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The Estero Morua Pharmacy
    How can anyone stay ill and sickly when living at Estero Morua?  We have medicinal plants to bring about recovery from anything.  The Papagos and Pimas knew the universal remedial efficacy of one at least, Larrea divaricata.  The Papago call it shelai;  we call it greasewood, although botanists favor the name creosote bush, and we'll abide by that.  We see many of these low bushes on the trip down from Arizona, across the border and through Mexico to the beach house.  It grows on the north side of the estuary, the Sonoran mainland, but not on the younger sand dunes where our houses sit.  There are at least five species of Larrea and perhaps a half dozen interspecific hybrids in the North American and South American deserts, and their twigs and leaves can be brewed up to make a curative (yet bitter) "tea."
    The magical substance that the desert Indians use makes up about 5-10% of the dried creosote bush leaf.  It is nordihydroguaiaretic acid.  Yup, you're correct:  there are 20 letters in that word!  Please don't ask me to spell it again.  Thank whatever powers may be for acronyms.  I can remember NDGA, the official acronym for this antioxidant.  Beginning in 1943, NDGA derived from the creosote bush was used in food preservation with particular emphasis on fats and oils.  About 29 years later, organic chemists learned to synthesize the molecule, leaving the leaves of Larrea as a cure-all for the desert-dwelling Indians.
    In 1986, a paper appeared describing 42-64% increases in life spans of mosquitoes fed NDGA.  This caused us to prick up our ears and start to examine the published accounts of this twenty-letter acid.  At the University of Louisville School of Medicine, more than 300 generations of the yellow-fever mosquito  have been raised during the last 30 years.  Much, therefore, is known about the life cycles and life spans of both males and females of this insect.  When NDGA was added to the diet of these flies, longevity was increased remarkably.
    No, just lie back you oldsters among our readers.  Be careful.  Don't become overly excited!  It's too late.  The NDGA had no effect in enhancing the life span of the older mosquitoes.  If you are not a young adult, forget it.
    When it came to light that some creosote bushes are the oldest living organisms in the world, putting the bristle-cone pines to shame, I had a brilliant idea.  Surely, the anti-oxidant effects of NDGA put aside, this idea of longevity would appeal to the health food people.  Big money to be made!  Then, dashing my hopes, Tom told me that Larrea leaves already were on the shelves of health food stores.  They  are labeled "chaparral," from which a "chaparral tea' can be brewed.  Tom was correct.... another million bucks lost, and I would not have thought of the name, chaparral.  Chaparral is a community of plants, a community to which Larrea does not belong!  Thus, the health food people might find a medicinal herb growing in some pine forest biome and sell it under the heading, "Tundra."
    Visiting a health food or nutritional center, I found that Tom was right. Creosote twigs and leaves were for sale.  I suggested to the proprietor that the chemist's ability to synthesize NDGA would be a great boon.  Precise amounts of the healthful substance could be taken daily.  My proposal was met with horror.  Purity is a bad and unmentionable word to the health food addict.  Ok, I thought, brew up your chaparral tea complete with road dust, cactus wren droppings and the half a hundred oils produced by the leaves of Larrea.  Enlightened, I walked from the store past the shelves crowded with cans of lovely maple syrup from upper New England.  Their labels proclaimed the absence of preservatives and other additives.  Nowhere was it pointed out that maple syrup is sweet because of that dreaded 12-carbon sugar, sucrose!  No wonder so few Vermonters live to celebrate their 110th birthday!
    But how about some nearby medicine for those of us on the Gulf side of the estuary?  We are in luck in the event we run out of shegai.  We share the dunes with that sandbinder, Ephedra.  This low shrub is one of perhaps 45 species found in arid regions from western North America across China and northern India to the Arabian Peninsula.  Here we think of it as Mormon tea, but there are other names:  Brigham tea, Navajo ephedra, desert tea, and one I hesitate to mention -- whorehouse tea.  This name stems from the belief that it cures the French pox.  Now we can understand why one species of this genus of abundantly branching shrubs, the one that extends as far eastward as Texas, is name Ephedra antisyphilitica!  
    The species of Ephedra are a source of ephedrine and at least three closely-related alkaloids.  They are of pharmaceutical importance.  The Chinese people knew this centuries ago;  what is now called Ephedra sinica they knew as the medicinal herb, ma huang.  
    Who could suffer from bronchial asthma with species of Ephedra available to relax the bronchial smooth muscle?  The other effects are too numerous to list here, but if you should see someone at the estuary with dilated pupils, rapid heart beat, blood pressure and blood sugar heightened, you might speculate he or she as brewed and partaken of our local Ephedra, or perhaps he or she is in love!  Who is to say?  Whatever the case may be, we at Estero Morua should be in the best of health and should fear no malady.  We have available lots of shegai  and ma huang.

