Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Feliz Navidad and other reasons to celebrate!

I celebrated Christmas with Elena and her family, and the tradition in Peru is to stay up on Christmas Eve past midnight into the wee hours of Christmas morning.  We ate a scrumptious dinner of rice and roast turkey that was loaded with spices, boiled vegetables and a Peruvian wine that smelled like incense!  It was incredible and so much fun, especially watching Felipe count down the hours to midnight when he would be allowed to light his fireworks.  Now Felipe is the elder of the hijos, and must take on more responsibility (more than most 14 year olds that I know!) but tonight he was "dramatic" and "not calm" (his words), wiggling in his chair with a huge grin frozen onto his face; his grandmother programmed her cell phone to count down the hours to midnight and Felipe told me that he was "dying"!  I asked him about the presents under the tree, did he have to wait until midnight to open those?  "HUUH!!" he exclaimed, the presents weren't primero, lighting the fireworks was his only concern and he had to focus all of his energy into keeping from exploding.
A mass stampede toward the door signaled that midnight had finally arrived and we all trooped outside to watch Felipe and Sebastian set up the volcanoes, bottle rockets, wands, and other personal pyrotechnics on a cinder block in the middle of the avenue.  All around we could here the whistles and pops of other merry makers throughout the neighborhood, and in the sky we could see the starbursts from the professional fireworks that were being launched from the downtown area.

Despite many of the grim observations and photos that I have taken of the marine mammals that have perished at the hands of humans during my two week stay in San Bartolo, the staff and volunteers at ORCA Peru are so committed to their dedication to preserve the oceans that they always exude a warmth, happiness, and optimism that gives the visitor a feeling of hope.  For them, there is no giving up, only going forward and upward.  The reward of knowing that their voices are heard each time a sea lion that is rehabilitated and released is a sign that their hard work is making a difference.

I would like to add that the ORCA Peru board of directors will be inviting middle and high school students in Sitka in the next year to participate in a trans media project titled "Sentinels of the Sea".  This project will be a video animation using marine mammals as imagery with a theme of protecting our oceans, and students will be able to create their own version online within the project boundaries.

Members of ORCA Peru will be attending the 19th annual Marine Mammal Conference in Miami Florida in November of 2011, and it my hope that they will spread their enthusiasm for preserving marine mammals along the Peruvian coast among conference goers.  Good luck to you ORCA Peru!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Palomino Island South American sea lion survey

At last we have our boat trip scheduled, and we need to be at the marine by 9:45 AM on Sunday.  Dogs barking in the neighborhood wake me up at 4:30 AM, and I can't go back to sleep so I begin to prepare as I know I have a long bus ride ahead.
I arrive at the Puente Benevides bus top in Lima City at one minute after 8:00.  I watch the street activities while I am waiting for Carlos and I reflect upon my first night in Lima City when Carlos explained his mission to "bring Lima City to the ocean."  There is congested automobile traffic here just like any other city, brand new vechicles interspersed with old broken down junkers, well dressed people on their way to work and here and there are a few people hanging out on the street corner, and every home has electric fencing or barbed gates that protect the interior.  Presently Carlos walks up, we greet, and make our way to the next bus stop where we will meet up with Fio.

Each time I ride the bus I am astounded by the size and spread of Lima City.  Many Peruvian teens ride the bus, they chat and laugh while I gaze wide eyed out the window.  The outlying suburbs of Lima City do not appear to go through any kind of gentrification; the old and worn out buildings have occupants and many crumbling tenements have structures built atop the roofs in order to make room for more people to live.  There are 9 million people in Lima City, and when Carlos asks me of my impression I tell him that with 9 million people living near the ocean there will always be an impact.

Spanish colonial style homes along the main avenida
After an hour's ride on the bus we arrive in the township of Callao, which was the original Spanish settlement when they arrived on this part of the continent, and I immediately notice the change in the towering architecture including flying verandas and columnades.  The Peruvian Navy has its ports and museums here as well.

Plaza and entrance to the Callao marina
After having a cafe in one of the open air restaurants, we make our way to the marina to stand in line for our catamaran.  ORCA Peru has formed a relationship with one of the tour boat operators, who will assist ORCA volunteers in making the necessary surveys of sea lions at Palomino Island.  In return, ORCA is offering educational information about South American sea lions to the naturalists on the tour.

