Category Archives: Environmental Conservation

From Bahia de Los Angeles to Laguna Ojo de Liebre

After leaving Bahia de Los Angeles, we headed off to Guerrero Negro to resupply on food and ice because we could not take any fresh produce across the border into Baja California Sur. In town we also stopped at a taco stand to eat. I ate five tacos, since we would not cook a large dinner that night, and I did not want to go to bed hungry. After our stop in town, we headed off into the desert to go to Ojo de Liebre, also known as Scammon’s Lagoon. After the 45-minute ride down the dusty road that wound its way through expansive commercial salt flats, in various stages of dehydration, the bumpy washboard road ended and we came to the lagoon itself. I was surprised at how large it really is. The water covered the whole horizon, and faint mountains could be seen in the distance. The landscape around the lagoon is flat. It is basically a desert, with a few short sand dunes and a kind of shrub that grows in the dry environment. However, in a few spots around the lagoon, there are little marshes that are inhabited by many birds, mostly seagulls that yell like an awkward teenager going through puberty with a kazoo lodged in his esophagus.

The day before, a whopping 2,700 whales were counted in the lagoon alone, a world record for a single area. Within the first five minutes, we saw at least 10 of the misty exhalations of the gigantic creatures, their great backs visible above the shimmering water. The sun glinted off of their great shiny mass like a little lighthouse, and if you were looking at the water often enough you could see when a whale appeared. The shiny mass would appear, spout some water, shine some more, then slowly sink below the surface.

It was the first time ever going out whale watching for me, and my first experience was incredible. There were 10 of us that piled into a little panga boat that was roughly 18 feet long, and headed out into the deeper waters of the lagoon. While traveling out into the bay, we saw many whales breaching, and blowing their heart shaped clouds of mist into the air. Almost immediately after we slowed down, a mother and her calf headed towards us and came up on my side of the boat. My first impression of the creatures, of course, was their sheer size. The calf was easily as long as 15 feet, and the mother was roughly twice the size of the boat. Her flippers were as large as dinner tables, and her tail was the size of two really large buff bodyguards melded together at the hip. The mother came up to me and turned sideways to get a good look at me, and I saw her big brown eye peering gently at me through the water. We looked at each other for a moment, then I held my hand out several inches above the water. She then rose up slowly and came up to my hand, then let me rest my hand on her massive snout. Meanwhile, the calf paid a visit to the people on the other side of the boat. She rubbed up against the side and allowed herself to be pet. Then she proceeded to hover a few inches below the surface and release a large blast of air through the water which showered us all in a salty mist, creating a rainbow around our boat. After the mother and the calf had gone away after playing with us for 10 minutes or so, several different pairs of whales came up to us. I will elaborate on that in my next blog, for I am running out of room for this blog. Today is Sunday, and we will leave for Asuncion on Tuesday. We will keep you all posted.

~Connor

March 11, 2012
Ojo de Liebre, “Scammon’s Lagoon”

We are about halfway through our trip, and about to say goodbye to the friends it seems as though we just welcomed into our group. We arrived at Ojo de Liebre, “Scammon’s Lagoon” a few days ago with the extra additions of Chris, Janet, Alex and Karen. They are lovely additions, but I have been thinking a lot about the people in my life who aren’t here, what they are doing and how hard and odd it is to not be in contact with them, in this day of instant gratification communication.

I feel like a sailor in the time of Charles Scammon, a whaler we have been learning about while we are in this lagoon named after him, seeing these massive creatures he helped hunt almost to extinction. In the 1800s, men would leave for a tour on a ship and be gone for six months or a year or four. Here I am, after two weeks of no internet, email, phone and feeling so isolated from my people and from current events at large. It is both liberating and disturbing.

The crew we have here is wonderful and great, however, and the students have stepped into more leadership roles for meal prep and clean up, which makes my life easier. It has been grand having Chris and Janet with us and hearing their stories about when they were teenagers/twenty-somethings. It will be very sad to say goodbye to them on Tuesday, but we have already planted the idea for a house party when we’re all back in Nevada City.

