Testing the Waters
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
Triplefin's dingy at the ready along Isla San Jose's wild East coast
It’s been a long year of social isolation for Paul and me aboard Triplefin. Like many of you, we’ve lost family (a father and a sister, respectively) and were not able to join remaining family and friends for mourning, remembering, and celebrating. I haven’t seen my son, who has grown into his own introspective man, for almost two years. We became proud green-card carrying residents of Mexico while a literal wall was being erected between our two countries, heart-achingly destroying fragile cross-border habitats and straining relationships. Meanwhile, the life-preserver that is our citizen-science work which we need to keep us emotionally afloat in such an overboard state of emergency could not be reached amid the waves of the socially-distancing pandemic. So, when we decided, one full year after the official start of the pandemic, to test the waters of communion and have someone else aboard for a week of data collection we felt hope of rescue. Indeed, our recent, week-long, sailing-for-science trip with our collaborator, Adrian Munguia Vega, PhD of Marine Biology with the University of Arizona and the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur in La Paz was a life saver. And, as I’ll explain, Adrian’s work could also be a long-term life raft for both native fish species of the Sea of Cortez and the artisanal fishing communities who rely on the fishes’ abundance.
Sunset at Isla San Jose seen through a gorgonian (sea fan). Pic by me
Adrian and his fellow researchers are working to identify the uncharted rock-reef cradles of fish and invertebrate diversity and abundance that shelter sea life, acting as protective nurseries for juveniles. They are also tracking the flow of migration patterns of those species whom we all love to eat. Once Adrian and fellow researchers locate these rock reef habitats, they then take water samples along the sea floor and filter the samples for the bits of DNA that all the resident, immigrant, and traveling fish and invertebrates (and human divers like me who pee in their wetsuits) leave behind. The DNA is later analyzed to identify exactly what critters are currently present around that rock reef. This data is important because it is used to advise policy makers and NGO’s of the most critical areas around the sea to protect. Best of all, Adrian’s team is working in communion with local fishermen, giving them the tools and knowledge to collect and filter water samples from their pangas while out fishing. That’s citizen-science at its best!
Adrian puts on his serious science face at his water filtering lab station aboard Triplefin
We three spent six spellbinding days and nights out along the rarely visited and little explored wild East coast of Isla San Jose, a fifteen-mile-long island sculpted by deep time, a two-day sail North of La Paz. We scuba dived to help Adrian find and record the locations of these rocky fish and invertebrate cradles and helped collect water samples along the rocky bottoms. The above-water photos we took give you a sense of the incredible geologic forces at work, and believe me, you could see the same formations underwater. I swam through narrow slot canyons carved by ancient freshwater streams that now hold rivers of marine fish, blew bubbles along sedimentary terraces and cliffs that looked like giant layered cakes decorated with waving sea fans, and finned circles around sandstone cathedrals constructed of ancient marine fossils. As Adrian remarked, it was astounding to see live barnacles attached to the shells of their ancestors who lived tens of millions of years ago.
Just imagine this slideshow underwater with fish, fish, fish! Pics by Paul and me
It felt damn good to once again be doing valuable work with a new partner and friend. Paul and I have memories from those days now to keep us afloat until enough of us are vaccinated and we can safely resume sailing and diving with whole groups of professional and citizen scientists. There was the shared laughter at Adrian finding the best night sleep to be on Gizmo’s dog bed in one of the trampolines under the stars. Well, Gizmo wasn’t laughing. There was learning that we gringos had been reheating corn tortillas the completely wrong way our whole lives. There was the fin whale (second largest animal on the planet, next to the blue whale) who surfaced and then swam right under our bow as our hearts collectively pounded some ancient beat of awe. She was so close and huge none of our minds could grasp her . . . like finally standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon after seeing photos of it your whole life. Yeah, it’s more than enough to keep our heads above water . . . for a while.