Nothing but take pictures

This trip kind of organised itself. It was the effect of establishing initial conditions which set in motion all that followed. Things simply fell into place.

Perhaps the first time that I thought to illustrate Steinbeck´s classic “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” was after reading a small fragment of his adventure which appears quite early on in the novel:

“…during low tides we all collected; there was no time to dry hands and photograph at the collecting scene. Later, the anesthetizing, killing, preserving, and labeling of specimens were so important that we still took no pictures. It was an error in personnel. There should be a camera-man who does nothing but take pictures.”

John Steinbeck    

December 15th, 2012

‘Espiritu Santo’ Island

‘Las equipatas’ are what the December rains are called by the locals here in the gulf. But this is not a normal ‘equipata’. A cold front has pushed the humid air from the Pacific against the south of the peninsular, in my opinion an ill-timed phenomenon. This has provoked strong winds and heavy rains in the cove of ‘Candelero’ where in my short-sightedness I have anchored much to close to a unnerving rock face. In theory this spot should protect me from the north-easterly winds, the predominant gales of this time of year, but today the winds blows arrogantly from the west. There is not a lot I can do, I should be far away from these rocks and should have at least 20 meters of anchor rope. I could deal with these worries but with these winds the best thing to do is to stay put. To move through these currents in these conditions is extremely difficult even for a boat as light as the Anabaena and any hesitation could be the end for my vessel. All I can do is throw in a second back-up anchor and store away anything which offers resistance to the strong winds. This, and maintain a permanent watch throughout the night.

There is no escape.

But there is sufficient light to contemplate the image of chaos and the grey storm. The anchor holds and the fear subsides. The big wall of destruction stops threatening me. I have become an accomplice in its resistance.

November 2nd, 2012

25 kilometers to the north of the port of La Paz, on the road to the famous beaches of Balandra and Tecolote, the road splits and deteriorates into a fairly accessible track, from this route you can clearly see the San Lorenza canal and on the other side the island ‘Espiritu Santo’. One continues on until arriving at a small hill where two signs sit with two painted words: ‘private’ and ‘prohibited’.  One must turn left and from here on in it is better to drive on what appears to be the road more taken to avoid ending up stuck in the soft desert sand.

After another kilometer the track arrives at the coast and changes course to the east. One drives a little further until arriving to a group of rocks in between two white sand beaches. This spot is know as ‘El Pulgero’. The beach to the south is more popular with the locals who sometimes prefer a more crowded environment close to the water to pass the weekend. But the real treasure lies between the rocks which extend out about three hundred meters northwards. I have waited a couple of weeks to find myself here during the highest tides of October, anxious to continue my observations of the mysterious ebb and flow. Today is my opportunity, the tide chart suggests that at exactly 16:30 the average level of the water with be at 14 inches, sufficient to appreciate the tiny universes which remain when the waters go out.

My first confrontation with this habitat is on the surface of some round rocks. In front of me are many isopods who squirm and escape, their numbers dwindling as I come closer. Another transition and the rocks mix in with grains of seasoned sand, here I can see small barnacles stuck to the rocks and some gastropods. In the sand there are large groups of anemones geometrically packed. Further on the ocean begins, on the shore there are two rocks around four meters high and amid them a short-lived world is created, a small pool with a throng of microscopic life, aside from colorful shrimp, sea cucumbers, ophhiuroids or brittle stars, serpulido worms, never-ending seaweed and sprouting coral. This place is the setting I have been looking for and is full of the characters for the story I want to tell. But the magical moment is a fleeting one. 

I have sat on a rock just on the border of this habitat and look closely at the pool. After a while the creatures have forgotten my presence and head out of their lairs. A blue fringed shrimp patiently waits next to a gobio. The climax of the low tide approaches. I have high expectations and I feel that the life in front of me feel this too.  I try to be conscious for an instant, a part of my search when time stops, reverses and begins to flow again. The end of a revolution and the beginning of another. And so it happens, ‘El Pulgero’ stops collapsing and is rebuilt. The mystery has be resolved.

This spot is well known by academics in La Paz for its diversity. Many an investigator from one of the 3 specialized colleges have taken advantage of its virtues. But ‘El Pulgero’ doesn’t only interest marine biologists. 150 meters away from where I stand, where the road ends, there is a rocky cliff which rises about 10 meters over the canal.  Right here amongst these rocks there exists an astonishing archaeological site.

Here one of the oldest quarries in the south of the peninsular can be found. About 3000 years ago,the first settlers of Baja California recognized the high quality of the stone Rhyolite which emerged from the hillside and used to create the tool of day: The biface or hand axe, a fundamental part of the domestic past life and useful for creating wooden and bone utensils, like harpoons and oars.

