You packed up the panga, but did you remember the
canticles? You'll need them to face the giant serpent in the Sea of Cortez.
by Gary Paul Nabhan
"He's wondering whether we've got everything we
need," I yelled out to three other biologists over the waves crashing down along the
Sea of Cortez coast. Or to be exact, the shores of the Canal de Infiernillo, or Channel of
Little Hell, as the narrow straits between Tiburón Island and the Sonoran mainland are
called. We waded knee-deep in its stormy waters as we loaded a Seri Indian panga with all
the provisions we thought we might need during our next four days of island-hopping. The
16-foot skiff was not so full that it was taking in water, but then we had not yet gotten
I glanced, embarrassed, at Alfredo, our elderly Seri guide. Just one generation removed
from his ancestors' hunter-gatherer existence, when everything they owned had to be
carried for miles on their heads or backs, Alfredo couldn't help but comment on how many
material goods we were casually tossing into the panga: inflatable kayaks, wetsuits, life
jackets, waterproof river bags, and puncture-proof water jugs. A two-burner cookstove,
tarps, foldable lawn chairs, Thermarest pads, sleeping bags, and a chuckbox replete with
wineglasses, dinnerware, tablecloths, lanterns, and candles.
A cooler stuffed with
precooked turkey dinners, pumpkin pie, and cranberry sauce. Every field guide covering any
set of critters ever spotted in or migrating through the deserts and seas of northwest
Mexico. A profusion of tape recorders, cameras, binoculars, measuring tapes, thermometers,
fishing tackle, lizard grabbers, and snorkeling gear. Finally, a half-dozen bottles of hot
sauce and one of tequila in case of a sudden need to treat emergencies such as accidental
wounds or bland food. We had hauled much of this paraphernalia from Tucson, a six-hour
drive, and bought the rest in Kino Bay, the closest Mexican tourist beach to the two
remaining Seri villages.
"Travel light," I muttered under my breath, as I finished off the last of the
"lite" corn chips we'd brought with us across the Mexican border.
In turn, Alfredo and his sidekick, José-Ramon, each carried a single blanket, a
canteen, and his own bottle of salsa in case ours was too tame. They brought two old life
jackets, but hardly ever wore them.
What we sought in our waterlogged field guides, they kept in their heads and hearts.
They were among the Seri tribe's first ecotourism guides, and we were among their first
guinea pigs, trying out a new trip route. I had worked on field-conservation projects with
the Seri for several years, as had my U.S. colleagues, but I wasn't sure what ecotourism
meant to the Seri. We soon learned, however, that as "official guides" they have
been authorized by the Comcaac, or Seri, community to sing us any traditional song or tell
us most any story about the seabirds, fish, marine mammals, and reptiles that we might
encounter over the next few days.
I only knew about one Seri song, and I was a little anxious that Alfredo and
José-Ramon might not know it. The month before, Seri artisan Amalia Astorga had visited
me in Arizona. Hearing that I was planning to go out to San Esteban Island, she looked
"Don't go out there unless you are with someone who knows the song to placate
Coimaj Caacol. He's the giant serpent that lives underwater between Tiburón Island and
San Esteban Island. By writhing along on the ocean bottom, he churns up the water between
the two islands. If you try to cross without giving him respect, he'll smash your boat to
So the last thing I asked Alfredo before we left the mainland was whether we had
traditional Seri life insurance.
"Seguros?" he repeated in Spanish, puzzled.
"Do you know the song to sing to make peace with Coimaj Caacol?" I asked.
He and José-Ramon looked at one another, then burst out laughing. "I know all the
songs we'll need for this trip, not just for where Coimaj Caacol lives, but for other
treacherous places as well."
Alfredo jerked the starter cord of the outboard engine, and it instantly cranked up to
a full-tilt roar. José-Ramon gave the panga one last push off the gravelly beach, and
lifted himself gracefully up over the bow. We were off, crossing the Canal de Infiernillo
while California gulls, eared grebes, and brown pelicans took flight or rapidly paddled
out of our trajectory toward Tiburón Island. We high-tailed it across the straits without
hitting much choppy water, for the cross-tides were not yet pulling strongly. It was the
kind of water that Alfredo could navigate blindfolded, without a single song. Not all
water we would meet over the next few days would leave him as quiet.
