Many firsts

This course has opened my eyes to an entirely new world. Not only is this my first time to Mexico, but it is my first real desert experience. I must admit that as an ocean-obsessed person, my expectations for this trip were centered around the Gulf of California, small-scale fisheries and coastal communities. I didn’t even consider the possibility that I would become captivated by the Sonoran Desert, yet by day two I was waking up early to hike up cactus covered hills and watch the sunrise from the top.

Our group recently assisted with a research project on Cholludo Island to assess the density of cardón cactuses. Although it was obvious that the island was covered in cardónes, it was not until we were carefully (and nervously) weaving transects through very narrow gaps in the cactuses that we realized just how dense the forest was. While our Duke group clumsily navigated the island, the group of Seri students working alongside of us seemed to effortlessly maneuver through the maze of sharp spines. Needless to say, it became very obvious who was at home in the desert and who was an outsider.

Our recent five-day camping trip on Tiburón Island also afforded us the opportunity to explore some of the midriff islands, often sighting fin whales, breaching rays, sea lions and pods of dolphins on boat trips along the way. This group of islands is sometimes referred to as the Galapagos of the Northern Hemisphere because of its diverse flora and fauna.

On a day when the winds were calm, we ventured out to San Pedro Martir, the most oceanic island in the Gulf of California. As we neared the island, which is white due to an immense amount of guano, we spotted flocks of seabirds swirling over steep cliffs. Among these birds were red-billed tropicbirds and blue and brown footed boobies, species that I had only ever read about or seen photos of in nature magazines. Although the island is now protected, remaining man-made walls that were once built for guano mining serve as a reminder of how easily humans can alter landscapes and ecosystems. It was difficult to imagine how different the island might look today if guano mining was still a profitable industry. Aside from the mining remnants, other traces of human impacts could be seen on couple of sea lions with fishing line wrapped around their heads.

Evenings on Tiburón were typically spent gathered in a circle around a bonfire, exchanging stories and songs. Despite the various languages and cultures, our groups integrated relatively quickly. As it turns out, stories about waking up to a coyote in your face and backing up into a cholla are funny regardless of where you are from. This course provided an authentic opportunity to camp, learn and work alongside indigenous people who have a deeper connection to the land and sea than I will ever be able to comprehend. At the same time, spending time with younger members of the group of Seri and recognizing our similarities corrected preconceived notions we had regarding what it means to be indigenous. I experienced something new and unique just about every day of our trip. Not only was I exposed to new landscapes and ecosystems, but I experienced new cultures, languages and ways of viewing the world.