This is the extreme north of the ‘rhyolite’ mountain range which crosses the south of the peninsular where the rock sunk, only to appear again as the island ‘Espiritu Santo’. From where I am standing I can see the exact point where the rock ascends to the other side of the canal and just left of the point ‘Lobos’, where Steinbeck and Ricketts made their first stop at the island on the 20th of March, 1940.

From the peak of this cliff I feel I have the same view that the neolithic specialists once had. I observe the landscape of the canal and the island and imagine groups of percussionists practicing their trade, dominating the art of converting a piece of volcanic rock into a fine knife, symmetric and sharp. Surely the loud sound from the impact of rock on rock could be heard for miles around. Here I find another singular symmetry, another case for my collection of patterns: The sounds that travelled from the quarries when they were being mined could be heard all the time underwater. Thousands of thuds and bangs were heard under the surface of ‘El Pulgero’, but these were not produced by the craftsmen and miners but by the hunters. Shrimp from the Alpheus family, equipped with a powerful pincer which when violently closed emits a ultrasonic wave causing a microscopic explosion, capable of stunning prey and predators alike. Many divers know this sound which is similar to that of the frying of potatoes and today I feel that the sound of the ‘El Pulgero’ quarries was an echo of the original percussion, that which comes from the gulf.

‘El Pulgero’ is located on the extremes of the peninsular, where the fractal levels of the coast are defined, the bay inside the gulf, the gulf inside the Pacific Ocean.

We also find ourselves in the extremes of survival. This coveted area is sought after by large companies and principal players in the real estate disaster in Baja California. Local activism and the economic crisis have kept the development boom under control but sadly its just a question of time before these rocks, their creatures and the ancestral quarries are replaced with luxurious houses and hotels built for tourists and millionaires.

Floridian ugliness

“On the water’s edge of La Paz a new hotel was going up, and it looked very expensive. Probably the airplanes will bring weekenders from Los Angeles before long, and the beautiful poor bedraggled old town will bloom with a Floridian ugliness”

John Steinbeck “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”

June 2nd, 2012

La Paz BCS

Anything which remains in the ocean for a certain amount of time has the potential to be colonized.  This presents the naval industry with huge problems, an exposed hull is a breeding ground for mollusks which in turn limits fluid dynamics and increases the consumption of gasoline. To alleviate and slow this process down the hulls are painted with toxic paints which control the growth of alge and mollusks. I have even heard that in certain ports of Yucatan, workers in this field take advantage of the power of the Habanero chile and mix it into the corresponding paint. But at the end of the day this only works to gain a little time, to put off the inevitable. But eventually the ocean wins, the alge returns and one must return to the tried and tested system some 500 years old: a diver with a spatular. 

I am taking some of the photos for ‘The Log’ in the La Paz marina, its a comfortable place to work with alternating currents, more than enough fresh water and also it represents the recess between the sea and the land.

Many a conservationist mistrust the effect of the marinas on the marine habitat but to me its seems like a diverse environment, above all else microscopically. Under the teak planks where sailors comfortably tie up their vessels there exists a entire reef.

Here I have found types of plankton which I have never seen in others parts of the bay, a microcosm originated from man made conditions containing species which shouldn’t be there. Evidence of a series of antique colonizations.

When I first started my marine explorations I was fascinated by the idea of finding untarnished habitats. The gulf of California has this reputation and I hoped to find and explore places where the balance of life  had remained stable for many years. This illusion quickly disappeared when I realized that the original form of the gulf had changed many times over thousands of years. Maybe this is the real face of the gulf: to be in a constant state of change.

One of my prints is dedicated to the barnacle. Ricketts and Steinbeck observed this specie of mollusk in all of the Gulf and paid special attention to those that were found in the islands ‘Tiburon’ and ‘Espiritu Santo’.

300 years ago barnacles were unheard of in the gulf, in fact they were only found in the Indian Ocean but with the growth of human navigation, little by little each port was infected with Balanus reticulatus. Stuck to the ship like a stowaway, this barnacle slowly dispersed itself across the entire planet ousting endemic species. 

Today there exists no port in the world which does not suffer from the effects of the barnacle.

On one occasion I left the ‘Anabaena’ an entire summer in the water, forgetting about the maintenance. When I came back in October the effect was disastrous. At first I liked the idea of having my very own reef, I took photos and collected some samples. But I soon realized that it was something I should take seriously, without constant maintenance the plague grows at an exponential rate and can do irreversible damage to the hull.

The barnacle has a Calcita shell which sticks to surfaces at almost a molecular level and when grows too strong something more than a spatular is needed to rid the hull of this epidemic. Sometimes the fiberglass can yield before the shell of the barnacle and this can be the beginning of the end for a boat.

