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The Cessna
Este País | Naturaleza Posible: Seis Testimonios | Sandy Landham | 04.02.2015 | 4 Comentarios

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The Cessna wheels over a blowing whale. My passengers, both marine mammal researchers, peer down a wing at her. She blows again. Twisting the airplane’s control, the horizon wobbles in the windshield and then suddenly tilts sharply. The horizon now slashes diagonally across my view. It is a spinning top about to topple. Green-blue sideways, the world outside spins.

Pinacate Peak marches across the windshield and blows away. Hundred mile-an-hour winds, the speed of the airplane, scatter the landscape’s images across the windshield like raindrops. A line of golden sand streaks across, right-to-left, and then disappears. The towering Sierra San Pedro Martir sweeps in, climbs the windshield, and spins off. Here comes the Pinacate again, pulling a chain of pinto-colored mountains, all pinks and blues, the colors streaming, spinning off the windshield, off the airplane, and for all I know off the planet too. My world exists here in the tight cabin of the airplane. Inside, the twirling sun flicks on and off.

Next to me, the researcher hangs farther out the open window, her hair lifted like Medusa’s snakes. “Oh look!” she says, pointing. The blue whale gives one last blow, kicks up her fluke, and dives.

The Cessna snaps to level, the horizon locking into place. Ahead, the Gulf of California stretches more than a thousand kilometers of cool blue welcome. The researcher jots something down in a notebook and then quickly reaches into the backseat for a plastic bag. Few people have the stomach for this kind of flying and I carry a supply of zip-locked plastic bags, cheaper than the airsickness bags provided by the airlines.

Opening an Oxxo bag instead, she turns to me and politely asks, “Would you like a cookie?”

Twenty-four years ago, biologists began settling into my Cessna. Before I started my nonprofit flying service and began raising money for these flights in the United States, most marine researchers had to hug the coast in pangas, just dipping their toes into a place Jacque Cousteau once famously called “the aquarium of the world.” Blue whales were once thought to be incidental in the Gulf, about like finding a pelican in Chihuahua. It happens. After hundreds of hours of flights, and many more hours spent by scientists in labs and on the sea, we know that blue whales are prominent in the Gulf in the winter and use it as a nursery. When the Loreto National Marine Park was established, it was in part to protect nursing blue whale moms and their calves.

The goal of my flights is simple – to allow researchers to gather data as crunchy as krill. Without hard numbers, protection is impossible. I have flown for bison in the grasslands of northern Chihuahua, parrots in the Sierra Madre, river otters and jaguars in Sonora, and just about everything in between.

To a Cessna circling offshore, Pinacate Peak looms behind the splashing coast of Puerto Peñasco, anchoring the northern Gulf of California. Its sky is thick with pterodactyls that do not fly, the earth with mammoths that do not thunder. With its volcanic craters and rivers of lava frozen in time, it is one of the driest places in the Western Hemisphere and the stone heart of the Sonoran Desert. My work began in the Pinacate with flights for pronghorn antelope.

Desert pronghorn once roamed northern Sonora and the length of the Baja California peninsula. A population still exists in Sonora but in Baja California the few that remain live only on the Pacific coast of the Vizcaino Desert, a casualty of roads, barbed-wire fences, and poaching. Pronghorns’ angular bodies seem to belong to prehistoric times and, except for a few photos by Patricio Robles Gil, cave paintings depict them best. Pronghorn never adapted to fences and cannot jump them. Yet as nomads, they survive by movement, by speeds up to 80 kilometers an hour when escaping a predator and in a leisurely stroll when searching for flowering plants to eat. Plants in the desert also survive by speed, although their own sprint is vertical. After a typical violent but isolated downpour, seedlings shoot up like missiles, flower quickly, and go to seed. If a pronghorn misses the event, he misses his chance at life.

