It can’t be gold, these little flakes falling through the water. I wonder about the naming of The Sea of Cortez. Did the brutal explorer who thought he’d discovered the floating gold claim the sea as his own? Would he begin to collect the flakes, forcing local populations to filter sand through their fingers until they could buy themselves out of their enslavement? Or am I thinking too darkly here? We equate Cortez with gold but perhaps the naming came later, after Cortez had died, after the local populations had forced the Spanish out, the English out, the French out, and, having rid themselves of conquistadors, or conquestors of any kind, rubbed the gold out of their hands and sprinkled it into the sea. Ungathered and ungatherable gold is only worth the glint of sun it reflects as a would-be swimmer walks through the water and notices how none of it attaches to her. I am not here to collect gold even though there is so much shimmering mineral. But I want nothing of weight. I am here to float.
We have bought six Costco-sized bags of tortilla chips, four liters of salsa, 128 eggs, four packages of bacon, twelve pounds of sausage, two pounds of Tillamook extra-sharp cheddar, 100 string cheeses, a watermelon, five pounds of grapes, twenty packages of already whittled carrots, twenty-five cases of beer, four liters of tequila, one liter of vodka, one of rum, two fifths of Glen Fiddich and five bottles of wine. There are seventeen of us. That’s more than one case of beer per person, but it is I who sees the lack here. Five bottles of wine for a group of seventeen whose last trip was to wine country? I look at the beer. I give myself a pep talk. The Cerveza Pacifica in their yellow cans with blue letters seem oceanic, cold and refreshing. I saw signs for them as we were driving to the casa. I will try to make a dent in the beer, forego wine. For the good of the group.
I do not generally care about fish as focal point. I don’t have a salt-water aquarium. I like to eat fish: arctic char and black sea bass and sablefish are my favorites. My husband fly- fishes and I own a rod but the one time I went fishing, I stood in a river for hours, catching mostly branches of willow and cottonwood that grow greedily along the water in the arid mountains of southern Utah where the Fremont Indians must have fished there with their fishhooks and nets but then disappeared in the 1300s. Perhaps the growing willows overtook their airspace. Maybe they moved west in search of oceans and abundant casting room.
In the Sea of Cortez, the flecks of gold give way to streams of light cutting through blue gray water. I haven’t snorkeled in over ten years. The technology has changed. Atop the breathing pipe sits some water-stopper so if I want to dive down low to look at a shell, I don’t need to blow hard to expel the water. I can see the rocks on the ocean floor. A fish from the movie Finding Nemo swims by. I don’t remember its name. Like Dory, I have a short short-term memory. It comes in handy in regards to grudge and apocalyptic fears.
Five cases of beer create a lot of waste. In Los Barriles, there is not much recycling, but our hostess does give twenty cans to the local kids, who take them somewhere for cash by the pound. My grandmother used to do that—my mother saved our cans for her. Sometimes, from the swing set I’d watch my grandmother walking along in the edges of Fairmont Park, picking up Diet Coke cans. She stuck her hand in garbage bins to pull them out. She was from the depression era. She kept her foil in a ball.
I tease my mother-in-law who uses a paper towel instead of a regular towel to dry her hands.
“Did your mom keep her foil in a foil ball? You like your foil new and smooth.”
She nods but really doesn’t think my foil joke any funnier than when I’d told her daughter that she was the primary purchaser of bad hats. I’m tone deaf sometimes. Believing I’m funny when I’m not. I don’t know where to draw the line between self-righteous supercilious interjection and false save-the-planet platitudes. If I really wanted to save the world, I wouldn’t have flown in a carbon dioxide exhaling plane to vacation so clichedly. I wouldn’t have eaten methane producing cows in the form of carne asada for dinner. I wouldn’t drink wine at all—heavy wine bottles transported all the way from Northern California.
The kids have juice boxes, which they drink one after the other. So many juice boxes, but as many as the rest of us drink beer. I call the little plastic wrappers on the little plastic straws “planet destroyers.”
Too loudly I say, “You know the plastic garbage patch? Size of Texas swirling in the ocean? Kills the fish. And do you know what happens when all the fish are dead? We die.”
My six year-old looks at me in horror. “We die?”
“Well, figuratively. Or maybe literally. If the fish eat plastic and we eat plastic, then our intestines get full of plastic.” I’m speculating. He knows it. “Look. It’s just not great. All that plastic swirling in the ocean. I’m sorry I freaked you out.” I take his plastic straw wrapper to the garbage and open another beer. We are nearly out of wine and it’s only day two. Beer does not drown ridiculousness so quickly.
Later, I try to make up my stupid foil joke to my mother-in-law by admitting I have no idea what I’m doing. “How do you stop people from leaving their garbage on the table without sounding like a nag?”
“You don’t,” she answers.
The fish I don’t know the name of is triangular with thick black swaths, a yellow middle, everything outlined in white, but the beak is as orange as a mango, puckered enough to look almost kissing. I follow one. It gathers up another. I follow those two. They collect another two. As the fish flow down the current, they pick up another pair. I count up to twenty. Twenty yellow fish swimming right along the shore, poking their beaks into the rocks to look for something delicious to eat. This is no reef. Just a regular side-of-the-road taco stand in the form of yellow fish and rocks. I follow them for hours. The way their stripes so faithfully etch their sides. Those orange beaks. They are not afraid of anything: they are not afraid of hypocrisy. Swim alone; swim together; turn against the current; retrace our steps. There’s bound to be more snacks along the way.