We rounded the southeast corner of Tiburón and caught our first good glimpse of three
other islands: Turners and Cholludo, both less than a mile off the south end of Tiburón,
and San Esteban, much farther away. One of our crew, a marine biologist, had brought her
tide charts, as she does on most marine voyages.
"I hope you aren't supposing that you can cross between the islands in that little
inflatable kayak," Katrina teased me. "Do you see the height of that surf
hitting the windward side of Cholludo?"
Out of the straits now, we faced what the Seri call the high seas of the Gulf of
Californiacharcoal-gray, choppy waves clear to the cliff-ridden shores of San
Esteban. Less than a mile or so to the south, the surf rose up white and wild like a
banshee in an Irish ghost story. But we were not off the exposed, stormy coasts of
Ireland; we were in the shelter of the Sea of Cortez, which was supposed to be buffered
from the truly rough waters of the Pacific Ocean by the peninsula of Baja California. My
colleagues all turned toward Alfredo, trying to read his face for an assessment of whether
we could cross.
For several minutes, neither Alfredo nor José-Ramon said a word; they just peered
intently at the wave patterns between the panga and the islands.
"Not today," Alfredo finally uttered, as he maneuvered around the boulders in
the shallows along the south shores of Tiburón. "It will be enough merely to take
you around the smaller islands in this kind of water. Tomorrow, we'll look at Coftecol
That is to say, San EstebanCoftecol is its Seri name. The blessing and curse of
Seri ecotourism is that the guides may know the English or the Spanish names for the
islands, coves, or shoals you wish to see, but refer to them in Seri, or Cmique Iitom, the
last remaining dialect of the Hokan language family in Baja California. And since less
than a handful of outsiders can converse with the 500-some surviving Seri in their native
tongue, destinations sometimes have an elusive quality.
"We can spin out to the leeward side of Has Xnois to see if you can go ashore
there," Alfredo offered.
"Which one is Has Xnois?" I called to him. "Turners or Cholludo?"
"Which is Cholludo?" he responded, perplexed. "Roca Foca?"
"Turners is the bigger one. I think the Mexican fishermen call it Datil."
"That's Hastaacoj then. Too many rocks to go ashore when the tide is at this
level. I can get you near to the smaller one, then we'll see."
Isla Cholludoor Has Xnois, as Alfredo knew itwas as full of cactus as any
island can be. Not only cholla cactus, as its name implies, but standing-room-only patches
of saguaro, organpipe, sinita, cardon, and pitahaya agria. As Alfredo pulled the panga
toward the lee shore, it became obvious that there were dozens of sharp rocks just below
water level between us and the one small rocky strand where the boat might otherwise
"Not today here either," Alfredo shrugged. "It's a shame. I wanted to
show you a kind of lizard that is only here and on Coftecol; one that's not even on
Hastaacoj, even though it is closer than Coftecol."
"What kind of lizard?"
"I'll show you tomorrow, if we make it to Coftecol," Alfredo said with a
We cruised back to the southeasternmost cove of Tiburón, called Ensenada del Perro by
the Mexican fishermen who were illegally camped there. Use of Tiburón, San Esteban, and
the channel is supposed to be restricted to the Seri and their guests, but not all Mexican
government agencies gave this presidential decree enough support to allow the Seri to
evict invaders without fear of retaliation. In this case, our guides recognized a couple
of the fishermen, and decided not to press the issue. As we let our Thanksgiving dinner
warm up on the cookstove, we walked from our camp on the beach into a small valley. There,
around campfires out of sight from the beach, we found one hawksbill sea turtle and four
desert tortoise carapacesendangered species that Alfredo guessed had been poached by
"They ought not to be able to camp here in Seri territory, even if they were given
permits to fish offshore," Alfredo said calmly, with only the slightest trace of
frustration pulling at him like an undertow. "This is too near some sacred places on
the south side of Tiburón for it to be safe for people who don't know where they
As we sat on the beach at dusk and shared our Thanksgiving dinner, Native Americans and
seafaring pilgrims side by side, I thought about what Alfredo said. He was disturbed by
the sight of wanton killing of endangered reptiles within Seri homelands, but just as
concerned that non-Indians could be hurt by naively messing with a power greater than
their own. I wondered if the Wampanoag had the same concerns when they took pity on the
poor people who arrived several centuries ago on the Atlantic seaboard with so little
knowledge of how to be nourished by the bounty all around them.
