Windy days have dominated the past week and a half here in the northern Gulf of California frustrating researchers, local fishermen and even myself, the lone filmmaker trying to document “the story”. Wind is a natural element that hinders, encourages, and often times teases the state of the sea. As has happened this past week, it can blow endlessly for days with no end in sight. It can bring an honest brutal truth to working at sea. Yet, within minutes, the wind can suddenly subside and chaos becomes calm. Calm brings hope that the search, a real unhindered search, will commence once again for that elusive vaquita sighting.
Friday became the real “Day 1” of “Expedition Vaquita” with all vaquita research vessels going out to sea at once - Mexico’s Koi Pai, NOAA’s RV David Starr Jordan and Corsair – known here as the “Vaquita Express”, and the locally hired sport fishing boat the Pancho Villa, used by Tom Jefferson as a photo id platform.
It was time for me to transfer from my land base and daily surveys on the the Pancho Villa to a much bigger platform, the NOAA research vessel David Starr Jordan, referred to as “the Jordan”.
While the expedition is being led by Mexican authorities at the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia in Ensenada, colleagues from NOAA were invited to help with the visual effort at sea. Until the end of November, scientists from around the world will join the Jordan in the search for vaquita. The Jordan was here in 1997 conducting the last major visual survey, which documented the declining population of vaquita in the region.
For a number of reasons, 2008 is a big year for vaquita. There has never been such a large coordinated effort in the region to look for the animals with so many boats.
I woke at dawn and made my way down to a panga that was to transfer Todd Pusser and I to the ship. Todd is part of the observation team who searches for animals through gigantic binoculars called “big-eyes” - 25x binoculars mounted on an observation platform. With this tool, and in good conditions, researchers can see animals 5-6 miles from the ship. On the Jordan there are a set of four “big-eyes”, with researchers spending 40-minute shifts looking in different directions for vaquita.
The Jordan was 15 miles south of San Felipe dropping one of the acoustic bouys that will be used to gather long-term data by continuously recording echolocation clicks that vaquita make. It is the hope and expectation of researchers that deploying multiple buoys with specialized digital audio recorders in vaquita habitat, will result in an “acoustic census” or population estimate, and reveal information about movement patterns. With the ability to monitor the animals 24 hours a day, these buoys are seen as vital to the success of the science and conservation effort.
On the ride out, Todd and I traded photographer stories, moments we capture in the field that can only be appreciated by others who practice the craft. Some are tall tales, some are incredible encounters. Kind of like talking shop, most of these exchanges occur when people are coming and going, are passing through airports, or like right now, traveling at 18 knots in a panga with our bags wrapped in garbage bags to protect them from the salt spray. We yell loudly to each other although we are only half a meter away, competing with the noise from an outboard engine opened up at full throttle.
We arrived at the Jordan, an impressive 185-foot vessel, just as an acoustic bouy was being deployed. So, I took out my video camera and filmed it dropping into the sea. It was great to be staying on a boat again, wrapped in the fashion of the job – a giant reflective orange lifejacket that I am sure had its own story to tell.
After 15 minutes we pulled along side, and were greeted by the crew. Among them was a good friend, Southwest fisheries scientist Robert Pitman. Known to friends and colleagues as “Bob”. He pulled my multiple bags of equipment aboard, and gave me a short tour of the ship. I have heard stories over the years of the epic eastern tropical pacific surveys from Bob and his wife, scientist Lisa Balance. This is my first time on a NOAA ship, and I was overwhelmed initially by its size, facilities and by the history paved on her deck, and display within her hull. These stories I will explore over the coming weeks as well as stories from the Koi Pai.
I spent the first day getting my sea legs again. Although, the ship is the most stable platform I have ever been on, I felt like I should take a day at being an observer myself. I was greeted by Dan, a NOAA officer who took Todd and I though all of the safety procedures on the vessel, and rules of the ship. I walked around the ship in the wet lab, dry lab, and back to “the mess” where meals are served at 7am-8am, 11am-12pm, and 5-6pm. I could barely feel the boat rock, although the sounds and smells remind you, you are at sea.
Over the day, I met with a number of the science team talking about how the big-eyes worked, what kind of data will be collected on their line-transect, and people’s hopes of seeing the illusive vaquita. I felt a buzz in the air, an air of excitement and expectation to be on the ship searching for the most endangered cetacean on the planet.
That night, I spent talking with Bob, Todd, Barb Taylor (the Chief Scientist onboard), Jay Barlow, and Greg Silber. Greg was onboard visiting from the Office of Protected Resources at the Natio
nal Marine Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. Greg did his PhD work on vaquita over 20 years ago with the esteemed Ken Norris, laying the groundwork for many of the researchers working with vaquita today.
I backed up footage shot during the day, charged the batteries, cleaned the equipment, and prepared for what the next day would bring. We heard on the radio that the Vaquita Express (Corsair), and Pancho Villa, encountered vaquita in different areas during the day. There was a palpable sense of relief on the ship. We were all silently afraid vaquita may be disappearing too rapidly to encounter on this survey.
All night, I tossed and turned, sharing a bunk with a crewperson onboard the ship. I was thinking about what it would be like to see a vaquita through the “big-eyes”, what kind of video footage I may get, which has eluded filmmakers and researchers through the years. These directorial dreams dominated my evening. I woke up at 5am the next morning eager to get going. When I woke at dawn, everyone else was up too and looking through the big-eyes, excited that today’s weather was perfect for sighting vaquita. Everyone wanted to be on watch, to be the first on the ship to see it!