    The Eros Saga

    We thought it would last forever, but now there isn't much left of an estuary landmark, the Eros.  Its stripped hull (for the Eros is/was a boat) lay bleaching and barnacle-covered like some great whale on what was once a lonely shore across the estuary from us.  Occasionally American tourists visited her, and Mexican teenagers enjoyed Sunday outings climbing on her tilted deck.  She was an estuary personality.  Then, during 198_, a Mexican oyster-culturing community moved in and today there isn't much left of the Eros, or Chuck's boat, as we often called her.  Parenthetically, there is a second Chuck's boat visible from the heights of our dunes, but that's another story.
    More than twenty years have passed since a boat from Sweden arrived laden with goods destined for the free port of Puerto Peñasco.  After finding adequate facilities wanting in that harbor, and after riding out several stormy days at anchor there, the Swedish captain decided that another harbor should be sought.  So he sailed confidently along the Gulf shore and anchored in the sheltered waters of the first estuary, in sight of our American settlement.  Thus, the Eros came to Estero Morua.
    It was in spring of 1969 when the Eros arrived;  the wooden-ribbed sailing vessel was 82 feet long, two-masted, and equipped with a diesel engine.  Made in Denmark 50 years earlier, she carried 100 tons of goods.  Included were cases of 2-cm iron pipe, sewing machines, miscellaneous used items, a bulldozer, diesel engines, and a snowplow!  When the Eros captain, Carl Ludwig, was asked why a snowplow was needed for a southwestern market, he replied, "It came with the bulldozer."  At that time, there was speculation that much of the cargo was stolen goods.
    Captain Ludwig soon rented a house in Puerto Peñasco to store some of the merchandise while he tried to make arrangements in Phoenix with possible buyers.  In the meantime, more and more items were being unloaded, with Mexican help, and transported over the sandy road to Puerto Peñasco.  But the storehouse, being 16 miles distant from the anchored boat where the Ludwigs lived, was robbed several times.  Thus, for six months during unproductive business negotiations, the Eros rode the tides at anchor, rising and falling back into the sand, suffering progressive damage.  Finally, Captain Ludwig, by no without funds or the means to obtain any, ran an advertisement in a Phoenix newspaper asking $10,000 for the "damaged but repairable" Eros.
    The ad was answered by a Cave Creek, Arizona entrepreneur, who shouldered Ludwig's problems.  He was later to regret this.  Chuck, an owner of a beach house at Estero Morua, had been following the vicissitudes of the Eros with interest.  He and his wife, intrepid dreamers, had visions of fascinating blue-water sailing venture once the Eros was returned to its original seaworthy status.  Chuck offered to help unloading and restoring the vessel for a half interest, while footing the bill for the undertaking.  On this basis he started to help the Ludwigs.  Meanwhile the boat had foundered.
    During the next three months, the work progressed.  Mr. Gomez, a Mexican helper, and his family were hired and ensconced in a trailer, hauled to the boat-site especially for them.  Chuck contributed a 4-wheel drive vehicle, adding to the growing piles of equipment assembled on the bluffs above the estuary beach.  The operation, tallied later, cost him $550 for groceries alone, and a total of $2,700.  In August, with four pumps operating on the Eros, and a BB winch from shore, a great and final attempt to float the ship was made on the highest of tides.  Temperatures hung at 115° F and with all hands dripping under a blinding sun, the Eros began to right herself.  For a moment it looked as if she might sail free.  But a sudden backwash tilted her back to the original position and it was beyond human power to right her again.  She settled back into the sandy shallow, and in that position she remained for years, a constant reminder of dreams, plans, and money all washed into the relentless waters of the Gulf.
    The aftermath of the story follows the same vein of misadventure.  Chuck, long-suffering but still generous, offered a spare house which he owned in Cave Creek, to the stricken Ludwigs until they could obtain employment.  With language still a barrier, the Ludwigs assumed he was giving them the house rent-free and Chuck was overwhelmed with grateful kisses from an appreciative Swedish lady.  The Ludwigs lived there another year-- rent free-- (Chuck felt he could not disenchant the lady.).  The couple never obtained secure employment, however, and finally decided to return to Sweden.  Chuck had lost not only three thousand dollars in the venture, but the rental money on his house.  His net gain was zero or, as he put it, positive in terms of experience.  

