Gulf of California

Notes from our Field Journals
by -- April 9th, 2011

A brief glimpse at our thoughts and reflections over the course of our trip.

Though the boat rides we’ve taken over the last week have largely been part of the expedition of getting to someplace else, these trips have quietly carved out a significant portion of our time here. While similarities could be drawn to the long commute certain professionals make by car or truck, the immersion that fishers, boaters, and others that traverse the water have with their marine surroundings is very unique. Cosme may claim to have not noticed whales while he was fisherman, but he has undoubted developed skills of maneuvering a panga around turbulent waters with a level of expertise that comes from being in tuned with a dynamic environment. This level of skill is not easily noticed at first glance, but instead revealed over time. I’ve gleaned this subtle insight over only a short period of time. It makes me wonder the depth of local knowledge that could be learned over a lifetime, or maybe even just a year.

Cosme in his element

Cosme in his element

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I especially cherish the Mexico trip because I got to experience a number of firsts. This was the first time I saw whales or dolphins outside of movies or magazines, spotted shooting stars, snorkeled, swam with sea lions, camped with indigenous Seri people, took a class with grad students, cut open pen shells and the list could go on for another mile.  Living adjacent to the ocean and enjoying all these experiences have made me realize once again the grandness, uniqueness and beauty of our ocean. One of my favorite quotes is by Arthur C. Clarke, who said, “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.” More than 70% of this place is covered in water, yet we would name our planet Earth since that is what matters the most to us. We humans are pretty narcissistic creatures, who like to think of ourselves as owners of the world, when in fact, we are no more than neighbors sharing space with millions of other animals in sea, land and air. Just like Seri who treat sea turtles like brothers, if we remember to respect every living organism as we do to other human beings, then maybe overfishing, endangering species, losing natural habitats and so many other world headaches will become nonexistent. I know that this is a naïve thought, but I think this kind of mindset change just might be the most important first step to sustainable future.

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Our morning started out with a gentle wake-up from Mateja, no breakfast for most (I couldn’t resist a cream cheese sandwich to tide me over), and the prospect of a long-ish drive ahead of us. We all piled into the van and took to the highway. After a few hours of hearing everyone’s Top-3 playlist, we arrived in Guaymas. We had to drive around the downtown area for a few minutes before we found the elusive taco stand we had heard all about, but we finally made it and found a nearby parking spot. The pungent city smells were not conducive to a big appetite, but three hours on the road overcame any of that. We walked into “Tacos El Cachetoncito” and were greeted by a rather intimidating array of earthen pots with bubbling concoctions of meat next to a long row of (to use a definitively un-Mexican, but apt, term) fixins. Sensing the apprehension in some of his students, Xavier rattled off the names and content:encodeds of the food (several pork and seafood dishes) and ordered first. He started with two, and so everyone else followed suit with a pair. We quickly realized we would need to make several more cycles through the line for two reasons: a) the tacos were quite small and b) they were AMAZING. Our group averaged six tacos apiece, and Mateja even boasted the impressive total of nine.

Little fat cheeks

Little fat cheeks

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Never could I have imagined such a circumstance: sitting in a boat in the Gulf of California, literally surrounded by fin whales.  A few were close by, and multiple columns of vapor could be seen on the horizon.  Once the motor was off and everyone was quiet, we could hear them inhale.  Hollow.  Of those in the distance there was a delay between each burst of water and its sound.  It seemed like they were everywhere – once one breathed, another would follow.

Fin whale surfacing

Fin whale surfacing

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It was completely unexpected. I have never been night snorkeling or diving before and I was skeptical about what I would be able to see in the seemingly pitch black water. Perhaps there would be bioluminescence of sorts, but the glow probably wouldn’t help with underwater visibility. It became clear though when the group of undergrads jumped in the water that I had been wrong. Bioluminescence was literally erupting all around us wherever we moved. Although it was only a fleeting moment of light, the collective glow from all the dinoflagellates was like a private underwater fireworks display. I would’ve stayed in the water much longer had it not been for the sea lions and their unpleasant cries which got a little disturbing after a while. Nonetheless, the night snorkeling, although a bit cold, was definitely worth it.

Getting ready to night snorkel and see some bioluminescence!

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We have been camping on Tiburon Island with a Seri family for the past 3 days.  One of the topics we focused on was “Traditional Ecological Knowledge”.  The elders who camped with us–Manuelito, Alfredo, and Cleotilde–all possess a great deal of traditional ecological knowledge.  Their understanding of their surroundings is the product of many generations of people learning about their environment.

