I stared around at my dusty colleagues, blinking stupidly under the fluorescent lighting of the In-n-Out. Freed from the van which had been my home for countless hours, I found myself suddenly conscious of my briny skin and stiff, desert-impregnated clothes. These trappings of nomadic life, which I had up to this point worn as a badge of honor, felt suddenly dingy and out of place next to the immaculate white and red of the establishment. While I gazed around in disbelief at the hustle and bustle of Southern Californians sneaking a hamburger dinner, a passage from John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez worked its way up from my subconscious. He writes of himself and his fellow explorers: “The matters of great importance we had left were not important….Our pace had slowed greatly: the hundred thousand small reactions of our daily world were reduced to very few.” Only now, amid the harsh reality of commercial America did I realize the truth of his words- during the past two weeks in Baja my reactions had indeed been reduced to very few.
I couldn’t tell you at what point I first began my transformation from frantic Moss Landing Katie into Katie the easy desert rat. It could have been in strolling in Cataviña among the Seussical wonder of boojum trees, or while floating next to a panga buoyed up by kelp and post-dive euphoria. Regardless of the timeline, I can tell you that the Katie of Isla Natividad had few concerns. Her most pressing questions were: When will I next eat? When will I next sleep? Where are the orange fish? What’s the Spanish word for that? (Luckily for me, on Isla Natividad, the word for Garibaldi, is, in fact, Garibaldi.)
The simplicity of life that results from a unique combination of isolation and intense focus is one of the utter joys of field work. I had toyed with such bliss before in the fanciful rainforests of Australia, or the bright turquoise waters of the Bahamas, but my elation in Baja California Sur dwarfed that of previous excursions. Perhaps I have matured as a naturalist, or perhaps, as I suspect, Baja is a truly transcendent place.
On my boat ride out to Isla Natividad, as I drew ever closer to its brown crags, I must admit that the John William’s score of Jurassic Park was on infinite repeat in my mind. The massive Macrocystis mats stretching before me certainly gave the impression of the Land that Time Forgot. (My later encounters with nocturnos, otherwise known as black-vented shearwaters, certainly built upon this impression. These birds return to the island each evening under the cover of darkness to flap and stumble towards their nest holes. This activity is accompanied by calls that are, in a word, unsettling; they seem to have been inspired by a velociraptor with a sinus infection.)
Amid these splendors, my days on the island had a lulling simplicity. The warm southern sunlight streaming through my cabin window in the morning would wake me. I would stumble awkwardly out into the light and shuffle my way down to the dive locker which munching my morning meal. In an hour or so I’d scramble into the back of a white pickup with my classmates, awkwardly stabilizing SCUBA tanks with my feet as we descended the steep boat ramp. Once aboard a sturdy panga, I’d assemble my dive gear in its startlingly blue interior. Our boat captain, Jesus, would navigate the thick kelp beds with skill, occasionally raising the outboard motor to throw up a shower of water and kelp pieces. On our ride out to that day’s dive spot we might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a refreshingly shy sea lion or dolphin.
These rides were breathtaking, but my most treasured moments came in the unique silence that one can only experience on SCUBA. The rhythm of your breathing falls in time with the sway of the kelp and the pulse of ocean surge. As you weave through the kelp forest even the infinitesimal problems that remain with you on Isla Natividad float away with your exhaled bubbles. Emptied of my surface thoughts, I’d set myself to following the pugnacious, yet comical fish that California has chosen as its representative. I hovered above, and beside, and occasionally below these flamboyantly orange fish for countless minutes. Even now, I dream in orange. I timed the often clumsy, yet somehow beautiful dance between a territorial male and his would-be usurpers. My constant vigil was interrupted only by an occasional glace to scribble notes on my slate (white- what a revolutionary color!) or a brief interlude to find another unwitting subject. Garibaldi are, quite honestly, ridiculous, but their desperate self-importance gives them an endearing quality. Their willingness to attack other fish, their own kind, starfish, transect tapes, and even divers that may intrude upon their precious territory is nothing short of foolhardy. But you cannot help but admire their staunch determination. And, while I will never strive to emulate their pugnacious natures, I do hope that my brief time among them taught me something about focus and perseverance.
Eventually these submarine reprieves would be interrupted by my frustrating human need to breathe oxygen. I would haul my awkwardly burdened body back into the boat, rest, and repeat. My eventual return to land each afternoon was as reluctant, but not quite as jarring, as my return to California, USA. Looking back, I can comfortably say, life was simpler on Isla Natividad.