I hoped that during future Thanksgivings I would remember the present scene: a handful
of people from two dramatically different cultures sharing food, songs, and stories,
acknowledging our mutual dependence on the wild lives all around us, lives that are so
easily snuffed out by either ignorance or carelessness.
In the morning, the ocean appeared much calmer than it had the day before. As we packed
everything into the panga, Alfredo pulled me aside and said, "I would like to make a
tape of the entire sequence of canticos that we need to sing from our village all the way
to Isla San Esteban for the crossing."
I asked whether the water-serpent song, the one sung to placate Coimaj Caacol, was one
of these canticles. "Yes, but the others are sung when you spot certain landmarks.
The one for Coimaj Caacol, well, you don't sing it in advanceyou sing it only if you
have trouble out in those waters." He nodded toward the southwest, then asked me to
gather up the entire group.
"Just as Amalia told you, we have an obligation to sing these canticles to all the
powers which are out there, before we make the crossing," Alfredo said. "Whether
we are in a balsa made with our own hands, or in a big panga like this, we need to do this
during the time of dangerous tides. Maybe not in every season, but in conditions such as
this, yes. The canticles are to all the spirits active around here. We all need to get
into the boat, and then I'll sing."
Four biologists huddled around Alfredo, while José-Ramon sat quietly on the prow.
Alfredo then sweetly sang the first of the Seri ocean power songs:
Before going on our way/ We find ourselves still in
Before going on our way/ We aim to pass the mountain/
That comes in the midst of the path.
We all leaned toward him as if he were the lead in a gospel ensemble and we were the
harmony section backing him up. When the singing was done, Alfredo and José-Ramon pushed
off without another word.
As we made our way around the southeast corner of Tiburón once more, we could see that
the sea was indeed calmer. We stayed on Tiburón's submerged shelf, and pushed past
Turners and Cholludo without incident, watching ospreys nesting on the cliffs of Tiburón
high above us. Then, as we approached one of the shortest distances between Tiburón and
San Estebanperhaps eight miles as the osprey fliesAlfredo turned southward and
headed out into the charcoal-gray and night-blue waters of the deeper seas.
Alfredo had once again fixed his vision on tidal patterns and patches of waves between
us and San Esteban. He didn't drive the boat straight toward the island, but stayed to the
east of the most direct passage. We soon realized why.
About halfway across, I noticed that he was humming a song, barely audible over the
outboard-engine roar. I caught his eye, and he smiled at me in recognition. Just then, a
splash of water came over the prow. I looked immediately to the west and to the south of
us, and noticed that we had hit the edge of a huge patch of rough water.
"This is where you must sing to Coimaj Caacol on the roughest of days, or else you
won't make it across," he yelled up to us.
We entered a series of swells, and got a splash or two whenever Alfredo could not avoid
being broadsided by a sudden wave. Considering the roughness of the surface, we took in
very little water; Alfredo accelerated to get us onto a wave crest, then gently let us
down the other side. Soon we were across it, speeding toward San Esteban's Arroyo
Limantur, one of the few beaches where coming ashore would be easy. The only barrier now
was the mass of sea lions sunning themselves on the gravelly strand.
"Hapoo," José-Ramon said, smiling at them. Although he was in his 20s, this
was his first trip to San Esteban, and, he later told us, one of the few times he'd seen
more than a dozen sea lions. When the ones blocking our path finally slid off into the
water, we landed.
Sea-lion behavior is endlessly amusing; it was as though we were watching some plump
prima donnas sunning themselves and gossiping about the quality of their vacation resort.
