The day dawned hot and clear, with the ocean smooth as glass. With the sun barely above the islands that jut up out of the Sea of Cortez, we loaded onto panga boats, equipped with our snorkel gear and anticipation. This was our first full day in Bahia de los Angeles, located on the eastern side of the Baja California peninsula, and coming from several days of being landlocked in the middle of the desert, water was a welcome change.
We were headed to a cove to explore the world-famous marine biodiversity that this region is known for. As our boats cut through the placid surface, we marveled at blue- and brown-footed boobies, pelicans, gulls, and frigate birds. All at once, one of our group’s boats veered off course and slowed near a ripple in the water. We all strained our eyes, searching for whatever the driver had seen to cause this detour.
To avoid frightening it away, he said in a low whisper “ballena.” I heard a collective gasp as two Bryde’s whales surfaced in unison—a mother and calf. We watched the whales feed for maybe fifteen minutes. At times they ventured close enough to touch, even diving directly under our boats. As they eventually swam gracefully away, we knew we had witnessed something extraordinary.
This field course in Baja California is part of a graduate-level conservation and education program called Earth Expeditions, offered in partnership through Miami University’s Project Dragonfly and conservation NGOs worldwide. I had the opportunity last summer to co-instruct an Earth Expeditions course in Baja California, and among the many learning experiences it provided, perhaps the greatest was a fresh appreciation for the transformational capacity of first-hand experiences with wildlife conservation. Courses through Earth Expeditions provide students from around the globe the opportunity to visit pivotal hotspots in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas to engage in inquiry and action projects on key conservation issues.
Paradise in Peril
In the Conservation Education Division, we are constantly searching for exciting new opportunities to connect people to wildlife and conservation. With San Diego Zoo Global working to conserve wildlife in over 35 countries around the world, Earth Expeditions is an ideal platform to introduce a global community of professionals to our conservation work.
This summer, we are debuting the newest Earth Expedition focused on the extinction capitol of the world, a paradise in peril—Hawaii. Students in the Hawaii Earth Expedition course will explore what it takes to save a species in the wild by focusing on San Diego Zoo Global’s work through its Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP). One species in particular, the ‘alala or Hawaiian crow, has been extinct in the wild since 2002 and is currently being bred in captivity through the HEBCP for an eventual reintroduction back into the forests of Hawaii.
No Small Change
Beyond gaining a better understanding of the conservation landscape on Hawaii, my hope as the lead instructor in the course is that it will provide students with transformative experiences with wildlife that incite real change.
Even more tremendous than the actual encounter with the whales in Baja California was the impact the experience had on the class. Several were moved to tears by this unexpected encounter; some laughed at the sheer joy of watching such graceful animals. All of us, though, were silent as we continued toward our destination, sobered by this intimate moment with wildlife that we had all shared. We knew we had been given a remarkable experience, and were left with a sense that we somehow needed to give back. We thought then about the daunting task that this presented. How do we share this experience? How do we inspire other people?
Each student will find different answers to these questions, and in this effort exists the fundamental principle of Earth Expeditions—through these courses we are building an alliance of individuals with firsthand knowledge of wildlife and conservation, committed to working in their communities to ensure that transformational experiences in nature will be possible for generations to come.
Robin Keith is a conservation program specialist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.