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Between Mexico’s mainland and the Baja California Peninsula lies the Gulf of California, a mystical frontier of splendid coastlines and turquoise waters. But overfishing, pollution and climate change are all posing serious threats to the region's unique biodiversity.

20-legged, coral-eating star fish. Possibly an endangered species. Gulf of California Mexico rel= © Edward Parker / WWF

The world's aquarium
Wedged between the mainland of Mexico to the east and the Baja Peninsula to the west is the Gulf of California.

Described by French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau as the world's aquarium, the gulf supports an extraordinary diversity of marine life, which includes endangered marine turtles and dolphins, coral reefs and over 900 different fish species.

The waters are also an important breeding area for the world's largest animal, the blue whale, and other whales such as fin, sperm, orca and humpback.

Safeguarding the gulf

But pressures from unsustainable tourism, development and commercial fishing are threatening the wildlife and the way of life for millions of people who depend on the sea for their livelihoods.

WWF is working to find a careful balance between meeting the needs of the local people and maintaining a healthy ecosystem in Mexico’s Gulf of California through 3 priority areas:
Map of the Gulf of California area covered by WWF's work. Dots represent project sites (2009). 
Map of the Gulf of California area covered by WWF's work. Dots represent project sites (2009).

Protection with a porpoise

Found only in Mexico's Gulf of California, the vaquita is the world's smallest and most endangered porpoise.

Artists rendering of vaquita porpoises, which are so rare there are few photos of them. © WWF

Habitat loss and getting caught in fishing nets are major threats to the vaquita and other marine species, such as marine turtles and sharks.

To protect this species from extinction, WWF has succeeded in pushing for the establishment of marine protected areas in the Gulf of California, especially in the gulf's northern waters where vaquitas are mostly found.

Parts of the sea have also been designated as World Heritage sites.

Well-managed lobster fisheries provide long-term security for the marine environment and fishing communities. Spiny lobster, Nicaragua.

© WWF / Cinthya Flores

Some 200,000 endangered loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) drown annually on longlines set around the world for tuna, swordfish, and other fish.

© WWF / Michel GUNTHER

Facts & Figures

  • The surface area of the Gulf of California is about 160,000 km2 (or 62,000 square miles).
  • The narrow subtropical sea is 1,130km (700 miles) long and 80-209km (50-130 miles) wide.
  • It is surrounded by the Mexican states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, Sinaloa and Nayarit.
  • There are 922 islands in the gulf; two large islands include Isla Ángel de la Guarda and Tiburón Island.
  • The Gulf of California is also known as the Sea of Cortez.
  • It was named in honour of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (or "Cortez") by Francisco de Ulloa in 1539.
  • The coastal region is home to more than 8 million people, including the indigenous Pápagos, Seris, Pimas, Yaquis, Mayos, Cucapás, Kikapús and Coras.