With dolphin escorts off the bow, we departed midday from San Quintín for an overnight sail to Cedros Island. Once in open water we were able to turn off the engine and sail into the blissful quiet. Off the starboard beam, a whale breached. (I obviously did not take this magnificent photo below. I will explain shortly.)
These events are dumbfounding. A mammal weighing between 15 to 35 tons, which normally suspends itself in liquid, summons the ambition and strength to plow upward with such force that it moves nearly two-thirds of those 70,000 pounds into the open air. Once there, it executes the most enormously impressive belly flop, complete with a whitewater explosion visible for miles. It makes all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. People who study whales guess they may do this to show off, scratch their backs, get rid of their parasites, find each other, herd fish, or, best of all, just for fun. Like many explanations in animal behavior, it is most likely a combination of some or all of these. But this does not affect the gasp-inducing, electrifying rush of seeing a whole whale, longer and bigger than our 39-foot boat, appear without warning out of the mysterious underworld and into the calm horizon to shatter the trance above the waterline. It is both terrifying and exhilarating because it simply doesn’t seem possible—both the event and the fact that you were there to see your distant mammal cousin perform this practical act of effusive joy.
Which brings me to one of my realizations from our trip south: these events are not for sailors to capture with a camera unless strangely lucky. Under sail with only two or three people, all hands are devoted to the boat and safety aboard. Even leaving the camera handy could not prepare us for magical wildlife events, and even with the camera in hand, there is a reason that wildlife photographers are well-paid. This does not stop us from trying, but if not stymied by safety or lack of photo skills, we were halted by our own awe. So if you would like to see breaching whales out in the Pacific, well, you’ll just have to go to sea.
Clouds rolled in and we started the engine again as the wind died. This evening and night passed easily and without event, although I made the error of not waking Chris to take his watch and ended up more sleep deprived than necessary. Once again I peered and squinted into the breaking light of day (are those clouds? islands?) as steep Cedros came into view like the knobby dorsal hump of a Gray whale.
As morning came in brightly with more dolphin frolickers, we motored past the steep northern tip of the island and down the eastern side, noting two small encampments that serve as seasonal homes for fishermen on the shore. As we dropped our anchor, I felt the fatigue of night set in. At this point, the dog had spent around 36 hours without relieving himself of anything, and I was worried. I had taken him on 39-foot “walks” to the bow where we keep his astroturf pad, but he simply sat down and looked at me mournfully. At one point I was so frustrated, worried, and sleep deprived that I considered starting to cry, and the ocean immediately responded with dolphins. And it’s impossible to cry in the company of dolphins.
However, as soon as the motor was off at anchor, we discovered that Uly did, in fact, understand he was supposed to use the mat, although the poor guy must have been forced by intestinal distress akin to Montezuma’s revenge. We cheerfully cleaned the poop off of the boat, both because the dog hadn’t exploded internally and because now we knew he knew how to use the mat. We almost didn’t mind that he had used not just the mat but the entire bow as his lawn.
We launched the dinghy using the spinnaker halyard and a simple bridle attached by three points to the dinghy to lift it over the lifelines and lower it gently-ish into the water so I could row Uly to shore. The water was FULL of sea lions! They seemed playful and curious, but I was very aware that I was greatly outnumbered. As a gentle wave pushed us onto the pebbly shore, three snoozing seals opened two-and-a-half of their collective eyes and continued to enjoy the sun. Uly gave chase to another group of three that showed a little fear, and they barked their awkward and resentful way into the water, with me yelling “sorry!” furtively after them. It was the leash for Uly, since we would have to walk through an elephant seal gauntlet to get to a canyon and hike, and these dudes looked grumpy at best. Elephant seals are in the “earless seal” family (a classification, they still have internal ears), an ironic name given the 24-hour cacophony that ensued from this beach for all to hear. They create everything from farting grunts and belches to banshee-esque screams. All day, all night.
It felt great to be back in the desert, alone with my dog! I lived for ten years in the red desert in Moab, UT, and I spent many days wandering deserted canyons with only my fluffy companions. It’s an environment in which I feel at home—despite being on an island in the Pacific, I recognized the desert cousins of many plants, blooming furiously to take advantage of a mild, moist winter.
Back at the boat, we prepared the bonita we had caught just as we rounded the northern corner of the island. We trail 1-2 lures behind the boat, and we mostly catch seaweed, but this morning a beautiful, tuna-like fish with horizontal black stripes and iridescent blue on its head had caught our cedar plug.
As we sat in the cockpit in the sun, enjoying the calm anchorage in the afternoon and the first warm rays our skin had felt since San Diego, a bright yellow panga came motoring into view from the north. The panga was piled four-deep with lobster traps. I squinted at his bow. Was that a refrigerator? Indeed, at a 45 degree angle, lying on its side, was a white, full-size refrigerator. He motored slowly to the bow.
The fisherman standing at the back, with his dark brown skin and a perfect space between his two white front teeth, asked if I spoke Spanish, and I responded yes. I waited a moment to learn his agenda. Nothing. I smiled. I wondered why he came over, so I figured I would start with his name, and I gave him mine. Eduardo deftly maneuvered his 20-foot boat close to the stern of Far.
I asked Eduardo if he fished here and lived here, to which he replied he did. He lives at the fish camp from September until February, and has done so every year for 27 years! The racket of elephant seals continued, and he commented that this was the first year that the elephant seals had come to this part of the island. His style was thoughtful, pensive.
I asked about our fish—was it a bonito?
