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A Terrible Place: Part 1 - Into the Blue

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

Triplefin at anchor at San Pedro Martir. Paul's pic

terrible (adj.): late 14c., "causing terror, awe, or dread; frightful," from Old French terrible (12c.), from Latin terribilis "frightful,"from terrere "fill with fear," from PIE root *tros- "to make afraid" (source also of Sanskrit trasanti "to tremble, be afraid," Avestan tarshta "scared, afraid," Greek treëin "to tremble, be afraid," Lithuanian trišėti "to tremble, shiver," Old Church Slavonic treso "I shake," Middle Irish tarrach "timid"). Weakened sense of "very bad, awful" is first attested 1590s. (taken from the Online Etymology Dictionary)

“That’s a terrible place!” Those were the exact words that burst from the wizened, salty sailor when I told him we were destined for Isla San Pedro Mártir, the most isolated, rugged, and untamed island in the Sea of Cortez. From his perspective, I took him to mean that it is a challenging place for a human to visit and stay at anchor. Indeed, Mártir is only 1.5 to 2 km across from any one side to its opposite and all those sides are steep cliffs of one form or another. With only two sketchy anchorages, most sail and motor boats never visit there, and with its surrounding waters being a no-catch, marine reserve you rarely see a speedy, day-tripping panga there either. But ask a sea bird about Mártir, and you’ll surely get a very different answer! All the fleet-winged boobies, frigate birds, tropic birds, cormorants, pelicans, and petrels know it as a rare sanctuary and have baptized it’s entire surface with pure, white, odoriferous guano (yep, bird poop).

(Use the arrow to see the Paul's pic's of the birds in the order they're named above)

You see, the deep water around Mártir is one of the most fertile in the world and the abundance of fish attracts not only the planet’s biggest nesting colonies of brown boobies (Sula leucogaster) and blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii) but also leaping rivers of dolphins and geysers of whales.

Given the adaptive evolution of many island-bound animals and plants there, Martir is often referred to as Mexico’s Galapagos, with one out of ten of its nearly 300 species listed on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species! And we’re not just talking birds. Amid the dwarf (yet still giant), cardon cactus forest hide rare, Mexican fishing bats, tangles of invertebrates, and a couple species of colorful, bejeweled lizard who are endemic (found there and only there). These lizards have specifically adapted to feed off the birds’ fish crumbs and another little beastie that I’ll save for Paul’s storytelling. In a (coco)nut shell, Mártir’s wildlife is unignorable, especially its rocky necklace of a shoreline which is strung with the wet-sleek, precious, dark pearls of California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus) who use the island as a critical breeding and pup-rearing home. (See Paul's pic below) Those curious and playful sea lions, with their high risk for getting entangled in abandoned fishing gear/nets, were one of two reasons Paul and I and our dog, Gizmo, were destined for Isla San Pedro Mártir’s eastern, triangular-cliff-walled anchorage, despite the old salty dog’s warning of it being a place to dread. But . . .

Did you notice in the etymology of terrible that it can also mean that it generates awe? My generation diluted the power of this noun with the all-positive, Valley-Girl, proclamation of “Awesome!” But the official, modern definition emphasizes dread shaken (surely not merely stirred) with admiration, veneration, or great reverence. That feeling of awe was the other reason we three (well, ok, we two humans) were eager to get back to Martir after two years away. Speaking for Gizmo, it’s a place where he receives a meaty bone for doing his pooping on deck since he can’t go to shore. It’s also the place where his job seems to be disguising his own fearful trembling and shivering by annoyingly barking to “protect” us whenever the teenager sea lions swim over to play next to Triplefin. And they swim over a LOT. Those pinnipeds are so numerous where we anchor that one sailing guide warns that spending a night there is like trying to sleep in a crowded dog kennel. And I would add that the concave cliff wall behind the sort-of-kennel acts as an opera house amplifier. For Paul and me, though, simply being at a place so wild and teeming with life that isn’t simultaneously teeming with loud tourists is a great privilege. But for me it’s a gift that I knew would come annoyingly-triple-duct-tape-wrapped with the personal challenge of being still instead of constantly in neurotic motion.

We had just completed our disentanglement workshop with the (Ack! I was about to type “awesome”!) hard-working and very effective, marine animal rescue organization, From Elsa Galindo and her team we learned how to assemble and employ the super expensive, specialized nets (with me and Gizmo taking turns as sea lions) used to contain entangled sea lions, dolphins, turtles, and birds.

Gizmo waits his turn to role play a sea lion victim with CRRIFS' Diana Barreto, Elsa Coria Galindo, and Eduardo Pérez.

We were taught how to stealthily sneak up on such animals in need and how to be part of an emergency rescue team should we ever be called to. We learned how to painstakingly remove monofilament line deeply embedded in flesh so as not to cause even more harm. You see, the too-strong, fine, fish net line acts like a torturous, slow-motion, knife blade and is often found around a maturing neck, growing ever perilously closer to the carotid artery, jugular vein, vagus nerve, trachea, and esophagus. Perhaps most useful, although less sexy, was learning how to make formal reports to PROFEPA, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources’ agency charged with the care of the environment throughout Mexico. The workshop helped us create this HOW-TO Guide for fellow cruisers to use when you encounter marine animals in trouble:

How To Help Animals In Trouble
Download PDF • 157KB

Of course, Paul, ever the 12-year-old, is still pouting that he didn’t get to use a dart gun in the workshop. I swear.

