Our Spectacular Sonoran Sea

Seven Things to Know About Our Desert Ocean

Sometimes called “The World Aquarium,” The Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, divides the Sonoran Desert into two halves with the Baja peninsula to the west and Arizona and Mexico to the east, and is an often overlooked component of the Desert ecosystem. Celebrate our Sonoran Sea with us and learn why we should protect this incredibly rich ecosystem!

The Gulf of California formed around 5-6 million years ago, making it the youngest sea in the world!

The sea formed from tectonic plate action when the Baja peninsula began pulling away from the continent, and the present-day shape of the sea began to form around 5-6 million years ago. In the middle of the sea, a few inches of new seafloor is created every year as magma rises from the depths below the earth’s surface, filling the gap as the peninsula pulls further and further away.

Sunset over Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

The Gulf of California is responsible for the Sonoran Desert’s designation as the “wettest desert in the world.”

Love our late summer rains? Thank the Gulf of California! Powerful gulf surges (gatherings of moisture-rich air) rush north toward the mainland with the annual monsoon. Monsoon is a word derived from Arabic, meaning a wind that shifts directions seasonally. This moisture-rich tropical air carried with the wind causes heavy rains in Southeastern Arizona and nearby areas, moderating the summer heat and producing the dramatic thunderstorms that we (and our desert flora and fauna) love so much!

Monsoon season. Photo by Liz Kemp.

The twice-daily tidal ranges (the range is the difference between high and low tide) in the Gulf of California are some of the largest in the world, reaching over 30 feet at the Colorado River delta.

A sheer, sharply declining continental shelf along the coastal edge amplifies the forces of gravity from the moon and the sun on the twice-daily tides in the Gulf of California, creating large tidal ranges. These tides pull water from the nutrient-rich depths to the sunny surface, forming a dynamic and life-giving flow that sustains a rich and productive ecosystem, attracting visitors from the far-flung ocean depths like gray whales, blue whales, Humpback whales, sperm whales, orcas, and whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean! 

Whale shark. Photo by Matthew T Rader.

The Gulf of California is one of the most biologically rich marine ecosystems on the planet.

Why is there such variety of life found here? Scientists point to its warm subtropical Pacific waters as well as strong upswells produced by large tidal ranges that bring nutrients and oxygen from the deep sea to the surface, creating the perfect conditions for a flourishing of marine life!

The sea is so productive that about half of Mexico’s total fisheries are located in these waters, accounting for 70% of commercial fish production in the country.

Unsustainable fishing practices, however, are some of the most significant threats facing the Gulf of California, in addition to unregulated coastal development and climate change. Nearly every commercial species in the Gulf is overfished, leading to drastic declines in overall species diversity and population levels. Overharvesting, bycatch, and the use of seabed-disrupting technologies like bottom trawlers are some of the major issues with commercial fishing operations.

What can you do? Learn more about where your seafood comes from, and commit to avoiding consumption of unsustainably sourced species like the Cortez halibut, blue shrimp, and the California flounder.

The Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park located in Baja California Sur is one of the world’s largest protected marine ecosystems, and is a model for successful ocean conservation.

Cabo Pulmo used to be swimming with sharks, whose presence are an indicator of the health of a marine ecosystem. Throughout the late 20th century, however, overfishing caused a great decline in the health of Cabo Pulmo’s waters, and commercial fishing operations were forced to turn elsewhere—as were the sharks. With community effort from the town’s residents, the waters near Cabo Pulmo were designated a National Marine Park by Mexico in 1995. Since then, the Cabo Pulmo waters have shown remarkable recovery! If given space and time, nature will bounce back.

Keeping the Marine Park free from fishing operations remains a challenge, and it is only with more support for ocean conservation projects and increased public pressure for adopting sustainable fishing and coastal development practices that conservation efforts will succeed in protecting this incredible ocean haven.

Organizations like CEDO are paving the way for sustainable practices in the Gulf of California.

Located in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans works to promote conservation and environmental education, develop innovative solutions for sustainable harvesting and management, and integrate culture, history, and community into decision-making to develop resilient coastal communities. Learn more about CEDO’s research and have a little happy hour fun at our next Sips with Scientists webinar, where we’ll meet Dr. Hem Nalini Morzaria-Luna, a CEDO researcher focusing on developing tools for sustainable management and assessing human impacts on planning decisions.

A fishing operation in Sonora, Mexico. Photo by CEDO.

Interested in learning more and seeing some amazing ocean animals up close? Chill out with our cownose stingrays, and visit the Warden Aquarium to see some of the species found in the Gulf of California. Look out for the bigeye soldierfish in the Nocturnal tank, and if you’re lucky you might spot a spiny lobster hiding among the rocks! Be sure to visit the Cabo Pulmo tank, and look for the glamourous Mexican lookdown and the color-changing rainbow wrasse. Up for a challenge? Find the frogfish, masters of camouflage and of the ambush attack, whose relatively large mouths seize prey and swallow them whole! Make your reservations here.

A peek inside the Cabo Pulmo tank at the Warden Aquarium

Written by Elena Makansi.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Justin Smith says:

    When did they start calling it the Sonoran Sea? I’ve only heard people call it the Sea of Cortez. Is this Sonoran Sea made up or is it actually in the books so to speak.


    1. desertmuseum says:

      This body of water is generally referred to as the Gulf of California, as noted in the article! While sometimes referred to as the Sea of Cortez, this is an outdated term. The title “Our Spectacular Sonoran Sea” is a description, not an official name of this body of water. Hope that helps clarify things!


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