    The Stingaree and the Stingees

    There are various brotherhoods and fellowships.... sisterhoods also, at Estero Morua.  One exclusive club is composed of those people who knew the late José Espinoza.  Another has a membership roll on which we are glad to remain unlisted.  That is the group of select individuals who have fallen victim to stingrays.  No thanks.  We are not interested in joining that elite fraternity.  Perhaps an American history buff might be eager to pledge, for Captain John Smith was admitted to the Chesapeake Bay chapter in June, 1608.
    Turning to the pages of a guide written by Don Thomson and the late Nonie McKibbin, we find there are ten species of rays in the Sea of Cortez.  These are flattened relatives of the sharks, but unlike those streamlined hunters, their teeth are not a threat to us.  Somewhere along the top of a long whip-like tail is born a sharp and serrated spike or spine that can be driven into the foot or leg of an unwary human wader.  The results are undesirable, for the spine is venomous.
    Two species of stingray are seen most often along the sandy shores of our beach.  One seems a huge black shadow as it moves with the incoming tide westward along the beach and around the point into the estuary, where it feeds.  A few hours later as the tide falls, the rays reverse the pattern and swim back out to the Gulf waters.  We then see the pits in the exposed bottom sediments that mark the places where these bottom feeders dislodge worms, molluscs and crustaceans with he flapping of their fins... pectoral fins that are hardly distinguishable from the rest of their flat bodies.  This is a stingray belonging to the genus Dasyatis ;  it is the longtail diamond stingray.  One dead individual that washed up on the beach in____ measured___ feet from "wingtip to wingtip" and was ____feet long from its snout to the end of its tail!
    The other common ray is far less conspicuous.  This is the round stingray, Urolophus.  It is about the size of a pancake, although the big ones are 15 inches in diameter and have a tail more than nine inches long.  Its tail cannot be considered whip-like;  it is strong and muscular with a dangerous spine near a little dorsal fin about half way out from the base..  Each day many move into the sandy shallows as the water begins to rise with the incoming tides.  This is a dangerous time to wade carelessly out from shore.  It is this smaller, camouflaged griddle-cake that is the villain in most stingray incidents at Estero Morua.  Nearly buried in the sand, it is easily overlooked and stepped on by the unwary.  The sadder-but-wiser waders can be spotted as they shuffle along, hardly raising their feet.  They have learned the consequences of stepping on the posterior third of the round stingray.  They know the ]muscular tail can snap sideways and drive the venomous spine without mercy.
    There are many stories, some almost legendary, about the stingray encounters at the beach.  We can contribute little of originality here.  Three or four times we have seen waders turn and hop rapidly toward the shore, one foot held high.  When asked what's wrong, in all instances the answer was, "I think a crab got me!"  A crab wound, however, is delightful when compared to a stingray puncture.  Victims of the latter learn the true meaning of pain;  they are cold with pain;  they shiver with pain;  it seems like endless and unbearable pain.
    The first time we saw the hopping I-think-a-crab-nailed-me phenomenon was while camping on Sandy Beach, beyond Puerto Peñasco.  The victim was our guest, a student on spring break from a small, respected Ohio college.  We soon realized that he was in serious trouble and we drove him into Puerto Peñasco for medical attention.  The doctor's treatment involved administering a massive dose of drugs that masked the pain.  We have since snickered about this, and for many years we recounted the even and said irreverently, "He saw Jesus coming over the dunes on a camel, but he felt no pain."  (This was remarkable because the young man had not been brought up in the Christian faith!)  The medical treatment, unfortunately, had not destroyed the stingray venom.  Therefore, when the drugs' effects wore off, the victim experienced more than a day of intense pain.  
    Since that camping event, we have learned of treatments that can change more than 24 hours (perhaps 48 hours) of pain into an hour or two of discomfort.  These  methods involve destroying the protein or proteins that compose the venom.  The protein is denatured, to borrow the word biochemists use to describe the gross modification of a protein molecule.  Occasionally administering meat tenderizer at the wound site has some effect, but the most effective method involves heat.  If the "stingee" is lucky, he or she was stung on the foot or ankle.  Sweat stands out on the victim's head.  Cooking the venom destructively involves cooking the foot, or so it seems to witnesses and recipients of the treatment.  It is worth it, however.  Soaking for 30 minutes to an hour and a half may do the trick.  Relief is blessedly quick when compared to what Nature had in store for the victim.  (As we look back over this paragraph, we are sure a physician would criticize some omissions.  He would have used a sterile saline solution to irrigate the wound, a rather serious wound, for the removal of the stinging spine does damage;  he would have picked out fragments of the spine's integument, for they are a source of venom;  and he would have disinfected the wound before starting to denature the venom á là hot water.
