The Search Begins

A week ago, I boarded the epic flight to the United States; Qantas flight 93 from Melbourne to LA, followed by a commuter shuttle to San Diego. This was the beginning of my journey to search for and document the vaquita – the world’s smallest cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise). It all started when we produced an online documentary entitled ‘Wake of the Baiji’. In 2007, we interviewed scientist Robert Pitman of NOAA Southwest Fisheries about his role on a research expedition that declared this marine mammal, the Yangtze River Dolphin – “functionally extinct”. It was the first cetacean species to be declared extinct in modern times, as a direct result of human activities. He told us a very personal story about what it meant to document the extinction of a species from the perspective of a scientist, but also as a human citizen. What was supposed to be discovery turned to the despair – another reminder of the consequences of the expanding global human footprint! He eloquently reflected upon the concept and reality of extinction and what it meant to him, and us. Fast forward one year, and we are on the doorstep of another cetacean extinction – the vaquita. An estimated 150 animals remain in a sea dominated by desert. In recent years human pressures have taken an enormous toll on what is known as the ‘desert porpoise’.

In 2007, we were invited to join and document an international research expedition launched by the instituto Nacional de Ecologia in Ensenada, Mexico (INE) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California (NOAA), to search for the vaquita. They will use three research vessels deploying newly designed scientific techniques to monitor its population. We wanted to record something being done about extinction, to see if all is lost, or if there is reason to hope and this collaboration was the perfect opportunity.

The plan is for governments, scientists, fishermen, local and international NGOs and local community members to work together and devise a plan that works for everyone, including the vaquita, so its population can increase before it is too late. I wanted to be here to see if this could develop into a model that may inspire solutions for other critical marine environmental problems, or if this is a futile exercise in doing too little too late.

For the past 8 months, most of my spare time has been filled with making phone calls, raising funds, writing emails, obtaining permits to film in the biosphere reserve in Mexico, getting health checks to record events and interviews onboard the NOAA research vessel David Starr Jordan, and writing more and more emails. It was if I was glued to my desk, skype, in the hope I could do something to raise awareness about what extinction means.

The plan is to spend 6 weeks searching for the illusive vaquita and record its influence on the lives of people living in the northern gulf, and their influence on its life. There are many people to meet, questions to ask, answers to listen to and complexities to explore.

A few days ago, I arrived in San Diego fraught with excitement, and a bit of nervousness. I spent a couple of days getting last minute items for the trip that I could not bring on the plane. I rented a car, shopped for food and bought a few essential items for the long stay in Mexico.

A few days ago, I travelled into the desert towards the northern gulf of California – in a time that is very precarious for an animal that many people do not know about, is almost impossible to photograph and film, that is shy, solitary, and stays far away from boats. Mentioning the name “vaquita” can evoke a sharp spike in the blood pressure for many locals. An animal few fishermen have ever seen, unless entangled as accidental bycatch in invisible fishing nets. For most, its legacy has blossomed into an almost mythical creature; it is like Mexico’s version of the Loch ness monster. Some do not even believe the vaquita exists at all.

While the Loch ness monster has inspired humanity on a relentless quest over countless years, this year, the vaquita bring sweeping changes that will impact and change the lifestyle of local communities that rely on the sea. A couple of weeks ago, the shrimping season began which continues until March. However, the Mexican government in order to enforce conservation regulations already in place in marine areas such a vaquita refuge and biosphere reserve, have declared this will be the final year for this fishery. How fishermen feel about this, and what they will do in the long-term is a question on the minds of many.

Navigating the 5-hour drive through the desert of Baja, Mexico, can cause one to reflect about one’s life and the journey they are about to embark on. For me, questions occupied my time of solitude staring into an endless sea of heat and sand. Can a plan to monitor and “save” the vaquita be devised in time, and if so, can it work? Can we afford to lose it, and what will it mean for us if we do? How do you convince people that a small, rarely seen mammal, that is of little or no economic value, nor an essential element in the marine ecosystem is worth saving?

Tom Jefferson examines the planned route for the day with boat owner Alex, and Paula Olson. Photo - Chris Johnson

I arrived in San Felipe, a community that is caught between an impoverished fishing community, and unplanned tourist development on the edge of the desert. There seems to be only one way that people will survive here long-term, and that will be to balance growth, tourism and sustainable living – but all of these things come with a cost. Money seems to be trickling in here slowly rather than flowing with a vigorous force. These are topics I want to investigate and learn more about, to share in my search for the desert porpoise.