As we are boarding, Carlos points to the water; it reminds me of the color of glacier runoff or the ocean during herring spawn.  Carlos tells me that the wastewater treatment plant removes human waste before the water is discharged, but the chemicals used during the process, such as chlorine, are not removed.  He tells me that in San Bartolo, the mayor has solved this problem by upgrading the treatment system and Callao is supposed to do the same.  As the catamaran gets underway we pass through a plume of brown colored water and Carlos wrinkles his nose; "they must be discharging sewage waste...we work with the city to do water sampling but this is not right...".  The tour boat operator tells me the same thing, it is contaminacion and it is encircling Palomino Island.

The boat steers straight for the sea lion rookery to the south of Palomino Island; all of the rookeries are protected as reserves but the main island is not included.  There are several establishments on the island and the remains of a jail for political prisoners.  Carlos tells me that in the 1980s the presidente wanted to close the prison, so an uprising was staged and all of the prisoners were killed.
Sailboat near Paolomino Island
We round the southern tip of Palomino and approach several rocky islets swarming with pelicans, shearwaters, cormorants, and gulls.  Our target is a pyramid shaped island with a cliff face where several small motor boats are drifting, and I can barely make out the wiggling bodies and groaning calls of the sea lion residents.  Carlos has us position ourselves with cameras and video; he will be taking still photos of the rookery to assist him with identification and abundance estimates, and I will be videotaping the activities of the other boating participants.  The catamaran that we are on has a policy of keeping its distance (although we do come closer to the rookery than what is allowed in the United States), but there are small boat operators that take passengers on a "swim with sea lions" tour that costs $80-$100 U.S.  As you watch this video, keep your eye on the group of young swimmers as they get closer and closer to the rookery:

It would almost be comical if it wasn't so dangerous; fortunately in the U.S. we have the Marine Mammal Protection Act which prohibits approaching any marine mammal within 300 feet. Nevertheless, we have created a situation in Sitka's harbors where the Stellar sea lions have become so aggressive from their interactions with humans feeding them fish scraps that there are several divers that have been grabbed by their fins and dragged several feet.    Many divers can attest to how dangerous a sea lion can be in the water.  Carlos wants to see regulation in the tour operating industry that will not only protect the people who come to view these magnificent creatures, but will protect the sea lions themselves.  I am heartened that our tour boat operator conducted himself in a very professional manner, and offered an educational narrative to our trip versus promoting a dangerous activity.

Carlos spots a sea lion that is struggling to keep its position on the rocks, it appears weak and is weaving and bobbing its head as it struggles to climb a boulder.  I ask Carlos if he thinks the animal has distemper, and he tells me no, the animal is most likely suffering from gastritis.  This condition is caused by a bacteria, and can be fatal to the animal.  Carlos has seen several cases of gastritis in sea lions that were exposed to contaminated water, he is able to treat them if they can be captured by his volunteers and brought to the base clinic in San Bartolo.

We leave the rookery to continue our tour around the main island, and presently we came upon a beautiful rock outcropping with a sloping shelf near the water's edge.  Upon this rock were about 50 Humboldt's penguinos sunning and resting themselves.

Carlos was puzzled as to why there weren't at least 200 penguinos on the rock, but this species of penguins is doing well in Peru and they go where the fish are abundant.  Overhead, many seabirds were on the wing circling and flocking, and I was reminded of the birds of Saint Lazaria Island.

We continued our tour of the island; I am so happy to be on the ocean and have the opportunity to look out across the beautiful, shining, south Pacific ocean.  My two week stay with ORCA Peru is drawing to a close and I will be on to the next adventure very soon, and during this time I have been overwhelmed with the beauty and vastness of the Peruvian coast.  Many of the sites and experiences that I have shared with you are purely the result of humans populating and interacting in the habitat of the animals that live and migrate through these waters, and as a result these animals are changing their migratory patterns far out to sea and are heading to the southern, less populated section of the country.  It is the hope of ORCA and its partners that the people of Lima City will continue to benefit from education and outreach, learning to live with a respect for the sea and the creatures that call this coastline their home.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wakama Expedition

On Wednesday we return to the south of Lima, in the Ica province, to conduct a survey at the Wakama Natural Refuge.  The reserve is a 5-6 km stretch of sandy beach whose waters were once frequented by humpback whales, spinner, bottlenose, and spotted dolphins, and sea lions.  The land is owned by a wealthy Peruvian man who fished the beach with his father when he was a young boy, and whose desire was to protect the area as a reserve.  At Wakama there are over 100 homes and guest houses, all made from natural materials, and the beach and buildings are kept clean and orderly by hired staff.  The homse are privately owned but the owners enter a binding agreement that they will honor the reserve and take steps to ensure its continued protection.