Been talking a lot about what I’m doing after this job ends, which is not very much living in the moment (a philosophy we have been discussing quite a bit here), but I think I have just come to terms with the fact that I like to think about what comes next. I tell myself it’s important to approach life this way especially when it comes to food – you have to plant the seed early for it to grow and fruit, and you have to plan your meals in advance so it’s ready when you want to eat. It is also easier to reach a zen state about the sand in my sleeping bag and the dirt encrusted into my clothes when I can think of a time when I am back in my bed and have a washing machine available.

Waking up to the beach and the sun and the water is lovely though, and worth a little inconvenience. As I was walking back to my tent this evening in my skirt flowing in the breeze and my bare feet digging into the sand, I felt grounded in a way that you can’t get bundled up against the elements and everywhere covered in snow. I do love snow, but this is nice too.

~Sarah

Laguna Ojo de Liebre: Interactions with The Gray Whale

My experience with the whales is somewhat different from the others on this trip. I see the pride that Mexico has for these creatures, and it’s hard for me not to feel that way because I am Mexican. On our first trip out to the lagoon I thought a lot about a concept that Mike presented to us in Bahia de Los Angeles: that we as the human species have recently become accustomed to looking at “things”- and by things I mean nature and objects that come from nature – and finding a use for them in our lives. From looking at paper and thinking, “This came from Staples,” to looking at a shell and thinking, ”Oh, this would look great on my shelf back home.” When Mike presented this subject his words resonated with me, and when I was listening to him I knew that I didn’t feel this way. I felt the exact opposite, I felt that nature is its own being and we are a part of it. I realized that this process of looking at nature and finding a human use for it is something I disagreed with. On the little boat in the lagoon I kept connecting this concept to the whales and telling myself, “Yes these are magnificent and beautiful creatures, but they aren’t here to be watched. In fact we are still hunting them, just not as food for our stomachs, but as a sight for our eyes.” So with this thought arose my question: Why am I watching them?

We are watching these whales and the system and economy in Ojo de Liebre to learn from them. We are watching to learn their story and how they were hunted nearly to extinction and how they came back. The story they tell is amazing, and our mission is to learn from it and help others to do the same. More specifically, our mission at the moment is to shoot a movie to tell others about the gray whale and then to tie it back to other ecological problems. We endeavor to teach others how to help, similar to the way people helped in bringing the gray whale back from the brink of extinction.

Which brings me back to my role and why am I watching these whales: everyday human curiosity. The experience gave me a sense of what role I play in this large world, where all pieces, big or small, play a vital role.

~Max

We have been on the road for over two weeks now. Our systems are honed, our approach lithe. Our numbers ever expanding and contracting, we are surmounting language barriers, climbing mountains, confronting our past, learning for a future, and sharing the massive experience of a gray whale interaction.

It is a joy working with the students, fleshing out their individual interests in this rich environment. Each personality requires different nourishment at different times, and I often find myself on tasks ranging from helping organize a hike in the desert to delivering a philosophy lesson on a sun-soaked beach, with shades of kitchen help and photo management in between. Their openness and interest in the world around them makes these mergers of and transitions between roles natural.

If nothing else, this experience shows how valuable it is to be aware of the knowledge that we all hold, for being so gives us the opportunity to invest in the information exchange that makes up communities and cultures. We truly are creating a community here, and every adventure serves to educate and strengthen our personal identity within this group and the Earth society at large.

~Mike

Meeting the Whales

The last time I went whale watching (in Cape Cod, Massachusetts) the highlights were seeing a whale and getting a great picture of a whale breeching. This time, the excitement comes in a more spiritual way. I feel my body relax as the huge mass of a whale swims just millimeters away from the boat. I smile on the inside when I feel the cold moist skin of a whale and when I watch a mama and calf move through the water together. I already forget what it is like seeing the first whale in Scammon’s Lagoon. A whale blow in the distance quickly becomes a common sight; in every direction there are spurts of water returning slowly to the ocean. The ride back to land is serene.

The Fascination of Whales: Our Second Meeting

Our second time whale watching was special. I feel like it is the type of thing that one could do countless times without the excitement level lowering. One whale calf visited our boat for quite a while and was not shy about showing us its tricks. It kept appearing even after the lanchero relocated the boat. The scar on its tail and its personality were how I could tell that it was the same one. It was a spinner; like a young child spinning till they get so dizzy they fall down—except this was a whale calf!

