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Rick Brusca and The Sea of Cortés

By Ale Medellín

Over fifty years ago, Richard Brusca got an opportunity of a lifetime to work in one of the most unique places in the world: the Sea of Cortés, or Gulf of California in the northwest of Mexico. The opportunity was to build a small marine station and draft keys to identifying invertebrates for students from the University of Arizona to use. Today, his passion for the Sea of Cortés and its inhabitants is still there. There are very few people in this world who can say they love what they do, whether it’s two, ten or fifty years later. Rick seems like one of the luckiest people on Earth because, not only does he love what he does, he is the best in his field, even if he may deny so.

Rick and Wally, the Wonder Dog

Before Rick became the leading expert on invertebrates in the Sea of Cortés, he lived in California, and unlike some kids his age, he wanted to be a junkman. The people who look in the trash for weird, unique things and collect them and keep them in their homes. Collecting has always been a passion of his and, even though he did not end up being a junkman, he still does some collecting, and that ability to find weird and unique things is probably one of the reasons why he got to where he is today. Not many people had done research on the Sea of Cortés before Rick came along in the 1970’s. The last people to do that were probably John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in the 1940’s, two explorers who decided to go on a quest to explore the Sea of Cortés. And when Rick was in college studying marine biology, one of his teachers talked about the Ricketts-Steinbeck expedition. He was instantly hooked and got the book that Steinbeck wrote about the expedition and became even more absorbed into the story and he wasn’t the only one. Rick believes that people who grew up in California and were interested in marine biology, eventually bumped into the Ricketts-Steinbeck story, and so Rick and his like minded friends decided to jump in the car and take a trip down to Mexico’s Sea of Cortés. “We drove down all the way to San Blas in Nayarit, Mexico and stopped all along the way, snorkeled and collected stuff and it was just so thrilling that from that point on I knew I had to be a biologist and I knew I had to study the Sea of Cortés”. And a few years after that, Paul Denhel, a teacher Rick had met during his last months at California State University at Los Angeles recommended him for a position in Puerto Peñasco to build a small marine station and write some keys to identify some of the inhabitants of the Sea of Cortés for students.

In 1970, Rick decided to move to Puerto Peñasco to take on the opportunity granted by Professor Denhel, he says that an overwhelming feeling enveloped him, that this opportunity was fate knocking on his door. His first task was to build a small marine research station, which he didn’t know anything about, but luckily, his brother, also a biologist, was working at one, so he called him and said “you have to send me plans for your water system so I understand how those things work”, so he did. Rick decided to hire someone to help him and they started working on it. According to Rick “we did it so simple, we just laid a concrete slab and put up some posts in a roof so it was open, which is nice in Puerto Peñasco, because the weather is always good and then we built two big concrete tables and we had the seawater come in at the end of one of them and run slowly through it to the other end where it had a drain so there was always water circulating across. These tables were maybe three feet wide and maybe three feet long, because we wanted students to be able to stand along both sides of it and look at the animals and handle them and that sort of thing”. He also started writing some keys for identifying the different animals that live in the Sea of Cortés. He began by sending specimens to experts around the world asking if they would help identify them. He also took on some of the identification himself until he found that he had so much information that he could write a book instead of just keys, so he sent in a book draft instead “I wasn’t even a sophomore in college, so that was quite fun” Rick laughs. 

Rick hiking barrancas of Sierra Madre (Mexico)

Rick has always had a special love for crustaceans, but he finds two particularly interesting. A hermit crab which he calls the Gentle giant, that lacks the musculature to pinch strongly and who is threatened because people have begun to collect the type of shells it needs to survive. The other is an isopod called tongue biter. There are several types of tongue biters, but one in particular has caught Rick’s attention. “In a curious Twist of Fate should this species attach to a particular fish known as The Spotted Rose snapper something unique happens: the fishes tongue totally disintegrates but the isopods remains attached to the fishes muscular tongue stub by it’s hook like hind legs and in this position the fish uses his tongue muscles to actually move the isopod up and down in its mouth in order to manipulate food and continue to feed and survive. The isopod becomes a replacement tongue for the host fish keeping it alive until it can reproduce and the young isopods are ready to be released into the sea”. This particular bond has only been found in the Sea of Cortés, while both the fish and the isopod are found in other parts of the world.The Sea of Cortés is home to many species that can only be found there, whether it’s invertebrates or mammals, and that means that people come here to fish or hunt these weird animals and bring them to the brink of extinction. Luckily, invertebrates are very hard to extinguish because they hide in hard to reach places. Fishermen will hunt them, and lower their numbers greatly, but eventually they won’t be able to find any more and the numbers will recover, until they come back again. Sadly, this is not the case of all animals, such as the Vaquita, a small porpoise native to the northern Gulf, that has been overfished for years to the point that there are only between six and 17 left in the world. Rick Brusca has contributed to the conservation of the Sea of Cortés for over fifty years and he is a key element in us knowing as much as we do about that small part of the world today. Nowadays Rick likes to read and write while doing some archeology here and there. He did some excavation in Puerto Peñasco and found a clamshell near what was clearly a fire, suggesting that the people that lived there 20,000 years ago cooked it. Seems like Rick is a good luck charm in every field he approaches.

Rick and his wife Wendy Moore hiking the Napali trail

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