The Stars to Sea Experience

The Stars to Sea Experience

By TC Smith

Day 1 – An Adventure begins

The day starts in the dim light of approaching dawn. Bags are dropped by vans while others move to patio tables for our anxiety-inducing COVID tests. All pass, and we gather at the breakfast bar for caffeine and intros. Names we’ve read in emails begin to have faces attached. Muffins and oatmeal are eaten, bananas hoarded for later, coffee pots are emptied and then we are on the road.

Gleaming San Diego sun lights the miles of highway in front of us as we move east and south towards Mexicali. Potty breaks, water refills and road trip bingo keeps us chatty and engaged. The handsome guard dogs at the Immigration office distract us from the awkward stress of waiting in line to be admitted to the country. Once again, we all “pass” and our international adventures truly begin.

We are a sizable troop as we descend on an unsuspecting eatery for a delightful lunch. The greens are crisp, the fruits fresh and juicy, the waffles and sandwiches generously proportioned. After lunch, a hush falls over the van as full bellies meet the rhythmic bouncing of the road and the vast desert landscapes drift endlessly past the windows. How is it only 1:30PM?

Many stops and long hours of travel continue and it is nearly 6PM when we arrive at the field station. A tour of the facilities and a wave of heat and humidity greet us, as well as a host of smiling faces, eager to share their slice of Paradise. We unpack, eat tostadas, and swim in gentle waters to cool our bodies and ease our travel aches. Canvas cots are set under the stars and by 9PM most are horizontal, watching the sky and catching Z’s, all set to the gentle lullaby of waves on sand.

Day 2 – First Encounters

We “sleep in” today, starting slowly on this first day. But the sunrise waits for no one, and as pink streaks the clouds above us, we all wake. Scores of endemic gulls noisily beg locals for fish (or perhaps, like the humans soon will be, they are merely chatting to new friends about yesterday’s activities.)

I have been up 3 times already (11PM, 2 AM, and 3:45AM) to make the sandy trek over to the potties. Cool night air finally allowed my body to feel properly hydrated. It’s certainly an adventure with each trek, and I am still learning the “bucket flush” technique.

Breakfast is officially at 7AM, and I am signed up for the clean-up duty after the meal (the first of 2 required kitchen duty slots.) Next is “whale shark 101” class, and that will be followed by being assigned snorkel equipment prior to boarding boats around 11AM. Today promises to be full. I know I need to get up and change clothes before humidity makes sticky limbs a problem, but I cannot stop staring at the majesty of the orange and rose horizon.

10:30AM, equipment distributed, snorkel refresh complete, whale shark info disseminated, and the group sits, seeking shade, downing water and waiting for the 4 boats which will ferry us to our underwater encounters with desired denizens of the deep. I have no words to truly capture that first moment, when the wide awe-inspiring face emerged form murky waters, swinging in my direction. My heart stopped and I admit: I swore through my snorkel. It is shock and delight and a stunned moment, followed by an elated high that lasts for hours.

After the morning session, all boats gather at a nearby beach, where the kitchen/food prep team blesses us with freshly prepared poke bowls and cut fruit. Sweet mango mixes with salty residue that coats everything down here. Delight and celebration fills the air as each team crows about each encounter. Food eaten, we all clamber back on boats to return to the bay and continue our pursuit of gentle endangered giants.

On this day, I learn that even juvenile and sub-adults are larger than expected, and swim far faster than I could imagine. I learn that “vertical feeding” shows a level of comfort and ease. One massive male lazily munched on micronutrients while letting us all take turns photographing his dot-patterns, and adoring his majesty.

The afternoon winds that bring in the plankton patches and stir the nutrient-rich waters also provide a great deal of chop, which makes the human body tire more quickly. I stay on deck for several encounters, amazed at the forms cutting easily through churning waters.

By charting their movements and marking, we contribute to a global data base tracking these mammoth and beautiful beings. After the boats, we return to home base to enter photos, video and data points into the system. This is the very “boots on the ground” (perhaps that should be “fins in the water”) work that helps save a species, and I am so honored to contribute whatever I can.

The day ends with “happy hour”, a sumptuous dinner of stuffed peppers and rice, a discussion about
how our science makes a difference and then rest, watching the moon above to the gentle soundtrack
of the surf.

