Ecology Project International at Isla Los Islotes to Count Sea Lions

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By Judy Ristity

The Baja Citizen newspaper has power. I have no idea if the paper can influence world politics or economics, but I know it can affect the future. I am proof.

In the April 25th issue, I wrote a piece expressing appreciation to our friends who had invited us to spend time with them on their wave runners and sailboat. As usual, I put a copy of the current issue in my file cabinet, shut the drawer, and forgot about it. However, not everyone forgot.

Soon after that issue was distributed our doorbell rang. It was our neighbor, Charlene. She wore a huge smile and said, “Judy, would you and Alex like to swim with the sea lions Saturday morning?  Ecology Project International is going to Isla Los Islotes to count sea lions. After reading your article in the Baja Citizen, I knew that you and Alex are adventurous and love being on the water, so I thought of you when I heard they had two spaces available. Want to come?”

Honestly, I’d never heard of Ecology Project International, but I immediately said, “Absolutely.”

Fourteen people climbed into the shade-covered panga early Saturday morning and motored over almost-flat seas.  The EPI gang was amazing. They’re young, energetic but more importantly, they are knowledgeable and passionate about their work. For one day we became their students. Heidi and Juan Carlos, two instructors, pointed out sea turtles, dolphins and brown-footed boobies.

We pulled into a deserted-looking bay and I assumed we were going to swim, but instead Juan Carlos, hefted a huge white ice chest over the side and carried it to shore, then turned around and got back in the boat. The ice was a gift for the fishermen who live and work there. These men can’t prepare a Margarita on the Rocks or even a glass of icy water. And we take our freezers and ice cubes for granted.

Once we got to the island, which is a protected area, our work began. We were divided into pairs, handed clipboards, paper and pencils and were taught the difference between adult male sea lions, juvenile males, females, and pups: Adult males are huge and have big heads and very loud voices; juvenile males are smaller than adult males and hang out together; females have smaller heads and are usually lighter in color and are pretty (okay, that may not be a scientific description), and pups are the smallest.  One person counted; the other recorded the findings. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. The difference wasn’t as easy as it sounded. But we tried to be accurate, but I have no idea what was done with our findings. But our effort served a purpose – we learned to observe more carefully and appreciate what astonishing sea life we have just a short boat ride away from our city.

Fernando, a researcher with his PhD, shouted and our heads snapped toward his pointing finger, “Look, a hot-stamped female”. Sure enough we saw a big sea lion with the number #2389 branded onto the side of her body. Fernando explained that last year this sea lion appeared on Isla Los Islotes but had been stamped on The Channel Islands off the California coast. She had travelled down the Baja, which is a rare event, since sea lions usually live in their home colonies. I would assume that an experienced researcher who has earned his PhD would be blasé, but he was elated about this sighting. It’s obvious that he loves his profession.

The paperwork completed, it was time to get in the warm, crystal clear, aqua-marine water and swim with the sea lions. EPI had invited the woman who cleans their offices to join us. They helped her into snorkel gear and then patiently encouraged her to enter the water. She was nervous, but two EPI personnel were her protectors. They were in constant physical contact with her. They talked to her softly and the next time I looked she had her face in the water and soon she was snorkeling. That day EPI gave her the opportunity to glimpse our underwater world.

The counting and snorkeling primed our well-deserved appetites, so we motored to La Candelaria Bay for lunch. On the way, we were quiet – perhaps some relaxed; other reflected.  For me it was that and more. I felt humbled by the sea life, but also grateful to the Baja Citizen for giving me the opportunity to write my column. My neighbor read that article, thought of me, ring our doorbell, and inviting us on this amazing adventure.

EPI was established in 2000. Among their activities, they partner young students from the U.S. and Latin America with scientists in order to educate and enhance conservation through hands-on science projects, empowering the next generation of conservation leaders. Their funding is obtained by tuitions (59%), Grants (31%), and donations. They have been in La Paz since 2005.

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