It was interesting to see how rapidly my goals for whale watching changed. Climbing in the boat I was open-minded and did not have any specific expectations. Part of me is now wondering if I went into the experience with an open mind so that I would not get disappointed, or simply because I had to see a whale to believe the stories I had heard. As soon as the first whale visited our boat, I knew I was going to touch one. A particular whale and I had a close connection and exchange. It appeared gracefully, lifting its head next to me where I sat in the boat. “Besalo, besalo!” came from the back of the boat where the lanchero stood. Because of the lanchero’s hand gestures, I figured that he was saying “kiss it, kiss it!” By the time the thought registered in my head, the mama whale started lowering her body. I will not be sad or disappointed if it doesn’t happen, but I would be so delighted if I do get to kiss a whale before leaving here. How cool would that be—to kiss a whale?

~Kiera

We’re here in the lagoon, which stretches out around our campsite, pristine and flat. The first two days we took advantage of the still waters, still skies, and all-consuming sunshine to go out on the boats. The whales were immense: immensely strange, immensely interactive, immensely beautiful, immense in size. As such, there’s an awful lot of mental processing to be done that I can’t even truly approach yet. There’s much to take in here and so many ways of understanding it all. Luckily, the students have their many pursuits and studies, and, through working with them, I learn too. Connor is developing his theory of the soul and explains to us how it applies to the whales. After her first time out bird-watching with Janet, Kiera is becoming an avid ornithologist. In fact, she, Janet, and Lily are sitting beside me at this moment using Sibley to ID the birds they saw in the marsh yesterday. I’m trying to absorb species characteristics through osmosis. With Max, I’ve been revisiting how to structure a proper research essay. He is composing a piece on Mexico’s Ejido system using primary sources and is off at this moment interviewing a lanchero who lives in the Ejido. Lily is our resource on whale biology through the book and in-person investigation she’s been doing. She’s also keeping a lovely field journal of the flora and fauna at our fingertips here and in all the locations we’ve visited on this adventure.

Beyond the staff and student community we’ve built, we are now lucky to be sharing our meals, explorations, and discussions with an extended group of adults, young and old. It’s as wonderful for the staff as it is for the students to hear each person’s story of reaching this point in his/her life, both professionally and personally. I have been learning about the environmental history of this lagoon, and I enjoy hearing too about the individual histories of the people who find themselves seated on the dunes as a community today. Chris mentioned how formative having a mentor was in his young life. Mentorship takes many forms, and I feel lucky to have gained the mentorship of each person here. I hope that in turn I can provide this to the students.

~Chrissie

 

Welcome to the Spring Semester


The past few days I’ve felt like I was on the edge of a precipice, waiting for the students to arrive. And now…they are here! Jumping off a cliff has never felt so natural. Really looking forward to getting to know everyone better, do a little cooking and learning together, and spend as much time sitting outside in the sun as possible.

~Sarah

Transitioning into Finding the Good was surprisingly smooth. Everyone here is laid back, fun and understanding; it’s a very warm, welcoming community. I’m excited for all the adventures we’ll have and journeys we’ll go on together.

On another note, I’m starting to realize what this experience means. I know I’ll have to step out of my comfort zone a little bit, and being in a new place with new people will take some getting used to, of course. It’s overwhelming at times, but I know we’ll find our flow and that this will be a remarkable experience for me.

~Lily

After waking up to Tom’s melodic knock, we ate a simple breakfast of Granola, and then headed off on a four mile hike along the South Yuba river canyon. It is a beautiful day out, but somewhat chilly. I wore my new shoes that I had gotten fairly recently; they fit fine, except for a rubbing pinky toe on the right side, but this was easily remedied by a band aid. I am writing this entry on a large rock roughly 15 feet above the frigid waters of the Yuba River. The rock is covered in light blue lichen and dark green moss, and I am lichen the lichen. In a few minutes we will head out on the two mile hike back to the van. I have been enjoying my time here a lot, and I am looking forward to the next four months.

