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!

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