Sea Lions, Dolphins, and Whales – Oh My!

There are few courses that you can take in which it is not out of the ordinary to hear your professor say, “to the left you can see some boobies” or “the island’s biodiversity is  strongly influenced by thousands of years of birds pooping.” These sentences were just some of the enlightenment that was shared today as we journeyed out to San Pedro Martir, a small island about half way to Baja. San Pedro Martir is a crazy biological center for thousands of nesting birds, sunbathing sea lions, and many other colorful species. It takes about three hours to get to the island by boat. Let me rephrase that, it takes about three hours to get the island when you are stopping to track whales, dolphins, see rare birds rafting, and trying to figure out the best way to pee off the side of the boat. When we arrived to the island we were greeted by a gregarious aroma of guano (bird business) and a host of bobitos, some of the most persistent bugs. Xavier warned us that the bugs feed off of people’s hatred for them but we were soon distracted by the sea lions agonizing moans, groans, and ARRs. The day played out like a good adventure story, with each round of excitement around the next turn came something better.

It all started with spotting bride whales on the way to the island. Whales are interesting mammals to track because they can stay under water from anywhere from 10 minutes to 40 plus, depending on species and activity. You can identify a whale by taking note of its behavior and submersion time. The whales were awesome but quite frankly I can’t remember much because we lost them and then they were so easily trumped by the sea lions at the island. We circled around the island getting a little history about guano mining, which was a dirty and dangerous job saved for slaves, and sooner than we knew there were about 50 sea lions swimming around us playing.

video credit: Kiley Dancy

The water was so clear we were able to see them move beautifully through the water and when Cosme told us we were going to leave to see some common dolphins I think more than a few of us were confused. We drove 10 minutes straight back into the ocean again with no sight of dolphins and a dreary prospect of a pod of dolphins (it’s definitely all relative). All of a sudden we came upon a feeding frenzy of literally thousands of dolphins and birds stretching for half a mile. I felt like I was in the middle of Planet Earth footage, and it wasn’t far from it with Xavier hanging off all sides of the boat trying to get the Go Pro to capture everything at once. After collecting about an hour of film from all sides of the boat, we broke for lunch and discussion.

video credit: Kiley Dancy

Throughout our time here we have learned much about local conservation efforts, ecology, and natural history with many local experts to guide us. Today we had a chance to talk with Polo who was traveling on the boat with us. Polo used to be a diver in the Gulf but is now employed by COBI (a local NGO) to dive and record abundance and species found inside and outside the San Pedro Martir protected area. His data is important in monitoring progress and effectiveness of the program. Today we started a low-key conversation with Polo in the middle of the ocean after observing some bride whales, a pretty swanky classroom if you ask me. Many of the more fluent spanish speaking students and Xavier asked questions and then translated the answers for us Americanos. I have taken 13 years of Spanish classes but am still very shy in my ability to speak, and today I decided to try and break out of my shell and ask a question. The English version was much more concise, “Do you think the community sees you differently with this new position?” but with a careful selection of words I knew in Spanish, I constructed a lengthy Spanish version hopefully translating to, “Do you believe that the community outside of the fishermen looks at your new job differently than your old job?” After thirty minutes of repeating to myself over and over the sentence in Spanish, I finally worked up the courage to speak up. I am not sure if it made any sense but Polo immediately smiled and jumped back into his quick and quite literally, fishy, Spanish. After a lengthy answer I gathered about three words including beautiful, applause, and community. Xavier graciously translated the wonderful story that Polo told…. There was a meeting in the town and someone stood up and congratulated the divers on their work. The whole room started applauding and it was the first time that he realized how big this project was. It was the first time he felt recognized and now his job is a source of pride for the divers. Even though it was being translated, the experience still gave me the chills. It was through this that I realized how much I had been missing by not fumbling in Spanish, and having this one-on-one dialogue.

Our discussion with Polo was interrupted by another spotting of whales. Hector, a local aboard the boat whose job includes gathering pictures of marine mammals, was already positioned on the bow ready to get crucial pictures of the caudal and tail to identify the animal. We were instructed to stay off the front of the bow so he could get the shots he needed but by the time he had identified the two whales as humpback we had already creeped up covering the whole front of the boat on our bellies. We followed the whales for quite some time and then headed back to the island to fit in some snorkeling before we would have to head back.

We were already prepared for the plunge with neoprene boots and wet suits but nothing seemed to stave off the arctic (55 degree) water from taking away our breath. Once in the water we attempted to stay warm by maintaining movement but it was hard to keep moving when focused on the 30 sea lions swimming around you. Xavier told us to keep our arms in towards our bodies and the male would think we were one of his harem, but I was confused as to how we would tell the male apart from the females. Well, once I had gotten a glimpse of the 7 foot long, white-headed, humongous creature I kept my arms glued to my sides. The sea lions were curious about us and effortlessly maneuvered close to us and then took sharp turns away. I was distracted from most other species such as the scorpionfish, angel fish, urchins, and starfish by these large blubbery friends.

I wasn’t able to last long in the cold water but as I warmed myself in the sun the bobitos found that I made a quite pleasant resting/swarming place. The bobitos are drawn to humans for water and so eyes are a target that I was not pleased with. With Buddhist-like meditation skills I tried to not let to the thousands of feet crawling on my body get to me, but when Xavier offered another strategy to get rid of them I was willing to try anything. He convinced a group of us that eating one would scare the others off. After discovering the bugs were actually very sweet tasting, their relatives did not seem to care at all.

We headed home and ran into another couple of hundred bottlenose dolphin, when I jokingly said, “Dolphins, you are going to have to do some flips or something because my standards are high after today.” I think dolphins are even smarter than we give them credit for because that’s exactly what they did. We got to watch the dolphins ride the wake of the bow and when the boat sped up they got excited and did jumps and flips. It was amazing to see the spectacle that Sea World attempts to capture in the wild. And let me tell you, the wild is a million times better.