~Connor

Arriving at the banks of the Yuba, we are overwhelmed by the ladybug clusters surrounding us. We acquaint ourselves with our surroundings amid exclamations, explorations, and surprises, and share in a delicious lunch of sandwiches; avocado, cheese, carrots, peanut butter, GORP, and fruit. Scrumptious. Eyes and mouths full, we discuss the designation of “wilderness” from an indigenous perspective, and then disperse into different corners of the beach for some journaling, with the constant flow of the river serving as an auditory backdrop for our thoughts…

We began the semester with a discussion about the interplay of sanctuary and pilgrimage. Sifting through these dense topics, we established a connection between sanctuary and the hardships encountered during pilgrimage; this sense of an almost sacred place of safety coming from an understanding of the difficulties that exist in other parts of one’s life. The question that arises is one of time. How fresh do the recollections of these hardships need to be in one’s mind for a place to retain its state of sanctuary, rather than remaining just another physical location that we inhabit?

Our world has seen many variants of conservation and environmentalism, and with my interactions with the current state of these movements, it seems there is a heavy focus put on the state of dilapidation our planet is falling into. While it is certainly important to have a fairly concrete sense of the wrongs currently committed, I am curious to see how the rhetoric of our movements will change as they (hopefully) attain their goals. If we reintegrate with our planet and our communities on a healthier, more sustainable level, I believe our role will change from an endless consumer of natural resources to one of “moderate interaction,” a term used by the author Debra read to us earlier. At this level of experience, where human involvement in our surroundings is based on respect and integration, the term “conservation” becomes null and void. Our goals attained, the very concept of what we are now fighting for will disappear into the ether.

It appears that this is our greatest goal: to create a sanctuary for the future that, in their eyes, will seem merely status quo.

~Mike


North Canyon Spur.
Ladybugs cluster.
Humans move about, stomping, laughing.
Mike speaks to us of treading lightly, careful of the plants, the moss, the fragile soil.
Tender stalks. Lives and homes beneath our feet.

On our walk here, Chrissie and I pick bay leaves for sauces and soups later. We will pick more to dry and bring to friends in Baja later next month.

The river is quieter than usual, for January. The sun warm, but weak. Nine travelers are we. Four students, three teaching fellows, two directors. Nine students in all, nine teachers in all.

Travelers, seekers, everyone of us a rebel in some way, otherwise we would not be here. Brought together by circumstance or design, depending on your point of view. We have work to do and not a moment to lose.

Whatever has brought us here to this place, this unlikely constellation of souls, is a ponder. Our journey will unfold. Welcome.

~Debra

Too excited to get there.
Too scared of leaving things behind.
We go on a tour.
My mom cries when she leaves.
Seeing Fonzi reminds me of my dog Chuy.
After dinner I realize it’s going to be a fun four months.

~Max

So much beauty—and the kind that I appreciate and feel inspired by!

 

I am sitting with history all around me (as Connor pointed out). The California sun is so nice!

 

We hiked about 2 miles (one way), discovering, learning/teaching, and taking photographs.

 

I like this set up of feeling responsible while still being supported.

 

In knowing that we are going to spend the next four months together, the first day of introductions and starting friendships is different. – I like it!

 

The sound of moving water is constant but not enough to make me have to pee all the time. Peaceful, yet strong.

 

I feel healthy: moving around, lots of outside time, laughing and learning, while living very much so in the moment. Sure I have thought of people that I am not with, but not in a sad way. I am where I am both mentally and physically, and the transition is coming easier than I had originally and realistically expected (although it is only day two 😛).

 

I am really loving the fresh, clean air. Even if I am not always not cold, the cool fresh air is really worth it. I will say I do miss my warm flannel, but I am extremely glad that I brought my blue fuzzy sweater.

The sun is setting. It is about to disappear over one of the mountains near the South Yuba River. It looks so amazing seeing the brightness of the sun shine and create countless tree silhouettes. There are so many different textures to look at.

I picked up an acorn cap while hiking, and it is very different from the acorn caps back in PA. (Mom would be proud: I wrote “different from” rather than the grammatically wrong “different than,” which she catches me writing and saying often.)

