“Sea of Cortez” or The “Gulf of California”?  How about the “Vermillion Sea”?


She goes by many names…

The Sea of Cortez (Mar de Cortes)

The Gulf of California (Golfo de California)

The Vermillion Sea (Mar Bermejo, Vermejo)



Hernan Cortes was a Spanish conquistador that colonized and brutalized the indigenous population of Mexico and beyond. I don’t feel great helping this guy’s name live on, but it’s the name I grew up with, so it’s probably what’s going to stick.

Baja is technically the The Baja California Peninsula.  The ‘Gulf of California’ is the name you’ll see on most current maps. The California part makes me think of plastic surgery, skateboarding and gangster rap.  While these things are all near and dear to my heart, I don’t think the name’s going to stick for me personally.

The ‘Vermillion Sea’ holds perhaps the most interesting nomenclatural history. According to legend, this is the name that Marco Polo gave to the sea, partly because of the red pearls that were brought back to Asia by Japanese merchants. The other vermillion product that came from the area was a valuable red pigment known as cochineal that was brought back to Asia by the Chinese merchants of Cochin.

This pigment was produced by the cochineal bug, a parasite of the Opuntia cactus that line the shores of the sea. This cochineal dye was used to print the Emperor’s  bright red seal on China’s paper currency, and today is still used to color many of the bright red food items you see on the shelf. If you see ‘carmine’ on the ingredient list, it’s made out of squished up bugs.  Mmmm, better than Red #40!

Perhaps someday the great sea may revert back to its native name, ‘Hakusii-f’,   as used by the the Cocopah tribe, the native people of the Colorado River delta region.  Well, maybe if it rolled off the tongue a little easier…..