Our party gradually turned its attention away from the regionally threatened creatures
toward the island's other rarities. Craig was soon up on a ridgetop, checking all crevices
for the San Esteban chuckwalla, a threatened lizard that he has helped to breed in
captivity over the past decade. Laurie was sizing up San Esteban's endemic agave, the
source of a bootleg tequila industry nearly a century ago, when taverns in Guaymas
distilled the bases of its swordlike leaves. The Seri had roasted it to make mescal, not
the beverage but a traditional foodstuff with a taste and texture like that of sweet
potatoes crossed with sugar cane.
I set out looking for fishhook cacti, chuckwallas, and spiny-tailed iguanas, all rare
species monitored by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where I work. I tallied the numbers
of each as I encountered them, relieved that they had not become too scarce. Katrina was
searching the tidepools for a hydroid that she had discovered several years ago: Samuraia
tabuarasa. Later in the day, Katrina showed Alfredo and José-Ramon how to find this
rock-loving invertebrate: "It's hard to see until the tide begins to come in, because
it is all closed up." She tightened her fist, then gradually spread her fingers out
wide. "Then, as the water splashes onto it, it opens up like a Chinese paper flower
and kills any barnacles within range of its tentacles."
This cryptic organism was among the few on the island that Alfredo could not name and
tell a story about. When Craig caught one of the giant chuckwallas by hand, Alfredo showed
us how to sex it. Then he proceeded to tell how male chuckwallas "won" in a
gambling game their buttonlike femoral pores, a peculiar marking that various iguanids
have on their back legs. He explained to Laurie how the historic residents of San Esteban
"sold" the rights to come and roast mescal to other Seri bands from Tiburón
Island. And he told Katrina and me about aquatic games of "chicken" that the men
here once played: driving their kayak-like balsa boats made from agave stalks straight
toward the mouths of whales to see who could get closest, or swimming with sharks to see
who could stay with them the longest.
Later that day, and the next as well, we turned our attention back toward the subtidal
zone. We did not swim with sharks or enter the mouths of whales, but we did snorkel with
sea lions, angelfish, and puffers. That's when I pumped up the kayak and paddled along the
rocky coast of San Esteban, counting the sea lions sunning and swimming around me, and
watching for whales farther offshore. Blue-footed boobies dropped off the cliffs,
dive-bombing schools of fish in the shallows. Ospreys and turkey vultures circled in the
thermals high above us, reeling in the updrafts of warm air rising off the island's hot
The Seri, with their encyclopedic knowledge of the islands' natural history, were the
ideal guides. And the opportunity to make more frequent trips out to San Esteban and the
other islands, I learned, meant more to them than a short-term job. Shark fishermen from
southern Mexico had come into Seri waters, set out nets, and slaughtered dozens of San
Esteban's sea lions to use as shark bait. The Seri were incensed, but lacked the resources
to patrol all the islands within their territorial waters to prevent such massacres.
Ecotourists, however, supply the money that enables the Seri to frequently monitor the
plants and animals that they have a legal right to protect, to prudently use, or to
spontaneously sing about.
The sea lions of San Esteban are still trusting; one surfaced beside me as I paddled
along in the kayak humming the canticle Alfredo had sung to us earlier that day:
Wind, don't come/Wind don't come/
Keep the male hill in sight/Keep the female hill in sight/
The ones (that could be) shrouded in clouds./
You who are going asleep: wake up!/ You who are going asleep: wake up!/Don't sleep
anymore, for the sea is making its foaming sound/
Hear the sound of the sea foam.
I closed my eyes and imagined the words of this song pouring from Alfredo's mouth. Its
tune fused with the sea foam effervescing as it reached the shore.
Gary Paul Nabhan is director of science outreach for the Arizona-Sonora Desert
Museum, and advises its Ethnobiology and Conservation Team in work with the Seri. His
latest book is Cultures of Habitat (Counterpoint Press, 1997).
To find out more about ecotours with Seri guides, contact Mary Erickson, Sonoran
Studies, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Rd., Tucson, AZ 85743, (520)
883-3026, www.desertmuseum.org, or Cactus Turismo Receptivo, Edificio Carolina, 3ero Piso,
Blvd. Navarette 165, Colonía Valle Verde, Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico 83200; phone
52-626-06636, fax 52-626-06714, www.cactus.com.mx.