The Caguamas


July 11, 2016

Issue 19: July/August 2016Last Bite

This begins with a culinary confession—one that 30 years later, I can still taste.

It was 1986; I was deep in that other Baja, on a magazine assignment to document the growing metastasis of once-isolated natural splendor into tourist treacle. After two days in golf-stricken Los Cabos, I needed to flee, and headed up the peninsula’s then-still-unpaved eastern shore for Cabo Pulmo. Today it’s a national park; back then, local divers there could harpoon Pacific snappers as big as themselves.

I never made it. To avoid sinking in dunes, I’d had to half-deflate my tires, and in three hours had barely gone 20 miles. At sunset I lurched into a fishing camp, Los Frailes, where a beached tuna-boat carcass was now a restaurant, its former mast hoisting a thatched roof, its portholes for windows. I was famished, and thirsty. “¿Qué hay?”

The fishermen pointed to a blackened, steaming pot. “Caguama.” In northern Mexico, caguama refers to two things: a 30-ounce bottle of beer, or a sea turtle. Here it meant both. An oversized Tecate sounded heavenly. The endangered-species stew smelled beyond divine. But how could I?

Easily, it turned out, as there was nothing else. Plus, they’d already opened my beer, faced my chair toward the orange full moon rising over the gulf, and set a bowl of fragrant, forbidden ambrosia in front of me. So much for environmental scruples.

What does green sea turtle taste like? I’ll put it this way: like the only time I smoked opium—so seductive that I knew I’d never dare try it again.

After my final interview, Baja California Sur’s state environmental director took me to his favorite La Paz restaurant, where I declined his recommendation of the aleta de caguama rellena—stuffed sea-turtle fin. But then things in Mexico improved: by the 1990s, sea turtles and their nests were protected. Signs hawking caguama, once common in taquería windows from Tijuana to Nogales, now offered cahuamanta: an invented term akin to the Krab that’s replaced real crabmeat in your salad. In this case, manta-ray wings are harvested as the next best thing to sea-turtle meat. You don’t have to cross the line for a sample: several Tucson taco stands sell cahuamanta.

Better, but still complicated, as some mantarraya species are now also threatened. And then, in the Seri Indian village of Punta Chueca, Sonora, while co-leading a class in human and coastal ecology for Prescott College, I saw how protections get side-stepped. We were buying sodas when a Seri fisherman appeared, a struggling green caguama hoisted on his back. In Mexico, Seris have indigenous hunting rights to this traditional food—but this turtle, I overheard, was going for the peso equivalent of $75 to a waiting Hermosillo restaurateur.

“The hell it is,” said my Prescott teaching colleague, naturalist Doug Hulmes, when I translated for him. To the fisherman’s gleeful amusement, a bidding war ensued, which ended $120 later when Doug won—and then hauled his purchase back to the sea and released it.

Everyone there knew that the hapless turtle would soon be recaptured, and resold. Even Doug. But as he staggered toward the beach under the magnificent creature’s weight, even the Seris’ laughter ceased. Later, a Seri woman gave Doug a shell necklace. Everyone knew why.

Late that afternoon, we drove to nearby Bahía de Kino’s Santa Cruz estuary, slogged into the mudflats, and dug ourselves a mess of Venus clams and big, black patas de mula. Although upstream damming now keeps the Río Sonora from reaching here, there’s apparently still enough subterranean alluvial flow for these mollusks to thrive. That night, we steamed them over a bonfire and gorged ourselves.

All along the Sea of Cortez, shell middens show that the Seris and other humans have done the same for thousands of years. It’s a humbler meal than the exalted sea turtle that figures prominently in Seri creation myths—but it’s no less a blessing that we can still gather some things from the sea without exhausting their supply, drench them in melted butter, and wash them down with those other fine caguamas. Try both with lime.

Alan Weisman has written for Harper’sThe New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly, and is the author of Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? and The World Without Us.

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