It has been way too long since my last post – so much has happened, and so many incredible things have taken place – I finally have my camera more or less in working order, so in spite of the fact that I’m missing pictures from some of these cool events, I also have some sweet pictures from my more recent adventures. Since it’s been almost two weeks, I think this is going to be an incredibly long post – bear with me!
So, from the beginning: In my last post, I completely forgot to mention our second field exercise with Vero – we were snorkeling again, but this time we were attempting to assess the abundance of the scallop population. Scallops have been important in this region since the pre-colonial era, and currently, they provide a significant income for a lot of fishermen in the area. As a result, as a result of the Mexican fisheries laws, we are looking into what their abundance is here, and whether the PESC law is actually protecting them so that they can develop and reproduce. We were using quadrants in the water, and throwing them at random before diving down to count the number of scallops in the quadrant. We also took one of the scallops from the quadrant to bring back and dissect. This was an incredibly awesome day – in spite of my trepidation about snorkeling again, as soon as I got in the water, I knew it would be better. My partners dove for the first few quadrants, and then I finally decided – this was it! I was doing it! And it went absolutely fine, to the extent that I had a hard time stopping after that because it was so much fun. When we got back to the lab, we dissected them to examine the relationship between the shell size and the weight, and we’re now in the middle of writing that up (our second lab report for PRM).
On Saturday, February 19, we had an amazing day. Earlier that week, we were supposed to visit a sea lion colony on Isla Magdalena, the island across the bay from the center. Due to inclement weather (mainly very gusty winds which would have made it dangerous to land our pangas on the island), we had to reschedule. On Saturday, we were scheduled to go whale watching and have free time in the afternoon. Our professors decided that, because we had to head to the mouth of the bay to watch whales anyway, we would combine our whale-watching with our hike on Isla Magdalena to see the sea lion colony. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera in working order on this day. We did see some whales that morning, although Team Ballena strongly felt that nothing could really compare to our experience with the baby whales in the estuary. When we landed on Isla Magdalena, we all stripped out of our hot waterproof clothing so that we could prepare for the hike over the island. Yet another reason I chose this program was because of the amazing outdoor opportunities that are built right into the curriculum. As a result, I was more than excited to go for a hike. The island is very much a desert – in spite of the fact that we are so close to water, everything here is very dry, and dry-weather plants dominated our landscape as we climbed the pass to the Pacific side of the ocean. As we reached our descent, we began to see evidence of the illegal activities that often sustain people here; mainly, we saw evidence of abalone harvests. Our PRM instructor, Vero, was with us, and she told us that all of the shells we were seeing were significantly smaller than what is legal to harvest. Interestingly, however, Mexican Law mandates that any Mexican may harvest/grow/etc things that provide food for their families. If poachers were caught (unlikely, as enforcement is not a reality here), they could simply claim they were using the abalone to feed their families and get off without a fine. That side of the politics here is very interesting, particularly since the law is meant to do so much good for people here, but does allow poachers to slip through the system.
When we reached the other side of the island, I was once again struck by how beautiful the Pacific is here. The ocean is incredible to me (and the friends in my panga with me will definitely tell you that I remark upon the state of the ocean every day – whether it’s as smooth as glass, or silky like mercury, or shiny and choppy like our first day out), but it’s amazing seeing the Pacific here where there are so many fewer people than anywhere else I’ve been along the Pacific coast. As we came around the bend from where we’d come off the mountain, all of a sudden – there was the colony! Our job for the afternoon was to get as close as possible without scaring them into flight, and to count the numbers of males, females, and juveniles. As we ate our lunch and watched them for a minute, I was struck by how beautiful they are, but how utterly absurd and funny they are at the same time. They sent a non-dominant male over to see what we were up to (or so we were convinced), and watching him walk back up the beach to his colony was enough to send us all into giggles. Monitoring them was so cool, mostly because they were so much fun to watch, and because the setting was so beautiful.
