Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tracing a historic voyage off the Baja coast

Seventy years after Steinbeck’s journey, the Sea of Cortez is still worth an expedition.


Chugging across the glassy blue Sea of Cortez, several questions come to mind when you realize “a couple of dolphins” on the distant horizon are actually a bochinche, an organized, roiling feeding frenzy with untold hundreds of the playful mammals with the evil grin.
First, who came up with the Spanish word for a “dolphin feeding orgy”? And, more importantly: Are we gonna need a bigger boat?
Nearly 70 years after novelist John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts published their book about a wild and compelling expedition on the Western Flyer into this 700-mile slice up Mexico’s left flank, the best way to experience the gulf and its Galapagos-like islands still is the way they did it: in a small ship.
It’s clear from the book Log from the Sea of Cortez that this remote region only really reveals its secrets to travelers willing to make close contact, which explains how I came to be on a 70-passenger Lindblad Expeditions ship, the National Geographic Sea Bird, exploring stunning and forbidding land and sea – including some that hasn’t changed since Ricketts and Steinbeck sailed through.
While the gulf itself is a soup of sea life, the peninsula, as well as the 200 or so gulf islands, are largely undeveloped outside of Cabo, La Paz and Loreto – a fact that in modern times made them much easier to declare as protected lands.
In 1940, Steinbeck and Ricketts chartered a sardine boat out of Monterey for a 4,000-mile voyage to collect thousands of marine invertebrates from the teeming wealth of tide pools. Instead of being a clinical guide to six weeks of collecting species, the book they co-authored offers a vivid story of their interaction with locals and, at times, lengthy passages of philosophical pondering on everything from human nature to the mystical properties of the city of La Paz.
In the book, they called their trip an expedition: “We had no urge toward adventure. … None of us was possessed of the curious boredom within ourselves which makes adventurers of bridge players.”
While not a bridge player myself, I was fairly certain that seeing some of what they had seen would be, well, an adventure.
While the easy way to snorkel would have been to wade in from the beach at Los Islotes, there were a couple of minor problems: (1) There is no beach; and (2) The only land resembling a beach was a rocky terrace covered with 800-pound monsters: bloated, leathery bull sea lions doing their best impression of howler monkeys with a smoker’s cough and a beer-swiller’s belch.
Adventures are rarely about the easy way.
We picked out wetsuits and snorkel gear, loaded into Zodiac boats and threw ourselves into the choppy waters around the tiny rock islands that hundreds of California sea lions – and, I’m guessing from the guano, about 8 trillion birds – call home.
The payoff was sharing the sea with the younger animals, whose freakish agility and puppy-like curiosity (and faces) made it impossible not to smile – a potential problem for those with a mouthful of snorkel.
Resting in the bobbing Zodiac, I remembered that Ricketts and Steinbeck had devoted several pages of the book to sea monsters and humanity’s need to believe in them. It was as close as I’d come to mythical beasties in the wild.
A naturalist explained some of the dynamics of sea lion bulls and the struggle to maintain both weight and a harem – no time to eat when there are females to keep. I imagined the barking was almost certainly a litany of sea lion obscenities meant to fend off potential intruders with the sea lion version of “Just keep walkin’, man.”
After a while, we did.
At just 152 feet, the Sea Bird is nimble enough to maneuver into coves and bays and up to rock faces. Its height – at least three decks above the water line – offers views you can’t get from the day excursion boats out of La Paz.
On the second day, we pulled into Half Moon Bay on Isla San Francisco, a tan crescent fringing shallow, turquoise water made for kayaking. We had kayaked the day before on Ensenada Grande on Espiritu Santo island, but wind had cut into seriously carefree paddling. At Isla San Francisco, there was enough breeze to provide relief but not affect your course.
From the beach, you see the desert life the naturalists were talking about, but in a kayak, the contrast between vibrant sea and harsh landscape becomes severe. After paddling aimlessly around the bay for a while, I beached the kayak, stripped off my shirt and waded on and off pretty much until our ingenious dinner on the beach. With the boat bobbing on the horizon, we noshed happily on seared tuna, sushi, ribs and grilled pizza with basil, tomatoes and brie. Camping fare this was not, which didn’t stop the evening from having a summer camp vibe.
Like on the Western Flyer, most evenings on the Sea Bird served several roles, chief among them eating – more of a casual pleasure on this ship than the Olympic event it can be on large cruise ships.
