Sea Stories: The Dance for Existence

Sunset in Baja, with Laura-Gray Street (L) and Karin Warren (R)

Sunset in Baja, with Laura-Gray Street (L) and Karin Warren (R)

It’s always nice to realise you’re more ‘published’ than you thought! I submitted this article/essay, a project from my final year of school (2007), ages ago, and completely forgot about it. It’s funny what crops up when you Google search for your name. The essay is a reflection on my trip to Baja, Mexico, to study whales, mangroves, and more.

The story is accessible on Sea Stories, an international journal of art and writing supported by the Blue Ocean Institute. My essay is in the archives, Vernal, 2008 issue, which begins: As Kelley Swain says in her essay this issue, “The sea is more than she seems, and is not to be taken for granted, but, I believe, still is.”

I’m posting the essay below as well. It’s nice to know it’s out there, and I’m happy to read it and not wish to edit it at all.

The Dance for Existence: Meditations on Bahia Magdalena
Kelley Swain

The sea reveals her secrets through the tides. Like a flamenco dancer, when the twirl of a ruffled skirt allows the glimpse of a buckled shoe, a slender ankle, the tides lift the hem of the sea to discover a beauty and variety unguessable. The mood of the sea varies hour by hour, minute by minute, always reflected in its surface. Sometimes it is polished hematite, smooth, black, hard. Sometimes it responds to the wind’s tickle, and thousands of tiny ripples dance laughingly into the distance. More often than not, it stretches, unbroken, to the horizon. But sometimes a sleek black cormorant breaks the surface, long-necked and gleaming; sometimes the glossy gray back of a bottlenose dolphin slices the waves; sometimes the gasp of air shoots from the lungs of a gray whale; sometimes, elusively, a smaller whoosh comes from the lungs of a sea turtle.

What we see of the sea is often immense, intimidating, and empty, but the small glimpses beneath the ruffled edge, the “refuse” pulled onto decks of fishing trawlers, and the stranded castaways tumbled upon sand dunes tell a very different story: what we see and what is really there are two very different things.

~~~~~~~

“Seek and you shall find” is not always true in field studies. I originally hoped for sea turtles: many sea turtles, since we were traveling to Baja California Sur. The thought of seeing sea turtles was a tantalizing daydream, but strangely, the more I read and learned about sea turtles, and the clearer my understanding of them became, the more certain I was that I would not see any whilst in Bahia Magdalena. Perhaps stranger still, my level of disappointment at this lessened the more I learned.

We went to Puerto San Carlos at the beginning of January; nesting season for sea turtles is around September and October. Though five of the seven species of sea turtle can be found in Baja, even scientists seeking them out can have a hard time of it. The School for Field Studies will set up turtle nets for two hours at a time for tagging and monitoring, and even they sometimes catch no turtles over the course of a night. In fact, I came to expect that the most likely chance of seeing a turtle would be to see one dead on the beach.

~~~~~~~

The loggerhead was “still fresh,” according to Laura, the German graduate student visiting the SFS center. Its sand-colored carapace blended in with the dunes, but it lay just at the high-tide mark, washed up with the other debris left with a recent tide. The square-shaped head dangled; much of the body tissue was eaten or rotted away. I was pleased to be able to identify it as a male from the sharp claw on the right fore-flipper. Males use the claws to help latch on to a female during mating; this one wouldn’t be needing it. Laura’s research on stranded marine mammals didn’t stop her from seeing plenty of stranded marine reptiles—specifically, sea turtles. This loggerhead may have seemed a sad case to those of us not used to strandings, but Laura routinely had to count dead and dying dolphins, whales, and sea lions along this golden coast, and the numbers were a very small percent of the actual populations, most of which we didn’t see. Some whales, she told us, were only known to science because of strandings. So the only members of some populations that had ever been seen by humans were washed up, dead, on the beach. Another glimpse beneath the hem: but now, an understanding that the dancer may be bruised, sore, worked overtime—what metaphor is best? Abused?

She, the sea, is routinely abused by all of mankind. I ate more seafood in the month of being at home in Rhode Island and being in Baja than I ever have, but afterwards I thought I would cut back a lot. The biggest reason was learning about shrimp trawlers and bycatch. These boats drag huge nets along the ocean floor, the equivalent of clear-cutting the rain forest, except underwater, so not as many people notice or care.