Lifting off from Guerrero Negro, the Cessna climbs into remaining tendrils of fog. Skimming a gray whale birthing lagoon, we kick up shorebirds and geese, the winged confetti of a migration parade. A thousand sandpipers wing north; a thousand sandpipers wing south, all beating like tiny jackhammers, everybody in a hurry. Reaching the desert plains of the Vizcaino, the Pacific laps to a stop. Before it, the desert trembles in still life. We descend. There is no sound and almost no movement. We hug the earth at 60 meters, flying up the naked brown hills and down, drawing parallel lines like a farmer plows a field. A voice in my head reminds me: fly the line straight, slow the airspeed, check the compass, and now turn . . . lazy, slow turn. Flying for pronghorn is hours and hours of yawning nothing, seeing not a rabbit, not a coyote, nothing. A creosote bush rustles in the wind and it is almost enough to imagine life and I do.

“Pronghorn! Two o’clock.” The voice is loud in my headset.

Ahead and to the right, nine pronghorn pull a contrail of dust. As the airplane comes closer, they run faster and now, almost under us, they are accelerating into the forever plains and this time meaning it . . . running, running, blowing, pushing the speeds of a cheetah, stretching a line of stick bodies across the miles of sand until all I see is a line of speeding dust and then all I see is nothing.

My heart pounds and I wonder, how are pronghorn even possible?

“How many machos?” Ramon asks. He works for the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. Dr. Jorge Cancino of CIBNOR answers, “Two.”

After our annual surveys discovered a decline in pronghorn numbers, Ramon’s staff began a captive breeding program, starting with a few captured pronghorn. Employees fenced off four hectares in prime pronghorn habitat. Guards lived in a jacale, manning an observation tower to keep out poachers and coyotes. As the population of captive pronghorn grew, they would be released back into the desert. On my last survey, we found only 12 pronghorn in the wild. The enclosure then held roughly 400.

The e-mail popped onto my screen. It was from my good friend, Dr. Diana Gendron, a marine mammal researcher who works at CICIMAR in La Paz.

 

Hola Sandita!

I’ve got the blues! They’re off Magdalena Bay. Maybe 50 of them. When you finish the greys, will you fly the blues? Write me right away.

Diane

 

The message needed no translation. When my gray whale survey in Baja California was finished, I would swap coasts and start a survey in La Paz for blue whales.

Each winter, thousands of gray whales leave their feeding grounds near Alaska to cruise down the Pacific coast, dodging orcas by Vancouver, freighters bound for Los Angeles, and speedboats by San Diego. Finally, they slip through the last curtain of seeded kelp to enter one of Baja California’s sunny lagoons. Although gray whales have been removed from the endangered species list, their numbers still need to be monitored to catch any problems that arise.

Departing Guerrero Negro, I power back and drop in ten degrees of flaps. The airplane will be a balcony today, nose low, the speed slow. Punching a pre-programmed waypoint into my GPS, an exact position given in latitude and longitude, I turn to it and immediately see a problem. In that direction, there is no horizon, just a blank screen. Soaked to the breaking point, the sky has quit. Arriving at the waypoint, the only view possible is straight down. There we have a winner. Steel swells harness forces, rolling out power.

“We have whales here. Three mother-calf pairs,” the researcher says, “Waypoint.”

I take a waypoint, saving our position. A circle of ocean moves with us, a spotlight of sorts. Dark and light patches stamp the whales’ skin with a hundred shades of gray, whitecaps adding a brilliant trim like the fine brush strokes of a Master. Newborns startle, swimming back to Mom to tuck in tight. One mother extends a flipper to sooth her baby, brushing it. Another calf slips under to nurse, sucking like a minnow nibbles in a still lake, or so I imagine. We have entered a place of murmurs, a nursery with fog-drawn shades. We could not survive in this freezing water for ten minutes. It would eat us like an invading germ. Yet these whales live in warmth, in tenderness even.

We pass. Our spotlight shines on a chilled sea. “Six whales. Two with calves.” I take another waypoint. Teardrop bodies cruise, wrapped in fog. Two calves ride on the backs of their mothers. Perhaps bottlenose dolphins are somewhere near harassing the babies, or maybe even orcas. I look but see none. On our return to Guerrero Negro, we circle a group of gray whales that lifts in spyhops, standing on their tails, performing a chin up of sorts. They slowly pivot to keep an eye on us as we keep our eyes on them.