The owner of Wakama has welcomed the ORCA Peru volunteers to come to the reserve and conduct their surveys, and at one time ORCA Peru maintained a station on the beach where sea lion pups were rescued and rehabilitated.
We disembark from the bus on a desolate, barren stretch of the highway.  On this trip are Carlos, Fio, and I, the sun is hot but we have our sombreros and water, and Carlos tells me that it is not far to the refuge.  We cross the highway and head west toward the ocean, I can see it stretching away beyond a sharp contrast in the yellow sand; we are on the edge of a huge cliff overlooking Wakama.  We make our way down the face, the sand is the texture of wheat flour and it isn't long before it is coating the lining of our mouths.  It is best to zig and zag while descending, and I find that my past alpine snow skiing experience is valuable here.  I pop off my heels and twist to the left...POOOF...landing in a perfect pile of yellow powder.  We continue this way, winding through the dunes and continuing to descend until we are among the brightly painted azul, roja, amarillo, and verde painted houses.

The "town" is a quiet place, and we are wearing our ORCA Peru staff and volunteer shirts so we are welcome.  We use the bathroom, get refreshed, and relax for awhile in the shade of the town's cantina, which serves its patrons gourmet pizza and a variety of wines.  Workers are painting bamboo furniture with linseed oil and scrubbing the wooden verandas.  The beach is picked nearly clean of trash, which is a delight to my eyes.  Presently, Carlos wants to head out to the station and off we go, just a short trek further up the beach about 400 meters.

The site of the old station is a crumbling 4 room structure that once contained bedrooms for staff and volunteers, a kitchen for cooking and for meal prep for the sea lions, and a nursery house.  The earthquake of 2007 took out the porch, fence, plaster, and floors when the sea level rose temporarily and washed out the station.  The construction of the facility was funded by the owner of Wakama but sadly he no longer has the funds to rebuild for the ORCAs.  Carlos tells me that the station was a success with staff and volunteers at the site on a round-the-clock basis (during El Nino, Wakama is the site of numerous strandings of sea lion pups) as well as visits from school children who helped with beach cleanups.  Carlos' dream was to have a science center at the site and to invite school children from other countries to learn about the marine biology of the South Pacific.  It saddens me that the station was never rebuilt and I can't help but think how it would take just a few individuals with enough money to pitch in to rebuild a new station.

The old ORCA Peru sea lion station at Wakama, after the earthquake
This is a guest house in Wakama of similar design to the ORCA station

This is the actual building that was used to rehabilitate the baby sea lions, it is now being used as a playhouse in Wakama
We begin trekking northward along the beach, crashing surf on our left and sheer yellow cliff walls on my right.  When we make these treks, I find myself wondering about the first peoples, the Nazca and the Paracas, that made their home on the Peruvian coasts during a time when the beaches and coastline were pristine, and the oceans abounded with millions of fish and other sea life.  Carlos tell me that the original peoples probably came here to fish, but their encampments were along the river effluents and oases near Chincha, which is a few kilometers to the south.
We pass two fishermen who are demonstrating a style of net setting that I have not seen; these men deploy their nylon filament gill nets into the water by wading out into the surf, and they tend the line higher up on the beach by wrapping the bridle line around their waist.  They are fishing for anchovies and guitarfish, a cartilagenous species that resembles a skate.

None of the fishermen we meet are having any luck, they have been on this beach since early this morning.  Carlos tells me that this area used to be a very profitable fishing ground due to its rocky bottom, but things changed two years ago with the completion of the mile long oil pipeline dock and the crescent shaped breakwater that goes with it.

Our strandings for today include a male sea lion that had injuries similar to the dusky dolphin that we found in the Conchan Mission (death likely caused by an explosive device), and a bottlenose dolphin that had been harvested by fishermen.  Today it is my turn to help with the field analysis and I don the rubber gloves and assist Fio with taking measurements and manipulating the carcasses so that Carlos can get a thorough view of each animal.  The dolphin is a juvenile; one of a pod that ORCA Peru has been monitoring, Carlos says, and now he is laying in the sand with a clean, rectangular cut from just behind the pectoral fin all the way  to the base of the tail.  All of the flesh has been removed.  In Peru, it is illegal to kill marine mammals but despite the law and the penalty of jail time, it is not uncommon for Carlos and his group to find evidence that the slaughter is alive and well in the Lima province.  Dolphin meat can be found in some of the markets north of the city, and it is even offered on the menus in some restaurants.  For a time the government funded the Ecological Police, which employed 100 officers, and they coordinated their efforts with ORCA Peru to hunt down and prosecute anyone who harassed or killed marine mammals.  Today the funding is limited and there are only 8 officers without even a boat for them to patrol the waters with.