    One experience with the longtail diamond stingray is shared by many people of the fishing clan at Estero Morua and once it happened to me, although I can't claim membership within that clan.  The tide was up in the estuary;  the big dasyatids had come in to feed.  I spotted one close to shore in a pool just west of Betty Point and cast, in a unskilled manner, the lure and fiddler- crab bait close to it.  The big ray struck and then Pandemonium broke loose as it turned and shot away from the shore at top speed.  The result was a snapped line and a lost-forever Cast Master lure.  Others have confessed to the same imprudence.
    The stingrays at Estero Morua are ovoviviparous.  Their eggs hatch within the mother's body and she gives birth to well-developed little fish.  This method of reproduction is underscored by a story Steve told me.  His anecdote also underscores people's attitude toward the stingray in general.  Not one onlooker cried, "Don't be mean to the poor mother ray... don't be unkind!"  
    They cheered him on.
    Another anecdote about the rays at Estero Morua was told to me by two reliable witnesses.  It occurred at the point;  the tide was moving in and the usual opportunistic predators were rounding the point to feed during the few short hours before the turn of the tide.  A handful of anglers had gathered to try their luck, and leather jackets and yellow-fin croakers were being hauled ashore at an impressive rate.  Suddenly, one fisherman experience a tremendous hit, the reel sung wildly and the rod bent sharply.  He had hooked a whopper.  Begin an expert, he soon assumed control of the situation and began to haul in his prize.  He had caught a large round stingray and when his companions saw clearly what he was reeling in, they warned him,  "Hey, be careful!  You've hooked a stingray!"  Or something like that.
    "Naw," said the angler.  "A stingray has a spine at the tip of its tail.  This one doesn't."
    He bent over, grabbed the ray just below the end of its tail and, arm outstretched, raised the trophy for all to see.  The fish sharply flexed its muscular tail and jammed its more basally-inserted spine into the captor's arm.  Blood spurted.  The fisherman dropped the ray... tottered and fell, unconscious, to the sand.  He had joined that select fellowship....the club that doesn't have a long impatient waiting list.
    Say's Bird

    Catching up on one's sleep is an important bonus enjoyed when making a visit to the beach house.  There is no traffic hum... no blaring music... no overhead jet engines.  True, there are times when roaring surf wakes us up after midnight, but that is an enjoyable experience.  It takes a few sleepy moments to comprehend, to identify the noise, but then the sleep lost is not important;  the wild roar of the breaking waves is exciting and rewarding.
    In the springtime, however, something else interrupts the valued slumber.  Before dawn on some March day a repetitious, plaintive bird call awakens us.  It is the voice of Say's phoebe, one of the breeding birds of the Estero Morua community.  It is the mating season and this flycatcher, no nightingale or skylark by any stretch of imagination, does its best.  A flight "song" is part of its vernal rites during the daylight hours, and its mournful notes are usually the last sound we hear at sundown.
    We see this bird on almost every visit to the beach, but there is a brief time in late summer, after the young have fledged and have become independent, when it is absent.  The dunes seem deserted without it hawking insects from a saltbush sally point, flicking and wagging its black tail.  Happily, it returns by the end of September, and we stretch a point and count this species one of the permanent members of our fauna.
    It is a remarkable bird when we consider its closest relatives, the black phoebe, also occurring in the Southwest, although but rarely spotted at Estero Morua, and the eastern phoebe.  Their nests are never found far from water.  How does Say's phoebe survive among the dry dunes with no surface water (except for dew) found within miles?
    It is wrong, however, to think of this flycatcher as being typical of the dunes and Atriplex,  the saltbush.  In a recently published book on the birds of Arizona's Grand Canyon, the authors underscored Say's phoebe as occurring in a wide variety of habitats (Brown et al., 1987).  It is found in the Canyon throughout the year, some pairs beginning to nest on cliff ledges along the Colorado River in April.  It appears in most parts of the Park from the river banks to the Kaibab Plateau, at an altitude of more than 8,000 feet (2,440 meters, if you prefer) above the Estero Morua beach.  It is a versatile bird that the Grand Canyon authors consider useless as an "indicator species," typical of one particular Life Zone.
    At Estero Morua, there are no suitable rocky ledges to serve as nesting sites for phoebes.  Instead, they build their nests and raise the young broods in carports, ramada and other man-made structures. The most remarkable of these can be seen across the estuary to the north, the white dot that is Chuck's boat.  Once we hiked across the estuary at low tide to visit the lonely relic.  As we approached the stranded boat, a bird flew out of the cabin.  Yes, Say's phoebe had found a satisfactory nesting site.