But the Balanus is not a tyrant, around it life prospers and flows in an ecosystem where algae, sponges, ofiuras, tunicados and microscopic organisms like diatomeas and dinoflagelados all participate.

Biofouling” is an accumulation of species which culminate in a habitat where life stabilizes. It begins as just a thin film of fungus and bacteria, after microscopic algae arrive and act as a platform so that other species can grow, such as sponges and jellyfish. Next the barnacles make an appearance  and replace what was there with their hard, volcanic shells, some species remain and between them they create a platform for the microscopic life to survive. Another dilation of solids or crystallization of liquid. Life manifesting itself with conviction.

A few days ago during my arrival by plane to the port of La Paz I could see the boats neatly organized in the marinas. From the air they appears like so many teeth in a giant mouth. Now it seems to me that they, much like myself require a dentist who specializes in cleaning. From my mouth I took a sample of plaque which should have been removed months ago and I studied it under the microscope. In my set of teeth I have a coral reef…

May 10th, 2012

La Paz BCS

A new guitar must be tamed, tuned and re-tuned, once is never enough. It is important to invest time and dedication in a process which can take weeks or even months, until finally the instrument submits and gains the sound and consistency it will carry with it for the rest of it’s life. It needs to be constantly tuned, its parts yield continuously under the strain of being new to the world of tension, compression and harmonic reverberations never before felt or experienced. The body of the guitar subtly changes its form with each reverberation, its first confrontation with vibration.  The pegs and tuners twist, the head bends and all this is reflected in the sound. Stretching and loosening, a negotiation in temperaments. The damage can be irreparable if one tries to go to far, one must be gentile at first but firm in his conviction at the first opportunity. 

A sailboat is much like a guitar, is melodies arise from the same passions. 

The mast and the bridge. Two tools which struggle against similar forces but for the guitar, the musician is the wind.

The music that arises from a boat is extremely abstract and depends on the listener. When the two synchronize the result is a symphony, a meaningful concert. The wind has the leading role, its effect against the genoa indicates the optimal route and the spreader responds to the encouragement with a chorus of melodies. Sailing with the wind, the waves crash against the bottom of the boat converting the hull into a percussion instrument where each beat is interpreted as a diagnosis of the navigation and the state of the boat. The keel and the mast vibrate in a harmony when the boat reaches its maximum efficiency. The shifting and movement is melodic and the flapping of my small mexican flag in the wind companions me.

In a sailboat there occurs a type of precise fusion between the instruments, the listener and the score. 

Sometimes I consider the similarities between a sailboat and other objects fabricated with the use of carpentry and engineering, like furniture or certain types of architecture.  One can also make analogies to the piano, the acoustics of a sailboat is no doubt exclusive. Stienbeck recognized these attributes in ‘The Log’:

“Once, passing the boat department of Macy’s in New York, where there are duck-boats and skiffs and little cruisers, one of the authors discovered that as he passed each hull he knocked on it sharply with his knuckles. He wondered why he did it, and as he wondered, he heard a knocking behind him, and another man was rapping the hulls with his knuckles, the same tempo- three sharp knocks on each hull. During an hour’s observation there no man or boy and few women passed who did not do the same thing. Can this have been an unconscious testing of the hulls? Many who passed could not have been in a boat, and yet everyone tested the hulls, knocked to see if they were sound, and did not even know he was doing it. The observer thought perhaps they and he would knock on any large wooden object that might give forth a resonant sound. He went to the piano department, icebox floor, beds, cedar-chests, and no one knocked on them – only on boats.”                  

John Steinbeck “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”

The ‘Anabaena’ has had many upgrades, it has been refurbished and improved. When I first bought the boat it was not ready or prepared to navigate on the open sea but little by little it has acquired its marine character. It was built up in San Francisco in the 90’s by Tom Schock. The design of the ‘Santana 2023’ is based on the hull of a racing boat. It was designed to be towable therefor many concessions were made adhering to the priority of keeping it light and movable. When navigating in strong winds a heavy boat is advisable but Schock resolved the necessity of stability in the ‘Santana’ with a ballast chamber. Many high performance boats use this same system. Basically it is a large tank of water under the floor of the boat which acts as counterweight to stop the boat from tipping over.

I have met many sailors from the old school who don’t seem convinced with the idea of filling 600 liters of water in what is traditionally the cabin space. For me this has caused a few minor problems and leaks but the ‘Santana’ has behaved itself nicely and has the perfect characteristics for this expedition. 

Some sailors are extremely superstitious. I sometimes get the impression that many don’t like to get wet and some do not even know how to swim.  Even though there are many different types of seamen, two kinds clearly stand out.

There are those who use motor boats, worried about arriving quickly to their destination and those who like sailboats whose real interest and love lies in the route and not the arrival.