After dinner came a gradual winding down, generally with a recounting of the day’s experiences and, for some, star-gazing, cocktails and the subsequent philosophizing that often follows.
No nightclub, no dance floor, no karaoke, although Patricia The Bartender did her best to provide the necessary fuel for spirited talks among the few of us awake past 10 p.m. After the last one surrendered, as the authors put it, “a quiet came over the boat and the trip slept.”
It’s entirely possible that William Lopez-Forment gets a little too excited about finding scorpions. And, maybe, rattlesnakes.
Lopez-Forment, one of several naturalists on board with a wall full of advanced degrees, held the tiny cream-colored scorpion by the tail and launched into another of his spirited mini-lectures on life on the gulf islands. He obviously loves to bust myths.
“You fly over the desert and say, ‘There’s nothing alive.’ Ha!” he had told us early in the trip. “This is richer than a tropical rain forest.”
I had joined the short hike on Isla Santa Catalina, an island remarkable for its pincushion-like concentration of cardon cacti, and the only species of rattlesnake in the world that, well, doesn’t have a rattle.
Walking up the valley from our rocky landing zone, we stopped every 10 yards to examine a plant or geologic feature, Lopez-Forment explaining its significance, and every 5 yards or so he would lift a rock or check under bushes for scorpions and rattlesnakes. By the end of the short trip, we sighted nine varieties of cacti, 22 other plants from jojoba to wild cucumber, and a range of birds from a butterfly-size hummingbird to ravens that would have made Poe flinch. No rattleless rattlesnakes, but he seemed to take great joy in finding the tiny scorpion. Maybe too much.
From a distance, Isla Santa Catalina had appeared to be another dusty, severe rock. I was beginning to understand what Steinbeck and Ricketts had written about the difference between studying in the lab and going out to where the life is.
That afternoon, the plan was to seek out a larger variety of sea life while sailing through the Bahia de Loreto National Park, a protected region of the Sea of Cortez off the coast near Loreto known as a popular passage among all sorts of sea monsters.
We hadn’t been terribly successful at spotting the larger whales, when a couple of the naturalists on the bow spotted what they thought to be “a couple of dolphins.” As the captain closed the distance, passengers gasped. We had seen dolphins, a few at a time, during the voyage, but this was hundreds, dozens at a time leaping out of the water.
The practice, apparently, is to disorient and herd masses of fish using sound waves and the percussion of the dolphin’s splashes. It was certainly disorienting the passengers, some of whom couldn’t decide where in a field of leaping dolphins to point the camera. As a sign that dolphins always favor a good time over a good meal, packs broke off the frenzy to ride in the bow wake. No one seemed to be thinking about whales.
As it turns out, bochinche actually translates to “uproar” or “big noise,” but it still seemed pretty apt for the scene. Oddly enough, Steinbeck’s word for the scene might have translated to “buffet.” On his scientific marine expedition, according to the book, the crew took a casual approach to cooking and consuming dolphins for dinner.
On the last day at sea, I went back to reading Sea of Cortez. Even Ricketts and Steinbeck, one of the nation’s greatest novelists, didn’t have the words to explain the gulf’s mystical draw.
“Trying to remember the gulf is like trying to re-create a dream. This is by no means a sentimental thing, it has little to do with beauty or even conscious liking,” the two men wrote.
“If it were lush and rich, one could understand the pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen. … But we know we must go back if we live, and we don’t know why.”
We had different goals: The authors were after an expedition that turned into an adventure; we were after an adventure that turned into a collecting expedition of a different type.
We had collected experiences, memories and enabling insight into why the gulf is even more important than we could have imagined before the trip. The closer we got, the easier it was to collect.
Sitting up on the sun deck as the last light turned the eastern sky to a bruise, I flipped ahead and found a passage that made me consider for a moment whether the pair had been on our boat.
“One thing had impressed us deeply on this little voyage: the great world dropped away very quickly,” they wrote. “The matters of great importance we had left were not important. There must be an infective quality in these things. We had lost the virus, or it had been eaten by the anti-bodies of quiet. Our pace had slowed greatly; the hundred thousand small reactions of our daily world were reduced to very few.”
Was it the place? Was it the boat? I no longer cared, and I put the book down.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Windsurfing Cape Horn 2009

