By Cole Basar
What pops in your head when you think of the drive down to VSI? The feelings of excitement for a new adventure? The awkwardness of squeezing into a van with a bunch of whale-shark obsessed strangers? Van snacks? Freddie Mercury filled playlists? Puma? Normally, this is a good glimpse of what to expect, but this time was different. It was just me… with a trunk full of school supplies and a killer whale costume (we’ll get to that later)… And maybe some Freddie Mercury in the background, too… heading into the desert and to a place that always feels like home. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE caravanning down to the station, van stops, taco stops, and everything else that makes the road trips down for our Stars to the Sea program great, but there’s something to be said about the quiet of the desert road when you’re rolling solo. I stopped wherever I wanted, soaked in every cactus, hiked off into new paths, peed whenever I wanted, thought about lots, but mostly got extremely excited to give back to a place that has given me so much.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to see the station change and grow tremendously. Each time I’ve come there is something new and different. Paddleboards, murals, people, and so much more. But what has had the biggest impact on me, and what I’ve seen have the biggest impact on the station, is a group of wild, loud, fun, and proud kids called the Aventureros. When I arrived at the station this time, there was no tour to give participants, no bags to unload, and no expectations. Just a bunch of kids exploring, playing and learning together. This is what Aventureros is all about. VSI’s new and unexpected program has embedded the station into the community (and the community into VSI) in ways that are more meaningful than this post can describe. Each week, VSI opens its doors (and kitchen) to the kids of Bahia to study, complete schoolwork, get tutoring, get fed and best of all ADVENTURE. People from all over have come to teach students topics of interest over the past year from martial arts to turtle conservation to sustainability at home. (Speaking of which, a new addition at the station this year was a compost bin that the kids built!) These kids have gotten to learn so many lessons in leadership, community, conservation, self-expression, culture and art, all while growing as individuals through this program. So here I am, walking into the station with 15 little sets of curious eyes fixed on me while Meghann explains that this stranger is here to teach them about whales for the next week. Here we go!
The kids unloaded my car, asked me lots of questions, and explained to me what it means to be an Aventurero. “We survive” “We help each other” “We learn” “We protect our community” “We protect wildlife” “We have fun” and “We adventure” were just a few of the answers I got. Over the next week, I got to see all of that first hand, and let me tell you, they couldn’t have been more spot on! We spent our days learning about whale adaptations and anatomy, experimenting with sound in water and echolocation, doing whale feeding labs, practicing identifying whales found in Baja their own backyard, and playing whale learning games and activities. My favorite of all was our grey whale migration obstacle course on the beach where they kids had to become whales and pack on blubber (a pillow filled backpack) to begin their migration, avoid sonar (Brent screaming nonsense at them through a megaphone), dodge marine traffic (crawl through hula hoops), navigate through marine debris (hop over a volleyball net) and avoid getting eaten by killer whales (me dressed in a killer whale
costume I found on Amazon chasing them around like a maniac) all while trying to get their baby origami grey whales safely back home to Alaska (the sea station). The only thing that topped that learning experience was our Super Viernes activity that all of these lessons had been building up to…. Drum roll please… packing the kids in vans and driving them to Guerro Negro to go whale watching and see exactly what they had been learning about firsthand. Grey whales, baby!!!
To help fund this excursion, these 15 ocean warriors started a 4 week “Basurathon” where they raised money by collecting pledges for cleaning up trash in Bahia. By the time our bellies were full of pancakes and piling into the vans on Super Friday, the kids had exceeded all expectations, picked up over 333 kg of trashed, and raised enough money to pay for their entire trip! I was blown away by their dedication and hard work, and I’d like to think that the whales were, too, since they were rewarded by EVERY KID GETTING TO TOUCH A WHALE! We spent hours on the water interacting with ocean giants, getting covered in spray and loving every minute of it. Baja never disappoints, and our smiles showed it. By the end of our full day adventure, we safely returned all the kids back home covered in sand and whale snot. It was the proudest I’ve ever been.
There are too many big moments to tell in this post. From an Aventureros themed birthday party (which goes to show how impactful this program is… to quote Meghann “We’re competing with Frozen for birthday party themes… AND WE’RE WINNING!”) to watching the kids show off their newly acquired whale knowledge to our naturalist before our tour to seeing each kid lose their lid with excitement as they reached out and pet a whale for the first time. Wow. Just wow. What an amazing group of kids and experience. However, one moment that stuck out to me specifically… like enough to write about… was when I was walking from the bathroom to the station. A completely mundane moment. Absolutely nothing special about it. I stopped because I realized I was smiling from ear to
ear. Just a big ‘ol smile. It probably looked a little creepy honestly. Who just walks around smiling? Me when I’m in Baja that’s who. Each day I found myself walking around with a big ass smile on my face for absolutely no specific reason. I’d just wake up with a smile. Wash my dishes with a smile. I would just be walking to and fro with all my teeth showing. I never just walk around smiling for no reason. Only in Baja. Where else can you do this? I’d like to think anywhere you want, but there’s just something special about VSI. It pulls the happy right out of ya. With that, I’d like whoever’s reading this to think about what makes you smile the most. Go do more of that. I know I will.
I drove down knowing that each experience in Baja is unique in its own way and gives you something you weren’t expecting. I found happiness, adventure, and my smile. I hope Baja gives you all the same next time you’re there.
Cheers and save the whales,