Pictures show a sea floor teeming with coral, fish, arthropods, mollusks; after the net goes by and the dust settles it may as well be a dirt parking lot. That’s not to mention the tons of species pulled aboard by trawlers, only to be dumped back into the water, dead, for not being the one species that the fishermen are looking to sell. I criticize this, but its all about survival, and not just for the fish.

~~~~~~~

Coming upon the tiny fishing village on Isla Magdalena, I could see why the men who worked for a living here would not be immediately concerned with saving the seafloor, or sea turtles, or whales. About twenty shacks dotted the edge of the bay, with one restaurant, closed until whale-watching season provided enough tourists to make opening worthwhile. Was it a scrape-by, bored-to-the-teeth existence? I wondered. As we walked through the town (which took two minutes) to begin our hike into the mountains across the island to the Pacific, a woman waved vigorously to us, shouting “Hola!” Hours later, when we returned, she was there again, waving. Meanwhile, a little boy played in the dust beside the house, staring wide-eyed at the pale strangers.

They would stay here, this woman and her child, waiting, every time the father, the husband, went out to sea to fish with big nets. He could afford a boat no bigger than the pangas in which we rode, and possibly one not as sound. There almost certainly would be no navigational equipment. I was surprised to read that many of the men could not swim, and wondered if that fact was true. So he would go out to sea, this father who perhaps could not swim, in a small fiberglass boat; its hull would be filled with barnacle-and-scallop-encrusted nets, and he would bob out there, alone, for a day, perhaps two, praying that he could pull in enough marketable fish to feed his wife and boy. Did the dark giants who breathed the stench of fish through the night terrify him? When he pulls up a hard-shelled, flapping green reptile, is it no wonder that he takes it home, illegally, for soup, rather than cut his precious, expensive net, to set the creature free?

Or perhaps the fisherman understands the plight of the tortugas and he takes care to set them free. Perhaps the School for Field Studies has helped to teach him that it is a critical time for the existence of all tortugas. Perhaps the mother does not wait, bored, for tourists at which to wave, but rather sits and watches las ballenas grises as they come into the bay to give birth to enormous calves, and thinks of these mothers caring for their young as she cares for hers. Perhaps the boy will grow up to invent fishing nets with better bycatch-release systems, so he can harmonize his fishing heritage with his environmental understanding.

~~~~~~~

The dark-haired, dark-eyed little boy who tumbles into the turtle cemetery as we are leaving does not have much respect for them. He runs up to the bleached, domed shells, and stomps on them, trying to break them apart. This might explain why so many are flattened into the ground. The place is located behind the field station, an unofficial burial site with no real burials. Fifteen or twenty sea turtle shells, most likely from black, loggerhead, and perhaps hawksbill turtles, are scattered among sand, sparse grass, and twisted vines. Bushes are growing over and around the shells, embracing them, breaking them apart. Most of the shells are the color of bone, but some still have peeling keratin patterned in black and brown flaking off, dry and shriveled from the sun.

We come to this quiet place and lift up shells, poke around bones. I know the carapace of a turtle grows directly as an extension of its ribs, but here I can really see it. The ivory-colored collapsed shells sprawl flat and look like ribs, except each “rib” is consecutively shorter and together they form an oval shell. Some are smaller, some larger, some highly domed, some more flat.

We lift them and they are heavy: not surprising for a reptile that spends most of its life in the buoyancy of water and can grow up to hundreds of pounds (in the leatherback’s case, up to 2,000 pounds!). In the dark, moist dirt under the shells we hope to find scorpions, and are disappointed but relieved when we don’t. Ants, centipedes, millipedes, and other multi-legged creatures make their homes here instead. We put a scapula beside a large shell for a “flipper” and a sea lion skull in front to make a sea monster. One shell, possibly the one that has sat here longest, has been reduced to a pile of bones, bits of carapace broken into jagged puzzle-like pieces. We tip over big shells.