 

~Kiera

Yesterday the students arrived. The past several weeks have been about acquainting oneself to change, to new routines and new views out of one’s window. It’s like going off and finding that perfect place to write: a mixture of intuition and impulse and then a fair amount of readjustment and second guessing once you are there. The view you have of a place is never the view you have once you are seated in it. Each time I find myself somewhere new I have new information about how best I can create a home there, whether that means I want to know the most minute details of the Bay Laurel tree or those of a new roommate’s last apartment. This is a transitional moment for me, recently out of school and at once wanting to find something steady, reliable, constant, and also to keep moving and exploring: sanctuary and pilgrimage. Here are a few things I do know are important: warm bed, warm food, unconditional dog love, fresh air, a useful feeling, and – perhaps most importantly— a room full of people laughing so hard that their stomachs hurt. I’m looking forward to learning how to transition with everyone, from life here to life in Baja and back to here, on farms and on roads and on rivers.

~Chrissie


Director’s Notes

Laguna Ojo de Liebre/Scammon’s Lagoon, Baja California Sur, Mexico

March 19, 2011

“Then the plane cut north across Vizcaino Bay, and I was moved by the sight of a great abundance of gray whales scattered below me! The late morning sun, high but still east, made for perfect viewing. It shown down into the fairly clear sea, so I could see many whales underwater, while others rose to breathe in a wreath of white foam. This was primeval: a sight from the Earth of long ago. Many people share in the credit for this restoration. Perhaps this is a great pre-migratory assemblage? I am so grateful for this sight of abundant whales from on high: a fitting conclusion to a Baja visit that was full of shared discovery and natural wonders. A visit that made feel very very alive, and very young and humble.”

— Paul Spitzer, PhD, Ornithologist we met in 2010 in San Ignacio Lagoon

Coming full circle, I bring you back to Baja, where we have traveled from Bahia de Los Angeles to the Pacific (west) side of the Peninsula, to return once more to the lagoon that bears two names: Laguna Ojo de Liebre (Eye of the Rabbit) and Scammon’s Lagoon. I have heard two explanations for the former and one for the latter: one, that there are lots of jackrabbits in the dunes surrounding this lagoon, and two, that at the peak of the whaling era, the waters of the lagoon ran as red as a jackrabbit’s eye. The explanation for the more mundane and benign-sounding “Scammon’s” is that the lagoon was named in honor of Captain Charles Scammon, the New England whaler who is most responsible for the legend of the blood-red waters. He discovered Ojo de Liebre in 1857, exactly 100 years before I was born. Leaving San Francisco and heading south along the coast, he discovered the Mexican lagoons where the California gray whale comes to breed and calf in the warm, shallow waters. It was here in Ojo de Liebre that he and his men slaughtered so many whales, and brought back so many barrels of oil, that word soon spread and competing whaling ships followed Scammon to cash in on the bounty. Between the lagoon whaling and off-shore whaling, in less than 10 years the population of grays had been decimated to the point that Scammon himself predicted that they would be extinct before long.

And they nearly were. But in 1970 the California gray whale was added to the Endangered Species list. In the intervening years, the whales made a remarkable recovery to the point that in 1994 they were taken off the list, the first marine mammal ever to be removed.

Since that time, eco-tourism has burgeoned. The gray has continued to make the 4,000-mile migration from the nutrient rich waters of Alaska and the Bering Sea, to the warm lagoons of Baja California. Year after year they make the epic journey – one of the longest in the animal kingdom. In 1972, a Mexican fisherman named Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral was the first person to experience a “friendly” encounter with a gray. A solitary female approached his fishing boat in San Ignacio Lagoon and, as the story goes, sought interaction with him. Since that first time, the instances of friendly behavior in gray whales have increased steadily. In fact, in the seventeen years that we have traveled to Baja, as non-scientific observers we have watched the whales interact with humans in ways that are inexplicable and dare I say, wondrous. Mothers lift their babies up to the boat, outstretched arms and fingers bridging the void between species.  Single adults roll on their sides so that, it would seem, they can get a better look at us. Any attempt at explanation is pure speculation. Most of nature remains a mystery, but only when we are face to face with that mystery do we remember this.