Tursiops truncatus, bottlenose dolphin remains at Wakama Reserve

The next morning I rise early and head to the villa to refresh myself, it is 6AM and the workers are up early but the place is so quiet.  I look out toward the ocean and see a group of pelicans in squadron formation, they are so graceful as they stretch their wings to sail on their forward momentum, barely skimming the surface of the water and dipping along the face of cresting waves.  A lone sea lion dives in the surf, there are no fishing nets directly in front of the town center of the villa but the ones that are present are unmanned.  I watch for the sea lion but it never resurfaces in my range of sight, hopefully it is finding a meal and staying away from the gill nets.
After having our breakfast we walk 3 km south along the beach, the Peruvian summer sun is beginning to make its intensity known but walking along the surf line is a great way to stay cool.  Once we near the road to await our bus, we pass some construction workers laboring on the new highway bridge; we stop to chat with them and they laugh about whether the new bridge can withstand another earthquake.  Carlos take a picture of the ORCA Peru sign that marks the entrance to the reserve, again I feel a sadness because his project should be moving forward and I feel that the solution should not have to be so far out of reach.  More and more, individuals and groups that work to improve human rights and the environment are turning to non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, to help them with necessary funding and to fight legal battles in the absence of help from the government.  In the meantime, we must all do our part to be vigilant and to stand as witnesses to the events that are happening on our planet right now; to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.  I have some ideas for helping ORCA Peru that I will share on this blog when the time comes, so stay tuned!

Conchan Mission

Today is the Conchan Mission, and we will take the bus north out of San Bartolo to a little town that sits on the edge of a beach.  On the bus are Fio, Carolina, and me.  I am getting used to riding the crowded bus, and ensuring that my belongings do not smack people in the face and head as we sway along the back roads that connect the villages.  Presently we arrive at our stop and disembark at a place where there are rows of houses and alleyways-we make our way between these to the beach.  There are several families playing in the surf, Carlos will be meeting up with us so we wait, however we spot a suspicious looking lump in the sand and we go to investigate.  As we draw close, I see the body of an animal partially covered in sand so that it is difficult to make out the species.  Carolina looks at me "sea lobos?"  I shrug, maybe, but we don't touch it until Fiorella arrives.  As we sit and wait, I notice a man playing with a young boy in the surf nearby.  The child is giggling and they take no notice of us.  I believe that there is a growing awareness of the importance of our oceans in the United States, but it wasn't long ago when I could have stood on a beach in the U.S. and wondered if people were actually aware of the life within the oceans.
Carlos arrives with the sampling kit, and Carolina dons gloves and begins the inspection.  After uncovering the animal, we see that it is a cetacean.  Carolina is trying to wash the animal off with seawater so I collect bottles and cups off the beach, take off my shoes and wade into the surf to begin stockpiling water.  It is a dusky dolphin, it is missing its caudal flippers, pectoral flippers, mellon, and has an excavation near its pubic area.  Carlos explains "this animal has been floating, the skin is missing.  Sometimes the locals will come and scavenge these animals for the meat when they strand, but this one has had the melon removed."  He claims that he has never seen anything like this.  We continue the inspection, the left pectoral flipper appears to have been chewed off and the gonads are still present-it is a male, probably a dusky dolphin.  I stare at the rows of tiny teeth in its mouth.  The lumbar vertebrae has been broken.  Moving back to the head, we clear away the sand to reveal the nasal cavity, and the wound is irregular and somewhat ragged.  I look at Carlos and shrug.  This reminds me of an infant harbor seal that we found in Sitka, the head had been bitten in half, possibly by a sea lion or killer whale.  Carlos instructs Carolina to clean away the portion of the skull.  "Look there!" he exclaims enthusiastically, blunt, rounded tooth, very large, what kind of animal has that?"  "Killer whale?"  Yes, there are killer whales in Peru although few people realize this because they aren't seen very often.  The first peoples of the Peruvian coast, the Nazca, paid tribute to the killer whale as evidenced by the drawings in the hillsides to the southeast of Lima City, and it is believed that the killer whales arriving along the coast was a sign that an El Nino was about to occur (Carlos believes that the whales were driving the fish that swarmed into the nutrient and plankton rich waters).  After putting the clues together, Carlos has a theory:  the broken vertebrae are a sign that something was holding onto this dolphin, something very strong.  The bite marks on the head indicate that possibly while the dolphin was held by the tail, something bit it.  It is known that mother killer whales will hold onto their prey in order to teach their young to feed, and Carlos feels that the clues that this carcass provides indicate that killer whales visited this area less than two days ago.  Further up the beach we find the carcass of a sea lion, some of the bones are exposed and broken, along with more evidence that killer whales are alive and well in Peru-this is good news!