Do we desecrate something? I feel like I investigate rather than desecrate. The boy is really not harming anything either when he follows behind us, when he dances atop the shells. At least he knows that they are there at all.

~~~~~~~

The mystery and fragility of the sea are not always the consequence of human actions, however. We visit an aquaculture site where a lone man lives, farming sea scallops and spending time informing visiting students about his work. He shows us the wide, white lion’s paw scallop, and the giant, dark axe scallop, which lives up to its name. He sells these for eating, and most of his own diet is seafood: high in healthy omega fatty acids, high in unhealthy cholesterol. He works harder than most people with cholesterol problems, I’d wager. He tells us that when they are big enough, he takes the scallops out of plastic crates and puts them into nets, where they can grow imbedded in the sand. The axe scallop digs itself into the sand until just the top sticks out. It is representative, again, of showing only very little of what is there. Who would guess that a sharp, black, crusty thing sticking out of the sand, underwater, about six inches across, maybe two inches out of the sand, could be dug up to reveal a blade of a shell over a foot long with delicious white meat and a beautiful, pearly-black nacreous layer inside? To add to the fragile beauty of the shells, the scallop farmer tells us that these shells disintegrate in the sunlight. He is right; bits and pieces of black pearly shell litter the beach, but if you try to pick up a whole shell, it crumbles.

There are thousands and thousands of shells on every beach we see. Every shell is different, and they range in color from pink to brilliant orange, red to brown, pearly white to pearly black, even purple. The shapes vary just as much, meaning the species vary widely too. It is easy to forget what once lived within that shell on the back of the toilet, but it didn’t just spontaneously appear on the beach, polished, pink, and empty. A bivalve may have lived inside, with a fleshy mantle that could become irritated if sand worked its way underneath. Then it might make a pearl, not the perfect round kind sold in stores, but irregular, lumpy, small, and iridescent. This could take years, with the creature secreting fine layers, one after the other, over the grain of sand to soften it. Inside every pearl is an irritating piece of grit. This bivalve would have had a thick, meaty adductor muscle that snapped its shell shut against provocation, and a tubular foot that crept along the seafloor or dug into the sand.

Another shell, spiraled, perhaps housed a hermit crab with hard claws and eyes on stalks, or a gastropod, slug-like, with tentacles and a thick foot to pull itself along the ocean floor. Both could pull themselves into their protective houses; a big difference is that the hermit crab only rents, while the gastropod owns. The hermit crab chooses a shell to its size and liking and pops itself in, dragging its house like a long-traveling backpacker carrying clothes, stove, tent, and all. The gastropod, on the other hand, secretes the shell; it oozes from its back, hardening and thickening, building into a swooping domed cathedral or small brown hut, or anything in between. Some homes are fortified with spikes and spines. A “left-handed” gastropod’s shell spirals sinistrally, to the left, while a “right-handed” gastropod’s shell spirals distally, to the right.

We can see cycles in action wherever we look. One out of a hundred scallops makes it onto the beach with spines intact: thus we learn that scallops can and have evolved this predatory defense. We walk atop soft sand dunes, hearing the crunch of shells and sand dollars a few inches underfoot, and imagine the slow compression of calcium layers; in a few million years, these will become the towering cliffs we see farther along the beach, hard-packed and crumbling with strata of barely-identifiable shells, withstanding the hard battering of waves when once they would have scattered in a breeze. A loggerhead lies rotting on the beach, flippers and head dangling from the carapace, and next to our bunk huts years-old loggerhead shells turn white and collapse into piles of bones. An axe scallop grows tall over two or three years, but turns to shiny dust with a few months’ sunshine.

~~~~~~

We can look at the sea as a flamenco dancer, drumming up storms, clacking sea scallop castanets, the coastline the hem of her dress, the tidal line on the beach strewn with shells the border of her skirt. The stranded animals the debris she kicks aside. She dances out a story of life and death, of competition, with winners and losers, of mysterious things discovered and more mysterious things unknown. She is applauded, worshipped, watched, and over-stressed; sometimes, she is outright harmed. She is millions of individual lives and she is one enormous life, her breath the rise and fall of waves. The sea is more than she seems, and is not to be taken for granted, but, I believe, still is. Too often do people take and take, and rarely do they give. When natives collected every sea turtle egg from a beach in mainland Mexico for years in a row, they began to wonder why turtles stopped returning: the fact was there were none to return.

Species evolve and disappear. They do not carry out the peaceful existence one might expect when watching the orange sun quietly set over the bay. I know I am a part of all of this. I am not just watching the push and pull for existence. I am dancing, too.

~~~~~~~~

Kelley Swain is a student at the University of Reading, in the U.K. This essay is a reflection on a week spent exploring the waters of Bahia Magdalena, Baja, Mexico, out of the School for Field Studies site.

One thought on “Sea Stories: The Dance for Existence

  1. Beautifully written! You certainly make ‘science-writing’ much more palatable and fascinating 🙂 I especially liked the flamenco conceit, it works seamlessly.

    I have a question though…if this journal publishes you online only, does that mean you can’t send it to other hard-copy journals? I’m sure there are a lot more science and environmental publications that would be interested…I’m also sure you’ve already investigated 🙂 Also, have you enrolled at Reading? 😉

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