And so it has been these past three days, camped beside the lagoon that not so long ago was the stage of mass slaughter of such scale and brutality as to be incomprehensible. Every time I am here I can’t help but wonder at yet another contrast in this land of extremes.

We have arranged to meet our friends Shari Bondy, and her husband, Juan Arce Marron, at the lagoon. Shari is an independent gray whale researcher and naturalist who first migrated with her beloved grays from her home in Tofino, British Columbia, in the mid-eighties. Spending years migrating with the whales from Canada to Mexico and back again, Shari became one of Canada’s first whale watching tour guides more by chance than design. In the late nineties, she moved to Baja permanently, eventually becoming a Mexican citizen. The stories Shari tells of her adventures would fill a book, and will someday if she ever finishes it, but this story is about a young lanchero named Fernando.

“Lancha” is Spanish for “boat”. “Lanchero” is boat driver. The lancheros of the lagoon drive small “pangas” or fishing boats to take people out to observe the whales. The pangas hold ten people, tops. These lancheros – Luis, Leopoldo, Abel, and others — are old acquaintances with whom we share an affection and appreciation, but little real knowledge of one another. The reason is simple: we don’t speak each other’s language. The language we have shared over many years is as non-verbal as the interspecies communication we enjoy with the whales. We talk a little – but it is mostly limited to a “How are you/I am fine” level of communication. Still, their faces light up when they see us, and the handshakes are warm. Perhaps we are like long lost cousins in this land where everyone seems to be related.

Shari is already out on the water when we arrive at the visitor’s center. She comes in with her group, all smiles and stories of remarkable interactions with mothers and calves, and a solitary male who is a little on the rambunctious side. We take a little time to introduce the FtG crew to Shari, although there is no way to prepare them for the five-foot-two-inch powerhouse they are about to spend three days with. We jump right in and head out to the whales, although the wind has picked up and we are not 100% sure of our decision to go out. Windy weather can affect the whale’s behavior, as the animals tend to “hunker down” as we would do. The boats pitch and drift in the rough water, making it hard for friendly whales to approach and stay close to the boat. We decide to chance it, knowing that we may not see as much we hope.

I expect Shari to tell us that Luis or Leopoldo, 20-year veterans and expert whale guides, will be our boat driver. Instead, she informs us that there is a new lanchero named Fernando. “He’s young”, she says, “just a kid really – but he took us out the other day and he’s very good. I half expected him to be kind of a cowboy, being such a young guy, but he was really careful with the whales. And he’s very serious.”

We greet Fernando. He solemnly shakes our hands as we load into the panga, laughing and excited. We head in the direction of the mouth of the lagoon. The afternoon is getting on; the whales are returning from the farther reaches. For these animals, the northern migration is just days or weeks away, and swimming against the tide builds strength and stamina in the calves. These are the kinds of things that Shari has observed over years and years. The whale census peaked at around 1400 animals this year. The estimate now, a little past mid-March, is around 800. Another week and the numbers in the lagoon will drop further as more animals head out to the open sea. It is a long and arduous migration, about one third of the babies don’t make it. (Busch)

I have stood on the shore in Hawaii and watched humpback whales from a distance, but only in the lagoons of Baja have I observed whales up close in their natural habitat. It is unlike anything one can imagine. Due to the small size of the pangas, and the easy manner of most of the lancheros, themselves seasoned naturalists, I never feel like a tourist or an intruder here, but rather a privileged guest. Silently, as the boat leaves the dock, I ask permission to enter their home. A practice of mine when entering any new landscape be it forest, meadow, lagoon, or desert, I am reminded that others live here, and I am a visitor. As the boat skims over the water, one sees the blows first. One here, then another, followed by the slow fluid movement of the whale’s exposed back as she swims along; from a distance it resembles a thin sliver of darkness just breaking the surface. Then, little by little, the waters come alive. A breaching whale in the distance, more blows, maybe a spyhop. It is never the same from one trip to the next – how could it be? This is a living, breathing matrix of interconnected life, and I am a living, breathing part of it.

