Friday, December 24, 2010

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..  


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