SIM Expeditions have provided support of "Yeskumaala (HornRiders). Windsurfing Cape Horn" by Thomas Miklautsch (, and the Professional Windsurfers Association's 9th ranked for Slalom in 2008 Ben van der Steen (NED-57), and 23rd ranked for Freestyle in 2008 Tine Slabe (SLO-6) (,
Year: 2009 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Gray Whale named "Flex" on a migration route?

Western Pacific Gray Whale, Sakhalin Island 2010

These maps depict the movement of a satellite-monitored 13-year old male western gray whale, which was tagged on 4 October off Sakhalin Island, Russia, migrating from the Sea of Okhotsk.
In the 98 days since application, the transmitter has sent 1374 messages and the whale has traveled 4432 km.  The OSU MMI speed filter results in fewer locations being shown on the map than are received from the satellites. Thus, only the 220 locations that have passed the filter are shown, from the 350 locations calculated to date.
"Flex" departed the Kamchatka coast on 3 January. In the last week, he has crossed more than half of the Bering Sea, arriving at the slope edge of the eastern Bering Sea shelf on 9 January, and covering 1210 km (since turning from the Russian coast) in 164 hours for an average of 7.378 km/hr on a general heading of 65°.
Use of these figures requires the inclusion of the following recognitions:
This research was conducted by A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IEE RAS) and Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute; in collaboration with the University of Washington, Sakhalin Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, and Kronotsky State Nature Biosphere Reserve. The research was contracted through the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with funding from Exxon Neftegas Ltd. and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd.
Current (10 days) progress:

Gray whale movements
A highly endangered whale typically seen near Russia's shore is taking a swim across the Bering Sea toward Alaska.

U.S. and Russian researchers are tracking a 13-year-old male Western Pacific gray that has made it more than halfway across the Bering Sea, reaching shallow continental shelf waters, said Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute.
"This animal is probably surprising everybody by having crossed most of the Bering Sea so far in the last two weeks," Mate said.
Scientists can't say the whale is out of place. They don't know where Western Pacific gray whales usually are in January.
"That's why we did this," Mate said of the tracking project. "We only really know these animals during their summer feeding season, and they're predominantly around Sahkalin Island at the south end of the Sea of Okhotsk."
Eastern Pacific gray whales, also called California gray whales, are a familiar sight in Alaska waters. They feed in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas in summer and migrate down the West Coast each winter to breed, mostly in the bays of Baja California. They were taken off the endangered species list in 1994. Their population stands at about 18,000, Mate said.
In contrast, western Pacific gray whales are the second-most-threatened species of the large whales, behind North Pacific right whales, Mate said, and their population stands at just 130 animals.
"Almost all of those animals are known on sight from photo catalogs, and most of them have been biopsied for genetic analysis," he said.
Western gray whales were decimated by whaling in previous centuries and feared to be extinct in the mid-1970s. A population was rediscovered off Sakhalin Island, the Russian Island north of Japan, and has been monitored since the mid-1990s.
Sakhalin Island is the site of major offshore oil and gas activities. Whales also face threats from accidental entanglement in fishing gear. Five female western gray whales have died by entanglement over the past four years.
Gray whales are the only baleen whales that are mainly bottom feeders, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. They feed by scraping the side of their head along the ocean floor and scooping up sediment, capturing small invertebrates on baleen and expelling sediment and other particles through the baleen fringes.
Gray whales rarely feed while migrating or during the winters in the tropical waters. Instead, they live off fat reserves built up during summers, when they each eats about 1.3 tons of food per day. A typical male is 45 to 46 feet long.
Mate and others in the research program had hoped to tag a dozen western Pacific gray whales but two typhoons and two gales interfered.
"We felt pretty lucky when we tagged this animal on the last possible day of our field work," he said.
The whale, dubbed "Flex," was tagged in September with a tracking device the size of a small cigar.
There were hypotheses about where the animals spend their winters.
"One was that it would go down the Asian Coast and perhaps wind up in the southeast China Sea," Mate said. "Another was it might spend time off the Kamchatka Peninsula."
Instead, from about point about where the Aleutian Islands would intersect with Russia's Kamchatka coast, the whale on Jan. 3 began swimming east. By Sunday, it had reached the slope edge of the Bering Sea shelf north of the Aleutians, where waters decrease in depth from about 13,000 feet to about 240. The whale had covered more than 750 miles, or 1,210 kilometers, in 164 hours, for an average of 4.6 mph.
Satellite monitored radio tags have lasted as long as 385 days on a gray whale but average four months. The tag on "Flex" has been attached about 100 days. Mate can't predict how long it will stay attached.
He also doesn't know if Flex has company. Baleen whales generally travel don't bunch up except when congregating in prime feeding areas.
It's not the first time a gray whale has shown up in a surprising place. Gray whales were hunted to extinction in the Atlantic Ocean in the 18th Century, but one showed up last year in the Mediterranean Sea off Israel.
"That was definitely the largest straying observation of any whale species in human knowledge to date," Mate said.
It likely was an eastern Pacific whale that crossed by way of the Northwest Passage. That would have been the shortest route and the one most favorable to its feeding regime, Mate said.
The public can track the rare western Pacific whale at the Oregon State web site at It's updated every Monday.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