Day 3 – A Storm Approaches

In the dark, I wake wondering why the boats in the bay are signaling each other with such bright and random lights. But it is Mother Nature’s gorgeous fury instead. White hot streaks of lightning crack the sky, one after another, as storms rage just past the protective islands in the channel. Somehow, despite the display, my tired body slips back into sleep, lulled by the crash of storm-angry surf and the heavy roll of thunder. However, when the rain starts to fall we all must rise and get our canvas cots into the safety of the garage.

Despite being up pre-dawn, we are all excited to return to the water. Unfortunately, we find that the storm has driven the sharks into deeper and calmer waters for feeding. We only see one, a juvenile (maybe 10 – 12 feet long), and he is skittish, quick and not in the mood to meet new friends.

We return to shore and learn the protocols and documentation we will need for tomorrow’s Beach Clean-Up outing with the Aventureros. Then we gather as community on the back porch of the field station for delicious dinner and an uproarious “no-talent-talent show”, which includes synchronized head-stands on paddle boards, a bevy of “dad jokes”, a step-by-step demonstration on folding an origami frog (that really hops), 2 beautiful bits of opera, and a sheep-shearing presentation that leaves us all crying with laughter.

The day started with discord and stormy chaos, but ends with camaraderie and the contentment of community. Like-minded souls sharing passion for science and exploration. A good feeling that wraps around me and sinks in to my skin (much like the overwhelming humidity of the night.)

Day 4 – Beautiful Weather and Too Many People

Today, the sky in the distance is red and the shadows of far off rainfall peek from behind the islands in the distance. We as a group have already settled into the morning routines. 6am, and Scott (bless him!) has already dumped and replaced the foot baths for the house. Corie and her dad are down sea-side looking for pretty rocks as they walk along the shore. Katie is taking a paddle board down to the water for a morning ride. My body is tired. Rustic living is exhausting and I am feeling my age. Still, life is full of adventure and I rise, get coffee, and embrace this amazing experience to the fullest.

The waters are calmer today as the storm systems move things about. The Aventureros have joined us today, to help us learn how to gather data regarding beach trash. These brilliant teens are front-runners in their protocols and documentation for this research and they are an inspirational example of what “community” can really look like. The clean-up is organized and swift, and just like that, we are back in the water.

But we are not the only boats today. The beauty of today’s weather leads to lots of tourism boats out looking for sharks as well, and at times it feels quite crowded. I imagine the sharks feel that even more so. I ponder the fine line between surrounding sharks for research photos, and surrounding sharks for selfies. Both activities give some benefit, raising visibility and generating interest and information regarding these incredible endangered animals. Ultimately we all want these sharks to be protected, to continue to exist sharing this planet with us. Together, science and tourism, can help protect these nutrient-rich feeding grounds, and also support the community of Bahia de los Angeles.

I do pause to wonder, how much is too much? At what point of surrounding them to get a photo do we become potentially part of the problem? With ecotourism in Africa, the mountain gorillas have become habituated to the presence of humans, which raises the visibility of their plight, but also makes them more likely to be exposed to human-carried disease. Do we run the risk of damaging the feeding area for these sharks? Humans…. What is our ultimate obligation as stewards of the planet?

Day 5 – Exhaustion Leads To Introspection

Once again, we wake to bolts of far off lighting and desperately low surf. Waxing moonlight glitters in the light rain that falls at 1:30AM. Folks begin to fold up cots, while others hide under the blankets, waiting to see if this will quickly pass. The water fall stops, but what follows is a stale motionless heat, followed by a hot wind blowing off the desert hills behind us. Returning to sleep is a losing prospect, but I huddle under a damp sheet like some cot-goblin, burrowing in like the local sand-spurs, stuck in place. The brief bout of rain passes, but the damage is done. All sleepers have been interrupted multiple times, and when it comes time for the rich-reds of sunrise, all are vaguely grouchy and bone weary.

First boat stop of the day is a rock outcropping where several female sea-lions spin and flip in the strong currents, beaconing swimmers to join them like sirens of yore. “El Guapo”, the dominant male sat on the far side of the rocks, nursing an injury that looks to be a bite wound from another male or possibly a shark. Without his supervision, the females frolic with abandon. Some swimmers put on fins and join them, but between the quick currents and streamlined pinniped bodies, getting close is more of a
challenge than I can achieve.

