Thar She Blows

Whales Frolic Where The Desert Meets The Sea.
By Kevin Franklin

THOSE AREN'T WHALES, I think. But the powerful resonance of a marine mammal exhaling through its blowhole again reaches my ears. I strain to see through the twilight.

Out There The sun set nearly an hour ago. Even with the magnification of a monocular, I can barely make out indistinct humps gliding through the darkening water.

The mammals continue moving south, just off this secluded cove on the west coast of Sonora, Mexico. The light is such that they appear midway between the beach and the horizon. With no point of reference, the objects could be five- or 50-feet-long.

In all my years living on the Atlantic Seaboard and roaming the beaches of Mexico, I've never seen a live whale. But nearly every trip to the Sea of Cortez, I've seen dolphins. Almost by force of habit I judge these to be the same. Yet that sound seems too deep and, while difficult to judge, the bodies seem large next to the small waves. I hope they are whales.

The mystery remains unresolved as twilight turns to total blackness. I crawl into my sleeping bag and drift off, listening to large creatures moving nearby in a dark sea.

Our little group is camped in the heart of the Cajón del Diablo Biosphere Reserve. This stretch of coastline, south of Kino Bay and north of Guaymas, could be the best place on Earth--at least for an Ocean-loving desert rat. Here the grand columnar cactus and rugged, mostly empty terrain of the Sonoran Desert meet the Sea of Cortez. Multicolored volcanic ash flows, long since hardened to jagged rock, reach into the sea like fantastic taffy mountains. Dolphins are visible by day and coyotes heard by night. Beneath the water's surface, one of the world's narrowest seas invites submersible explorers into an environment as teeming with life as its terrestrial neighbor is sparse.

May God preserve it from the greed of gringo developers and the ignorance of Mexican fishermen.

Upon arrival in this secluded little cove, we picked up three bags of garbage, mostly Mexican candy wrappers, diapers and picnic junk. Oil filter gaskets were regularly interspersed with the assorted garbage. Apparently, when the fishermen working the coastline change their boat oil, they toss the oil-soaked filters overboard. Presumably the old oil goes with it.

How someone with his livelihood so closely tied with the health of the sea could be so stupid pains me.

Perhaps there's some glimmer of hope in the 15 miles of coastline falling under the protection of the Cajón del Diablo reserve. These reserves are different than U.S. National Parks, or even National Forests. People live and work within them, much as they always have. The idea is that by keeping people in their homes and continuing the extraction of natural resources, while managing them with long-term sustainability in mind, both the environment and mankind can flourish. A cynic might note that with little enforcement or oversight, the designations add color to maps while signifying nothing. With examples of complete ignorance like the tideline's plethora of gaskets, I find optimism an elusive quality.

Nevertheless, life still teems here. What sounds like a distant waterfall rouses me from sleep in the early morning. About a quarter mile offshore, birds are falling from the sky. Like marbles out of a bag, a dozen brown and maybe blue-footed boobies dive into the sea in search of breakfast. There must be more than a thousand birds in the sky.

But more stunning than the sheer quantity of bird life is the apparent organization of these hunters of small fish. Perhaps 50 feet off the water's surface, all the birds are circling counterclockwise in an oval pattern half the size of a football field. After completing one circuit, each bird dives out of the sky into the aquatic target area. At any given moment, a dozen birds are hitting the water, creating the waterfall-like sound. Then they lift off fish-in-beak, if they're lucky, to rejoin the flock circling above.

Dozens of dolphins ring in behind the school of fish, forcing them to the surface.

Later in the day I hike down the coast. In the distance what looks like smoke erupts from the sea. With the advantage of daylight, we finally determine they are indeed whales. More than a mile out to sea, they're impossible for a layman like me to identify. But my wish for whales has been answered. I only hope my dreams for the continued integrity of Sonora's coastline find equal footing in the real world.


Take I-19 south to the Mexican border, continuing south on Highway 15 about 55 miles past Hermosillo. Follow the paved road northwest for about 15 miles until you see the sign for San Augustín. Follow the dirt road to the coast. TW

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