    But back to the mournful pre-dawn and crepuscular calls.  Does the bird sing, "phoebe?"   Not at all.  Not even close.  Had European naturalists, by some fluke, come first to North America via the west coast, our three closely related phoebes would not share that name;  only the eastern phoebe calls our "fee-bee, fee-bee."  Sometimes we think, however, that a Greek scholar could be happy with Say's phoebe's name here at Estero Morua.  In the early morning, perched on the tip of a saltbush near our porch its soft peach-colored breast is highlighted by the eastern sun.  The bird shines--  phoibos , radiant.
    The scientific name of this bird, however, is especially engaging Sayornis saya .  The two other phoebes share the generic name, Sayornis,  Say's bird, but our Estero Morua resident gets a double dose.  Thomas Say was an all around naturalist collecting and describing molluscs (about 30 freshwater clams and snails alone), insects, and crustaceans from the environs of his 19th century native Philadelphia, south to Florida.  In addition, he traveled and sampled the fauna in the western United States and Mexico.  He brought back specimens of the flycatcher that subsequently was named for him.    Is any other bird so bogged down with one man's name?  Can any other bird match that?  I know but one, Bulwer's Petrel, Bulweria bulweria , named for an English clergyman, Rev. James Bulwer.  But don't look for it out over the Gulf waters as you walk along the beach-- it belongs to the Atlantic.  You'll have to be content with Say's bird.
    The Unruly Echinoderms
    Some animals found in the Gulf waters south of Estero Morua don't seem to follow the rules.  One of the sand dollars and a starfish let us know that we have generalized prematurely about them and their relatives.  In most beginning zoology classes it is easily inferred from the assigned textbook and laboratory exercises  certain "facts" about the Phylum Echinodermata that are not entirely correct.  This marine group includes the sea lilies, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sand dollars, and various types of starfish (Fish is a bad word for these;  let's call them sea stars.).  The examples we study in zoology classes lead us to assume they are radially symmetrical animals:  if we cut one in half through a central point, the resulting parts will be identical.  We assume it is like cutting a pie plate or Frisbee saucer in two parts through the central point;  the resultant halves are always identical, and there seems to be no limit to the directions we can cut.  We also see that the echinoderms are constructed in multiples of five;  the sea stars usually have five arms or rays, for example.  
    Some of the Gulf echinoderms live up to such expectations regarding symmetry,  if we don't look too carefully.  Examples are the sand dollars with the generic names Mellita  and Clypeaster .  They are plain flattened discs, a shape that may make them less attractive to beach gleaners, but nonetheless illustrates how the name "sand dollar"  was coined (pun) to describe Mellita  and other discoid species on the East coast, while its counterpart in England was christened "sea biscuit"  (might "sea shilling" have been an appropriate name there?).  If we don't look too carefully, Mellita  and Cypeaster   have the radial symmetry of a dinner plate.  We can feel comfortable with Mellita and Clypeaster.
    But what about Encope grandis,  the sand dollar of "sand dollar beach" east of us on the Gulf?  It would never have inspired the names dollar and biscuit.  It is a favorite of the Gringos because it hangs nicely on a nail, and it is decorative.  There is, however, no silver dollar shape and no radial symmetry... there is only one way it can be sliced to make two equal halves.  It is bilaterally symmetrical like those avid sand dollar hunters themselves, who search the sand flats at low tide.  If all members of the group we now know as sand dollars had been represented only by this species of Encope, no person would have stooped to pick one up, exclaiming, "Wow!  A dollar made of calcium carbonate!"  Nor would they have said, "Ods Bodkins!  What a nice-looking, but flattened biscuit!"
    The sand dollars' closest relatives are the sea urchins, globular, spiny things, representatives of which are found cast up on our beach or carried into the estuary by the tides.  A small white spherical skeleton, minus the spines is commonly found.  It is fragile;  no one has ever carried one home without breaking the little white ball.  Sand dollars are really just flattened sea urchins without spines.  This leads to digression.
    Where did sea urchins get their name?  Did they remind someone of street-smart kids, homeless children, waifs?  No, the British are responsible for this name;  the spiny, prickly echinoderm reminded them of the hedgehog, a primitive mammal of the English countryside.  When threatened, it rolls its body into a protective ball, its quills protruding in all directions.  The British call this animal an urchin.  The step from hedgehog to sea urchin was inevitable.  Of course, we would be hard-pressed to explain how the hedgehog acquired the handle, urchin, but this leads to another (irrelevant) observation.