I am still battling jetlag brought on by the extreme change in time zones - Melbourne, Australia is 17 hours ahead of San Felipe, Mexico. I continue to wake at 3am each morning. These days, I am more than ready to get on the water after such a long period seemingly on the sidelines. I have been dreaming of the sound of waves filling my days, while scanning the blue horizon of a desert sea in search of the vaquita.

Today, I joined Tom Jefferson a cetacean researcher, who is conducting a vaquita photo-identification project. Tom is a wealth of knowledge, with an incredible passion for his work and years of experience in the field. A self-confessed morning person, his energy is absolutely infectious as the sun emerges in the early hours of the day. Tom has designed his search for the vaquita to be done on small boats, drifting for long periods with the hope that with the engine off, vaquita may reveal themselves to us. For two weeks, we will be working on “panga” – an 8-meter long fiberglass hulled boat originally used for gillnet fishing, but more now for tourism. In the coming days, you will meet Tom and his team and learn more about their project.

It is going to be long hours of extreme waiting and patience – lots of patience. Our day began at 7am this morning with clear skies and calm seas. We launched the boat without a problem, and headed straight to Rocas Consag – a rocky outcrop 18 miles form San Felipe bathed in sea lions and other abundant marine life. Historically, this is the place where vaquita are known to reveal themselves to people.

I have not been to sea for a year, and even on a small panga, it took time to find a rhythm with the ocean. When you are on a rocking boat, everywhere on your body moves in places you never imagined, and in ways it is not supposed to move, or in my case, it’s more like a ‘jiggle’. After an hour or so, as if some DNA memory kicked in, I was lulled into its pace and felt an easygoing euphoria to be back. Most of our time, we scanned in all directions, looking for splashes, any sign of life at the surface both near and far.

The only sightings were of our neighbors on the water - local fishermen searching for shrimp using gillnets. These fine mesh nets are the local tools of the trade in the northern gulf, but cause so many problems for vaquita navigating these waters. The sea is full of activity now with small pangas closer to shore and larger shrimp boats further out and scattered along the horizon. I was told seeing the shrimp boats on the water was a spectacle, and we have a front row seat.

The sea was quiet for a few hours as if to tease us. By 10am, the wind whipped up and whitecaps emerged. A panga is designed for small seas, not heavy wind. On the horizon, a line of boats pointed there bows straight back to port.

Local fishers pulling up a gillnet off the coast of San Felipe. Photo - Chris Johnson

We were only 9 miles offshore and decided to come back in, as the risk was too great to stay out with the wind steadily increasing. Tom made the decision; it was time to get back in. Anything over a sea state ‘Beaufort 3’ (a measurement of wind speed and wave height on a scale from 0-12) was impossible for us to even spot a shy, low-lying vaquita from the panga. I heard Ricardo, the boat driver, trying to start the engine again, and again, and again….. Nothing. This was a familiar sound to me, the choke of a flooded engine. We weren’t going anywhere for a while.

When someone says “It is time to go back in” – it is almost on cue that things happen. A moment of silence enveloped all of us on the boat. It is at these times, you calculate the risks being taken in your work – “ok, we are only 9 miles offshore, the cell phone works, we have a VHF, the wind will blow us BACK to San Felipe…”

A consistent loud calm cuts through all of us on the boat because you know what everyone is thinking, “How did I get myself into this?”

During these moments I question why I am here, floating around for hours, searching for an animal that I may not film, let alone even see. A narrative voice booms within my head saying “you should have been a lawyer, or a doctor, or a dentists, or a banker….” – somehow wildlife filmmaker never enters the picture when caught out of the comfort zone.

Luckily, this time, the problem was found after a few minutes of investigating the outboard motor. Water in the fuel, and lots of it clogged the engine as if it was having a heart attack. Ricardo got the engine started, and I wanted to give him a giant hug and a big ‘hi-five’ – trying to translate “on ya mate!” into Spanish. However, my “professionalism” kicked in, so instead I flashed a happy smile.

You feel the quiet relief when all is ok again. There was a spare fuel tank onboard, so the line was swapped, and we were on our way to port with the wind at our backs.

So the journey begins here. Where it ends, I have no idea. But it’s all part of the mystery and challenge in attempting to find the most endangered marine mammals on the planet? The search begins...

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Fishermen pulling up a gillnet - Chris Johnson