When last tallied, about 3,000 species, subspecies, and varieties of native and introduced (non-native) vascular plants (the "higher" plants, having vessels or ducts carrying sap) have been recorded in Baja. As might be expected, the plants of northern Baja are closely related to those of Southern California. Much of the land below 3,000 feet west of the Ju&aacuterez and San Pedro M&aacutertir escarpments is covered by chaparral consisting of chamise, manzanita, laurel sumac, sage, and other plants, giving way at lower elevations to a coastal scrub of agave, cliff spurge, buckeye, buckwheat, and bladderpod. Plants in the Cape region are closely related to those of the nearest areas on the mainland, with complex communities of cacti, yuccas, and various shrubs and trees like palo blanco and palo verde at low elevations. Between these northern and southern areas, many familiar desert plants are found, including ocotillo, ironwood, creosote bush, mesquite, agave, and various cacti, including the infamous jumping cholla.
A magnificent bighorn ram 
Photo by Gary Kramer
Most travelers, confined largely to paved roads and possessing a stereotypical vision of what Baja "ought" to look like, would express disbelief about what is to be found in some areas. In spite of Baja's "burning-desert" image, there are relatively well-watered areas that support a distinctly nondesert vegetation, especially the higher reaches of the Sierra de Ju&aacuterez and the Sierra de San Pedro M&aacutertir, where forests of pine, cedar, fir, aspen, and oak are encountered. The latter area even has a version of a Canadian boreal forest, complete with lodgepole pine and white fir. The considerable rainfall in the mountains of the Cape region supports woodlands of oak and pinyon pine, sometimes guarded by an almost impenetrable underbrush. In addition, there are tiny Shangri-las, microenvironments of verdant palms, park-like meadows, mangrove lagoons, fresh- and saltwater marshes, streams, and even waterfalls, often in the most unexpected places.

Encounters with coyotes and roadrunners might not surprise you, but there are also mule deer, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, and a few antelope, as well as many smaller mammal species such as fox, rabbit, bobcat, skunk, badger, raccoon, ring-tailed cat, ground squirrel, chipmunk, gopher, mouse, and rat, plus feral (domestic animals gone wild) cat, pig, and goat. Well adapted to Baja's climates, many reptile species inhabit the peninsula, including such familiar and expected animals as various species of rattlesnake and whiptail, king, and gopher snakes, and numerous iguanids, geckos, and lizards. Tree frog, salamander, and pond turtle don't seem to be the sort of animals you would expect to encounter in Baja, but they are present, along with a number of species of toad. Baja's diverse mix of deserts, bays, mangrove lagoons, forested peaks, and islands, together with its strategic location on many flyways, promotes an equally diverse mixture of bird life. Check lists differ, but some identify over 400 species that live in, breed in, or pass through Baja and over surrounding waters.


The southerly sweep of the California Current insures that snorkelers and fishermen will find it difficult to differentiate the flora and fauna of the Pacific waters off northwestern Baja from those of Southern California, and extensive kelp beds and such fauna as ling cod, abalone, and sea urchins are common. Starting at about San Quint&iacuten, however, some of the plants and animals adapted to cool water start to disappear, and forms that are adapted to more tropical conditions become increasingly common. By Punta Abreojos, the underwater environment becomes distinctly tropical, although some cool-water life like abalone can be found all the way to the Cape. Occasionally El Ni&ntildeo, a warm current formed in the Pacific, provides a few surprises: in the Summer of 1993, several Cortez angelfish, normally a tropical species whose presence in Baja waters is confined largely to the Cape region, were seen in the San Diego area, mako sharks, skipjack, dolphinfish, and broadbill swordfish were hooked in the Bay Area, and a marlin was caught in Oregon.
A blue-striped nudibranch encountered off the western shore of Isla Carmen
Photo by Walt Peterson
The diversity of fish in the Cortez is extreme due to its great variations in water temperature and depth, and great range of bottom topography, from great shallows with flat, silty bottoms to vertical rock walls. Although early explorers thought Baja to be an island, there has been no direct connection between the northern Cortez and the Pacific at any point in the geological history of the peninsula. It might be hard to convince a fisherman or diver of this fact, however, for the northern Cortez is home to a rather odd assortment of fish, with more in common with Southern California than with the rest of the Cortez. Among the "California" fish to be found are white seabass, ocean whitefish, several species of rockfish, sheephead, and California halibut. Although some Baja residents claim there is a tunnel under the peninsula connecting the Cortez and the Pacific, a more likely reason for the presence of these species in the northern Cortez is that their ancestors arrived during a period when Cortez waters were cooler than today. At the southern end of the Cortez, Indo-Pacific species like Moorish idols and longnose butterfly fish can be seen, and there is even a sizable coral reef.

While a visitor to Baja is unlikely to see a large, wild, four-legged land mammal (the two-legged variety is common), the waters surrounding the peninsula contain an abundance of marine mammals, and over 20 species of whales, porpoises, and dolphins have been identified. The most numerous large whales in Baja's Pacific waters are the gray whales, some of which are "friendly," often approaching boats hoping to be scratched and petted. A full-time resident population of finback whales lives in the Cortez, often concentrated in the Midriff region, and others can be seen in the Pacific in winter. Finbacks are large, and at up to 80 feet they are second only to blue whales. They sometimes swim in groups of 2 to 10, their spouts shooting up like geysers. On rare occasions they get together in larger groups, and 27 were once seen feeding together in the Cortez.

Humpbacks, with their long white flippers and musical talents, inhabit the Cortez and waters off the Cape in winter, especially the latter area. Blue whales, at 100 feet and 150 tons the largest animals ever to live on earth, cruise off the Pacific coast, some visiting the Cortez between late winter and late spring. A "school," or better yet a "university," of 12 blues was seen a number of years ago, feeding west of Isla Cedros. Sperm whales are seen occasionally, sometimes traveling in large groups. Fifty-two of them stranded on a beach north of Mulegé in 1979 and died in the hot sun. Orcas often stay near the Islas San Benito, where they are attracted by large numbers of sea lions, a favorite delicacy. In 1978, a pod of an estimated 40 orcas was seen attacking a blue whale off Cabo San Lucas, biting its lips and flukes for over an hour.
A fin whale almost engulfs a brown pelican while feeding on krill
Photo by Bernie Tershy/Craig Strong

Seals and sea lions are common in Baja waters, although few are to be seen in locations accessible by road. California sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals breed and calve on the larger islands along the Pacific coast. California sea lions often entertain human divers at the islands north of La Paz with barrel rolls and somersaults. Sea lions are not often appreciated by local fishermen, who see them as competition, and they are sometimes killed and used as shark bait. However, scientists have found that 90% of their diet consists of fish with no commercial value. Elephant seals are most common at the San Benitos, although they also haul out on the Islas los Coronados, San Jer&eacutenimo, and San Mart&iacuten as well. Harbor seals often can be seen on San Mart&iacuten, San Jer&oacutenimo, and the Coronados, and occasionally on the Islas de Todos Santos west of Ensenada. Stellar sea lions and northern fur seals are seen from Cedros north, but only rarely.

by:Walt Peterson ©

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