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 night.
In satellite images of Mexico’s Gulf of California—that 700-mile-long finger of water splitting the peninsula of Baja California from the Mexican mainland—tiny Isla Rasa is invisible, lost to wave clutter and scale. The island is so minuscule that few maps bother to note it. Sea charts record an unnamed dot at 28°49¢N, 112°59¢W, in the part of the gulf known as the Midriff Islands region, a 60-mile-wide knuckle formed of numerous volcanic islands rearing from deep submarine canyons. Most of these islands are bigger, taller, more picturesque, more ecologically diverse, and far more enticing than Rasa to a human sailor plying these reaches. Isla Ángel de la Guarda, Rasa’s largest neighbor, dominates its northern skyline with a reptilian spine of mountains 43 miles long and 4,300 feet high, painted in chameleon strata of red, ochre, and white that change hue with the season and the day.
In contrast, dun-colored Rasa barely rises above the waves, only 115 feet at its highest point and much of it lower than that. The word rasa means flat in Spanish—though the majority of English-language books and visitors mistakenly spell and pronounce the island’s name “Raza,” which means breed or race, an error that resonates faintly if you think of the island as the race of birds.
Isla Rasa presents such a humble profile that even from sea level many miss it. John Steinbeck, in the course of his travels with the biologist Ed Ricketts aboard the sardine boat the Western Flyer, never visited Isla Rasa or commented on it and most likely never noticed it as he sailed through the Midriff first to its west and then to its east on his voyage up and down the gulf.
Most travelers in these parts find little reason to stop here. Bereft of safe anchorage, fresh water, shade, or comestibles, the island lies forlornly empty nine months of the year, a tabula rasa but for a few raptors and corvids, some cryptic lizards, geckos, and invertebrates, plus countless tens of thousands of bird carcasses, mostly chicks, desiccating in sun and wind in a scene of postapocalyptic bleakness. Drought cruelly prunes Rasa’s struggling garden, its dozen cardón cactuses, its crotches of prickly cholla, sour pitaya, and senita cactuses, along with saltbush and a few intertidal succulents. Most of the year the only animate presence is the wind, exhaling heat, coughing chubascos (thunderstorms), blustering low-pressure systems in from the north, and in all seasons spooling powdered guano and feathers into spindly dust devils.
Yet come February and March, vitality returns with a vengeance as the gulls and terns home in on their own unforgettable microcosm. The Heermann’s gulls arrive from as far north as British Columbia, the elegant terns from as far south as Chile. This nondescript wafer of sun-blasted rock is the bull’s-eye at the center of their lives, and within hours of their arrival they begin to fertilize the dead ground with their overwhelmingly dense, noisy, odoriferous, lusty, busy energies. Within days, Rasa houses an average of 2,700 seabirds per acre. When their eggs hatch, weeks later, the number doubles.
For the few frenetic months that they are here, Rasa’s birds endow the island with a rare visibility, a transient topography forming and unforming in the sky as the air vibrates with hundreds of thousands of wings. From the sea, the island mushrooms into a jittery cloud visible for miles. In one season of four, Isla Rasa is transformed into a curiosity that not even a hasty traveler through this land of oddities would wish to leave unexplored.
Some 95 percent of the world’s population of Heermann’s gulls breed on Rasa. The species is wedded to this island, partnered with it in a coevolutionary experiment between organic and inorganic nature. The birds’ droppings prove a fertile boon to Rasa’s thin soils. The birds’ sooty gray plumage mimics Rasa’s native lava rock, and their silvery white head and neck feathers match the guano-capped stone. The overall effect is of an animate, restless, flight-prone geology that blows into action and emits perpetual noise. The impression is further enlivened by the gulls’ fire-engine-red bills tipped in black, as if a quarter million cheerful votives were perpetually lit against the island’s glare.
Heermann’s gulls are confident birds, striding upright and purposeful, hopping expertly between rocks with a flick of the wings, soaring buoyantly on long primary feathers. Yet compared to some of the giants of the family Laridae—the great black-backed gull of the eastern seaboard, for instance—Heermann’s gulls are petite, with a small-boned, soft-voiced delicacy . . . though hundreds of thousands prove that even quietness multiplied can deafen.
Along with the gulls, as much as 97 percent of the world’s population of elegant terns nest on Isla Rasa. Smaller and daintier than the gulls, they walk low to the ground, hunch-¬shouldered, strutting in fast-forward on seemingly motorized feet, orange bills outstretched as if following some urgent scent. Their plumage is strikingly white, highlighted with silvery wings. Their breeding plumage includes a rosy blush on the chest and a highly emotive black crest on the head that grows over the eyes, flipping and twitching with the expressiveness of an eyebrow. The ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his Life Histories of North American Birds, a twenty-one-volume set rolled out between 1919 and 1968, described elegant terns as “the most exquisite member of the charming group of sea swallows” and bemoaned the fact that their remote habitat prevented ornithologists from ever seeing one alive on the nest.2
A few thousand royal terns nest among the elegants on Isla Rasa. The two are difficult to distinguish except by careful observation. Given time, you might learn to see that the royals are slightly larger and more robust, their orange bills heavier and straighter, whereas the elegants’ are decurved. The crests of the royals are also shorter and less flippity, and early in the breeding season they revert to the nonbreeding appearance of a black visor worn backward on a white head.
