Solana Travel Writing, Spring 2021
Jessica Garda Adamcheck
When Jay asked me if I was up for an adventure, sitting middle seat in a 12- passenger van of strangers en route to rural Mexico was not exactly what I thought he’d have in mind. Nevertheless, my curiosity driven friend and co-worker had yet to lead me astray, so I was happy to play sidekick on this new escapade. The bohemian woman driving our van, Meghann, reminded me of a mermaid; perhaps initially because of her sun-kissed, but still red hair, and then later because of the way it seemed she might not exist without the ocean. As I introduced myself to her, she asked, “And where is home for you?” The question, in a strange way, sounded intimate. But I answered, and when I countered her with the same, she said simply, “Earth. But for now, Bahia.”
Our final destination was Bahia de los Angeles, Mexico, a beautiful coastal bay nestled beside the eastern edge of Baja California. There, cushioned along the shores of the Sea of Cortez, sits the Vermilion Sea Institute. Founded by Meghann’s father, a biology professor with an ambition to connect his students to the natural world, the Institute’s field station has served as a sanctuary for scientists, conservationists, educators, and students since the 1970s. Jay, a recently graduated Master’s biology student himself, first visited the station as a student the previous summer, but was eager to return on his own accord.
The magic of Bahia, the motivation for Jay’s return, and what enticed me to say “Yes!” to his invitation, are the 40 foot long sea giants that call it’s waters home. Whale sharks are the world’s largest known fish, and yet very little else is known about them. They are an aloof species, keeping their human admirers in suspicion of their habitat, migration range, life span, and reproductive behaviors. If it weren’t for their surface dwelling phytoplankton cravings, they might manage to remain an absolute mystery. Unfortunately, occupying the top of the water column while feeding comes with nasty consequences. The creatures often fall victim to fishermen eager to exploit them for their fins, oil, and meat. And without a knowledge base to understand these animals, the power to protect them remains buried. Thus, our team of 18 novice citizen scientist’s collective mission was to gather as much information on the whale sharks of Bahia that 7 days would allow.
Our journey South had taken several hours, so by the time we reached the field station the night had already settled into darkness. As Meghann did her best to give a flashlight lit tour, I couldn’t help but be distracted. The station, I would eventually discover in the light of morning, was an adobe building teeming with field guides on local bird and fish species, donated microscopes, university biology textbooks, and washed up remnants of various marine life. I would also come to understand its namesake, as each sunrise of the week painted the sky with brilliant streaks of red and orange pigment above the sea. But before any of those things could illuminate me, I lingered in the brilliance of the night’s sky. I could barely make out Jay’s face in the glow of the flashlight, but I reveled in the stars above. They were everywhere, with piercing clarity; something I had never seen before.
With morning came excitement. Day One at the station called for introductions and a debriefing. We were a motley crew of sorts, each driven to Bahia by our own experiences, curiosities, and desire to effect change, but united by a devotion to the wild. Meghann brought the group to attention by asking, “How did everyone sleep?”
The field station possessed many treasures, but beds were not one of them. We slept outside, beside cascading waves and under the presence of Orion and Lyra. The team quickly agreed that sleeping under the stars was sublime, and an experience that ought to occur for us humans more often. Meghann smiled, then explained that those stars we admired served as the very inspiration for the technology that might be responsible for saving the species we came to protect.
Just as astronomers use spot pattern recognition algorithms to recognize celestial patterns in the sky, so too does The Wildbook for Whale Sharks project in identifying individual sharks.
Whale sharks, like most elasmobranchs, are swaddled in a hard layer of enamel known as dermal denticles. Their skin of teeth is layered in subtle hues of blue and grey, then punctuated with bold silver spots and stripes. The pattern is beautiful, and although seemingly audacious, is actually designed to reflect and disperse sunlight as a means of camouflage. Much like a human fingerprint, each motif is unique; so when properly photographed, The Wildbook’s technology can identify a newly observed shark or track an existing one. So with each click of a camera, the data needed to comprehend what puts these species at risk, and then more importantly, what can be done to help them, is obtained. Thus making our goal for the week, as Meghann primed us, to collect images of each whale shark encounter, then upload them to The Wildbook’s database.
To increase our chances of collecting data, the group split into three different boats assigned to various regions of the sea. Equipped with snorkel masks and fins, clearance-rack underwater cameras, and a few salty snacks, we would spend all daylight hours scouring the water’s surface for any sign of a dorsal fin. The plan was that the moment a shark was spotted, two divers would slap on their gear, slip into the water with camera in hand, swim like hell to catch up the whale shark’s five large gill slits that offered the most unique spot patterns to document, then simply, swim away.
I was pleased to have been assigned to the same boat as James, a science teacher at all-girls parochial school. It was hard not to giggle at his oversized bucket hat and sunscreen slathered nose, but his obvious zest for the day ahead was infectious in a way that made me smile. On that first night in the field station James shared his resolve to show his Pennsylvania middle-schoolers how much the planet had to offer; something the rest of us admired. Completing the boat’s manifest was Jay, a quiet bearded man on a return trip to Bahia called Josh, Mallory the bird lover, and Rachael, an aspiring veterinarian. We set sail with our captain, Angel, a local fisherman in Bahia with a palpable passion for the land.
At first we each fixed our eyes to the water, willing them to find any glimmer of a shark. The boat was quiet, focused. But as time passed and we cruised along the coastline, Angel began pointing out various landmarks, quizzing us on their Spanish pronunciations. Mallory and Josh, equipped with sets of binoculars, started shifting their eye lines from the sea to the sky unable to resist calling out any time they suspected a Blue-Footed Booby in flight. James enlisted the help of Jay and Rachael in fiddling with his amateur videography equipment, wanting to collect images to share with his students. But I kept my eyes glued to the blue of the sea, determined the find a whale shark.
Finally, just as time on the water was about to expire and Angel shifted our route back to the station, Jay cried out, “There!”
I popped up, scrambling to hook my snorkel to it’s mask. I was eager to be the first to dive in, ready to prove my worth as a member of our research team; wanting to contribute to preservation of this landscape. As I reached for the camera needed to collect our image, Josh gently pushed my hand away.
“Not yet.” he said.
Confused, I started to contest, “But—“
“Just trust me.” He interrupted. “Go and get your moment first.”
“My moment?” I questioned, relenting.
His promise didn’t resonate until my head dipped below the waves. In front of me, only a few strokes away, was an animal of almost mythical magnitude. It was too focused on extending its nearly 5 foot wide mouth in search of a meal to notice me, and I immediately felt consumed by my insignificance. Its immensity was so jarring, so deliberate, it would be impossible to replicate through a camera lens. Eventually, our boat that week would manage to successfully track four new individuals, but in this moment, my moment, I suddenly forgot what it was we were meant to be doing at all. Instead I looked on in wonder.
What a splendid thing to be overwhelmed by nature’s glory. What a splendid thing to be reminded of our smallness.
After the shark finished its meal and it was time to re-enter the boat, I found Josh’s gaze. He nodded, knowing.
“Thank you”, was all that was left to say.
Jessica Garda Adamcheck is a lover of all things art, travel, and nature. With a background in conservation education, she is passionate about sharing her love for wildlife and wild places. She seeks out many diverse travel experiences, with her moments in Mexico being the closest to her heart. She currently resides in Clermont, Florida with more pets than people.