate to have Felipe and Juan Cuevas and their friend Martin Amador, fishermen from El Pardito and San Evaristo, working with us. Felipe and Juan’s knowledge regarding sharks and rays is astounding and their marine life capture skills are equally remarkable. Don Croll, PhD UC Santa Cruz has been working with them for the past 20 years, during which time they have become passionate about protecting mangroves of Isla San Jose and have quit fishing in the estuary to recover the population of commercial fish species.

Josh Stewart, PhD (Associate Director of The Manta Trust), joined us for a few days to film an interview with Giuseppe for an upcoming Documentary on WMFO Baja Expeditions 2021 & 2022 by Ben Meissner, award-winning videographer.

Dimitri Deheyn, PhD, a leading marine biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, is studying the environmental and social economic impacts of microplastics globally, trying to understand the broad distribution of microplastics in our oceans, lakes and rivers. He is serving on PhD Committees for Mads St. Claire, founder of Women in Ocean Science and founder & CEO of Blu Wild, as they work to understand the level of microfibers in Mobulas and fish in general.

Chris Verlinden, Walter’s last student and co-founder of Applied Ocean Sciences, spent his honeymoon with his new bride, Dee, sharing a house with 18 of us, studying the impact Mobulas swimming in a vortex have on the water column temperature at various depths, and trying to understand the reason for that behavior.

Abel Trejo Ramirez and Marine Bruges, both scientists with Master’s degrees, turned their attention to making sure no one went hungry and created meals that were worthy of 5 stars!

Carl Glowienke, Lakeside Sculpture, who is creating the bronze sculpture ‘From the HEIGHTS of Mt. Soldedad to the DEPTHS of the Grand Canyons of La Jolla for Walter Munk Education Plaza in La Jolla, brought a sculpture of Munk’s Devil Ray to donate for Marta to use when she visits local schools and hosts community meetings.

Paula Selby described the experience as “an extraordinary opportunity to interact with the living animal for the first time, during catch-and-release tagging procedures and while snorkeling above large aggregations of rays swimming gracefully in a vortex pattern.” These majestic creatures jump, like popcorn, 6’ to 8’ out of the water and land with a belly flop. During our first research trip to Cabo Pulmo (2015), documented by Eliana Alvarez and Octavio Alberta in their award-winning film “Spirit of Discovery,” Walter saw his namesake for the first time and he determined, “They jump for the joy of it!”

Mobula jumping 6’ to 8’ out of the water. Photo by Paula Selby

We are all planning to be back next year to continue studying the behavior of the Mobula munkianas in honor of Walter Munk’s legacy!

Snorkling with the Mobulas. Photo by Mads St Claire

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