The Disappearing "Sea-ice Habitat" of the Arctic - THINK HABITAT

By Rebecca Noblin 
Alaska Director
Center for Biological Diversity

Those searching for unmistakable evidence of the global climate crisis should pay a visit to the Arctic. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. The average annual temperature in Barrow, at the northern-most tip of Alaska, has increased 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years. Almost every week Alaskans see a news story about the impacts this rapid warming is having right here at home: coastal villages being forced to relocate because of accelerated erosion caused by climate change; Arctic ice cellars in the permafrost melting and causing the loss of stored food; violent fall storms threatening people and animals; walrus and polar bears coming ashore in greater and greater numbers because their sea-ice habitat is melting beneath them.

Arctic sea ice is one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth. 2007 was the lowest summer sea-ice year on record, and 2008, 2009 and 2010 followed close behind. Arctic species such as polar bears and walrus cannot survive without Arctic sea ice. There are documented accounts of polar bears drowning as they try to swim between land and distant sea ice, and of starving polar bears resorting to cannibalism. In the fall of 2010, as many as 20,000 walrus—an unprecedented number—congregated on the shores of Arctic Alaska because there was no suitable sea ice. Walrus that are forced onto land in such large numbers are vulnerable to disease, predation and stampedes that lead to trampling deaths.

The drastic loss of sea ice has led the U.S. government to list polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and to designate 187,000 square miles of polar bear “critical habitat” in Arctic sea ice and coastal areas. The U.S. has also proposed listing two ice-dependent seal species under the Endangered Species Act because of the loss of their sea-ice habitat, and we are expecting a decision this month about federal protections for the Pacific walrus.

The climate crisis is upon us, and it will only get worse. Scientists tell us that to avoid catastrophic tipping points, we must bring atmospheric carbon levels down to 350 parts per million. The only way we can do that is by breaking our addiction to fossil fuels and converting to clean, renewable sources of energy. In the meantime, in order to preserve Arctic sea-ice-dependent species, we must not allow oil drilling in the Arctic, and we must carefully limit and monitor shipping through this fragile Arctic habitat.  If we take concrete steps now to protect polar bears, walrus, and other Arctic creatures, and to save their disappearing sea-ice habitat, the benefits will accrue not just to the polar bears and walrus, but to all living things in the Arctic, and to all living things on Earth.

This is a guest post by Center for Biological Diversity, as part of our occasional series from Endangered Species Coalition member organizations