Gulf of California

Excerpts from Our Field Journals
by -- May 8th, 2013

“As we were heading back to Isla San Jose we ran into a spectacular sight. We saw thousands of dolphins chasing and forcing sardines Sardinox sagax up to the surface of the sea, and then eating them. The sardines also attracted flocks of birds to feed. There were cormorants, pelicans, gulls and frigates. What a magnificent sight! To top it off, we saw 3 humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae trailing the food source and their tail flicks. This was an amazing day – It felt like being in a David Attenborough documentary and my life is now complete!”

– Xuan Hong


“In the distance we see a huge group of birds gathered in the sky, a sign that underwater there is a school of sardines. As we approach, we see also a group of over a thousand common dolphins following the school and feeding on it. It is a feeding frenzy! Birds that are left plummet to the ocean to catch some sardines in their mouth and dolphins communicate with each other and come out to breathe constantly. The show is simply amazing. When I thought that nothing could overcome it, I’m surprised by a humpback whale that is also following the school. At times like this, I confirm that I love what I do and that all the efforts we make to protect the ocean and its species are worthwhile.”

-Luli Martinez


“Today started with a long hike through the desert of Tiburón Isla with Humberto, a Seri plant expert. Humberto told us all about the plants – their traditional uses and any superstitions associated with them. This was particularly fascinating. I learned that some trees are considered bad luck if you stand in their shade! One particular bush can be used to make a tea that will quickly addle a person’s brain, making them crazy. The plant diversity in the desert is amazing, and though many of the plants don’t look like much, you have to respect their resilience and ability to cope.

Even more fascinating to me, though, were the large, smooth stones of all sizes and colors on the beach. The rocks ranged from blue to purple to red to beige to black, and as we waited for the panga to return to pick us up I sat contemplating them, feeling their warmth in my palm and pressing them against my chest to counter the freeze of the persistent wind. I’ve always been interested in geology, but today I surprised myself in realizing that I was actually more excited by these rocks that we walked right over than the plants that we had arrived to explore. I found myself wondering how there could be so many colors in one place…so much variety in the stones, all on one beach. Where did they all come from? Never before had I seen anything like it, the stones so large and perfectly smoothed by the waves, as far as the eye could see in both directions.”

-Jessica Ritter


“Just from two days in the Gulf of California I realize I will be exposed to many firsts. The most noticeable first thus far was the simple act of visiting a desert. It wasn’t until I arrived and saw the landscape I realized I had never actually been to one, and instead only seen them on countless Planet Earth episodes. Additionally, the juxtaposition between the water and the dry, rocky, cacti-dotted islands was completely new to me. I feel very lucky to merely witness this beautiful, striking landscape, let alone be exposed to multiple learning opportunities.

Today was an excellent introduction to Baja because we were able to explore the area by riding on the panga, snorkeling with sea lions, and generally just observing our new setting before delving into the topics for class. Having said that I’m incredibly interested to start learning about fisheries management in this region and the other issues related to marine conservation. Similarly to how I felt in Palau, I have little idea of what to expect, but know this will be an invaluable experience and not only expand my knowledge as a master’s student, but also broaden my worldview. I’m most excited to learn about the challenges to supporting fishers’ livelihoods while also conserving the fisheries, as one without the other cannot be considered success.”

-Julia Goss


“…It took us almost four hours to get to Isla Rasa from Isla Tiburon due to extremely strong currents and wind – tonight is the full moon and therefore the largest tide of the month occurs today. We pulled our boat into a small lagoon of the island surrounded by squawking, nesting Heermann’s Gulls. One of the gull’s had made its nest too near the water, and we watched as the rapidly rising tide inundated the nest and swept the eggs away in a period of just a few minutes. That particular gull’s genes may not be passed on this breeding season.

As we walked onto the island we had to be very careful not to step too close to any nesting gulls and scare them off their nests. If a gull leaves its nest for too long the eggs may overheat and die (this can happen in just 15 minutes when the sun is at its highest point) or a crow or yellow-footed gull may swoop in and eat the eggs. The eggs were a beautiful greenish hue with brown and charcoal flecks and mottles. The eggs looked to be about the same size as chicken eggs, and there were 2-3 eggs in a nest, sometimes 1, but I never saw more than 3. Once the eggs hatch the chicks are apparently quite precocious and will wander into the research station kitchen and make themselves at home while their parents are away during the day searching for food.

We walked across the island on a sinuous path through nesting gulls and piles of stones left over from the guano mining days. These stone piles made the island look like an ancient ruin of a once stately castle that had been conquered by an army of birds many centuries ago. We stepped carefully and gingerly along the path trying to keep a safe distance from the nests, but the gulls still squawked loudly and angrily at us – we were apparently still much too close for their liking. We reached a valley near the edge of the island that was absolutely filled with nesting elegant terns. They formed dense patches in the dusty earth such that you couldn’t see the ground at all. Around the edges of the tern patches were more nesting Heermann’s gulls, and the flutter of activity and sounds was quite a sight as the gulls and terns soared in and out of the valley…”

-Liza Hoos


“Traveling “tourist style” through Baja has been an interesting experience and insight into how Mexico manages protected areas and tourism. We saw many different user groups of the islands, from local residents, Mexican tourists, and ecotourism companies (like Baja Expeditions), as well as lots of sailboats and yachts. We were often not alone at our beach campsites or mooring bays. Occasionally, we might travel for hours without seeing anyone, and then turn into a harbor and see five sailboats. We’ve had some discussions on managing tourists.  Apparently, everyone needs permits to enter the parks and tour operators need special permits, of which there are a limited number.

On another note, I never saw a park ranger.  We obeyed all the different rules, but I don’t know how likely any form of punishment would have been with such little enforcement.”

-Abigail Furnish


“Today was an emotional day for several unrelated reasons.  We started off the day by breaking apart our group: our Baja Expeditions crew left for La Paz, and  the Niparaja team went back to work.  The rest of us spent the day traveling by van up the coast to Santa Rosalia.  We stopped briefly at the Bay of Conception – a beautiful area with many small fishing and RV camps set up along the water.  I had already been feeling antsy about our lack of internet and connection to the outside world, but the afternoon made it even worse.  We stopped to check on the ferry crossing, and while we were in the van, Silvia commented that there was a headline on her phone about a bombing in Boston. It’s Marathon Monday. The city swells to the point that it shuts down. If you ever wanted a large crowd with extensive media coverage, that’s your spot. Whoever did this knew what they were doing.  We arrived at our first hotel (that’s another story), and while Abby showered, I jumped at the chance for slow internet.  The explosions happened at the finish line, at the 4:00 mark – a common marathon time.

As a runner, this struck many emotions. The finish line of any race is a place for celebration, especially so in Boston, where people spend years training to qualify.  It’s a place for your family and friends to be, to witness your moment of glory.  To rob this moment from so many innocent people who worked so hard for that moment, that one feeling of crossing the finish line is cruel on so many levels.  I’m thankful for our slow internet today, which allowed me to connect with many friends in the area, who are miraculously safe.  As much as I love the camping and solitude of our trip, I’m ever reminded of how reliant I am on technology, and how it can be such a comfort in a  time of distress.  I’ll recap our adventures and travels tomorrow, tonight I’m hoping for peaceful dreams.”

-Ainsley Smith

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