 Our good news is short lived, however, when we find the body of another dusky dolphin, this one a mother..  


Thursday, December 23, 2010

A little effort goes a long way

Paracas Nacional Reserve was created on September 25, 1975, with 335 thousand hectares between the Paracas Peninsula and the tip of Morro Quernado, located at the southern end of the Independence Bay.  65% of the Reserve belongs to marine area and 35% to coastal desert.  Since 1992 it is considered as a Wetland of International Importance especially as habitat for aquatic birds by the RAMSAR convention.

RECOMMENDATIONS:  Cigars, disposable packages and plastics does not belong to this place, they must be removed and go back with you.

Always use the established trails respecting the sign, this way you will not get lost.

Leave your pet at home, so you will no disturb the wildlife at the Reserve.

Take care of the area, it is home of a great diversity of wildlife that the world want to have.”

I awaken in the tent about 6 AM and listen to the crashing of the waves, otherwise it is mostly silent.  There are dogs here, I was nearly bitten by one last night, and there is trash everywhere.  The camper who was here previously with his wife and three little children left a pile of trash on the beach, including a diaper.  Three of us decide to rise and I take a stroll around the point.  The scenery is breathtaking, with the sun rising over the mountains and the view is clear.  The fishermen are heading out in their open skiffs, simple wooden boat approximately 22 feet long with noisy two stroke outboard motors, and names indicating that they were not the first in their line like Juan Pablo III and Maria Teresa IV, and graphics depicting their prowess at fishing such as a leaping bottlenose dolphin with bared teeth and the name Maquina or Machine stenciled on the side.  The fishermen go after the anchovitas and there is a loading dock right on the point.  I find it strange that fishing is allowed in the reserve but Carlos told us yesterday that the government has caved into pressure from these men; they complain that they are being picked on because they are “poor” even though the government pays for their electricity and housing.

I decide to wander over to the $50 solas a plate restaurant that perches on a rock outcropping right next to the bay.  “La Tia Pily”, a colorful sign depicting the yellow hills and the sea sits atop a brick and glass building with a ramshackle roof of timbers and thatch, inside there is seating for about 40 people, there is a bar, and silk flowers drape from the ceiling.  I explore the perimeter of the building and as I come around the back and get my first look at waste disposal at Pampa Lachuza.  The kitchen is directly behind the restaurant overlooking the bay, and in an alcove out of site from the customers, it apparent that garbage is slung out the window to be washed away by the sea.  Several empty bottles of cleaning chemicals and plastic bag lay under the window, probably from the night before.  There are shallow tidepools in the rocks indicating that the tide comes as high as the ledge of rock under the window.  This is just the beginning of what I am about to discover. 

I feel rested somewhat, the other chicas want me to go for a swim with them but I didn’t bring a suit.  Never mind, I have athletic underwear on, which covers more than most swimsuits anyway.   Back in the day, I used to keep a suntan but I am Alaska white, nevertheless, I need this swim.  The water is chilly at first, but very pleasant and easy to get use to.  So refreshing!  The pelicans and cormorants perched on the rocks aren’t bothered by our presence, they must be habituated to humans.  I spot a clear plastic bag floating through the rocky outcroppings, plastic bags are a murder weapon to sea turtles and other animals who mistake them for jellyfish.  I decide to do something about this one, and I swim out to the rocks.   An eddy that has caught the bag and preventing it from coming ashore looks challenging but not a big deal.  As I swim back Romina, one of our group members, appears carrying her own piece of trash.  I use the bag to collect sea glass from the beach.

