A Day in the Life

of a VSI Intern

A Day in the Life of a VSI Intern

By Ela Diffenbaugh

6:00 am – Wake-Up/Paddle Board

I wake up to the sun peaking over Isla Cabeza de Caballo. Though my day does not always start this early, I love the peace and quiet that comes with the first rays of sun over the water. Someone told me once that the sun rise over the island looks like the yellow brick road. I agree, and I follow it until the light hurts my eyes and I crave whatever deliciousness has been whipped up in the kitchen.

9:00 am – Boats!

After having a steaming cup of Meghann’s Mermaid Coffee, and eating Brent’s heavenly breakfast potatoes, I gather all of the items I need to collect data on the whale shark population that gathers in the Gulf of California every summer. Today, I get to lead a boat day with Roberto, one of our boat drivers. Roberto makes me smile every time he sings his rendition of “Baby Shark,” or shares another part of his life in Bahía with me, and every time I get to go on his boat, Huracán, feels like a treat. Roberto and I decide that we should go snorkeling at Isla Coronado before looking for whale sharks. Judging by this group’s discussion of which type of tern is flying over the beach—are they elegant or royal?—I think they would enjoy the clan fiddler crabs in the mangroves.

I was right, and the group laughs and kneels down to watch the crabs tottering around, dubiously balanced given their differently sized pincers. In the meantime, I study a spider that has built her intricate web stretched across two baby mangrove branches. I make a mental note of the spots dotting her back so that I can locate her in my field guide later.

Full on mangrove viewing, Roberto directs Huracán to La Gringa, where the whale sharks have been congregating for the last few weeks. On the way there, we tally the number of pelicans, cormorants, gulls and terns (royal, I think, based on their calls) that soar over and around Huracán.

From a distance, I see a large shadow meandering slowly along the coast. Whistling back to Roberto, I gesture in the shadow’s direction. He nods and places his hand on his head like a shark fin, letting me know he has seen it too (and probably minutes before I did). But the participants haven’t seen it yet, and this is one of my favorite parts of the day—sitting in the group’s excitedly nervous energy that feels like it might spur the boat along as much as the motor.

Once we reach the shark, I try to funnel the excited energy into open, calm efficiency, simultaneously facilitating each person’s moment with the shark, while keeping track of the data we were gathering. For a few people on the boat, this is their first time seeing a whale shark, and another one of my favorite moments ensues as they emerge from the water, overwhelmed with the power and peace of these gentle giants.

After everyone has had their fill, I get to hop in the water. Though there are a few sharks I can recognize by this point from their fins or their spot patterns, this one feels unfamiliar. Swimming through the plankton soup that this shark is feeding on (did you know that juvenile whale sharks eat up to 46 pounds of plankton a day?! How these enormous creatures get enough calories to get them through the day blows my mind), I take a deep breath as the shark appears out of the murky water. Given his feeding behavior, I don’t have to move with urgency as I make sure to get a perfectly angled identification photo of his right and left sides. I also hang out for a moment, enjoying his presence and slowing my breathing, practicing reaching a state of total calm, which is new for me while out in the ocean with an enormous animal. I return to the boat with water in my dive mask, my smile having broken the seal.

1:00 pm – Data Analysis & Presentation Making

After saying goodbye to Roberto, tidying the station a bit, and eating a big bowl of veggie curry, I upload my photos of the shark I just collected data on. Sharkbook (our whale shark data framework) and NASA’s Groth Algorithm tell me this shark is MX-3206, an individual who had not been logged in BDLA before! I marvel a bit about how cool this algorithm is (it was originally designed to map stars in the sky with the Hubble telescope!), and then get back to editing a presentation I will give later about whale shark community science.

3:00 pm – Aventureros

The best part of the day announces itself when Emi, one of the Aventureros, comes barreling into the field station’s library. She pulls me along to the paddle boards, while teaching me something new, as she often does. Today, it is the word “capuchi,” a way to ask for a piggy-back ride that makes me laugh as I think of capuchin monkeys. Emi leads me to the paddle boards, and together, we drag the board down to the beach. When she spots a stingray in the surf, she reminds me to shuffle my feet. I try not to get pushed off as the Aventureros take turns choosing the direction of the paddle board. Over the last several months, German and Salma, the former program coordinators, have been teaching the new Aventureros to swim. Watching them get more and more comfortable in the water, to the point that they are swimming with whale sharks(!) has been a joy.

8:00 pm – Community Science Presentation

After cauliflower enchiladas and a bit of time spent journaling, I put the finishing touches on my Community Science presentation. Chino, a founding Aventurero and invaluable member of VSI’s team, humors me by helping me create examples of the “Dos and Don’ts of Whale Shark Measurement.” We laugh a lot as we make Finnigan the Whale Skeleton our model. Can you tell what is wrong with this method of measuring a shark? The presentation goes well and we practice using Sharkbook’s algorithm to identify if two whale sharks are the same using their left-side ID photos.

9:00 pm – Night Snorkeling

Though it is late, and it has been a full day, it is hard for me to resist a night snorkel, especially tonight. It’s a new moon, and the beauty of bioluminescence fills me with a kind of joy I can’t contain every time I see it. After answering a few questions and making sure everyone has an underwater flashlight, I split away a bit to find a dark quiet space where I can watch the water sparkle.

On the way, I yelp and startle after seeing a cartilaginous fin swish across the sea floor. Though I have been thoroughly cured of my fear of sharks this summer, having a fin rise up from the bottom of a dark, murky ocean still gets my heart racing. Even so, my curiosity gets the better of me and I decide to follow the creature. When I catch up and get a closer look, I see that the animal looks more like a ray than a shark (though, to my credit, its fin was really quite sharky). Once again, I take a mental picture so that I can look it up in my field guide later.

Back at the station, I decide that the creature must have been a guitar fish–an animal I didn’t even know existed. As I watch the stars and relax for bed, I mentally file away what has happened today in preparation for tomorrow. I catch a shooting star and, though I am not entirely sure what tomorrow will bring, I am confident it will involve laughter, community science and new learnings.

All photos by Ela Diffenbaugh