After the sea lions, we headed into our next week, starting with the due date of our first PRM lab. In groups of four, we wrote up a report/scientific paper about the habitat preferences and substrate preferences of octopuses, and I have to tell you, the most I learned from that experience is that group labs are hard to write! As a control freak, it was so hard for me to do anything but sit there with my computer and try to make it exactly the way I wanted it. Luckily, I had great people in my group, and I think our paper turned out well (although I don’t know yet, because we haven’t gotten it back yet…hmm). We also knew that we were preparing for our first camping trip at Banderitas, an area close the estuaries where we saw the baby whales. First though, we had our last whale-watching experience.
Team Ballena headed out in a different boat on Tuesday, so we were off our game from the beginning, or so it felt. We were also headed out to the Boca de Soledad (the mouth of the bay), while the other boats were headed to the estuary. We were very jealous, but tried to resign ourselves to the fact that at least in the Boca, the others had touched whales. As we headed out, the sea was again calm, until we reached a certain point when it became much more topsy-turvy in our boat (which was much smaller than our usual one!) Nonetheless, we reached the Boca safely. We tried to approach a number of whales, but with very little success. Finally, after an hour or so, we found a number of tourist boats that were nearby watching several whales – as we approached, we realized they were mating! Whale mating is extremely interesting because it involves three whales: one breeding male, one breeding female, and another male which holds up the other two so that they can breathe. We sat and watched for a while (which really just made us all feel like voyeurs; but it was so cool that it was impossible to tough to leave!), but then we finally had to return to the center, at which point we heard that the other groups got to touch baby whales. This made our experience seem not as exciting, and we were a little bit out of sorts as a result. Our experience was still incredible, however, and I was really satisfied.
By Thursday, we were all packed up and ready to head out on our first camping trip. We had way more things than you would imagine needing, including all of our fresh water for the three days, our food, our packs, etc. We also don’t camp the way a lot of people do (or I guess, the way I’m used to): we bring real food to eat, not dehydrated food, and as a result, it takes up significantly more space. We took all three pangas for us and our personal gear, then brought our two trucks with everything else. After a 40 minute boat ride, we reached Banderitas and began to set up the cook tents and our personal tents. We then had our first field lecture with Lalo about sea turtle ecology, which was really cool. It was really windy when we arrived there, but we were in a sheltered area down on the beach, listening to our professor (
and hoping not to get sunburned). We then moved up to our cook tent and listened to a guest lecture from our center director on the importance of rhodoliths (red algae) in the ecosystem. Finally, we made dinner and picked our first turtle monitoring shift. My group ended up with a monitoring shift on the second night, but I volunteered for a second shift on the first night with my friend Amber. After dinner, we started a camp fire and my group got ready to head out at dark.
As we piled into our boat in our twenty layers and rain gear, all I could think about was how excited I was, and how beautiful the stars were. I haven’t seen stars that clearly in a number of years – because there aren’t any trees here, and because there aren’t any lights where we were, the stars were incredible. As we boated quietly in the darkness, I was utterly enchanted with the entire experience. As soon as we reached the turtle nets, we hauled them up and found – a juvenile green/black turtle! (The kind that are illegally consumed here). We chose a gender-neutral name for it (her, I decided) and called her Peyton. We checked the nets once more that night before heading back for a nap until 6:00 the next morning when we started measuring and weighing the turtles before releasing them. Each group caught one turtle the first night and we learned how to measure them, take a skin sample, and tag them.
The second day at Banderitas was relaxed, but very fun – we talked about desert ecology with Lalo and went on a brief walk to look at the desert, which was beautiful. We then went snorkeling again to look at rhodoliths. While the water was freezing when we got in, it soon warmed up and became very comfortable for snorkeling. Once again, I was extremely comfortable in the water and was so excited to swim around. When night came, I dove into my tent for a brief nap before my midnight to 4:00 shift the next morning. The second night, my group caught no turtles, which was a disappointment, but it also meant that our next morning was less stressful. One turtle was caught the second night (Isabellita) and released in the morning. Before we packed up to head out, we had a quick class with AJ in which we talked about the native people and their use of turtles. We finally got back in the boats (albeit very sleepily) to head back to the center and begin cleaning everything out.
Now that we’re into our next week, we are finally getting ready to start our directed research projects – but due to the number of people interested in the same projects, it hasn’t yet been determined which projects we will be working on.