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National Geographic Photographer Discusses Development In Baja California

Baja, California

Photo by Ralph Lee Hopkins

Above: Baja, California


A photographer who has worked for National Geographic has been exploring development taking place in beautiful areas and his latest focus is Baja California. Ralph Lee Hopkins joins us to discuss his three month journey into the depths of Baja California.

The exhibition Baja California will take place at Ordover Gallery at the San Diego Natural History Museum from September 19th - January 3rd. Hopkins will present a lecture on Baja California at 9 AM on Saturday, September 19th in the Museum's Charmaine and Maurice Kaplan Theater.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The beautiful images of nature we see in National Geographic magazine often renew our sense of wonder about the world. One of the photographers who takes those pictures is bringing his work to San Diego's Natural History Museum. But there is an urgency about Ralph Lee Hopkins' exhibition that's not usually seen in National Geographic. Hopkins traveled from Tijuana south to Cabo San Lucas and back again, documenting not just the natural beauty, but the onslaught of development in Baja California. His images reveal threats to the beauty of Baja and tell the story of the local heroes who are trying save their land. My guest is photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins, who has worked for National Geographic Traveler magazine, and is Director of Photo Expeditions for Lindblad. His photo exhibition, Baja California, opens at the San Diego Natural History Museum this Saturday. Ralph, welcome to These Days.

RALPH LEE HOPKINS (Photographer): Yes, good morning. Happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Well, you've spent many years photographing natural beauty that you see but this project, called Baja Hope, is different, and tell us how that is.

HOPKINS: Well, that's true. For the last 20 years, working with Lindblad Expeditions, I've been traveling the wild shores of Baja, photographing the natural beauty, and it's become increasingly apparent, you know, with the rapid development and some of the changes in land laws in Mexico that many of the remote wild shores of Baja are threatened by wide scale development. And so it was a real departure for me to go from what was beautiful to some of the impacts. And it started out as a personal project and then grew into the story that was published last November in the November/December issue of National Geographic…


HOPKINS: …Traveler magazine.

CAVANAUGH: Right, and it was a sort of departure for Travel magazine to talk about the construction and the development that threatens a natural environment. Tell us how the magazine decided to go with that and publish this.

HOPKINS: Well, it – Yeah, it is a challenge for a travel magazine that is promoting travel and trying to educate travelers to talk about some of the problems of the development that, you know, is available for travelers to visit. And a lot of places there are, I guess, advertised as sustainable so how do you really, as a consumer, make the decision of where you want to travel? And National Geographic, as an organization, has a Sustainable Travel Department where they're trying to, I guess, set out some of the guidelines so that people can make those kind of decisions, so this was a first step in at least putting a spotlight on some of the issues and some of – you know, you see the beautiful hotels but what's going on behind the scenes?

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about your travels and your photographs in this expedition, this "Baja Hope" expedition. Where did you go? What did you take pictures of?

HOPKINS: Well, I started out in the corridor just south of the border, and I had help initially from both the Tijuana Tourism Department and also Wild Coast, which is a nonprofit based in San Diego, and they do work along the border regions and many places in Mexico. So I started out just going from Tijuana to Ensenada, just seeing the development and the issues there. And we know there's a lot of problems with the border both from immigration and the drug situation. So it was very interesting for me to see firsthand, you know, troops, for example, at some of the toll booths, and just talk to some of the local people who are there. And it's – certainly, it's sensationalized in the media but, I mean, there are real problems. So I started out with those groups in that region and then I had a colleague of mind, a Mexican naturalist, and he was my assistant and we drove south in my camper van, basically visiting different groups of people, organizations that were doing work to help conserve some of the areas that were threatened.

CAVANAUGH: And what did you see? What kind of threats did you see while you were on this quest?

HOPKINS: Well, for example, in the area between Ensenada and Tijuana, there's a river, a river that flows from the highlands coming out of Tijuana into the Pacific Ocean, and that river is basically raw sewage. People in San Diego know that from time to time there's close – you know, there's closings of their beach, and a lot of organizations are working to upgrade the sewage treatment facilities but, you know, in these areas there's not a lot of infrastructure. The infrastructure is certainly more for the development in tourism industries and not so much for the people who are working to build and maintain those places. So that was one of the things that was very alarming, is to see the – see this river of sewage. Other things, we visited a site that's called the escalara nautical, or nautical ladder. And this was an idea by the Mexican government to try to encourage tourism and that was to build a marina on the Pacific coast where Americans or Canadians—that's pretty much the market in Baja for this type of development—would sail their boat down the coast, put their boat on a trailer at this marina, have it trucked across the peninsula kind of like a dry land Panama Canal…


HOPKINS: …and put the boat back in on the Sea of Cortez and then continue their sailing journey. The problem is, there wasn't a bay suitable for a marina but it was constructed with basically breakwaters and at low tide it's, you know, it could be predicted and was predicted that it would fill in with sand from the long shore processes. So the locals say it's a great marina but you can drive your pickup truck to the dock at low tide.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah. You know, Ralph, usually people think, well, you know, Mexico could use some infusion of cash, and development could be a good thing for Baja. But you found that there's also a flip side to this as well.