Stripes and a blue head? he asked.
Yes! I exclaimed. He nodded. Bonito. But it’s not bonito season, he added. Right now they were catching mackerel, abalone, and lobster. Bonito and tuna were more in December.
Since he had seen this island for 27 years, my interest was piqued. Without any leading words like “weather” or “climate,” I asked, is it different now here, or the same?
He turned his eyes to the sky and pursed his lips, carefully considering my question. I leaned forward.
Narrowing his eyes, he replied, Different.
There are far fewer lobster now, he said. This year, from the effects of El Niño, the water is warmer, which is good for lobster, but generally there are far fewer now.
His gaze stretched to the shore as he spoke, sifting through his memory. Much has changed, he continued. For example, in 1997, there were three kinds of abalone: white, blue, and black. That winter we had an El Niño, and the black—they disappeared.
Disappeared? I responded, surprised.
Completely, he answered.
We chatted more about life on the island (that day was the last day for lobster for the year,) and then he said something I often hear.
Okkaaayyy, YEEESSeeka,” he said, as if pondering my name as a way to both process our interaction and close our conversation.
Thank you for the visit, I called as he puttered slowly away, and he laughed and was gone around the next corner.
What an account! With only a few simple questions, this man tied to the cycles of climate and weather recalled the changes to which he needed to adapt.
The Cedros Island fishery runs as a cooperative and has so since sometime between 1922 and 1943 (I found varying dates.) This is a long time. A cooperative allows fishermen to jointly harvest, market, and price their product. This way they can pool their catch to better access new markets and gain bargaining and purchase power. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom cited Cedros as an example of her broader framework that exalted the benefit of the commons. A cooperative is community-based, rewards hard work, fosters accountability, and those that function best are fair and rapid in enforcement of their own rules. Even Eduardo’s calm, thoughtful manner seemed to reflect those principles.
But what of the black abalone? To Eduardo, the abalone disappeared because of El Niño, weather changes and warmer water that result from higher-than-normal sea temps in the Pacific at the equator (La Niña is cooler-than-normal temps in the ocean at the equator.) In 1997, El Niño was credited with disastrous hurricanes in the Caribbean and Pacific and a horrendous winter for northeastern North America, among other weather challenges.
Climate change appears to drive the frequency and severity of El Niños. A brief explanation of how this works: the ocean is a lot of water (H2O), absorbed carbon dioxide (CO2) and heat (energy!), and it has been absorbing over 90% of the extra carbon dioxide and heat we humans have added to the atmosphere since 1955 (we went from 280 parts per million of CO2 to 401 ppm today.) If you add heat and/or carbon dioxide to water, it expands. When we’re talking about a lot of water, like the Pacific, the heat becomes energy in the form of currents, eddies, and storms.
For example, hurricanes gain strength with the constant heat from open water, and they start to lose their energy once over land in part because their can no longer draw warmth (energy) from the ocean. The hurricane season therefore ends as the water cools for the winter in both the Pacific and the Atlantic. But El Niño keeps the water warmer longer in the Pacific, and this has a global weather (energy) impact.
NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, just declared El Niño is officially here for 2015—although Eduardo could have told you that back in December. Back in 1998, he also knew the fishery was different and the water was warmer, and, it seemed to him, a permanent change occurred as the result of that difference.
Back to the mysterious, rapid and complete disappearance of an entire species from Cedros. If you look up the cause of the mortality of the black abalone, you find Withering syndrome, a bacterial infection that causes the foot of the abalone to shrink, thus making it unable to cling to a rock. For this reason, the black abalone is globally listed as critically endangered. So was it just coincidental that they disappeared from Cedros during El Niño?
As with many diagnoses, the answer is more complex than one cause. Many black abalone can live in harmony with this bacteria—it doesn’t effect them. However, as soon as the water warms up even a little bit, they are overcome by this bacteria. Therefore, the abalone at Cedros may have been living with the bacteria, but a rise in ocean water temperature—less than 4 degrees Farenheit—brought about their collapse. Like a murder mystery, the bacteria is the smoking gun, but it was El Niño that pulled the trigger—and Eduardo lives in the neighborhood and can testify as a witness.
People like Eduardo who live closely tied to natural cycles can tell us a lot about big picture changes. Although the black abalone is a small creature now nearly extinct, it disappeared rapidly, taking with it part of the industry of the cooperative of fishers (and divers, since they must dive to harvest abalone.) On Cedros, they already had a high-functioning cooperative that could respond to this change and continue to support its members. He adapted deftly to a similar change in water conditions this year with more time spent trapping lobster, which thrived as the big fish suffered (warmer water is less nutrient-rich.)
In turn, all of these changes impact not only the small abalone, but some of the largest mammals ever to live on earth as well: whales. In warmer, nutrient-poor water, whales struggle to find enough food. Whether or not we see them, the whales still exist under the surface, adapting or suffering with change.
Much of the time, changes in climate are hidden from everyday view and our everyday lives continue without a breach. But once in a while, these changes explode to the surface to disrupt our view, crashing down with an enormous splash. Indications of these changes are lived and breathed by Eduardo, his family, and others who live tied to the coast. We can listen to their observations and take heed of their accounts of the sudden or longterm change. We can learn from them how to adapt nimbly and with care for our resources. But we must always be on deck to scan the horizon for these events. Eduardo is standing watch at the helm—we just have to listen.
*I truly regret that I did not get a photo of Eduardo. But I promise, he’s real. I suppose you’ll just have to go to sea if you want to meet him.