Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

February 17, 2014

On the Border: The life-affirming migration of whales

On the Border: The life-affirming migration of whales

By Brenda Norrell
San Ysidro by Brenda Norrell
Censored News

First in a new original series from the US Mexico border

TIJUANA, Mexico and SAN YSIDRO, Calif. -- The bright, cherry-red trolley is filled with workers, students, skateboarders, families, and the heaviness of those who have been sleeping on the sidewalks in downtown San Diego. Behind us are the tourists and those comfortable with their easy lives in San Diego. Ahead of us is Mexico and there is excitement on the trolley this early morning. All the talk is in Spanish on this warm, sunny southern California day.

A toddler is dressed in a striking leopard skin suit, with a bright pink bow, and headed home across the border. Workers carry the weariness of their labors, and the joy of going home.

San Ysidro/Tijuana by Brenda Norrell
In the street at the pedestrian border crossing in San Ysidro, there is a surprising lack of militarization. In fact, there is no US military at all, and there's not a single US Border Patrol agent in sight; so different from the militarized borders in Arizona. 

There's another ingredient lacking at this border crossing, the scent of corn tortillas and grilled carne asada tacos, with bowls of cut purple onions and green and red salsas. That is the scent and taste of the Arizona and Sonora border crossings. Instead, here, there are the usual suspects -- US fast food hamburger joints and shoes on sale, low prices for 'zapatos,' along with the white van shuttles that will take you anywhere.

The media would have you believe that if you get this close to Tijuana, just one step over the borderline, that you will be caught in a hail of bullets, firing from all sides. This morning, however, there only a carefree spirit, and an atmosphere of joy.

In the distance, off the cost in that grand Pacific Ocean, there is a journey underway, a migration. It is a life-affirming, life-changing migration, both for the largest migrating mammals in the world, and also for the other species that spend a little time in their presence.

The whales have come south to their feeding grounds, and to have their babies, after departing the coast of Alaska, as their mothers have done before them. The whales have made the long journey south to the warm waters off Baja, Mexico.

Traveling with whales

Onboard a boat in the mighty Pacific Ocean, the sea lions are the first to greet us, and the seagulls, pelicans and other seabirds are scooping up their breakfast fish from the waters. The naturalist onboard the boat explains that the boat will not get too close to the whales, so as not to spook them, as the whales make their journey south. 

First sighting of whales in distance/Photo Brenda Norrell
The first sighting of gray whales comes from their vapor spray, or blow, as the whales blow air through their blowholes as they surface to breathe. Their enormous gray backs glisten in the sun.

They flip their tails upward and dive deep into the waters. There are four in the first group we see, headed south to feed and have their babies. 

pack of US-manned sailboats, however, is headed their way. In typical greedy fashion, the sailboat tourists can't seem to get close enough to them. They surround the whales and spook them. The whales are confused, and at first turn back north, surrounded by a half dozen sailboats closing in on them. Finally, the whales turn around and head south again. Our boat, whose captain appears tired of watching the sailboats bother the whales, heads out, away from the US mainland and deeper into the ocean.
Gray whale Pacific

Another group of gray whales appear. They are the first to be sighted headed north this year, the naturalist tells us. It is mid-February and the migration north has already started. There is a power in this migration and a force that comes from being with the whales, a life-affirming, healing force, that comes from being with whales.

This time of year, the whales make this migration from the waters off of Alaska, to those off of Baja, Mexico, a journey of 10,000 miles, the longest migration of any mammal. It is the same distance as to the moon and back. Here in the eastern Pacific, the gray whales, which weigh up to 35 tons, are the largest group to migrate. 

Whale scientists tell us, "Like other mammals, whales are warm-blooded, breathe air, bear their young live, and nourish their babies with milk."

Killer whales
Photo Aquarium of the Pacific
"Unlike other mammals, whales have lost nearly all body hair; their nostrils, called blowholes, are located on top of their head rather than at the tip of a snout; they have paddle-like flippers instead of front legs; they lack hind legs; and they have a large tail with broad horizontal flukes," the Birch Aquarium says. The mating takes place after the whales leave Alaska and head to the waters offshore of Mexico.

As we follow the gray whales, we are also on the look-out for killer whales and their antics. These orcas are the largest of the dolphins and have teeth. Today, however, we see and follow only gray whales.

In their migrations, the whales are making use of sonar, their magical echo. Unfortunately, the US military is also using sonar in the Pacific Ocean, which has been disrupting the whales migrations. 