After drying off and having our breakfast, we proceed to the southern beach to scout for strandings.  The beach is a colorful mosaic of polished and rounded cobbles in maroon and indigo, along with millions of shells:  swimming scallops, conchs, giant scallops, tube worm tests, limpets.  Sadly, we began to find our strandings; the carcasses of male, female, and juvenile South American sea lions, those that are supposed to be protected in the reserve.  Carlos has years of experience as a veterinarian and the founder of ORCA Peru, and he was able to determine the cause of death in every case.  “That one died in agony, see how the head is twisted back and the tongue is out?”  We look down at the flattened and nearly mummified remains of a creature that once frolicked in these waves.  “The fishermen have poisoned this one, they use rat poison, and it is a very painful and slow death.”  We move on.  Several more carcasses, either rat poison, stabbing, or a combination of both.  There is also distemper, which has been showing up in pinnipeds and cetaceans worldwide.  I reflect on similar events that have happened in more “progressive” nations; not too long ago the Alaskan government had a bounty on sea lions and harbor seals, and they were slaughtered by the tens of thousands.  New Zealand has recently witnessed its own slaughter when someone visited a protected rookery and clubbed 23 fur seals to death (fur seals are diminutive in comparison to sea lions, and very afraid of humans).  In Taiji, under the pretense of a "traditional hunt", men are killing dolphins by the hundreds nearly every day.  Here in the Paracas Nacional Reserve, Carlos says,  strandings are almost always the result of human interactions.

And it’s not just the strandings that is a concern, trash litters this beach as  far as we can see.  Everywhere we look, there is garbage.  Where is it coming from?  I decide to start picking up pieces that I feel are a danger to the animals: plastic pop caps and bottles, pink plastic bags, blue plastic bags, white plastic bags, these are items that can be found at the convenience store, and I recognize these blue and pink bags from the farmers market.  Presently I dig up a large rice bag, now I have something to put the trash in.  As I work, I am conscious to keep up with the group who are still identifying the carcasses.  When I started my marine debris campaign as an undergraduate student at Sheldon Jackson college, I was often asked the question “why bother to clean it up?  It comes right back, and after all, you are just filling up the landfills”.  Since that time, we have learned that anthropogenic marine debris accumulates in the ocean, especially plastic, and that it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces.  These pieces have been found to accumulate POPs, or persistant organic pollutants.  Studies have indicated that fish in the ocean are mistaking these very small pieces of plastic for plankton, and may very well be ingesting the POPs, which in turn are eaten by larger fish, and so on.  I still can’t help but think “what am I going to do with this bag of trash when I am done?”  There are no garbage cans at Pampa Lachuza, my group is probably thinks that I need to pay attention to the carcasses on not the trash...blah blah blah my mind says but still I keep picking up trash and stuffing it in the rice bag.

Presently, Carlos announces “Well chicas, we need to head back now and break down our camp, our cab will be coming for us”.  He takes a look at my trash bag and I begin to feel self conscious, but I can’t help it.  “Chicas!” he says and turns his back to them so that they can see the writing in inglais on the back of his shirt “If we all work to together we can make the ocean a better place”.  Immediately the chicas begin picking up trash with me, two of us carry the bag and hold it open as we hoover a wide swath of beach clean of trash.  The bag is becoming heavy but we keep stuffing; we find empty bottles of outboard motor oil, bottles with pop still in them, bottles of cleaner, and endless bags.

Back at camp, one more quick swim, but I happen to notice the employees of La Tia Pily have arrived and are unloading the daily supplies.  Then I see something familiar being unloaded from the back of the owner’s vehicle.  I take the opportunity to make like a touristico to interview the owner about his menu.  He serves chicken, fish, and of course……rice.  The rice brand that he uses is identical to the one that I found on the beach, and I am sure now more than ever that this man has his employees throw the trash out the back window into the ocean.

Carlos tells me that the cab driver will not transport our garbage out with us, that we must leave it on the side of the road for the Park rangers to pick up.  Our trash from camping goes right next to my rice bag full of beach trash.  I can't help but think if it will sit there for an eternity, to be knocked over and scattered, or what.