HOPKINS: Well, there is. I mean, when we talk conservation, it really is a people problem. You – This isn't about, you know, United States or American nonprofit organizations working to save Baja, it's about working with the Mexican people. There are Mexican nonprofits that are very involved and a lot of local heroes working down there on the ground and it's really more about a philosophy and the scale of development. You know, it's been shown over and over with the model of rapid development and big hotels and golf courses that local people really don't benefit. Most of the workers come in from the poorest parts of Mexico. Housing is built for them, or substandard housing or they have, you know, no housing at all, and development continues. So there are always promises with development that there'll be more jobs and all these projects will provide more jobs, but that – it never really is the case when you analyze it.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins. His photo exhibition, Baja California, opens at the San Diego Natural History Museum on Saturday. And I wonder, Ralph, could you describe for us perhaps a couple of your favorite photographs from this exhibition?

HOPKINS: Well, I mean, it starts out with images of beauty, most of the large images. And when I was invited to do the show with the Ordover Gallery, I invited some of my colleagues, who've been working in Baja, both a couple of American photographers and then also other – and Mexican photographers, and of my own work, I mean, the symbol for me of the wildness and the strangeness of Baja, California with all its endemic species, is the boojum tree. It's this fanciful tree. It's endemic to Baja. It doesn't have – it doesn't occur anywhere else. It kind of looks like a upside down carrot or turnip that…


HOPKINS: …that will then, with time, twist. So that's one of my favorites. But also the marine life. Baja, California is the – one of the best places in the world to see whales and dolphins and, you know, there's nothing like – You don't have to be a photographer to enjoy the thrill of being out on a boat or a ship and having dolphins come into your bow and ride the bow wave. So…

CAVANAUGH: I saw a couple of – that dolphin picture of the two bottlenose dolphins in the Sea of Cortez. Just really remarkable. It's a wonderful photograph. Now, I wonder, how was this series different than, you know, like a usual assignment that you might get from National Geographic? Did it take longer? Were you more personally invested in it?

HOPKINS: Well, yes, it's one of those things where I proposed and it was rejected, basically. And it was a personal project. It was a personal quest after seeing one of the projects that – one of the development projects that started down off of La Paz, a condo and golf course and home site development going up on a peninsula called El Mogote. And when I saw that happening, a place that was once public land that was owned by everyone in Mexico, it really hit me that there needed to be a spotlight on Baja. So it started out as a personal project financed by myself, and halfway through Traveler magazine decided to send a writer. So lobbying does pay off to see your – you know, to see a project like this highlighted in the magazine. And the work continues. There's – I'm now working with the International League of Conservation Photographers, which is a nonprofit that helps photographers who care about places and so I have a grant through a family foundation to continue the work through them in Baja, California, documenting not only the wild places but some of the threats, and there are very many real threats remaining even in this recession.

CAVANAUGH: Now when I introduced you, I also mentioned the fact that you're the director of Lindblad Expeditions. Tell us a little bit about this.

HOPKINS: Well, yeah, I mean, I owe my knowledge and all the time I've spent in Baja to Lindblad Expeditions. It's a adventure travel company that operates six ships worldwide in conjunction now with an alliance of National Geographic. And these trips take interested travelers to wild places to learn about those places. We do photographic lectures on board but we also have naturalists onboard so it's a learning experience. In fact, I just got back from a trip from – down the inside passage from Sitka, Alaska to Seattle. And I go to Baja every year. I basically plan my year around it. And the next trip will be in March on the National Geographic Seabird, exploring the Sea of Cortez.

CAVANAUGH: You know, this is an awfully glamorous job you have. You travel to so many places around the globe. I wonder if, indeed, you have favorites? I know you're not supposed to have favorite children but do you have any favorite places? Any particular stories that stand out?

HOPKINS: Well, Baja is one of my favorites. I, basic – My background is in geology, studying in – rocks in the Grand Canyon, and so I love desert places, and Baja is where the desert meets the sea. And I think what changed my life was on the first trip, the trip actually that started in San Diego and went down the coast and we stopped in San Ignacio Lagoon. And it was my first time in a Zodiac, the inflatable craft we use for viewing wildlife up close and also making landings on remote shores or remote islands all around the world from the Antarctic to the Arctic. And on this particular trip in San Ignacio Lagoon, many people know that that's where, if you go there in February or March, the California gray whales are there giving birth and nursing their young before swimming north to Alaska. And most people know also that the gray whales have forgiven us for almost wiping them off the planet with hunting and now come up to boats, are curious, and want to be touched.