    In some of the New England states, Vermont at least, the native porcupine is called hedgehog, an heritage from the old country.  The porcupine has nothing to do with the hedgehog;  it is a member of the South American branch of the rodents, one of the few South American mammals that invaded North America successfully since the Isthmus of Panama connected the two continents perhaps three million years ago.  It has quills or spines-- sharp, protective modified hairs like the hedgehog.  Speaking of names, were those New Hampshire boys putting us on several years ago when they referred to porcupines as "splinter cats?"  But we've strayed from Estero Morua and our discussion of echinoderms.
    The sea star that doesn't seem to follow the rules is Heliaster kubiniji  here in the Sea of Cortez.  As will be revealed later, perhaps past tense should be used when talking about Heliaster.  It is a tidepool predator, creeping on unwary barnacles, especially-- although this personification is not accurate.  It brings to mind the name oystercatcher for one of our resident estuary birds:  how winded it must get, running down the fleet-footed oysters of our estuary reefs!  Couldn't the "catcher" part of its name be changed?
    Heliaster is or was a favorite of visitors to the Rocky Point region.  We remember campers' children at Sandy Beach(= Norse Beach = Tucson Beach) during the 1960s running back to their campsites from the tide pools to show their parents the prizes they had found and were carrying in buckets.  Too often the prizes were allowed to die and the tide pool populations became smaller and scarcer.  Heliaster, the sun star, was always one of the children's favorites.  Maybe was this because it had many rays-- not just five-- and was appropriately named, sun star.  Counting the arms, we usually found 23, not divisible by five unless a decimal point and a figure on its right is permissible.  Heliaster, apparently didn't read the assigned book for Zoology 101.  Maybe  it is time for us to go a bit further.
     Some more observant individuals might ask, "Why are you knocking the absence of radial symmetry in Encope ?  Just look at the little holes in Mellita's  test!  They make it impossible to cut more than one way through the center of the disc to produce equal halves."
    They are correct, of course, but picky, picky.  Do you want any living thing to have the perfect radial symmetry of a bicycle wheel?  Whoops!!  Those picky observant people would point to the hole in the wheel's rim, the hole through which the tire's valve stem protrudes, and ask an embarrassing question:  "Tell me any slice except through the hub's center and the valve stem hole that will cut the bike wheel into two equal halves?  Radial symmetry-- humbug."
    A little library research shows us that our friends Heliaster  and Encope are not especially unusual.  There is at least one 13-rayed sea star;  seven-rayed stars occur in the waters of the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean;  members of a genus called Solaster  have 7 to 14 rays;  and other sea stars are constantly six-rayed.  The vital internal organs, however, occur in sets of five.  What is found on the outside is not so important.
    Moreover, the radial symmetry of the echinoderms is not all it's cracked up to be if we compare it to the unlimited ways we can bisect a pie plate.  If we can divide a sea star into symmetrical portions by more than three straight lines through the central point, that is very good.  Even the disc-like sand dollars aren't perfect when compared to a Frisbee pan.  Okay, we know enough now to no longer be disillusioned by our favorites, Encope  and Heliaster.   We could have something worse, for there is at least one toxic sea star in the world-- not good unless you want to experience nausea and vomiting after handling it.  Acanthaster planci , looks like a cross between a sea urchin and a sea star.  It lives in tropical seas far across the Pacific Ocean;  we're safe!  Parenthetically, in addition to making people sick, it sports 14 rays!
    We're spared such prickly beasts here at Estero Morua.  Those who have snorkeled in the Caribbean West Indies recall the dangers of Diadema, a poisonous sea urchin that (like our Sonoran Desert cactus, the jumping cholla) gets you whatever you do!  There is another species in the gulf of California, but it is not found in the northern gulf.
    Now, there is something less happy to report.   In 1982, a paper appeared in Science  with the title, "Catastrophic Decline of a Top Carnivore in the Gulf of California Rocky Intertidal Zone."  It referred to our favorite sun star, Heliaster kubiniji.  The disaster was triggered by unusually strong winds from the south sweeping across the Pacific coast of North America in the winter of 1977-78,  bringing warm waters into shallow areas.  Water temperatures were almost 4° F higher than the long term average in the summer of 1978 when scientists from the University of Arizona found dead and dying sun stars in the intertidal zone around Puerto Peñasco.  A bad bacterial infection was destroying them and within two weeks the Heliaster had disappeared.  Perhaps the unusually warm surface waters had made the sun stars susceptible to some pathogen which thrived at those higher temperatures.  Will it come back some day and once again become "the most common, obvious, and widely distributed shore starfish in the Gulf,"  as John Steinbeck and E.F. Ricketts described it in 1941?  Whatever the facts may be, we can't blame the catastrophe on the campsite children and their collecting forays to nearby tide pools.