Both tern species arrive on Isla Rasa after the gulls have already established nesting territories on every usable inch of the island, usually early in March. The newcomers proceed to steal what they need, closing ranks under cover of darkness and dropping umbrellalike into a gull colony, flapping the spokes of their wings, jabbing the spokes of their bills. Come morning they’ve commandeered enough real estate to establish their own ternery, usually in one of the island’s prime valleys, where the powdered guano lies as thick and soft as down pillows.
A fully packed gull colony forms an airy geometry, the birds spaced on two-foot centers. A tern colony nearly obscures the substrate, the birds packed into a seething, impenetrable sea of white polka-dotted with black, spiked with orange. In return for breeding inside what amounts to a giant gull colony, the terns are harassed every minute of every day by off-duty gulls or by subadult gulls patrolling the edges, fomenting squabbles, distracting the nesters, and stealing the terns’ eggs. Nevertheless, the elegants invariably choose to nest beside larger gulls or terns, even when an opportunity to nest alone comes their way. On Isla Rasa the tradeoff boils down to this: better to live beside small predators who might eat a few of your eggs if their defenses help you survive the larger predators who might eat many more of your eggs.
Which is precisely the reason these small gulls and terns choose Isla Rasa over the neighboring high islands of the Midriff region. The flat topography allows for extremely dense nesting congregations, which provide the best defense for all three species from the island’s larger predators: peregrine falcons, common ravens, and yellow-footed gulls. Flat Isla Rasa, a promising island to begin with, has been engineered over time more to the seabirds’ liking—the rocky ridgelines growing softer and the valleys broader under a thickening blanket of guano. Thus the birds make the island, and the island makes the birds.
Each evening I return to the casita in near darkness, feeling my way by sound, weaving between the aow-aow calls of this gull and the aow-aow calls of that one. Eventually I catch sight of the weak light from our Coleman lantern spinning wildly through the air. Like so many of the things of civilization that we’ve brought with us, the lantern works poorly, clogged by the only fuel—aviation gas—we can get from our only contact here, a remote fishing village on the Baja Peninsula. Mónica is vigorously windmilling the lantern at the end of her straight arm, as if preparing to underarm a softball—her way of testing our working hypothesis that an intense kindling of oxygen will light the lamp, though mostly it just sputters gas, shadows, and frustration. Every night we have to restrain ourselves from pitching it into the sea.
Enriqueta is on the radio with Bahía de los Angeles, our lifeline for aviation fuel, tortillas, fresh produce, mail, and, most critically, water. It’s a three-hour boat ride from the island to the village, and the trip aboard an open twenty-five-foot fishing skiff, or panga, can be made safely only in good weather. There’s no Coast Guard here and no telephones, and consequently no fisherman lives long as a fool. Some years after this field season, a team of biologists from the University of California, Davis, will suffer five fatalities in this turbulent neighborhood where deep waters, high islands, and small boats intersect. We are persistently reminded of our mortality by three handmade crosses marking unremembered deaths in one of Isla Rasa’s tiny valleys.
Before I set foot in the casita I hear alarm notes on the radio. The strange atmospherics are distorting the signal more than normal, stretching the voice from Bahía into a mournful oboe of concern. Have we seen a boat today? A small live-aboard cabin cruiser? A stranger appeared in the village this morning, a sunburnt, dehydrated American who had trekked in over the rugged and waterless Sierra de San Borja after beaching his skiff far to the south. He had left his brother aboard their broken-down boat and gone for help in the tiny skiff, only to encounter currents that redirected him wildly, as the currents in the Midriff tend to do, forcing him ashore and afoot in an unforgiving desert wilderness. Eventually he stumbled into Bahía de los Angeles and enlisted the help of a fisherman with a panga to return to his brother—only to find no trace of either the man or the boat.
Where was that? Enriqueta asks.
Anchored off the south coast of Isla Ángel de la Guarda.
From where we stand, the toothy monolith of this island is still visible in the dulling sunset to the northwest. We exchange glances. Everyone knows there’s no safe anchorage there.
Mónica enters the radio room, the spitting lantern in hand. Its output is little more than one ghoulish candlepower, and its light warps the shadows cast on the stone walls by our hanging bird skins, blown eggshells, a half-dissected sea lion pup, the three of us. We stare, upset by this news of a distant stranger in distress.
Over the coming days the saga unfolds on the radio as other fishing pangas join the hunt and the few yachts in the Midriff are alerted. The brother charters a plane from the United States to fly a search mission. We have no boat, but we scan with binoculars many times from many viewpoints on the island. Yet as far as we know, nothing more is ever seen of the lost brother or the cruiser, and we are left restless and wondering. Only the birds and the fish, in their trembling clouds, know his fate.