The Very Air Miraculous
WORKING MY WAY back to the casita, the little stone hut we call home, I hop the boulders along the rocky shoreline, where relatively few of the 300,000 seabird inhabitants of Isla Rasa choose to nest. Even so, some Heermann’s gulls—first-year breeders or latecomers or recluses—are nestled among these outermost rocks, napping on their eggs, confident of privacy, only to be rudely awakened by the approach of my dusty shoes. One after another, as if yanked on invisible strings, they burst into flight, webbed feet paddling, wings rowing backward, yowling aow-aow-aow in alarm and loosing globs of guano. I’ve been here for a month and still feel guilty about disturbing them.
It’s late on an April day, and some strange trick of atmospherics is providing a hypnotic illusion. Perhaps it is “the very air miraculous” that John Steinbeck wrote of during his travels in these parts in 1940 with the marine biologist Ed Ricketts.1 Here and now, sea and sky have merged into a pewter veil so thick the horizon line is erased. Yet the air is actually clear enough that flying birds cast black shadows on the icelike sea surface, invisible except for the shadows—a paradox of clarity and confusion created by a form of fog I’ve never seen before—not a whiteout in snow but a silverout in the subtropics, some 350 miles southeast of San Diego and 1,000 miles northwest of Mexico City.
I pause to study the effects of disorientation in a familiar landscape. At other times and places—in the weightlessness of underwater at night, for instance—I’ve lost enough sense of direction that vertigo upends my bearings. But here in the foggy heart of the Gulf of California, I’m anchored to Earth by gravity and affixed to the ocean by the sound of slap-happy waves. What’s adrift here isn’t the compass but time. As if a brontosaurus could unfurl its neck from beneath the waves or a pterodactyl flap ashore.
And then a prehistoric head does punch through the surface ten feet offshore, followed by the longitudinal ridges of a shell. It’s a leatherback sea turtle, a creature straight out of prehistory, an inhabitant of the deep blue home for at least 110 million years, whose ancestors once shared the ocean with dinosaurs. From the length of the tail, this one appears to be a female. In the last pulse of light before darkness, she forms a perfect mirror-image twin with the surface: a two-headed turtle, jellyfish tentacles streaming from the corners of her mouths, like cellophane noodles in a silver broth.
The scene is transfixing. And not only because she’s the biggest sea turtle I’ve ever seen, maybe six feet long and, I guess, a thousand pounds. Not only because leatherback turtles are rare or because it’s the end of the day and living outdoors makes me perpetually hungry and right now even jellyfish soup sounds good. But because of the tableau of cause and effect rippling from it.
The turtle sculls at a leisurely rate, dipping her head, heaving the long tentacles into the air, swallowing, eyes closed to avoid the stings. As she chews the bell of the jellyfish underwater, the curve of her leathery back—it’s not really a shell at all—pitches and yaws above the water line like a capsized dinghy. The sight is intriguing enough that an elegant tern, another breeder on Isla Rasa, detours from its flight path between feeding ground and nesting colony to hover quizzically on butterfly wings. Other terns notice this one’s attentiveness, and a small flock coalesces in the air, wings open, heads down, all eyes focused below, where a school of damselfish bounces off the turtle’s flippers, picking her skin clean. A few Heermann’s gulls congregate on the wet rocks, slipping on algae, jostling for position, until one jumps in and paddles counterclockwise around the turtle as she drifts clockwise on the currents circling the island. The terns sideslip through the air to keep up.
Just offshore, the entourage twirls into a floating raft of eared grebes, thousands of small water birds paddling in close formation. They dive en masse when the turtle approaches, their webbed feet stroking the surface before disappearing into the ripples of their own making, then pop up in the same tight formation a hundred feet away. The flock will be here for only another day or two, en route to California’s Salton Sea, three hundred miles to the north. It will fly there tonight or tomorrow night, traveling nonstop, then make another nonstop flight to California’s Mono Lake, then split into smaller groups headed for their birth lakes scattered through the Canadian Rockies and northern Great Plains. Between here and there they’ll cinch the disparate bodies of water together as surely as threads in a necklace of blue beads.
A half-dozen Heermann’s gulls accompany the sea turtle on her perambulation of the current. They twirl on the paddles of their feet and peck at the water, sampling strands of jellyfish goo. Their species is adept at the thievery biologists call kleptoparasitism—stealing fish from other seabirds, particularly from the gular (Latin gula: gullet) pouches of pelicans, though these gulls aren’t filching now because they don’t eat jellyfish. Curiosity binds them to the turtle dining benevolently between their feet. Their persistent hopefulness binds them to the tableau.
From the deep waters beyond the grebes, a fin whale surfaces, sleek black back rolling forward a seemingly impossible length before the tiny dorsal fin scythes out of the water, travels the arc, then disappears below. The flukes stir a boiling cauldron of eddies without ever breaking the surface. A fishy mist of whale breath drifts my way.
Although darkness is falling, I follow the drift of the sea turtle on foot, retracing my steps along the shoreline to the easternmost valley of the island, where the sound of 30,000 breeding terns produces a collective voice as strident as a factory of metal parts gone haywire, broken steel and fan belts screaming. After a field season here, my hearing will never be the same. The terns creating this unlikely cacophony are pretty white birds bedecked with black crests and packed side by side within a bill’s length of one another, in such tight formation that their nest scrapes assume the shape of perfect hexagons rimmed with guano and pebbles. This tessellated (Latin tessellatus: mosaic) pattern, like the cells of a honeycomb or the scutes (Latin scutum: shield) of a turtle’s carapace, is one of nature’s most efficient methods for packing space maximally.
The terns’ work continues around the clock. As does the din. Even now in the dusk, thousands of terns are navigating through the congestion in the air and on the ground, hundreds of birds exiting the valley, hundreds more arriving, gliding in low, bills full of sardines, startling at the sight of the heaving turtle boat, their white wings pumping hard on the downstroke as they struggle to rise. Some careen close to my head, their distinctive krrrrrk-krrrrrk trills, the flutter from their wings, ghosting past my ears.
And then the leatherback drifts beyond where I can follow without trespassing on the tern colony I’m here to protect. Anyway, it’s nearly too dark now to see, so I turn toward home, climbing the familiar trail away from the tern valley, down into a gull valley, past the mountainous sand dunes formed of eons of powdered guano, then over another ridge and through another gull colony, before cresting the rocky ridge where the casita lies. Along the way I unnerve many gulls, who curse me in ooh-ooh now-now calls. As it does every spring evening, the sound of this island swells to fill the void of