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'Desert Islands' is a disconcerting UA Press misfire—a shallow work on a very rich subject

A title like The Desert Islands of Mexico's Sea of Cortez conjures up breathtaking images of one of the most beautiful places in the world. Jacques Cousteau reportedly called this slice of ocean "the aquarium of the world." The gulf islands have even been described as Mexico's Galapagos. Hell, it's my favorite place on the planet.

It's not a good sign when the press release for a new book on the Gulf of California begins with: "Never visited the Gulf of Mexico or any of its more than 900 islands?" (Emphasis added.) Oops.

It's even more troubling when you open the package, and a skimpy 120-page booklet slips out, with an adventure-travel cruise ship gracing the front cover—and a blurb from the cruise-ship company pimping the book on the back. Unfortunately, this new book by self-described zoologist, geologist, naturalist and photographer Stewart Aitchison does not live up to the grand promise of its title.

A little housekeeping first: In defense of the poor University of Arizona Press publicity person, a lot of people confuse the Gulf of Mexico with the Gulf of California.

Gulf of Mexico—think east coast of Mexico, Texas, Mississippi Delta, Florida, Yucatan, BP oil spill. Gulf of California—think west coast of Mexico, Baja, Los Cabos, Sonora, Colorado River Delta.

If you've ever been to Rocky Point or San Carlos, you've been to the Gulf of California. Even more confusing, the place also goes by the name Sea of Cortez, or sometimes the more obscure moniker "Vermilion Sea."

Desert Islands has five major sections delving briefly into geology, island biogeography, life on the islands, life around the islands and the inevitable tale of woe describing threats to the gulf. You can tell Aitchison is really into the whole geology and biogeography thing: He spends a precious three pages (out of 100) describing the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa, which, while interesting, has little to do directly with the gulf.

One-half of the world's population of blue-footed boobies nests in the gulf's Midriff Islands. I'll bet you didn't know that. The book is loaded with these kinds of factoids. Don't even ask about "chemolithoautotrophic hyperthermophilic archaebacteria." (See Page 27.)

It's obvious Aitchison, a naturalist for Lindblad Expeditions, loves the place and would likely be an interesting travel companion. Unfortunately, the repeated references to Lindblad are tiresome.

A handful of his tales are also alarming: He describes sea-kayaking in the upper gulf with his wife and infant daughter. When they eventually head back, they run aground as the tide has gone out. Way out. They eventually have to drag the kayak back to shore.

On one tour, the Lindblad ship actually sails off and strands one of their female clients on an island. It was hours before anyone finally noticed. She was eventually rescued safely in the dark. Another time, Aitcheson nearly picks up a deadly sea snake.

People die in the gulf all the time from these kinds of stupid mistakes. These stories suggest tour guides are not sweating the details, which can literally mean the difference between life and death down there. Scary.

The Desert Islands of the Sea of Cortez is a shallow dip into a rich subject. For an academic press to put out what is essentially a fancy travel brochure plugging a travel company saddens me. The book is a sweet little promotion for Lindblad, and I'm sure it will be required reading for their well-heeled clients and will sell a lot of copies. I'm just not sure this is the kind of thing an academic press should be getting into.

The press has published a handful of other more interesting books on the Gulf of California recently. The Gulf of California: Biodiversity and Conservation sprang from the 2004 Gulf of California Conference and is a terrific introduction to the gulf and its islands. More technical is the Atlas of Coastal Ecosystems in the Western Gulf of California, a multi-disciplinary look at current scientific research in the gulf. And Tom Bowen's archaeological monograph The Record of Native People on Gulf of California Islands documents his important work in trying to understand the use of gulf islands by prehistoric and historic native peoples. Anyone interested in more than a brief introduction to this marvelous and endangered place would do well to skip Desert Islands and dive into these other three volumes.

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