    Parenthetically, a knowledgeable echinoderm scholar might ask,  "What's so unusual about the demise of your Heliaster ?"  In faraway Nova Scotia, unusually warm summer and autumn sea water during 1980-83 indirectly brought about the devastation of a sea urchin.  The pathogenic agent in that case was an amoeboid protozoan, a species that successfully invaded the sea urchin tissues when water temperatures were above 50° F (10° C).  The disease spread rapidly at temperatures from 60.8° to 64.4° F (16°- 18° C).  Canadian marine biologists estimated that 250,000 metric tons of sea urchins perished along 500 km of coastline.  That's about 336 lbs per foot of shoreline to us Yankees, who have scorned the metric system.
    The Boats of the Sea of Cortez

    In those open-blue places where people live near water, special kinds of boats have evolved that belong to the particular region.  Shaped by something close to natural selection, boats come into being to fit the special needs of fishing village or port people.  Probably a scholar of such things could tell where he was, seeing nothing but one of the local craft.  Examples are endless:  the (fabled) birch-bark canoe of the North woods;  the Adirondack guide boat;  the taut seal hide kayak of the Eskimo;  or the rugged dories of the North Atlantic cod fishermen.
    The northern Gulf is no exception.  Here, the most abundant and the most colorful of the sea-going vessels is the shrimp boat.  Homeport and manufacturing site of many of these hard-working dredgers is Puerto Peñasco;  during the 1970s ten to twenty could always be seen there in varying stages of construction.  The vessel is 50 to 60 feet long with a high-prowed forward cabin, its leading edge rounded.  From the low, wide-decked stern, a vertical mast rises above the deck and, when underway, two booms point backward like dorsal spines on some huge fish.  These booms swing out on either side of the boat during trawling, the nets weighted by a heavy otter board.  On the flat stern board, prominently displayed, are such names as:  Mi Antonio;  La Luisa;  Ofelia; and Maelena.  In the harbor the boats can be seen rocking from side to side, dipping the nets into the sea, cleaning and drying them.  When docked, their bright-colored plastic streamers-- blue, green, yellow, pink, red, and orange-- fly from mast-top to deck.  These are attached at the leading edge of the nets and they wave, carnival fashion, in the breeze over the slippery, fish-strewn decks.  The colorful banners are not merely ornamental, but protect the nets from tangling in weeds and rocks as they scour the bottom and scare shrimp up from the sediment to be netted.  From our house we hear the shrimp boats at night, the usual time for trawling.  Actually, it is more than a sound;  it is a low throb from the engines that is felt all along the shore from Puerto Peñasco to Bahia San Jorge and beyond.  Some nights one can count the lights from as many as 48 boats chugging offshore, working the shrimp beds.  Most mornings during the shrimp season, we see a few heading back toward the piers to unload, even though some boats may remain at sea for as long as two weeks, the crew sleeping in the daytime and dredging all night.
    When the boats finally return to port, their catch is impressive.  The valuable shrimp are picked out immediately as each net haul is dumped on deck;  they are then "deheaded", and the abdomens packed in iced compartment below deck.  Other salable fish such as flounder, corbina, and shark are also separated and stored below.  The rest of the boat's wide, flat after-deck remains piled high to a depth of 2 or 3 feet with "trash fish" including crab, starfish, and sponges.  Unloading is a dual process:  one by truck and one by boat.  A conveyor belt is set up leading from the deck to a truck bed ashore;  the fishermen now change roles, manning huge shovels, and scoop the fish from the deck onto the belt.  From here the trash fish are taken to be ground into high-protein meal.  The other fish and shrimp are unloaded by hand;  larger fish are tossed onto the deck from below and then from the deck to smaller boats that transport them to shore.
    The shrimp boats are not, of course, the only fishing boats in the upper Gulf.  On a smaller scale, other fishermen ply the shallow waters near the reefs and estuaries using small boats and nets.  These craft,  called pongas, are also especially adapted for their use.  They are about 16 feet long, round-bottomed and especially seaworthy, with rakish bows.  They resemble old-fashioned whaleboats except for their flat sterns, which are designed to hold outboard motors.  Often holding as many as five men, these boats cruise the shallow waters of the incoming tides near the mouth of Estero Morua.  Some Americans call them "gill-netters."  Actually, the men are not setting a gill net in the usual sense, but are throwing out and drawing in a purse seine that captures any fish too large to slip through the mesh openings.  The large, wide net is equipped with floats, and the boat circles slowly, the men hauling in the net as they complete the sweep.