The Science Wire tells us, "Sonar is simply making use of an echo. When an animal or machine makes a noise, it sends sound waves into the environment around it. Those waves bounce off nearby objects, and some of them reflect back to the object that made the noise. It's those reflected sound waves that you hear when your voice echoes back to you from a canyon. Whales and specialized machines can use reflected waves to locate distant objects and sense their shape and movement."

"The range of low-frequency sonar is remarkable. Dolphins and whales can tell the difference between objects as small as a BB pellet from 50 feet (15 meters) away, and they use sonar much more than sight to find their food, families, and direction. The LFA sonar being tested by the military can travel thousands of miles, and could cover 80 percent of the earth's oceans by broadcasting from only four points. The frequency that both whales and the military use falls between 100 and 500 Hz. Whales send signals out between 160 and 190 Db, the Navy has tested its sonar signals at levels up to 235 Db."

Man and his fleeting imaginary lines

Out in the Pacific Ocean, the US and Mexico say they have even divided the waters among themselves. Our boat isn't headed into Mexico's Pacific Ocean waters, because of the high fees, the narrator says, but just up to the imaginary ownership line, somewhere where man has drawn an imaginary line in the vast and deep, dark blue ocean. To the south of that imaginary line, the waters belong to Mexico.

Back on the border, where this imaginary land line was created not so long ago in the mid 1800s, another migration is underway. Workers are returning home to their families in the south, to Mexico. They, too, are surrounded by their babies and families.

From the ocean shoreline, to the east of here and toward the sunrise, is the Sonoran Desert. It is where the desert meets the sea. These are the homelands of the Kumeyaay, Cocopah and O'odham, where they have have lived since time immemorial. 

The desert, and two bodies of water -- the Gulf of California, located between the eastern Baha coast and mainland Mexico, and the vast Pacific Ocean, have long been the paths of Indigenous Peoples migrations. Some call the Gulf of California the "Sea of Cortez," but Tohono O'odham remind us, "It never belonged to Cortez." In Sonora, the desert has long provided food of cactus, wild plants and wild game, and waterways long gone once provided for survival and growing crops.

The US militarization, however, is underway on the imaginary border land line east of here in California and Arizona. US Border Patrol trucks are crawling like ants, with angry and impatient agents inside. Helicopters and drones swarm overhead. Profiteering corporations are busy with their contracts for constructing spy towers and capturing, transporting and imprisoning migrants. The US military is practice bombing over the endangered Sonoran Pronghorn Antelope and elusive Bighorn Sheep in western Arizona. 

The Pronghorn Antelope, sometimes called the desert ghost, is considered the second-fastest mammal in the world, second only to Cheetah. Before the age of barbed-wire fences, highways, borders, and the Goldwater Bombing Range, the Sonoran Pronghorn Antelope, too, migrated in this region of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.

Besides, the US Border Patrol, US military, and various US immigration agents on the land border, there is another heavy military presence at the San Diego shoreline: Enormous Navy ships.

However, all of these infestations on land and sea are only temporary in the sense of the ages and the history of this planet Earth. They, too, will pass. 

Onboard the boat following the whales, the naturalist explains that some of those Navy surface ships and submarines are so large that they have movie theaters, ATMs and shopping centers. 

Then, he adds, one of those ships in the San Diego Bay has nuclear power. 

"It can go for 30 years without needing to refuel," the naturalist says.

"How is that even possible?" I ask myself. 

And how is it even possible that every year in late fall and winter, the whales migrate the distance of the moon and back, returning down the same fluid path to feed and have their babies in this warm Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico, where families, too, are migrating. 

Here, Indigenous Peoples have always migrated since time immemorial, in this circle, and cycle of life.

Far from being an article written by a tourist, this article is the result of coming out of a harsh time over the past few weeks, after being forced out of Tucson during the price-gouging of the Gem show, then homeless, and finally surviving it.

copyright Brenda Norrell
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Lloyd Vivola said...

Sincerely, this is among the most wise and evocative news media reports I have read in recent memory. How the power of place and all our relations can nurture, guide, heal and renew, in ways that the power-greedy fail again and again to acknowledge. I watched the gray whales migrating south from a North California coastal headland this past late December as I trend northwest... forever homeward bound, or so it seems. Thinking of you and yours as I do in heart-felt solidarity.

Lora said...

"There is a power in this migration and a force that comes from being with the whales, a life-affirming, healing force, that comes from being with the whales."
Beautiful. I hear through you the voice and message of the whales.