HOPKINS: And so touching a friendly gray whale, you know, this huge animal – You think you want to get close to wildlife but when a 40 ton animal comes up to your boat and starts pushing it around, sometimes you – it's – it – you realize that you're not in control and it's this animal's quest for contact with you, and that really was a transformative experience, a nature experience that is with me today and I revisit there every year, hoping to repeat the experience.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins. And, Ralph, you're an advocate, I know, of digital cameras and digital media. And I'm wondering, you know, some – I guess more and more people are being converted to that but you started pretty early on on that. Why are you so much in favor of the use of digital cameras?

HOPKINS: Well, I think the debate between digital and film is over at least…


HOPKINS: …for photojournalism and also nature photography. The first thing is, you have instant feedback. You click the shutter and you can see what you've done so you can either say you've nailed it or you keep shooting to improve the image. It's also now, with the way the price of memory cards for the camera has dropped dramatically, you can basically shoot an unlimited number of photos. You're no longer limited by 36 photos per roll, so that changes the way you shoot. You know, you look at your camera and you can start out, depending on the size of the card, you can shoot three, four hundred images with – literally without changing your digital film. But there's a backside to that. It's more work after you've taken the shot because you have to store the image on a computer and disk drives and hard drives. And also now the photographers themselves, we do the processing. It's like shooting, you know, negative film and then you have to put it through your computer to process it before sending it to your publisher, so…

CAVANAUGH: You gave yourself another job.

HOPKINS: Yes. So, yeah, so, you know, here you're a nature photographer but I spend much more time than I would want to sitting in front of a computer.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you about something that I know that you feel has been underreported in the media. And that is the impact of Hurricane Jimena on the Baja peninsula. Tell us about that. And tell us what we don't know about it.

HOPKINS: Well, you know, I have to – I haven't been down there so this is secondhand. But through the groups that I work with, it was said in the media and CNN that luckily the storm missed Cabo San Lucas and it went up the coast to where – where there are nobody.


HOPKINS: Well, all up and down the coast of Baja, California there's small fishing villages, there's small towns, and in some of these towns 80 to 90% of the buildings were damaged. And, you know, without power – They've been without power and water. And I don't know what the update is now but I know there's a lot of groups working to get people help. And so we're talking about subsistence fishermen, small farming communities that really need help. And so a lot of people's lives are affected and that has been underreported.

CAVANAUGH: Besides going back to Baja, which I know is part of your plans, what are your future journeys and photographic exhibitions? What do you have coming up?

HOPKINS: Well, I'm also working on a similar project in the Galapagos Islands with the International League of Conservation Photographers and the family trust that I'm working with. You know, I think a lot of people don't realize that in some of these developing countries that a lot of the work is done by nonprofits to try to educate the government and the local people about how special their place is. And so Galapagos, when you think about creating a sustainable environment or sustainable development, it's an island – basically, an island – an archipelago with very limited resources for sustaining people. Putting a spotlight on Galapagos, I think, will help people look at their own situation in other places of the world so if we can't – with the interest of the world in the Galapagos Islands and all the special endemic animals there, if we can't work for a sustainable situation, a sustainable life for the people there, it's going to be hard to replicate that anywhere else.

CAVANAUGH: And what, I wonder, do you want people to take away from the photo exhibition at the Natural History Museum? What is the – I don't know if there's a message but what is it that you want them to come away with?

HOPKINS: Well, I think for the people of San Diego is to realize that – or, for everyone in the state that Baja, California is more than Cabo San Lucas and the problems at the border in Tijuana and immigration and all the drug problems. The preservation of Baja so far has happened just because it's across the border. Look around you in San Diego at all the development and step across the border and drive 800 miles. There's a lot of wild spaces left. And today, even with all the problems, today is the good old days in Baja, California. And if we don't look at how – what the alternatives are for educating children, for example, and that's one of the main things. It's the next generation that's going to make a difference in Baja, California.

CAVANAUGH: Will you be going back there soon?

HOPKINS: Yes. Yes, I'll be there certainly in March for the voyage I mentioned.


HOPKINS: The Lindblad Expeditions. But we'll be – with the work I'm doing, meeting with many of the groups. Magdalena Bay, which is one of the best natural harbors along the Pacific coast, is still largely wild. And so there are groups there working to come up with a management plan to look at how that will be developed. Development is coming. It's coming to all these places. There's more and more people, and there's a lot of people who have economic interests so we're working hard trying to get a jump on how things will move forward in the future.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Ralph, thank you for talking with us today. I really appreciate it.

HOPKINS: I'm glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins. He will present a lecture on Baja California at 10:00 a.m. this Saturday in the Kaplan Theater at the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park. His photo exhibition, Baja California, opens that afternoon at the Natural History Museum's Ordover Gallery and continues on view through January third. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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