A solitary whale approaches our boat. It is the whale Shari was telling us about earlier. His behavior is not typical of most “friendly” behavior. Rather than approaching the boat and gently seeking contact head first, he swishes his tail and brings it quite close to the boat, seemingly agitated. He pushes the boat a bit, diving under it, and up to the other side. We talk to him in soothing tones, more for the transmission of intention than sound. His tail flukes are battered – the normally sharp tips bitten off and rounded  – indications of orca attacks. The absurdity of the situation does not escape us. This 30-ton animal could smash our boat to bits with one slap of his tail. And yet, with the grace of a dancer, he maneuvers around the tiny panga knowing where every inch of his 40 feet is. This is due in part to the twenty per cent (by weight) of the gray whale’s brain that is cerebellum, which controls voluntary movement and balance. (Busch) We enjoy his presence but even Shari is a little nervous of his unpredictable and less-than-gentle behavior. Still, we are enthralled. It is impossible not to be. After awhile he swims away and we continue on our way. Before long, a mother and calf approach the boat. Again, we are transfixed as they lift their massive heads toward us and we reach our puny hands and fingers down to them. The mother spends much of the visit at the back of the boat near Fernando; she seems to like him, and the admiration is mutual. His serious demeanor gives way to a broad, shy smile. The pair swims off, and we decide to turn to the dock early so we can go more slowly, avoiding the drenching we will surely get at a high speed in this wind.

We travel a ways when another whale crosses our path. Fernando slows the panga way down, and the whale approaches. It is the same whale! We recognize the tail and other distinctive markings and of course the personality. From our location in the lagoon now, it appears that he has followed us, like a stray dog. It seems the only explanation.  By now I have convinced the rest of our group that this whale is lonely – a social outcast, and traumatized by the orca attacks. Everyone talks to him, quietly, still a tad nervous, but lovingly nonetheless. He seems calmer, less tail swishing. Despite the rough waters that make the starboard side of the boat more difficult for the whale, he comes to where I am seated and presents his head for a few precious seconds. I try to reach him with the tips of my fingers even while I feel doubt as to how he may react. With the rocking of the boat I can’t quite reach and his head slips beneath the surface. I look to Fernando – he points to his watch and gives us a stern look. It is time to head back. We give our thanks and say goodbye to our new friend and head back to the dock.

Juan, a fisherman by trade, and a real renaissance man as well, has brought us a gift of whitefish. Lots of whitefish. Of our little group of seven, one is vegan, one vegetarian, and four do not like fish. That leaves me. It is hard for me to fathom that here by the ocean, welcomed into a culture that has relied on the bounty of the sea for centuries, I am the only of us that is beside myself with excitement and genuine appreciation for this gift. Juan not only caught the fish, he cooks it as well. Luckily our lanchero amigos join us for dinner. Even so, and even after sending them home with several, I am still, three days later eating whitefish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Since this is essentially the only place and time I eat fish, for reasons of moral and ecological conscience, this is fine by me. It will have to carry me for another year. I am grateful to Juan, to the fish, to the sea that could sustain us if we just learned to take only what we need.

Around the campfire that night, we discover another side to Fernando. He is not as serious as first impressions would have us believe. He is talkative, quick-witted, and highly observant, with a good sense of humor. He spontaneously launches us into a campfire language lesson by asking Shari how to say certain phrases in English. Before long he has won all our hearts as he picks up the English quickly and asks for more. His agile mind is hungry. The teachers among us are thrilled – there is nothing we love more. Shari is tired, but true to form she comes electrically alive – ever the life of the party – and teaches around the campfire until we are all happily exhausted and ready for bed. She moves effortlessly from English to Spanish and back again and makes sure that every part of the conversation is translated in both languages. Sometimes the laughter is delayed as a story is passed into the other language, but this has the effect of prolonging the mirth in a kind of wave as the punch line is caught and carried.  Shari’s gift of translation coupled with her love of teaching and watching others connect and learn has turned what could have been a slightly awkward, quiet evening into a night of laughter and exuberant relating. A simple, yet profound experience. Sometimes I think this is all we really need.

