I have been trying to post this for two days (it’s almost becoming three, as the internet is being it’s usual temperamental self), but I think I’m finally getting to it.
When I last left off, we were all still waiting to hear a final consensus on our directed research project, which is our fourth, and possibly most important class. It’s yet another reason I chose to came here; knowing that I have to write a thesis next year, and having essentially no experience doing research like that is enough to scare anyone into choosing a program that forces you to write something like a mini-thesis. When I got here, I had initially thought that I would choose one of the social science directed research projects to work on; after a fair amount of agonizingly careful thought, however, I chose to put all of the ecology projects in my top three. Cetaceans were my first choice, since they were what drew me here in the first place. Additionally, when I was on our last whale watching day, it was heartbreaking to me to think that I would never get to go out in the boats again to work with the whales. These three choices (cetaceans, sea lions, and sea turtles, all of which are under the supervision of Lalo, our Coastal Ecology and Conservation professor) were in hot demand, however, and as a result, our staff were in meetings all of Tuesday trying to decide how to place everyone.
By Tuesday night, it came down to students deciding amongst themselves and pulling names out of hats to decide who would work on which project. The Cetacean project had enough spots for three people to work, and four of us had it in our top spot. After some very uncomfortable negotiating, we confirmed with Lalo that he would take four students in that arena, which finally allowed all four of us to have exactly what we wanted. All of the students who choose his projects work closely together, and while he had to take on extra students, we ended up with a fantastic group of students, several of whom include the people I feel closest to here. I am so excited to conduct research with these people in the next month and a half!
The next morning, as I had hoped, we headed out in the pangas and headed straight for the estuary. One of the other girls and I had been in the same boat (aka Team Ballena) before, and so she and I were both extremely optimistic that we would get to touch a whale this time around. When we reached the estuary, it was much the same as it was before – there were fewer whales, as they’ve started to migrate back to Alaska (their feeding grounds), but still many mothers and calves. Where before, we’d seen them playing with each other, now they were very interested in us. Before Tuesday, I hadn’t seen a whale spy-hop (where its head, including its eye, comes fully out of the water to observe you), but suddenly, whale after whale was looking at us. It was one of the most thrilling sites in my life – it is truly humbling to know that these immense, beautiful animals are so interested in you. I suddenly felt that I didn’t really deserve the attention, that I was meager in comparison to them; but it goes both ways, the curiosity. Once again, we saw mothers and babies playing together and swimming around; even in the three or so weeks since we were last there, it seems like the babies have grown more adventurous. Whereas before we saw many of them resting, now it seems the mothers are encouraging them to move around and investigate to prepare them for their long trek home. Sadly, I still didn’t get to touch one; I am still waiting for this to happen, although it is extremely possible that it is nothing more than a hope. Nonetheless, I am whale watching again this week, and have high hopes.
That afternoon, we divided by project. I will be working on photo identification of whales and dolphins, which will allow us to understand which whales might come here each year, and might allow us to understand population dynamics better. In other areas along their northward migration, biologists have been able to establish certain whales and know that they have calves every year, or every other year. I am really looking forward to this project as it combines two of my major interests at this point, and I think it will be incredibly cool.
Later in the week, as a group we headed back to Isla Magdalena to look at rocky shores ecosystems. Our PRM instructor wanted us to look at what kinds of lobsters were being harvested, and if they were being harvested at their legal size. We spent quite a bit of time combing the beach measuring carapace (head and abdomen) length and checking species. We also spent a fair amount of time looking at snail populations in the tide pools nearby for Lalo. The tide pools weren’t as diverse as some of the others I’ve seen, but it was both incredibly fun and ridiculously funny to wade around in them. My friend Amber and I were working as a pair, and I’m 5’3″ and she’s 5’1″. Where everyone else was comfortably wading, she and I were quite literally splashing around with our shorts hiked up to avoid getting completely wet. It was an incredibly fun day, complete with a nice hike over the island.
