Finding water in the desert and other LDOC activities

Our Last Day(s) of Class/Camping (LDOC) was a joint venture between our class and one led by University of Arizona’s Dr. Benjamin Wilder (Ben) and his class of Comcaac (Seri) students. Our mighty pangas (boats): El Albatross, La Tortuguera, El Lobo Marino, and the Adan took off smoothly and we landed a short time later on the south side of Tiburon in a beautiful sheltered cove. Tiburon – the largest island in Mexico and part of the Seri land tenure- would be our home base for next five days as we explored the surrounding islands.

The key to a good LDOC is keeping hydrated and out of the sun so we quickly set up the hydration station and shade on the beach. After camp was set up (most importantly the camp “bathroom”), we donned our LDOC t-shirts (which also functioned as personal flotation devices) and headed back to the pangas. The opening act was a small pod of bottlenose dolphins who were objectively smaller and cuter than their cousins in the Infiernillo Channel we saw just last week.

Xavier teaching in the classroom
Xavier teaching in the “classroom”

Following some glorious boat time, we stopped mid ocean – a surprising 679ft above the ocean floor – and learned a bit about the geology and ecology of the Midrift Islands. Our trilingual class (Spanish, English, and Cmiique Iitom) was bouncing in the waves as we learned how ultimately, the unique bathymetry results in high amounts of primary productivity allowing for such amazing biodiversity. A hotspot for seabirds (26 species), marine mammals (36 species), and fish (891 species).

Class was wrapping up and the sun was getting low on the horizon: it was time for the headliner performance. A great jet of water was seen in the distance, and we flocked to see the rockstars –  a pod of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus), (the world’s second largest mammal!!). Their unfathomably huge bodies strode through the water like mountain building events at high speed. We would watch and gasp as they reappeared to take deep breathes and then dove underwater for five to six minutes. Then we waited. Until another spray was spotted far away and our mighty Captain Cosme powered us over to see them again. It was an unforgettable experience for us all.

Fin whales getting air
Fin whales grab some air before diving down for 6 minutes

But LDOC was far from over. We had an exclusive afterparty on the Alcatraz. Capt. Cosme took us on a starlit stroll in the bay to see the bioluminescent phytoplankton. With the stars glistening and the flashes of light coming from the boat’s wake like tiny lightening, I sure hoped the light show at Duke’s other LDOC was half as cool.

All that awesomeness was just day one! The first day of “reading period” we were split up. Half of us headed to Cholludo to conduct cactus monitoring research with Ben and Elizabeth; the other half went to look for water in a desert. As part of the hiking group, I was a little skeptical we would make it to this “water hole” in the middle of Tiburon. We hike along a “riverbed;” a sandy flat expanse that hindered easy walking. We also took a short cut over some mountains where hidden pack rat (Neotoma spp.) holes trapped your feet in near successful ankle-twisting booby traps. But after two hours, we finally made it.

Blue footed booby watches our boat pass by

And to my great surprise there was water. In the desert! Xapij, as the place is called in Cmiique Itom, was this beautiful freshwater ecosystem. This water hole was an important place of refuge historically for the Seri as they fled from Spanish and Mexican troops because it never runs out of water.

After much sharing of song and story around the fire, the next day was another major highlight for me. We visited San Pedro Martir:  the most oceanic island in the Gulf, here we saw red-billed tropicbirds (Phaethn aethereus), brown (Sula leucogaster) and blue footed boobies (Sula nebouxi), and yellow-footed gulls (Larus livens) soar majestically and poop, a lot. Extremely high bird densities change the ecology of the island. Only plants that can tolerate high nitrogen levels from the guano can thrive and the whole island is cooler as a result of the white ground reflecting more sun than the bare rock. We also swam with sea lions here (see video)! And on the way back we were surprised by a massive pod of dolphins! It was truly amazing as we watched them ride the bow! It was an incredible day of biodiversity and charismatic fauna!

Oh. Cholludo. Believed by Ben to be the densest forest of cacti ever recorded. Believed by me to be a great place to send your worst enemy. The experience greatly increased my scientific street cred (“Yeah, I’ve done field work on a tiny spiny cactus island”) but also greatly increased my risk of hypertension. Our job was to count all the Cardones cacti (Pachycereus pringlei) in our 10 by 10 m plots and mark 20 individuals for future monitoring. The cacti grow on a steep slope of precarious rock and in dense clumps: to walk through the island is an exercise in balance, agility, and self awareness. Should you slip, you might get spines in your butt (ask Señor Vanilla). I made it through with the emotional and conversational support of my new friend Danny. As we waited for science to happen, I learned about his role in the Ecology Club (called Zaah Copxöt which means blooming sun) at Punta Chueca and the cool projects Danny works on to improve his community. Like many other organizations, his group has issues with motivating members to volunteer their time on volunteer projects like beach clean ups.

This sea lion tangled in a net demonstrates the importance of beach clean up programs
This sea lion tangled in a net demonstrates the importance of beach clean up programs

It is financially and logistically difficult for most of the Comcaac community to visit these islands, despite having great historical and cultural importance. I was very grateful for the unique opportunity to learn and visit these beautiful islands with the Seri. I couldn’t imagine a better, more inspiring LDOC away from Duke.