Operation: Poseidon Clear
Operation Poseidon Clear saw a return of the Prometheus Design Werx Field Team to the Sea of Cortez in Baja, Mexico. As guests of the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (National Commission of Natural Protected Areas) with the Mexican government, the PDW UET was tasked to work with locals in the area to identify, locate and clear illegal fishing nets and trolling lines used by cartel-poachers that had been left behind in the waters and/or snagged on the seabed. Scuba divers and associated resources are very limited to non-existent in this part of Baja and the PDW Field Team with their previous scientific underwater work in the area was invited to return in an expanded anti-poaching capacity.
In recent years there has been a significant shift in the illegal activities of the cartels in this part of Mexico. The “typical” movement and focus of drugs has been replaced by the increasingly lucrative illegal trade of animal parts. Specifically, the the swim bladder of the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi). This species’ swim bladder is highly prized in China and has been fished to extinction in that part of the world. The totoaba is now gravely in danger of becoming extinct in the Sea of Cortez to supply that same demand as well as already having had its population severely diminished from the changes in the sea environment as a consequence of the reduced flow from the Colorado River over the last century.
The totoaba is officially listed as an endangered species in the USA as well as internationally. The cartels have exploited this species for its lucrative black market value and one bladder, which weighs only a few ounces, will fetch between $7000 to $14000 in China.
The first substantive reports of the illegal poachers’ nets and lines were reported to the local authorities by the legitimate fishermen in the area. Their own nets were becoming snagged in the poachers’ abandoned nets and lines left creating hazardous conditions for the local fishermen as well as continuing to trap and kill collateral sea life.
The PDW Field Team traveled overland around 1600 miles to and from to their command post in Baja. The land portion of the journey itself covered long stretches of paved Mexican highway to loose sand and gravel to finally arrive at their destination. Reliable, well outfitted 4x4s are always a requirement in these types of trips into field and the team were confident in their Jeep JK and Toyota Tacoma.
The area of operation underwater was around a small rocky island location just offshore where some of the reports had been made.
Traveling by a small boat, the team arrived to their objective and what would turn into choppy and windy conditions later on that day.
Great care was required so the divers would not be caught themselves in these nets and lines while engaged in their work. Each diver was outfitted with a PDW Griffin™ knife and a pair of medical shears to cut away any lines and netting that they encountered.
Despite the increasingly murky and poor underwater visibility the team put in and began their search grid to locate the abandoned nets and lines.
Each journey into the field always encounters fluid and changing conditions. Being prepared for the unexpected is critical in any planning. Due to the poor visibility and murky conditions underwater, the PDW Field Team proceeded slowly and covered as much territory as possible. Careful notes were logged by the team to brief the local Ranger from Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas upon their return from the water. Identifying the specific locations of the poachers’ nets and lines to clear areas free of debris were all documented so future clearance work could continue as well as allowing the local fishermen to be aware of trouble spots versus safe zones.
As the dive day was drawing to a close, the wind conditions and choppy seas preventing the team from returning the boat to the original launch and trailer. Each diver re-entered the water with masks, fins, and snorkel to swim back to the rocky shore in strong surf.
With overall surf and weather reports indicating that conditions were to only worsen in the following day, the PDW Field Team chose to shift their mission from additional dives to land based work. With local intel, the team reconnoitered the shore line to log and document where some of these poachers would put in, process their illegally caught fish, and leave their refuse of carcasses, netting and lines behind.
On their final day in Baja, the PDW Field Team journeyed even further inland to explore and investigate a dry river bed and canyon that they had heard about from some of the locals. The canyon was locally known as “Shell Canyon” and apparently formed by a seasonal river carving through ancient sea floor.
The team navigated overland through the arid terrain and arrived at what appeared to be the outlet of the canyon. Then proceeding on foot the team entered the canyon and gazed upon a fascinating hidden geological gem.
Perhaps best described as a slot canyon which are thin and narrow, the walls on closer examination were comprised of countless layers upon layers of ancient sea shells deposited on what was once seafloor.
The team made it a point get to a higher point and take down the GPS coordinates of this amazing tucked away spot so we could someday return and examine it in greater depth.
As the PDW Field Team hiked to the opposite end of Shell Canyon they discovered that it opened up into broad alluvial plain in between low and rocky mountains on each side. This plain looked and felt otherworldly. Sprinkled throughout the surface of the dried mud were pieces of calcite glistening in the bright sunlight.
The rich tones of this area, and odd shadow play from the early afternoon sun made for a surreal experience and landscape that could have been something akin to being on Mars.
As the sun began drop in the sky, the team knew they should return to the command post. As exciting it is to reach new locations, it is equally important know how to return from it. Traveling in an unfamiliar wilderness terrain in the dark is challenging at best and dangerous at worst. With the knowledge that there were no services for hundreds of miles in any direction should a catastrophic mechanical failure or emergency occur that exceeded their on-board recovery gear, the team proceeded with caution and in a timely manner to return to their home base while there was still usable sunlight.
The PDW Field Team was able to experience, work in, and enjoy a great variety of conditions and terrain on this operation. They believe strongly in the work being done to take the first steps to address the growing poaching activities in this area which not only affect the endangered totoaba but other local species as well. It is not easy, nor well funded, and often unsafe work for anyone involved.
Along with the conservation work to prevent the tragic exploitation of our world’s species, there is also the great satisfaction and enjoyment of actually being in these natural environments while engaged in this work.
PDW feels fortunate and honored to be a part of any conservation work in various parts of our world and encourages people to do what they can to be responsible stewards of the world’s wildlife. While the totoaba is a fish species probably little known to many people, the first steps towards improving any situation is to educate one’s self about it and from there all of us can start the process to save and protect.
Whether it is back to Baja, Mexico or perhaps in another part of the world the PDW Field Team looks forward to their next project.
The final images below are overviews of some of the gear and equipment each of the team members used in this operation. As PDW is a company that designs and produces high caliber field gear, the selections made from outside brands are carefully chosen to meet a certain criteria and also fit the individual‘s tastes and needs.
Your gear should never hold you back. Choose wisely and keep moving forward. VIRTUTE VERA
Team Members: Alex Riley (PDW), Elias Fedorowski (Exploro), Dale Pearson (Pearson Brothers Winery), Chris Van Loan (BAE), Patrick Ma (PDW).
Photos by: Chris Van Loan (BAE) Patrick Ma (PDW)
Story by: Patrick Ma (PDW)