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Exploring Baja's Riches by Land, Sea and Air

Cabo Pulmo, Baja California. Ralph Lee Hopkins/iLCP with aerial support from LightHawk

Halfway through a ten-day expedition flying with photojournalist Ralph Lee Hopkins over Baja California, this is the fourth guest post by LightHawk volunteer pilot Will Worthington. The flights Will pilots, and the images made by Ralph, are being used by a number of conservation groups in the region to advocate for preserving the wild landscapes and rich waters of Baja California.

With videographer Jeff Litton and LightHawk’s program manager, Armando Ubeda completing our team, we drive overland to Cabo Pulmo. Boasting the only hard coral reef in North America, Cabo Pulmo is located just 60 miles north of Baja’s tourism epicenter, Los Cabos. This jewel of the East Cape region is surrounded by undeveloped desert and a stunning mountain range. The pristine beaches of Cabo Pulmo Park give way to a shallow bay that cradles a magnificent underwater world we were about to explore. 

Turquoise waters ply the beaches of Cabo Pulmo. image (c) John Markos O'Neill/wikicommons

A Thriving Reef and Community
Trading in our airplane headsets for scuba and snorkeling gear revealed the vibrant and thriving underwater world in which our local guides showed obvious pride. For many years, this irreplaceable treasure went unprotected, but through the tenacious efforts of the local community, the waters offshore from Cabo Pulmo were finally designated a National Marine Park by the Mexican government. Although the sea environment is protected, the adjoining land is not, and is under intensive pressure from large development projects that would forever compromise this unique environment. In 2010, Ralph first flew with LightHawk to help focus attention on, and halt, proposed development that would have dramatically changed the face of Cabo Pulmo. Ralph’s aerial photos from those flights helped tip the balance toward protection.

A shallow bay leads to a rare and protected hard coral reef just offshore. image: (c) Ralph Lee Hopkins with aerial support by LightHawk.

Over the past 10 years, the park has endured pressures from commercial fishing and abuse from visitors that are simply unaware or uneducated. However, both Mexican and American residents are committed to protecting the marine environment and promoting sustainable fishing practices. This day off from flying gave us a close-up view of this remarkable natural system, a reminder of the reasons many of us work hard to promote conservation and protection of these beautiful places.

Chasing Light
The next day, an early morning flight along the entire East Cape gave photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins and videographer Jeff Litton incredible light to document the stunning coastline from Cabo Pulmo, around land’s end, and back up to Todos Santos on the west side of Baja. Leaving this area behind, we take on a full load of fuel and fly to the very remote and very exclusive Rancho Las Cruces private 2500’ unpaved airstrip.

Land's End, also called The Friars, near Cabo San Lucas is the last southern point of rock on the Baja California Peninsula. image (c) Ralph Lee Hopkins with aerial support by LightHawk.

As a Lindblad Expeditions tour director, Ralph gained a welcome from the owners for an overnight stay. The Las Cruces membership includes the rich and famous, celebrities, and many successful but private folks who just want to be away from the crowds. The 206 touched down on the threshold of Runway 20, a few yards from the Sea of Cortez. Though others come here to luxuriate, our purpose was a practical one. Las Cruces was the perfect staging area to monitor and document Bahia La Paz and Islas Espititu Santo, Partida and Los Islotes. 

Sunset brings out warm colors on Isla Espiritu Santo National Park. image: (c) Ralph Lee Hopkins with aerial support by LightHawk
Unlike controlled airports where operations are permitted only when the tower is open - generally 7 to 7 - we were free to operate out of Las Cruces at our discretion, enabling our photographers access to the glowing sunset colors. Returning to the airstrip, Ralph and Jeff are giddy having caught the sunset and great shadows over the state capital of La Paz, as well as the remote coast to the north and east. The best day so far, they say. I know the images they made that day will help illuminate the value of preserving these special parts of Baja California.

(Want to see more from our Baja expedition? Watch this video.)

Will Worthington is a LightHawk volunteer pilot and Board Member, registered civil engineer and certified flight instructor. He lives in Carefree, Arizona with his bride of 51 years and flies a Cessna 182 RG out of Phoenix Deer Valley Airport.