As we pull away in the cabs, I see a woman on the beach with a garbage bag…wait, that can’t be.  Two more, no three, six altogether, all picking up trash and stuffing it in black plastic bags.  I wonder aloud, did they see us picking up trash and come out to help?  Is this just a gesture?  Obviously the fishermen and restaurant owners are pitching trash overboard, so what's the use?  Just then a garbage truck goes by.  There is a way to deal with the garbage, Carlos tells me that Peru does have landfills and garbage disposal (this I have seen in San Bartolo).  Yet, the image of plastic bags and bottles all over the beach is a global problem, one that involves wealthy corporations that are resistant to changing the way they do business.  In Peru, not even the locals drink the tap water for fear of infection, and everyone must purchase bottled water, some brands which are produced by Coca Cola.  With over 27 million people that must drink at least one bottle of water a day, you can imagine how much production is involved.  And this is the same for all countries that do not have access to clean, potable water other than from a manufacturer-if you want drinking water, you have to go to the store and pay-try to imagine what that must be like.  We all know how lucky we are in Sitka to have tap water that is clean enough to drink, and an artisan well that gives us fresh tasting, cold water; we are given a choice between purchasing bottled water or using our tap.

Our last stop of the day is in the town of Paracas, where the devastation from the 2007 quake is still evident.  Paracas is a colorful tourist town with many souvenir vendors, restaurants, and a beautiful marina with many brightly painted fishing boats.  Residents drive around in brand new cars purchased by the oil industry (that pipeline to the rainforest that I mentioned is not far from here), yet many houses are in disrepair or are uninhabitable.  We are here to survey the locals to find out if ORCA Peru should have a presence, especially as contributing educators in the schools.  We ate lunch at a small cantina and then spread out to do our survey.  Patty and I interviewed several vendors and three fishermen; all of the vendors felt that sea lions and cetaceans are on the decline and that protection and education were needed.  One young fisherman wanted to see protection for sea lions, and two elderly fishermen were hostile to the sea lions.  Yet all wanted someone to come and help educate them on ocean sustainability. 
One thing that I would like to add before closing; don't let ANYONE tell you that your actions, no matter how small they may seem, don't make a difference!  While I was picking up trash  at the reserve, and thinking my thoughts, the Park Rangers were watching me through the binoculars, effectively taking the focus off of Carlos' group who was making their assessment of the sea lion deaths (if you watched the above video you will notice that this is important).  Not only were they paying attention to me and not the ORCAS, they were admonishing their crew for the shame of allowing a tourist to pick up beach garbage-thus the reason that we saw six people cleaning the beach as we were leaving!  And lastly I would like to add that despite the deaths of the sea lions, and the endless human generated garbage on the beach,  it was apparent to me that people wanted to see change, and that the beauty of the Paracas Peninsula and Pampa Lachuza was more overpowering than the devastation-If we all work together we CAN make the ocean a better place~

Monday, December 20, 2010

Paracas, part II

Climbing to the top of one hill leads to going downhill, usually, but we reach a peak that levels into a plateau, with a gradually inclining hill directly ahead and a steeper incline to our left and toward the ocean.  Of course it is this direction that Carlos chooses and I don't complain, I am a little tired but I stop to take this video (warning, turn your speakers down because the wind is howling!).  I can see the ocean now, waay down below us.

We make our way down the very steep hill, taking care to step on the firm bits of desert and not the loose sand which would cause us to plummet downwards, to get onto the plateau and out to the cliff face.  The South American fur seal rookery is here, and this is the time of year that the males haul out to mate with the females, who are returning from the open ocean.  South American Fur seals(Arctocephalus australis) are found down the coast of South America from the Paracas Penninsula, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.  They are not a true seal, having the characteristics of sea lions including the flexible cervical vertebrae and ear flap, of the family Otarridae.  Males are black in coloration, on average they weigh 150-200 kg and females are two toned and weigh an average of 30-50 kg. This fur seal has been slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands, notably for its fur, and although this type of hunting is illegal in most countries the fur seal faces threats from poaching and from El Nino.
When we arrive at the cliff's edge and look down at the ocean, the first thing we see is a dead sea lion.  "Probably killed by a fisherman" Carlos says as we pause for a moment of silence.  The fishermen that are allowed to run their boats out of the reserve feel that the sea lions are stealing the anchovies, which is the prevalent species of the area.  We move on.

As we move on, we pass giant cracks in the earth that are signs of the 2007 earthquake.  Carlos points to a huge boulder far below on the beach.  It is the size of a house, and crashed from the lip of the canyon to the rookery, effectively splitting it in half.  At this point we can make out a handful of fur seals, all males Carlos says, hauled out on the rocks.  From this point they look so small; "furry worms" was what an old marine biology instructor called the seals during a field trip to the California coast.

We walk to the far end of the cliff face, there is a stone wall where we stop to take drinks of water and begin the survey.  There is a small wisp of land on the seaward side of the wall, and two of the chicas take their station with the binoculars.  They are going to count males, females, and yearlings.  Each chica takes turns doing a count, all the counts will be compared and calculated for standard error.

