Baja Geology Rocks!

TANGAROA anchored near fantastical formations

Voyaging along the western coast of the Sea of Cortez is akin to being in the Grand Canyon looking up at colorful layers of rock piled atop one another. But instead of our boat floating down a mighty river, Tangaroa is cruising on a dynamic and relatively young (geologically speaking) sea. One of the real joys of living aboard our Maritimo M51 is being able to tuck into coves carved into the shoreline. We drop the anchor, the view from our “house” now a different one from the day before.

It’s experiences like this that make living on a boat so cool! (Make sure you read to the bottom of this post! You won’t want to miss the short video at the end!)

The Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) lies between mainland Mexico and the Baja Peninsula, the slender sliver of land extending roughly 775 miles south from its border with California to Cabo San Lucas. While it’s only 30-150 miles in width, the Sea is incredibly deep. When we cruise from Marina Puerto Escondido, near Loreto, out to some of the many islands that dot the coast, it’s not uncommon to see the depth finder just…stop. At first, we thought something was wrong with the equipment but realized that, when there’s thousands of feet of water below Tangaroa’s keel, the depth finder signal just doesn’t reach to the bottom. The sea floor is an incredibly deep basin created by fantastic movements of the earth’s crust.

We’ve been exploring primarily between Loreto and La Paz

The unifying theory of plate tectonics, which I find quite thrilling, explains both these deep Gulf basins far below our hull to the towering layer-cake rocks high above the helm. (This landscape excites my inner naturalist but I’ll refrain from too much of a geology lecture!) What’s important to this story is that plate tectonics explains the movements of the earth’s crust, which is broken into pieces called “plates,” and describes how the plates interact with one another, which is what happened to create the Baja Peninsula and this stunning Sea. When I look upon geologic features, I feel the Earth changing as plates move about, their very positions affecting so many factors in our lives. To me, geology is alive!

While we cruise along this dramatic coastline, I think about tectonics and how plates collide causing great mountains to build or deep ocean trenches to form. In the lava layers we see, I think of the volcanoes that rise & erupt causing the earth to tremble. Plates move apart from one another as ocean basins grow & expand, pushing land masses away from one another or rifting the very continents apart. Plates slide past one another, fracturing & faulting the crust. While you’ve been reading this blog post, plates have moved ever so slowly, changing the face of the earth as we see it at the speed of a fingernail’s growth.

Plate boundaries. Notice how continents are part of a plate!

And Baja is part of that movement and change. Like a book, the rock layers are pages that record the physical, chemical, and biological processes happening when that layer was being deposited. I wish we had a good guide to the geology of this region to better interpret the layers we are seeing: greens, reds, white, tan, & brown layers color the landscape. We can see where tectonic activity has caused the layers to buckle and break and where volcanoes once laid down lava layers.

Multicolored layers attest to the regions active geologic history

Once upon a time the Baja Peninsula was part of the Mexican mainland. Like the well-known San Andreas fault in California, Baja sits right on the boundary of two plates that are sliding past one another. Sometime around 6 to 10 million years ago, this fault began ripping the thin sliver of land that we now call Baja away from the rest of Mexico. These processes are still underway and the Baja Peninsula continues to be on the move at the geologically lightening fast speed of roughly 5 cm (2 inches) per year. The Peninsula continues to move west & northward, ho! Rifting, rupturing, and rerouting created this dramatic body of water we’re exploring. We can’t feel the plates moving; we just feel the wind and waves that affect the sea. But its the geologic features of the Sea that create the winds and waves we feel. It’s the geology that affects the wildlife for which this beautiful & bountiful sea is famous. Geology is the bones upon which life thrives.

You can see the fault lines and areas where the crust has spread in this image of the Sea of Cortez seafloor.

We love watching how the changing light alters the colors and textures of the mountains rising high above the blue sea, green fields of cardon cactus, and white beaches. Rosy red in dawn’s light, these layered Peninsular Range peaks form the backbone of the peninsula. Uplifted and eroded Jurassic to Cretaceous Age rocks (200 – 60 million years old) rocks, their core is part of the part of the same rocky structure forming much of the Sierra Nevadas.

Sierra peaks and lava-capped hills rise above cardon-cactus fields

Down here, it’s the impressive Sierra de la Giganta mountains we see all along this stretch of coast. The dramatic layers that make up the mountains formed between 25-17 million years ago during volcanic eruptions that laid down the various lava and ash layers. When these volcanoes were active and spewing forth the ash & lava, this land was still attached to the Mexican mainland. It was only many millions of years after the lava flows had cooled and the ash layers hardened that rifting began, separating Baja from the mainland. During the millions of years it took as Baja sheared off the mainland and drifted west, massive amounts of sediments eroding from the mountains were deposited into the rift.

Dramatic peaks of the Peninsular Range Sierra de la Giganta tower above colorful rocks in a beautiful cove

These sediments, turned into rock layers, have been lifted up to become the peaks we see. As rain, rivers, and wind erode the peaks new sediments pile up into sand dunes or create the beautiful beaches we see as we cruise through the area. Our favorite anchorage is one of the most geologically spectacular along this stretch of coast. The Sierras rise high in the background while rich red rocks rise into rounded hills above a blue cove. Nowhere else do we see rocks like these. We took our Highfield tender ashore to explore further and discovered fine bands in the rounded rocks. The geology here reminds us of ancient sand dunes and layered red rocks we’ve seen in the Utah deserts.