The rest of the week into the weekend and the beginning of this week were very interesting. Friday was a quiet day – we spent the morning in the classroom, and then suited up in the afternoon to assess the presence of a plant called Ulva. Ulva blooms in response to eutrophication, or the presence of additional nutrients in the environment. Here’s why we were doing this, as a bit of a social lesson on Puerto San Carlos:
Up-current from us is a sardine and tuna cannery, which primarily processes sardines. While the sardine cannery has a waste treatment component, this requires very specific chemicals and requires more labor, and is thus very cost-ineffective. As a result, human excrement and waste, in addition to any fish parts that aren’t used (they can sardines, and they make fish meal/flour at the plant next door, so theoretically, very little goes to waste) all gets dumped into the bay. The good news for the bay is that it is extremely effective at cleansing itself. The bad news is that because the site is down-current from the cannery, our beach is polluted. Initially, this only meant to me that we couldn’t swim outside. Now, it means to me that there is an entire “mud-flat” composed of human excrement and fish blood and guts outside my door. As a result of this, and the high nitrogen and phosphorus levels in human excrement, the ulva blooms in the bay and potentially threatens the species close to shore with anoxic conditions (only in a severe, continuous bloom would this occur; nonetheless, it is a consideration).
Due to this delightful situation, our class was out in the “mud-flats” measuring ulva abundance for 200 meters outside the center. All of us were in our rainboots, which have become the most valuable piece of clothing I own. Unfortunately, I found out as I was literally walking through watered-down human shit, that my right boot leaks (the location of the leak has yet to be determined and fixed). While I could have been utterly nauseated by this (I was tempted to be so), I was not, and I attempted to find the humor in the situation. Our ulva abundance report was good; it showed that the concentration of ulva in the area is relatively low at this time, which is good for all of us.
After this project, the plague began. Several of us (including myself) hadn’t been feeling well, to the extent that I spent a good portion of Thursday night in the bathroom feeling incredibly sick. Luckily, I woke up Friday morning feeling hungry and normal. I ate carefully and carried out my day. By Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, however, it was apparent that others were not so fortunate, to the extent that by lunch time, six out of sixteen people were in bed or in the bathroom. As a result, my fellow students and I ran around doling out water, gatorade and saltines, and checking up on people throughout the day. We thought that maybe it was food related until it started passing between people very quickly, by which time we decided it had to be a virus. People were still extremely sick on Sunday, and only by Monday were people slowly starting to recover.
Monday was particularly lovely because we actually went and took a tour of the sardine cannery and the fish-meal processing plant. I was surprised to find it as normal as I might have hoped. I was expecting some sort of horrible scene straight out of The Jungle, but only found the usual foul fish smell and lots of noise. 52% of the cannery workers are women, who mostly work on the packing lines. Men fix the machinery and do heavier jobs. The women are paid anywhere from $10-15 a day; this seems like very little, and in reality, it is. When someone in my class asked why they did it, I could barely keep the incredulity out of my voice when I said “Because there are no other options here”; and it’s true. In spite of the fact that these women know that the cannery pollutes the bay, and in spite of the poor pay, the health detriments, and everything else I could list, that small amount of money helps them to sustain their families, and ensures that they have food. It is a fact of life that people will do what they have to in order to feed themselves and their children. Nonetheless, I was grateful to leave the cannery – it caused me to think over so many frustrating questions. Of course, I would like the cannery shut down for polluting the bay and treating its workers poorly. But then, the entire town of San Carlos would suddenly find itself with very little income. Unemployment would skyrocket until people began to leave and it became a ghost town. It would be ideal to regulate the cannery, but in an entire state, there are 20 employees who enforce environmental regulations. There is no way that they can come down here and make sure that the waste treatment is running every day. There should be a punishment, but fining the company does little to change its behavior. In spite of how much I am learning here, I regularly feel like I know nothing about how to fix tough questions that eventually effect everyone in a community.