    The young Mexicans who fish from these boats are capable and versatile, their activities not limited to seining.   One afternoon late, walking on the beach, we saw one of these weather-beaten boats running very close to shore on a receding tide.  On board were  only two men, one operating the engine, the other standing in the bow, poised with spear in hand.  As the boat bounced and slapped against the waves, the latter maintained an incredible balance reminding one of the old Viking, or a Melville harpooner.  This spearman directed the helmsman, who twisted and turned the boat as the followed a sub-surface quarry unknown to us.  The harpooner hurled his spear once, but missed.  The boat veered sharply seaward and maneuvered to herd the prey shoreward.  Again the hunter threw his spear with amazing force, this time connecting.  With field glasses focused on the action, we saw both men approach the catch with obvious caution and, as they hauled it over the gunwale, we saw why.  They had captured a huge ray and were artfully dodging the stinger at the base of its long tail as they brought it aboard.  Then, an arm rose, and a knife slashed in the sun.  The animal was almost four feet across, a beautiful sleek, brown-gray color, but our sympathy was not with the victim in this instance.  We have a healthy respect for the dasyatids, as the stingray family members are called, and we never swim here without keeping them in mind.  
    Besides these contemporary boats, however, one unusual craft might be mentioned, a part of an earlier Mexican scene.  Although old and out-of-place now among modern boats, one of these lies on the beach at Estero Morua, dry, sand-colored, and weathered.  Here just above the high water line, is the final resting place of an old dugout. Hewn from a solid log, the boat is about 24 feet long and three feet wide.  In 1969, it was found cast up at high tide and dragged to a safe dune by an American, Maryanne, who hoped to repair and refloat it.  After many days of searching up and down the beach, she located the missing pieces of wood that had broken from one side, and carried them back to where the hull lay.  That night, unfortunately, American campers in search of firewood found the pieces and burned them in their campfire on the point.  The crippled boat still lies there, a reminder of a past boat-building age and, though we can never know with any assurance what Indians worked so laboriously to fashion it, the particular tribes that frequented these coast waters are known.  
    "The entire Gulf shore," says Charles Polzer, historian, "was used for clam and shell fishing for centuries.  There are many shell trails leading far back into the Sierra Madre, so the Gulf was used by... the Papago, the Soba, the Tepoca, and the Seri."  The dugout at Estero.............
    Another boat should be discussed.  This is visible to the unaided eye as a white spot across the estuary slightly northeast of the most eastern house on the estuary.  This once a sailer-motor vessel, is usually known now as Chuck's Boat.  It has had a short, violent history at Estero Morua, when compared to that other relic, the Eros.
    A gentleman from Cave Creek, Arizona, took it down to the estuary, planning to sail out to Bird Island with his friend, Chuck.  They set forth bravely one morning, their goal the guano-covered islands some miles to the southeast across the waters of the Gulf.  
    It seemed like a great idea, but fate intervened:  the boat began to leak!  "No sweat-- no hay problema,"  the men remarked, turning to activate the bilge pump.  The pump didn't work... A rumor prevails that the air became blue at that time.  Expletives were expressed vehemently and various dieties were mentioned and called upon in a crude fashion.  The boat was taken to shore and bailed out.  But this was just the start of bad luck.  The propeller was lost in the gulf waters offshore from Playa de Oro.  The men anchored the ill-fated boat and swam ashore with plans to get another boat and return to the bad-luck vessel.  This venture was successful, and the boat known now as  Chuck's Boat was taken back to Cave Creek for repairs.
    Later the bad-luck boat was hauled south once again to Estero Morua.  It sat for two years on a trailer in Chuck's yard.  Meanwhile, with the help of Rubén, Chuck removed the engine.  Why?  Later, someone "borrowed" a trailer wheel.  Chuck then anchored the boat just west of Seth's house in a tidal pool called Stingray Bay by Tom and Steve.  Subsequently, the boat was moved to Ed's house and after a while to Royal's trailer-house on the estuary.  It was made fast to a ramada, but as time passed it became obvious that this was dangerous--- winds and tidal currents sweeping past caused the boat to put too much of a strain on the upright.  It was easy to imagine the collapse of the ramada.
    His patience running out now, Chuck gave the boat to Ed and it remained in the tidal marsh west of Ed's house until the summer of 1983.  Then one night, unusually high tides swept it clear across the three-mile stretch of estuary and beached it high on the salt fringe between the Sonoran Desert and the muddy flats offshore.  It lies there today awaiting some super high tide and unusual wind to lift it and sweep it out to the Gulf.  Meanwhile, despite the fact that it was given to Ed, we still know that faraway white spot as "Chuck's Boat."