Acclimating to biodiversity

The hype for this field course and all the diverse marine life that we would see while in Mexico was by no means incorrect. The first official day of the course when we traveled by boat from La Paz to Espíritu Santo was breathtaking and we all witnessed a phenomenal sight: a school of hundreds of Mobula rays (closely related to Manta rays) just meters under the surface of the water, periodically launching themselves up to 4 feet out of the water only to crash back in with a cringe-worthy slap. I had heard about the so-called flying rays and was completely stunned by the sight, along with everyone else in the class. We stopped our boat (a 40-foot converted fishing boat) and hung in the water surrounded by rays so we could snap picture after picture of the rays briefly taking flight (or, as was my luck, mostly taking pictures of the splashes once the rays were out of sight).

One of the flying rays reaching its peak height before slapping the water in one of the most impressive belly-flops I’ve ever seen.

We were all captivated by the sight of such a bizarre behavior that has no explanation; the top theories are some type of mating display or a method to clean the rays of parasites. When the boat was finally on its way again, I think we were all a little disappointed that we did not stay with the school for longer. However, the next morning we learned that this sight is not as rare and magical as we all thought – as we were leaving the beach we camped on to have breakfast we saw even more flying rays. This time, we hardly slowed down to take a few quick shots of the spectacle before motoring off in our pangas (small skiff-like boats) to seek out breakfast on the large boat.

I use this example to illustrate a trend I’ve noticed in myself and in the other students on this course so far: after a while these once-in-a-lifetime sights become simply ordinary. Ever since the class started we have been dazzled by the beautiful blue, green, and sometimes crystal clear water of the Gulf and the biodiversity it sustains. The entire class snorkeled with sea lions and saw plentiful reef fish; we have encountered bottlenose and common dolphins in small pods of 5-10 as well as huge pods of hundreds of individuals participating in a feeding frenzy with marine birds and leaping around our pangas.

On day two we caught glimpses of whale blows that were likely fin whales but possibly the elusive blue whale. These plumes of spray were easily 50 meters away and we still all clamored to watch and time the intervals between blows. By the 6th day we were whale watching at La Laguna San Ignacio on the Pacific side of Baja California and touching gray whales (don’t worry, we would stop the pangas and the mother and calf pair would approach us seeking out the contact, apparently they are a cuddly species of whale). Our tour guide/panga driver, Daniel, was constantly assuring us that we would have better experiences with the whales if they only got within a few meters of us and then vanished. I caught myself feeling disappointment when the whales would approach but not get close enough to touch. I was actually disappointed that a whale only came within 10 feet of me. And Daniel, who has fished and led whale-watching tours in La Laguna for years, is clearly desensitized to it, showing no interest when a whale popped its head up near his feet and nudged the back of the panga.

A Gray whale calf pops up to take a peek and get some cuddles from Abby (MEM) and Luli (Mexican grad student).

This doesn’t just apply to marine animals, either. When we first began visiting the tiny fishing towns dotted around the Gulf that numbered as few as 15 or as many as 60 I was mesmerized by the sometimes-flimsy houses, the free-ranging livestock, the lack of electricity or plumbing, and the ‘simple’ existence that these communities thrive in. Now, I don’t even bat an eyelash at one-room houses or the collage-like nature of the buildings.

I am not suggesting that we are taking these fantastic experiences for granted or that we no longer care about the biodiversity and cultural wonders that we witness every day, just that we have adjusted to seeing them almost daily. Maybe I was unrealistic to expect us to still be snap-happy at the smallest sight of unique marine life, but I am taken aback by how casually I watched the 4th pod of dolphins we saw without even thinking about taking pictures or how I almost look past the ancient and towering desert cacti.