It's getting dark now, and the ever present humidity is turning to fog as the temperature cools down.  Nevertheless, Carlos wants to move on to another rookery, I begin to wonder if he was joking about not joking when he said that we would be hiking in the western mountains.

It's really getting too dark to see the coloration patterns that distinguishes the females from the males, and the binoculars don't focus too well, so we head back.  We have the light of an almost full moon on our side, and I think that we are going back the way we came but we head north across the vast expanse of plateau that we overlooked from the mountain top on the way in.  This is a much longer route but  it is easier traveling, everyone is tires, and also a long walk in the desert moonlight is the stuff journeys are made of.  We will retire to our tents and tomorrow the plan is to look for strandings on the southern beaches in the morning, and we will also conduct a survey in the town of Paracas tomorrow afternoon.  Buenas noches!


On to Paracas, the National Reserve

We rise early on Wednesday to catch the bus to Lima in order to meet up with other ORCA Peru members for our trip to the Paracas National Reserve.  The reserve is a 335,000 hectare area three hours south of Lima that encompasses a large peninsula, hundreds of kilometers of coastline, and inland desert.  There are seven of us total for the expedition, where we will document the condition of the reserve’s beach at Pampa Lachuza, which is on the south side of the peninsula.

The countryside south of Lima is beautiful rolling yellow foothills that meet the expanse of the south Pacific ocean.  We arrive in the town of Pisco, where we disembark and arrange for two cabs that will take us within the reserve.  I make the mistake of making eye contact with a cab driver and he follows me to the group.  Carlos is busy making arrangements with the cab drivers that he has chosen, and I tell my man, “no gracias”.  He leaves.  We all have a laugh at having the macho (male) in our group make the arrangements, but this is the society.

Back on the highway, we pass through the town of Paracas and I see several large oil factory ships and several bottoms trawlers, which makes my heart sink.  These boats are from the United States, Peru, China, and Japan, and are allowed to conduct their business in the “national reserve” of Paracas.  There is an oil pipeline that runs for hundreds of miles inland through the rainforest, where oil is pumped from wells and transported to the coast.

Several kilometers out of Paracas, our drivers swerve onto a bumpy dirt road, which will take us to the Pampa Lachuza.  We stop at the information gate and pay our fee, then continue on.  Everywhere is yellow, and when we see the ocean the bright contract of the blue sea is stunning and new to me.  We bounce down the road, the drivers seem to have their own preference as they swerve in different directions to miss the potholes and rocks.  

There is a point in Pampa Lachuza that the tourists from Lima go to; it has a white sandy beach and two cantinas that serve meals for 50 solas, or about $25 a plate.  This is expensive by Peruvian standards, but the tourists figure that they are paying for the view.  The Paracas national reserve was hit by the earthquake in 2007 and the crumbling remains of two other cantinas are omnipresent (many of the coastal villages hit hardest by the '07 quake still have not recovered, despite the presence of the oil industry).  We get out of our cabs and the first sight that I see is a big lazy pelican sitting in the doorway to one of the ruins.  We head around the cantinas to set up our campsite on the beach; there is one camper present already but we are told that he is leaving.  The first order of business is to eat lunch and set up the tents, and then we will head out across the desert to the fur seal rookeries.
 We grabbed the necessary items for the survey: clipboards, cameras, binoculars, water bottles, and headed back down the road that we arrived on.  I looked ahead; a vast desert mountain was directly in front of us and Carlos was heading that way.  Fortunately it was late in the afternoon and we would be hiking as the sun would be going down, but we reserved our strength, taking even, measured steps.  Other than the desert surroundings, I could have been on a hike with Sitka summer camp participants, the chicas were wearing popular Lima dress which is very similar to what young women in Sitka wear, all had their cell phones and all were in reach of loved ones calling them.  I was happy to have Patty, a beautiful Peruvian woman closer to my age, along as she addressed to Carlos the need for necessary pit stops and rest periods (we had a one and a half hour trip to make it to the rookery).  Up and down hills and plateaus, the desert has a medium grained brown and yellow sand interspersed with rocks, and a limestone bed.  Peruvian mountain lions make their way down from the mountains to hunt at night, as well as foxes, and the desert is home to an olive colored snake.  Nothing appears to be living or moving in the daytime, however, not even insects appear to be here.