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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.