A picture begins to emerge, like a black-and-white photo in the darkroom solution tray, and it comes to me that we should interview Fernando if he is willing. At 21, he is the youngest lanchero we have ever seen here. I sense a story, and at FtG, to follow the story means more than sharing news or a journalistic point of view. To quote our new friend, Terry Tempest Williams,

I simply wish to bear witness to the places we traveled and the people we met, and give voice to the beauty and devastation of both. To bear witness is not a passive act.

In rural cultures, so much of what is learned is passed from one generation to the next; father to son, mother to daughter; father to daughter, mother to son. At least that is how it used to be. In the US, the average age of a farmer is sixty-something. Ways of life and centuries-old traditions are dying out all over the world. Languages are lost forever. And yet, mentorship and guidance are not exclusive to an old-world or indigenous way of life. Mentorship and guidance from one’s elders are necessary in order to learn how to take one’s place in the community, to fulfill a vital and essential role in the wholeness of life. It is this that concerns me for our current and coming generations. It is this that draws me to understand more. I want to hear Fernando’s story, and I have a feeling that there is something in it that the students need to hear as well.

Director’s Notes: March 21, 2011

The FtG group gathered before entering the painted caves in Catavina

March 21, 2011

Dear readers,

Many have written begging for more posts, more photos, more tales from the wilds of our journey in Baja California. We are doing our best to chronicle our experiences even as they unfold. Our journals and SD cards are rich with stories of image and word, but getting them formed and posted is always a challenge on the road, especially here in the land of sparse electricity, let alone internet. Thank you for wanting more. Thank you also for your patience, and we will deliver whenever and however we can. We hope you enjoy today’s offerings. We are well, we are safe, we are learning. Life here is an overflowing cup and sometimes we are scrambling to catch the overflow. Today is our last day at Laguna Ojo de Liebre with the whales. Tomorrow we start north again and head to Ensenada and our time there. As always, more to come!

Debra and Tom

 

Photo by Annabelle

Shona’s whale experience

Our friendliest whale experience

3.20.11

I was awake before the sun. I could still feel the potency of the full moon that infiltrated my dreams and lit my way through the dunes last night. I fumbled around blindly for a few minutes looking for clothing; still wrapped in my sleeping bag, not wanting to leave its warmth. Movement next door: Annabelle is awake. She asks me if I need to pee, I say yes I do, she asks if I want to go first. Slight confusion on my part but I tell her no, you go ahead first. She leaves. I get out of my bag, trying to avoid letting sand into it but failing miserably. Small sand dunes have accumulated in our tent so any attempt to keep it out of things is mostly pointless. I zip open the tent and step out into the morning. The sun is trying to come up but a layer of clouds prevents it from warming our camp. Wake the boys up. Cut the fruit. Boil the tea water. For breakfast: granola, walnuts, almonds, raisins, milk, banana, mango, papaya, and to top it off, a big dollop of crunchy peanut butter. Mmmmhmm. Wash the dishes and secure the food boxes. Quick, into the van. Drive to meet Shari and Juan at the dock. Life vests on, excitement is high, the ocean is flat and still. The full moon has caused huge tide swings. It is too shallow at the dock to load into the boat. We must walk it out to deeper water. Tyler’s long undies, chucks, and too-tight pants prevent him from wading. That’s OK, we will push the boat out and you can get in from the dock. Everyone is in. The morning rush is over. As the panga speeds along, my world slows down. Someone says dolphins — where? Finger points; oh yes I see them! They come to play. Racing with the boat, one leaps out of the water right in front; water sprays back on us. The whales are asleep all around. Tired mamas with energetic babies ready for the new day. A solo whale comes up to our boat. Where is your baby? We do not know. Shari thinks you are a female so we will call you a she. You are so beautiful. I put my hands on you and feel your barnacles, scars, and wisdom. You stare up at me with one blue eye, surrounded by wrinkles you have had since birth. I stare back down into the water at you and marvel; your size, grace, and full-heartedness. Thank you for sharing with me. In some way I may not have realized yet, you changed my life today.

 

By Shona

Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Baja California Sur, Mexico

A dolphin that swam next to us while whale-watching

Photos by Annabelle