Our boats leave the sea-lions and head out to the open waters of the bay where waters are choppy and the tide is incredibly low. We find sharks, but many are shy and speedy sub-adults who don’t seem to want company during their morning meal. For me, the days of poor sleep, intense heat and using muscles in ways I’m not used to have caught up with me. I’m fit, but unaccustomed to swimming in storm-stirred waters. On my third jump in, not only can I NOT catch up to the swiftly-moving shark, but I can barely get myself back to the boat. As our driver pulls me from the water, my whole body shakes with anxiety and exhaustion. It is a rough decision, but at that point, I feel science would be better served for the strong swimmers to be in the water, and I will play look out, trying to spot new whale sharks from the bow of the boat.

In that moment, I admit, I feel like a failure. All my insecurities about age and purpose come to the forefront of my mind and knock me about as surely as the waves have done. But a friend had instructed me (before I left the states) to just stay present with the animals, with the adventure. And as I sit staring into the sea, taking deep breaths, I try to do just that.

Afternoon brought high-tides as full moon met storm surge, and we return to the institute to watch as the powerful waves batter the recently built sea walls. (Future participants of the project, if you’re wondering about a betterment project, those walls could use repair to help stand against the force of nature.)

Despairing about my body’s weakness, I walk down the gravel road visiting the local cemetery, which brings tears. While I struggle with the language barrier, the love that is evident at a gravesite needs no translation. I walk to the water’s edge, listening to the crash of water on rocks, that intersection where waves meet shore, the blending of worlds that creates “the coast.” Quiet, yet deafening, it centers me and reminds me that this body is transitory, temporary, but the blending of sand and sea continues for centuries. My triumphs or weaknesses are small comparatively, and this week, my focus should be on not “MY” merits or faults, but on what we as “community” can do to protect the land, the water, the sharks. “Life begins just outside your comfort zone” one of the murals at VSI reminds me, and here, seaside, I experience that moment. I sit with my weary frustrations and try to move beyond ego.

I return to the station just before the lunch bell rings, and together we gather. After lunch, we will do chores, cleaning the kitchen, classroom, bathrooms, so that they next group can begin with a fresh slate, discovering all the perks and quirks of this place anew, as we did 5 days ago.

We take one last field trip to shop locally, supporting the BDLA residents as we purchase mementos for loved ones at home. We return to VSI for one last dinner, sharing laughter and conservations and community. We sleep one last time under stars, various emotions swirling around our minds as the warm night winds swirl around our bodies.

Day 6 – An Adventure Comes to a Close

Trained to align with the light, we wake before dawn, to leave packed bags by the vans. We nibble pastries, drink coffee, gaze lovingly at the bay. By 7AM, we are loading onto vans for the ~10hr journey back to San Diego. On my van, we sing, we sleep, we sweat. We are tired and to varying degrees we are both excited and sad to return to the states. We all long for hot showers and flush toilets. We all lament the sour and rank state of the clothing in our bags. We pass around snacks, remind each other to hydrate, and do not talk about the elephant in the room… the fact that this moment, this combination of people and sharks and weather and emotions will never exist quite like this again. This moment, this feeling, is fleeting, and we cannot stop its departure.

Upon returning to the SD hotel, we all shower. Some do laundry. Others begin to answer emails and voicemails, sorting out the mundane issues that appear during one’s absence. We rest on plush pillows in air conditioned room and dream of gentle underwater giants.

At 5AM the next morning, a hint of sun peeps through curtains and my Baja-brain training brings me to consciousness. Sadly, I instantly realize that there is no crate to pack for the boats, no snorkel and fins to rinse and prep. My time in paradise has (for now) come to a close. But what lessons I take with me, from VSI back to everyday reality, that’s up to me… The joy of community, the wonder of nature, the excitement of the unexpected, even the constant mental reminder to hydrate and be gentle with my body. These are all lessons that fit in my carry-on and don’t cause problems with TSA. All these things can be brought home and unpacked whenever needed.

All photos by TC Smith