“Waypoint,” the researcher says, adding nine more whales to our tally of numbers, the sum total being only a fraction of the story.

Navigating around the inflatable Zodiac raft in Diana Gendron’s living room, I drop my knapsack and sink into a chair. I am home, or at least in my home in Mexico. Diana’s work with blue whales is a reel of film but I am always missing half the frames, popping into La Paz every few months after flights for whale sharks, shorebirds, sea turtles, whatever. Throughout the evening, over red wine, she rewinds to the parts I missed.

Over the years, our work has become routine. After finding blue whales with the airplane, Diana returns by boat to collect sloughed off skin, left in the water after it dives, in order to determine a whale’s sex and to take a photo of its side. The dorsal fin on a blue whale and its skin mottling is as distinct as a face. Diane’s catalog of photos of blue whales, to me, has grown like a magic beanstalk to over 700. By finding a known whale a second time, Diana knows its movement or, if she is lucky, knows that the calf now by its side was born in the Gulf. Until now, our flights have stayed within 50 kilometers of shore, a nod to my concerns about safety. Blue whales are not a coastal species like gray whales. They like deep water and, as the largest animal that ever lived on the planet, well . . . they go where they want. By only surveying coastally, we could be missing most blue whales. Tomorrow, Diana wants to first check by Magdalena Bay and then begin a survey of the entire Gulf, coast-to-coast.

In the morning, after the flight off Magdalena Bay, we refuel and head out across the Gulf. In twenty minutes, the coast disappears. The engine hums, a clock ticks. The mainland coast is an hour and a half away and, once there, we will turn around and cross again. Wearing life vests and carrying an inflatable life raft, Diana searches out her open window for the blows of whales and, in the backseat, Rosio Marcin, a graduate student, does the same. I check the oil pressure and temperature, again.

“Que tenga buen vuelo,” the air traffic controller in La Paz says, cutting our lifeline. For the next five days, we will fly the entire Gulf, eight hours a day. Blue whales are twice the size of gray whales and, as such, they are all about the business of feeding. By the end of the survey, we will have sighted blue whales alone and in groups by the coast. Our business though is in middle of the Gulf and business has not been good. On the fourth day, in the middle of the northern Gulf, Rocio spots a far-away sparkle on the still water. Rarely does anything come from chasing sparkles but we go and look and, of course, find nothing. Making a last sweeping bank to return, 40 blue whales suddenly surface all around us, blowing.

I wipe dew or maybe the breath of blue whales from my face.

For ten minutes, I chase whales around like Luke Skywalker in his X-wing fighter but, each time the airplane comes close to one, it goes down. Blue whales normally stay on the surface long enough for us to take a photo, necessary in order to measure them, but these whales will not stand still. They breathe once and dive.

Beneath us, blurred shapes now twirl in underwater shadows. A moonbeam seems to swirl a cape around them, so brilliantly white that, for an instant, I want to fold myself in it and sleep. The shapes rise. We circle, waiting. Three seconds more. The blue mirror shatters as two blue whales plow to the surface, their white bellies ballooned to five times their normal size, water cascading down their jaws. When their jaws slam shut, only the krill remain.

Once back in La Paz, the Cessna retires like a frigate bird with a sweet chirp the runway. In Diana’s house, we download the flight path of our 40-hour survey onto her computer. It shows us zigzagging across the entire Gulf, neatly lacing it up like a shoe. In the middle of the northern Gulf, the track ties itself into knots.

Not only did Diana eventually determine that the Gulf was a nursing area for blue whales, she also discovered blue whales using it for mating. The findings make Mexico as important to the survival of the population as anywhere in the Pacific.

4 Respuestas para “The Cessna
  1. […] and story text from Sandy’s piece in Este País, “The Cessna.” Image of Cessna by markus53; cookie image by Evan-Amos. Thumbnail image is public […]

  2. […] and story text from Sandy’s piece in Este País, “The Cessna.” Image of Cessna by markus53; cookie image by Evan-Amos. Thumbnail image is public […]

  3. […] and story text from Sandy’s piece in Este País, “The Cessna.” Image of Cessna by markus53; cookie image by Evan-Amos. Thumbnail image is public […]

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