Long and Short Days at Sea

After settling into the rhythm of San Felipe, adjusting to the heat and pace of this sleepy seaside town, I am spending most of my time with Tom Jefferson and his team, researchers Paula Olson and Tom Kieckhefer. We wake before dawn each morning and are on the water at sunrise, taking advantage of the calmest water. The wind tends to blow up as the day progresses causing a choppy sea surface, significantly reducing our chances of spotting vaquita. Their job is to try to find the animals, to photograph them and gather imagery to aid scientists and conservation groups in their research and communication efforts both on a local and international level. A lot of people in the northern gulf, do not believe the vaquita even exists, so any images will go a long way to raising its extremely low profile, and hopefully, aiding in the recovery of the species. [RAW]

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Photographing the vaquita is another story altogether. People who work with marine mammals are used to the frustrations of unpredictable weather and the long days and months searching for locations in which animals congregate and feed. Sometimes, as is the case with the vaquita, just spotting an animal when it surfaces to breathe is an enormous challenge in itself. One day the sea may be flat calm, perfect for photographing animals, but you may spend too much time in the wrong spot. Another day, you may be in an area with animals all around, but you cannot see them because the sea whips up into a frenzy that forces you back into port.

However, when the elements come together, and as long as your gear is working (your batteries are charged, you have extra memory cards and you have managed to protect your lenses from the salty spray) you will have the opportunity to interact with animals and get some pictures.

Biologist Tom Jefferson searches for vaquita on the horizon

In my case, I brought with me the new Sony EX-3 XDCAM EX video camera. What does this mean? If we are lucky, I can film a vaquita in a high definition (HD) format that can capture a high-resolution image sequence of an animal coming out of the water, and (if I keep my cool and the timing is right) I will try to capture slow motion footage!

An estimated 150 vaquita remain worldwide, all of which are concentrated in an area of approximately 40 square miles in the northern gulf. An area declared a biosphere reserve and vaquita refuge. This is a small space for a small animal. Yet, this does not make them any easier to find, nor helped prevent their demise.

Enforcement boat questions us near Rocas Consag. Photo - Chris Johnson

Tom tells me that our chance of getting a good photograph of the shy vaquita is a challenge. After a week on the water, I think that it may be the marine equivalent to walking on the moon. To say it is a tough task is an understatement. But, if you do not try - if you do not get out on the sea, day after day after day, then it will never be done!

Tom has done his research reviewing scientific papers and examining reports on past vaquita quests. He is here for the month of October, when traditionally the seas flatten out. This gives his team the greatest chance of finding the animals. Although ones chances of winning the lottery may be greater than finding a vaquita, by being here when the weather is right, he has bought himself a thousand tickets, instead of one, which theoretically increases the odds of winning the big prize.

A photo of a vaquita surfacing - Courtesy Tom Jefferson

Tom is working in conjunction with the Mexican Government and scientists from Instituto Nacional de Ecologia in Ensenada (INE), as well as NOAA Southwest fisheries. The NOAA Fisheries Research Vessel David Starr Jordan arrived today, where it will stay for the next two months, its team of international scientists and crew joining in the search.

For another couple of days, Tom is using a panga, a local fishing boat, to spend as much time as possible at sea, drifting with the engine off. Guided by our GPS we drift quietly in areas researchers and fishermen have sighted animals in the past.

Over the coming weeks as I am documenting all of the action, I will be posting "rough cuts" that will all somehow turn into a documentary about the Vaquita, conservation topics in the area and explore the local communities of the northern gulf of california. Let’s go behind the scenes and hear from Tom about his project, and the challenges we are facing in this short video.

Brown booby flying in near Rocas Consag. Photo - Chris Johnson