Fine bands in the red rocks look like sand dunes turned to stone

With this cove as a convenient halfway spot between Loreto and La Paz, we enjoy making it our stopover to witness it’s dramatic landscape. Like the ever-changing geologic landscape, the view from our floating, comfortable & well-appointed home changes with each new sunrise and sunset. We couldn’t ask for a better place to be than aboard Tangaroa! Join us for a visit to our favorite anchorage: the stunning red rocks and cactus forest of Puerto Los Gatos:

Tangaroa anchored by the rich red rocks of Puerto Los Gatos

30 thoughts on “Baja Geology Rocks!

  1. Beth, the story you tell and the pictures are just amazing. You are an incredible author, orator and photographer. Enjoy, Enjoy.

    1. Thanks, Roberta! You’re too kind. We feel so fortunate to be in such a gorgeous place, on such a beautiful boat.

  2. Beth, loved the video and the geology lesson! I wanted to be a geologist when I was young but fate sent me in a different direction. Like you though I still love it and take every opportunity to explore rock formations and makeup when we travel at home and abroad.

    1. Thanks, Kaff! Yeah, live does that, eh? My degree in paleontology didn’t pan out but I still thrill at seeing rocks and wonder what fossils might be entombed in them! Would be fun to do a geology-themed trip with you & Simeon! 🙂

  3. Love watching your adventures and learning something new each posting. This would have been a great adventure for my geology class!

    1. Thanks!! I had to rewrite the post half a dozen times. I kept going down the rabbit hole of plate tectonics into a geology lesson! But it’s such an exciting theory! 🙂

  4. Beth, your photo work & text have to be the next best thing to being there in person. What an adventure! We are happy for your experience.
    Gene & Gaea

    1. Thank you, kindly, Gene! It is quite the adventure and one I’d never imagined! I hope you and yours enjoy a lovely holiday season. XX

  5. Beth,
    Your video and narrative was amazing.
    The two of you are so lucky to be on such awesome adventures.
    Wishing both of you only the best in 2021!

    1. You’re so kind, Beth. Thank you so much. We feel most fortunate to be on this adventure now. May 2021 be a much better year for you! xxx

  6. So great to live vicariously through your words and photos, Beth!

    1. Thanks, Debbie! Glad you’ve joined us on the voyage!

  7. (Cousin) Toby Davidow December 27, 2020 — 5:21 am

    Exquisite footage and wonderful commentary! Thank you parts of the world in which many of us will never get to see. Continue to have safe travels! Xoxo

    1. Thanks, Toby! Appreciate your joining us on the journey! xx

  8. Volker


    A great explanation of geology in combination of words, maps, photos and videos.

    1. Thanks, Volker! Baja is a beautiful place full of wonderful photo & natural science subjects, indeed!

  9. Thoroughly enjoying your adventures. Loved learning about the geology of this beautiful area. Wishing you and Tom “fair winds and following seas” .

    1. Thanks so much, Louise! We feel truly thankful to be having this adventure and I love the natural history, and being able to share it, of the region!

  10. It’s official! You two continue to create one of the most adventurous lifestyles currently being explored! Carry on!

    1. Ron! I was thinking of you, Eva, and the girls just yesterday! Thank you for your kind words. I hope all of you are doing well!

  11. Hi Beth and Tom,
    Nice to hear from you.Sounds like you are in an interesting area. I suppose Tom would like to get down to that sea bed. All the best for our new year .Take care.

    1. Great to hear from you, Lindsay! Hope all is well there. We love being on Tangaroa but are dearly missing our NZ home & friends!

  12. Well done Beth! Not only an extremely good geology story but impressive drone work as well.

    1. Thanks, Judy! Tom’s enjoying his Mavic Air 2!

  13. Just subscribed!!! What a totally awesome adventure you guys are having. I finally realized that I could join and follow your adventures. Will stay in touch…Take Care…Love and Precious thoughts of how you inspire us all!!! Loving Affection, Ray

    1. Ray!! What a pleasure to hear from you! (I keep telling Tom to call you!) Been thinking of you both & hoping you are doing & keeping well. Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for joining the journey! I love knowing that friends near & far are “in the boat” with us! Warm hugs to you both!

  14. What a treat! Thanks Tom and Beth. Such spectacular views. It does my heart good to see you distanced/protected somewhat from the world we land-locked friends find ourselves in these days.

    1. Thanks, Charlie! Yup – we are grateful to be on our Maritimo in relative isolation during these times!

  15. Love the footage (the drone footage is spectacular). Plate tectonics was my favorite section of my high school geography. It was so cool to snorkel in Iceland in the narrow space between plates.

    1. Thanks, Jeanne! Wow – Diving between the spreading plates in Iceland is one my bucket list. Super cool you did that!!

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