One of the most interesting moments on the trip occurred just hours before we left camp to return back to the station.  We were walking as a group along a beach that we had not explored yet.  Rather than white sand and loose shells, the ground beneath our feet was made up of fossiliferous rock formations with distinct and easily identified fossils of bivalves, polychaetes, and other benthic marine organisms.  The rock did not appear to be very old, yet the organisms we saw in the rocks were not shallow-water species.  We asked Alfredo if he could explain the presence of these fossils in rocks along the shoreline.  He said that these must have been shell middens used by their Seri ancestors whom he referred to as “The Giants.”  He explained that they had different food preferences, which is why the organisms we saw struck us as so unusual.  “They even ate polychaetes?” I asked.  “Yes, if they were big enough!” He responded confidently.  The whole thing seemed too bizarre to me.  I couldn’t imagine a group of people ever sustaining themselves on such tiny polychaetes.  I trusted his knowledge of his ancestors and the past, but looking at the millions of polychaete tubes interwoven around oyster and clam shells, I knew he could not be right.

When we got back to the station, Xavier asked the geologists if they could explain it.  Their answer was simpler–the fossiliferous rock was a remainder from times when sea level was higher.  That made sense.  This interaction got me thinking about traditional ecological knowledge.  In our discussions we never really questioned whether TEK is correct.  I had always just assumed that indigenous people know their land so intimately that they know the intricacies of ecological systems better than outsiders.  I don’t know if sea level rise and natural climate change is a concept that is commonly discussed in Seri culture–but I doubt it.  Without this explanation, it makes sense that they would come up with the idea that the rocks are made from the Giants’ shell middens.  After hearing Alfredo explain these shell middens I began to understand that TEK, even when it’s not entirely on target, helps people make sense of their environment.  It provides stories and explanations for things that don’t make sense.  Even when TEK doesn’t provide accurate facts it can tell a descriptive story of how people perceive and explain their environment.

Fossilized shells

Fossilized shells

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Enrique Arizmendi discussed the history of the Gulf of California — starting first with Cortez’s expeditions in the 1530s. Interestingly his 1535 expedition failed as the men he left to settle the land (near present day La Paz) were abandoned by the Iocal indigenous people to fend for themselves. Instead of eating fish, bivalves, and other seafood, they apparently ignored the sea and attempted to survive off the land — primarily roots — and failed. In a way the story mirrors much of Mexico’s historically inward-looking focus toward agriculture rather than ocean resources. For example, despite having vast coastlines, Mexico consumes relatively little seafood per capita. Most Hermosillo residents have little awareness of the sea; the area has historically relied on its land resources such as cattle. At another level I wonder what drives this cultural view, and whether it has influenced local and state/national level policies re: natural resources. For instance, after a period of having its own department, national fisheries management is now just a part of the larger ministry of agriculture. The implication may be that the majority of Mexico’s population (and its government) have very different conceptualizations of the sea and its resources than coastal residents (especially small-scale fishermen) — conceptualizations reflected in government policies. Do these ideas drive Mexico’s current interest in aquaculture expansion — a program that in many senses appears to be viewed (socially, environmentally, and economically) more like a terrestrial operation than a form of fishing (e.g., shrimp farms located in the desert 10 miles inland look a lot more like agriculture than any fishery)?

Vast open shrimp farm

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A tied green sea turtle was quite an unexpected sight on our second snorkeling stop of the day. It took me a while to understand that a rope around a large adult male was not a product of its unintentional entanglement but rather that it signified fishers’ catch of the day, maybe week, or even month. As soon as we engaged in saving the turtle from its illegal imprisonment (harvesting sea turtles is banned in Mexico except for subsistence purposes of some indigenous tribes), fishers grabbed the end of the rope and dragged the turtle out of the bay. Would it be sold on the black market or would it be eaten by fishers’ families? I guess I’ll never know the answer.

Turtle Carapace found on Tiburon Island

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It’s 4pm—the light is perfect.  The water is glass and fin whales surround us.  In the middle of the oceanic islands of the Sea of Cortez these giants are heavy breathers.  Their white lips and small dorsal fins break the smooth surface first.  I see their blows all over the ocean as far as the eye can see—it is the most peaceful experience I have ever had on the ocean.  We are sitting in silence with the panga motor off, listening to the majestic whales.  When they breathe they sound like they are almost hollow.  We stopped trying to follow them and take their picture, and finally, they came to us.

Fin whale for thought

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The stars are magnificent as always on these islands in the Gulf of California.  Tonight they seem different though against the black sillouette of the island’s cliffs.  They are so bright, piercing through the night.  I’ve never seen stars like these before—they reflect on the oceans surface.  Laying on the bow of our boat, we watch the sky change as the time goes by.  Orion’s sword sheath eventually disappears behind the dark mountain.

Isla Tiburon by night

Isla Tiburon by night

 

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