On the morning of Saturday, March 30, eighty seniors loaded into twenty cars and drove out of the school parking lot before sunrise, headed for a remote beach in central Baja California. The caravan of marine ecology students, lead by science department head Randy Hudson, reached their destination nearly seventeen hours later: a bay on the Sea of Cortez known as Bahia de Las Animas. The twenty vehicles, each driven by a father of one of the attending seniors, carried, in addition to the students, the food, water, personal luggage, school supplies, and lab equipment necessary for the Baja field study. A separate dispatch of three trucks, with a portion of the student luggage, left the prior Thursday morning.
According to Hudson, who has coordinated the trip fourteen times now, “The objective of the field study is to give students an opportunity to apply everything that they have learned all year long… It gives you the opportunity to put into context everything that you’ve learned from day one, all the way until we leave, and then some when we come back. All these things that you’ve learned about in these arbitrary units and semesters are now together, they have color, they’re not floating in a jar, they’re alive, and it’s all woven into one system. You’ve learned aspects of these systems, but this is the first time you’ve seen it all together as a whole. Now you’re trying to describe how it functions, how is that balance achieved. Knowing what you know, and then learning more on the trip, you now have a change to put it all together and really understand it for the first time.”
The students were sorted into ten different lab groups, each group of eight composed of members from all three of the marine ecology class periods. Each group explored a different region of the bay each day, including the mangrove estuary, the mud flats, the rocky intertidal zone, and the reef. The equipment they used to study these different habitats included sieves, shovels, buckets, trays, hydrometers, ziploc bags, nail polish, forceps, a PVC quadrat, a transect meter tape, masks, snorkels, wet suits, plankton nets, collecting jars, water samplers and species identification cards.
Two lab groups were assigned to prepare food each day, one cooking breakfast, the other lunch, and both tackling dinner. Senior Cooper Campbell states that the night his group made dinner was the most fun he had on the trip. He says, “Alex and Hudson made the whole cooking process super organized and easy for everyone to understand.” Alex Ray—who attended the field trip himself in 2003—has returned twelve times to serve as a lab group leader or the headquarters facilitator and run the kitchen. The priority is to ensure students prepare the meals and eat together, because, as Hudson puts it, “that’s an important thing… that’s when a lot of conversations and bonding go on.”
The Baja field study has evolved over several decades into the carefully planned, nine-day excursion that it is today. In its early days, it was held in Gonzaga Bay, which the caravan passes each year now, staying there through the 60s. The location changed with the construction of the transpeninsular highway, connecting the northern and southern states of Baja with one continuous road, the Mex Highway 1. It made it possible for people to travel further; up until then there was simply an extremely rugged dirt road.
The man who was teaching marine ecology at the time, Jim Klein, went on a boat trip at the time of the construction of the highway and prospected the beach that is currently the site of the study, Bahia de Las Animas. Klein liked the location because it had a lot more to offer in terms of habitat than Gonzaga Bay. But even with Mex Highway 1, to get all the way to Animas Bay by car still wasn’t possible. So Klein and his brother pioneered a road in from L.A. Bay, following the paths of water, through washes. The study was held in Animas in ‘73, and has been every year since, because it meets so many of the students’ academic needs, exposing them to the maximum number of habitats in one location as possible.
A major shift occurred for the trip this year in that Hudson addressed the group’s impact on the environment, in regards to garbage. Hudson explains, “Since this trip’s ever been going to Animas, we’ve always burnt or incinerated our trash and we would bring back our water containers, but everything else was left in the so called ‘burn pit,’ or dump. This last winter, in January, we went down, a small group of the people who are affiliated with the trip, and spent a couple of days and cleaned out that dump, with the intent that from this point forward we are no longer going to have an impact on the environment, via our trash. We already try to minimize it through other things, but we’re not going to leave our stain on that area. It’s disrespectful to Mexican conservation laws. It doesn’t necessarily conform to their model of what those protected habitats would be, so, the biggest change was A) cleaning that place up, removing our history, and then B) reconfiguring how we address trash. We continued to separate our trash, from plastics, but then we took our burnables and our landfill trash, we segregated that further, and we hired a person from town to come and remove that from the beach periodically throughout the week, so that would go in the proper landfill back in town.”
Six years ago, Hudson implemented a catch criteria of 14 inches; any fish less than 14 inches is released back into the sea. Hudson says this year they started to reap the dividends of that effort; the fish caught were a lot larger; fewer shorts were thrown back because the fish were bigger.
The only hiccups of the week were taking slightly longer than ideal to reach Animas (which happens most years) and a somewhat slow start to the first day. Malena Saadeh was stung by a stingray on the last day. She says, “It was a bad two hours, but Steve Irwin and I are blood brothers now.” Besides this mishap, Hudson felt every detail of the week went “right to speed.”
Peachie Santillan shaved Gabe Anderson’s hair off on Tuesday night, much to their classmates’ delight. In addition to one student shaving another’s head, unique to this year was the fact that one of Mr. Hudson’s own children was one of the attending students. Hudson expressed how special it was to experience the trip as one of the many parents he has seen observe their child learn and grow over the week. He was thrilled to see his daughter Ashley “go through all those experiences that kids have throughout the school year, and then to have it come full circle on the Baja trip,” something he has “always looked forward to.”