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The Dance of Life and Death

30 Nov

There is an old expression that says life is hard, brutish and short and in Baja it is a fact of life.

Baja is a beautiful place, fairly sparsely populated and in a lot of ways still wild and untouched. Don’t get me wrong, there have been humans living here for hundreds of years, yet due to a scarcity of potable water, there have never been too many of them. It is a place of deserts, beaches, oceans, volcanos, and sheer, rocky crags and cliffs. Life is hard, at times very harsh and brutal and death can be up close and hard to ignore.

It is not at all unusual to see bones or desiccated copses of dogs, cows, horses or burros on the sides of the roads. These animals are allowed to wander freely here. The farm animals because it is the only way they can find enough food to sustain themselves. If they couldn’t forage in the wilds, the farmers otherwise couldn’t afford to keep them. ┬áThe highway offers green grass on it’s verges and at night the tarmac is warm so the animals come into the road to lie down. Some of them never get up again.
It is not just domestic animals that roam the wilds here. The Baja peninsula is a 1000 miles long, with mostly isolated and lonely beaches running it’s length, interspersed with small towns, fishing villages and settlements. Along it’s Pacific side the great Grey whales migrate every year to a place called Magdelena Bay, where they come to give birth. This is a huge shallow, warm, protected bay, almost completely surrounded by sandy barrier islands. From the time they leave the northern waters until they return, they don’t feed. Some don’t make it to the bay and others die on the return trip. Many of the small towns that survive on whale watching tourism, proudly display whole skeletons and massive vertebra that have been found washed ashore. It’s not unusual when walking the beaches to run across bones of whales, dolphins, sea lions and even turtles.

The pelicans daily search for food

Baja is separated from the mainland of Mexico by the Sea of Cortez. Here an amazing panoply of life is found, whales ranging from the world’s smallest to the largest, with thousands of different varieties of birds and fishes. It is here that we camp and look out over the waters. It is also here that we are constantly presented with the beauties of life and the swiftness of death.
Daily we watch the pelicans feeding, not 50 feet from our front windows. They do this by diving headfirst into the water at full speed, trying to catch small fish in their enlarged pouches. Probably 1 dive in 10 actually produces a meal. These birds look tough and capable but in actuality are rather delicate. All it takes is hitting the water at an awkward angle or an underwater obstacle and they damage their beaks beyond repair. This translates into a long slow death of starvation and we find many carcasses of bedraggled feather and bone on the shore.

beached Bryde's whale

As I said there are many varieties of whales here and last year we were subjected to the sight of one of these leviathans fighting it’s last battle. It was a Bryde’s whale (pronounced brew daa ) a small baleen feeder, about 40 feet, that had beached itself. It may have been old and it certainly was extraordinarily thin, with all it bones showing harshly beneath it’s skin. It was very difficult to stand there and watch while it slowly succumbed, but there was nothing any of us could do. Some did manage to push it off the beach but it could no longer swim and ended up right back on the beach again. Generally when whales beach it is because they can no longer fend for themselves and all our puny efforts were for naught. All we could do is wait for the inevitable end and then tow the carcass out to sea to forestall the rotting of quite a few tons of dead meat.

The last attempt to stand.

This year while standing talking to some friends, we saw what we took to be a small dog rolling in the sand behind our rig. After a few seconds it became apparent that it wasn’t a dog but a small, beautiful Kit fox having a seizure. Now Rabies is endemic here, but this lovely little creature wasn’t behaving as if it was infected with this dread disease. It looked well fed, and groomed and displayed none of the symptoms associated with Rabies. We though it had had a run in with a Rattlesnake of which there are many here as it was unaware, disoriented, and having multiple seizures. We left it alone in the shade, with a small dish of water nearby in hopes that it would over come whatever was affecting it. When we went to bed it had stood up and wandered into deeper shade, leaving us with the feeling that it might be alright in the morning. To our sorrow, it was in much worse shape when we went to check on it the next day, so we did all that we could do, we put it down as swiftly and as painlessly as we could and buried it where the Turkey vultures couldn’t get at it.
All of us on the beach find that death is so very much closer here than it is in the cities where we come from. It makes us all aware of how nature is a balancing act and how swiftly the scales can tilt. Perhaps the God Shiva really does do the cosmic dance of creation and destruction, life and death.