As we sailed from Isla Tiburon to Isla San Pedro Mártir I was pensive not only about having to be still there but also about how I would emotionally deal with bearing witness to any badly entangled animals . . . especially when we couldn’t physically DO anything to help by ourselves. Without a permit and a team, we could only make a report via our satellite communication system. I wasn’t sure if I could take seeing such suffering and the only way I know to cope with intense emotions is to literally run fast and far away from them. I considered Elsa, the founder of CRRIFS, a wildlife veterinarian and a mom. I considered her strength coupled with compassion and experience that allows her to face this type of needless suffering on a daily basis. As the water passed along our hulls, getting clearer and bluer, Elsa became my role model to draw strength from. I told myself that regardless of whether or not I see it, the suffering exists, everywhere, all the time, be it slowly garroted marine life or sudden bombings on maternity hospitals in Ukraine. I tried to remember that bearing witness IS doing something, especially if you can make an effective report, and that I needed to put my own hope-squashing empathy aside and replace it with compassion. Still, could I do that without running, and running, and running?

Milky Way photo by my son, Zane Anthony Johnson

When my folks and my sisters died, I ran. Each time, I ran outside, collapsed, and then looked up to the night sky. The stars. The nebulae. The planets. Our Milky Way galaxy. Aboard Triplefin we get a front porch view of the universe every clear night. THAT is one way I can feel at peace while sitting still. So, our first Mártir night, at sunset, I got all set up on the trampoline with cushions, binoculars, and beer before I remembered that it was an almost-full moon. Dang it. Well, at least Orion, the mighty hunter with his ready (ahem) “sword” and his Sirius-nosed, obedient dog at heel were still visible in spite of the too-bright moon. Once the macho man had marched his determined war path across the sky and claimed victory behind the dome of the island, I ushered Gizmo inside and battened down the hatches. No need to listen to him barking all night. The sea lions were making enough noise on their own! I blacked out my bedroom windows from that pesky moon, put on some jazz to cover the wild cacophony and hoped for sleep as an escape.

I woke early to the sound of slinkos (our word for sea lions . . . credit to Paul . . . that we feel is more apt) leaping a meter from my head and felt some dread knowing that we’d spend the day searching for entanglement victims. Grrrrrrgh. I couldn’t help it . . . . I yanked on a sports bra and tennis shoes and did a regimented aerobic routine on the bow, trying not to wake up Paul.

Paul's fish-eye panorama shot of me doing aerobics on the bow at Martir with Gizmo.

That was pretty tough since I set in motion a chain reaction. As soon as I started jumping around, the local teenage gang of a couple dozen slinkos leapt-swam over to investigate. As soon as they started loudly commenting on my spastic moves, Gizmo stormed the deck and began barking back at them. Boy, did THAT get them going even more! No matter how many times I “hushed” him and tried to reassure him that they weren’t an invading naval force, he just wouldn’t stop, and he followed their antics with his own obsessive-compulsive, protective runs around the deck. (Video below is me trying to calm him on the dingy with visiting slinkos.) Thanks to my iron will (OK, stubbornness) and noise-cancelling headphones I managed to exercise enough to get a little spurt of endorphins, hopefully readying myself for the dreadful sights I expected to see that day.

Sure enough, around the northeast point, at the dingy landing site, there were a handful of protectively self-isolating sea lions. There was a big bull healing from a tear (Shark bite? Boat propeller?) on his fins and a sweet, young slinko terribly entangled in a fishing net and in need of urgent attention. Paul got the following photo and urged me not to look at it.

But, back aboard Triplefin that afternoon, as we prepared our official report to PROFEPA, I did. I looked at it. It made my heart literally hurt. (And, by literally I don’t mean figuratively. I physically felt pain in my chest.) This usually sets off in me another chain reaction: RUN! - Then over(comfort)eat - Then guiltily run, run, run some more. This was Mártir, the Martyr. There was nowhere to run. Earlier Paul had promised to join me for a non-athletic snorkel-swim. Clearly, it was THE time to jump in and we were rewarded. We encountered several sinuous horn sharks, a giant green sea turtle, some unusual soft coral formations, and, of course, a peaceful riot of curious, zooming slinkos who accompanied us, teasing our slow, ponderous bodies with their grace and agility. I was actually accepting our slow swim (semi self-effacing and semi-proud: “Yeah, me!”) but I was freezing and seriously needed to move faster to avoid hyperthermia. When I mentioned this to my guy he snipped, “I’m not here for a power swim!”. Yes, it burned like a man-of-war sting. Yes, who can blame him given my track record (so to speak). Yes, he immediately apologized without prompting. So, it was good. To be in the water, more connected to the life surrounding and sustaining that special, living island. I could feel myself moving forward a bit, at a slow limpet’s pace. Then came the next day:

For our last day there we decided to do what we hadn’t on our previous visits: climb to the top of the island (Paul's pic's above). I know, you’re thinking that I was thinking, “Whoopie, a workout!” Well, think again. Not only is Mártir steep sided, rocky, and coated with slippery guano, but its forest is spiny cactus and the whole place is a maze of vulnerable nesting birds with ravens and rattlesnakes hiding in hungry wait for parents to get spooked and hop off their chick-filled nests.

Paul's pic of a blue-footed boobie nesting couple and their egg.

Therefore, hiking to the summit is actually a Zen exercise in slow, respectful, walking meditation. It too was good. So good we even slow-paddled back to Triplefin and explored a sea cave (video below). My limpet-self again inched forward. No. Make that centimetered forward. We’ve gone metric on Triplefin, darn it.

That evening, back aboard Triplefin, as I was trying to figure out how not to think of the entangled sea lion we found as well as all the other worries of the world that I’m helpless to help, something remarkable and completely out-of-the blue happened . . . to be continued in Part 2!

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