While most students were preparing to go back to school, two middle school students, Sammy Lenhart and Addy Brack, were preparing for an adventure of a lifetime in Bahia de los Angeles, Baja, Mexico. Sammy and Addy participated with other community scientists to collect whale shark data. After an adventurous and informative trip from San Diego to BDLA, Sammy and Addy were totally submerged in the vast biodiversity inhabiting the Gulf of California. Their days started at sunrise with a quick breakfast and briefing about the day’s plan. The girls boarded the pangas and set out in search of whale sharks and other wildlife. They learned about the unique landscape and biogeography of the areas, passed islands covered with blue footed boobies, frigate birds, kites, pelicans and many gull species, followed schools of common and bottlenose dolphins and watched playful sea lions. When the sharks eluded the group, the girls snorkeled near by coves, explored the mangrove forests and patrolled the area for turtles. Once the whale sharks were spotted, it was game on for data collection. Because whale sharks are individualized by their unique dot patterns, it was Sammy and Addy’s assignment to swim alongside the sharks and capture a picture of the shark just behind the gill slits.
The girls also practiced taking measurements of the sharks and attempted to dive underneath the shark for a gender identification. They took special notice of any other identifiable makes on the sharks, including boat propeller scars or wounds. Once back at the Vermilion Sea Station the girls participated in data uploading and spot mapping. Afternoons were filled with opportunities to work with local students during Reading Buddy and Learning with Locals sessions. Evening activities included visiting nearby attractions such as the cardon forest, night snorkeling with bioluminescence, stargazing and scorpion hunting with UV lights. The girls learned from local residents how to mine their own clay to construct a house, the best places to spot whales in the bay, and which constellations were visible in the night sky. This opportunity taught Sammy and Addy so much more than whale shark tracking; they learned how to sleep in the open air on a cot on the beach and appreciate things we often take for granted like running water and internet. The memories created on this trip will absolutely last a lifetime for these two students.