It is the latter who forge an intimate relationship with their vessel and surrender to their hunger for wind and the sea. For these dedicated sailors the ocean is not an ornament and to sail not a hobby. This occurs out of necessity for the ocean should not be treated without respect. While the tourists enjoy the comfort and space of a motorized yacht with HD television, in a sailboat the journey begins and ends with work.

A symbiotic relationship is forged between the sailor and his vessel, a cooperation for survival until the two become one and the same, a single organism.

“Some have said they have felt a boat shudder before she struck a rock, or cry when she beached and the surf poured into her. This is not mysticism, but identification; man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man shaped soul”

John Steinbeck   “The Log from the sea of Cortez

Furious exuberance

“The sea here swarms with life, and probably the ocean bed is equally rich. Microscopically, the water is crowded with Plankton. This is the tuna water –life water. It is complete from Plankton to gray porpoises… Everything ate everything else with a furious exuberance”.

John Steinbeck “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”

March 7th, 2012

Magdalena Bay

Last night I dreamt of a forest of white trees. Trunks, branches and leaves, all white contrasting against a backdrop of stars. Its not the first time I have had this dream, but now it comes back to me, the image bolstered by last nights walk amongst the mangroves.

When I awake the campsite is covered by a fog bank and once again it is apparent that the coyotes were here last night circling our tents. I can also here the grey whales breathing and the morning song of the frigate bird. 

This spectacular mangrove forest has grabbed our attention during the first part of our trip to Magdalena island but I haven’t explored the area to the south of the campsite as yet.

From my tent a beach extends south for about 2km’s until another clump of mangroves cut off access. First there is a golden dune which slowly spills onto the beach, next a marsh. This area floods only during high tide and this has created a habitat all the more extreme. A further example of a universe inside another universe, where the celebration of the tides does not happen once a day yet once every month.

After the marsh another mangrove swamp begins and after that the beach is inaccessible on foot, I turn around to see the already explored track to the north. The tide is low and now the beach is cut in two by a thin ringlet of water, the residue of high tide.

There’s a reflection of something white where the stream meets the canal, it doesn’t look like a shell, it’s probably rubbish, polystyrene…

It has an oval shape to it, like an almond. As I get closer I soon realize just what it is. Its definitely not rubbish, it’s a cuttlebone: the sophisticated navigational instrument of some type of mollusk.

It looks like a bone but is not made up of common calcium carbonate. It is composed of aragonite, a more complex mineral, symmetrically superior to its carbonate cousin. A calcium crystal which once accompanied a sepia, or cuttlefish.

A cuttlefish is a cephalopod, like an octopus or a prawn and they use the cuttlebone to control their buoyancy and perceive the marine environment around them. They are curious, intelligent and very elegant.

They also have their role in the history of photography, in the past laboratories used the ink of the sepia to dye the photos with a brown tinge and for this reason we now know this look as ‘sepia’.

I am going to leave this cuttlebone where I found it, contented with the discovery.

The tide has dumped a heap of Chiton shells down by the rocks. Chitons are another type of mollusk, much older than the sepia but just as interesting. Due to their shape and form they are sometimes referred to as the cockroaches of the sea, but I think this name is better suited to the isopodas who behave like cockroaches.

Ariel and Catalina join my search and have brought me a gift. In his hands Ariel holds a fistful of sand and tells me – “here is a crab that you have been looking for” – he is referring to the fiddler crab with its characteristically large pincers.

I put the sand in a ziplock bag and we head over to a beached log. Underneath there is a small pool with a gelatinous green mass which cannot be alga. Back in 2007 I found these creatures on the other side of the island. They are also mollusks and this species is known as the sea hare, but now it does not look like a hare and although it has adapted to these intervals out of the water I want to photograph it in action. We take it over to the pool where the stream starts using the same handful of sand technique as before and as soon as it enters the water it comes back to life. It extends its two eyes and membranes and the green turns a little yellow. To me it looks more like a slug with bulging eyes than a hare. These glutinous mollusks don’t have a shell, the majority don’t need them because they are extremely toxic and their predators already know this. I remember reading that they have traces of snail so I am going to stick my finger into the membranes of this creature and see what I can touch.

Yes, this is definitely something there…

As much fun as we might

“We must remember three things,” he said to them. “I will tell them to you in the order of their importance. Number one and first in importance, we must have as much fun as we can with what we have. Number two, we must eat as well as we can, because if we don’t we won’t have the health and strength to have as much fun as we might. And number three and third and last in importance, we must keep the house reasonably in order, wash the dishes, and such things. But we will not let the last interfere with the other two.”

John Steinbeck (Ed Ricketts talking to his children during a particularly lean time)