When I get back to the house and the wine is all gone. So is the ice. I’ve lost my water bottle. My step-grandmother-in-law is sitting by me at the table while I consider whether to go into town for some wine or whether to learn to love tequila. Does my laziness trump my predilections? I love wine so much. I get another beer. This beer is like Utah beer—low alcohol and see-through yellow but it’s better than my husband’s regularly hoppy beer.
Erik’s step-grandmother who also likes red wine but has succumbed to the plentitude of beer, takes a sip and says, “Erik’s such a great dad. He plays with his kids. And he works. He made lunch for everyone today. In my day? Well, not my husband.” She laughs. A New Jersey accent even in her laugh. “So, do you work?” She asks.
“I’m a professor,” I say, like, no duh. I sound like a jerk but she’s known me fifteen years. It was just two years ago she decided to commit my name to memory. I do feel erasable. But that’s okay. That’s what the ocean is for. To swim in, mindlessly, mostly disappeared. The whole of the ocean, its million flecks of gold, its million fish, its million molecules, its sheer volume.
Rick, Erik’s step-dad, has planned an outing. Claire is our snorkeling leader. She’s taking us from Los Barriles to Cabo Pulmo, a National Park. There are many men handling much of the details—where we’ll snorkel, what we might see, how to make sure your snorkel works. But it’s Claire who responds when I read aloud to our group the list of ingredients on a wall that should not be in sunscreen we use, lest we kill the coral that I already know is dying from the acidification of the oceans: Para amino benzoic acid, Octyl salicyclat, Oxybenzone, Cinoxate, Dioxybenzone, Phenylbenzimidazole, Homosalate, Menthyl anthranilate, Octocrylene, Methoxycinnamate, Parabens.
I fumble through the swim bag to read the ingredients on the four bottles of sunscreen I brought. All of them contain at least three of the coral-killing compounds. Of course we’re already covered in sunscreen.
“I wish they’d said something before we came. I didn’t know.”
Claire, who I hadn’t seen standing behind my sixteen co-sunscreeners, says, “Oh, I’m so sorry. We try to tell people. It’s on our website. It’s so hard. We used to have vats of sunscreen on the counter for snorkelers with none of those chemicals, but it’s gone. They don’t make it anymore. There are only a few, like Kiss My Face, that don’t have the chemicals.”
I didn’t know Claire had overheard. “I just wish I’d known,” I tell her
And I did know, a little. I remember vaguely an article in the New Yorker about a woman who hopes to replace dying coral with more adaptable, acid-loving coral. I wonder if she has found a coral who loves sunscreen. Perhaps they could apply a special sunscreen to the little corals—keep the acids from burning it.
The water is way colder than the water in Los Barriles. But this is good for the fish. Warming oceans = bad for fish. Maybe we’ll see whales. Maybe dolphins. José, who works with Claire, swims with us to an island just a few feet from shore. Twenty-five sea lions lying in the sun. My hands are so cold they’ve fallen asleep. I shake them to wake them up then dive into the water. A sea lion dives in from her island at the same time. For a moment, we were in sync, then José pulls me by my arm.
He points to the rocks. Taking his snorkel out of his mouth, “The current will crush you into the rocks.”
The sea lions don’t seem concerned. I am a good swimmer. But I also know nearly nothing about the ways of currents. Once, my sister and I were caught in a riptide. Before our dad noticed, we had been swept hundreds of feet from shore. So I listen to José, acknowledging that I’m probably not as good a swimmer as sea lions. The rocks are jagged. I can imagine the dent they would make in my head.
Ellie rides back to town with Claire and reports back that Claire and Simon live in Los Barriles, just a few houses down from where we’re staying.
“She’s from Surrey. She’s going back. It gets too hot here for her in July.”
Los Barriles is in the desert. Erik says, “It looks like Tucson. “Fresh water comes from springs like the one we walked to where we had driven far down a back road—just Erik and the kids and me. Dust, dust, rabbit, out-of-commission zipline or possibly electric power coming from a small burble that flow from one travertine pot onto another and then disappear into the ground or maybe a secret water treatment facility.
“Yeah. Maybe. I hope that wasn’t Los Barriles’s only source of water. If so, we’re being pretty greedy.” Our rental house has six bathrooms if you count the shower by the pool. It’s triple filtered so we can drink it straight out of the tap, avoid the bottled water our host bought for us and drove in from Costco. Still, we flush and shower and swim and rinse and use so much ice for our so much tequila. I even have to put ice in the Concha y Toro from the store.
Claire told Ellie that they work really hard to keep the town clean. They’re trying to start a recycling program like they have at Cabo Pulmo.
“Doesn’t Pulmo mean Octopus?” I ask.
“That’s Pulpo,” Zoe tells me. She’s bilingual. I have to take her to the store so I get the right change for the Concha Y Toro.
“There’s a big arroyo full of trash out on the way to the other beach with the shrine. Maybe we should tell her about that, “I suggest to everyone. ”Maybe we could take Thursday and help them go clean it up.”
I know it won’t happen. It’s hot. We’re here to swim. To vacate not pick up garbage. Even though it seems like the right thing to do, I don’t even know where we’d put the trash if we did clean it up. We don’t have a truck. Or gloves. Or, really, anything except my own guilt to assuage. Instead, I stand up, look around the veranda for our own plastic garbage. I find some plastic straw wrappers. Bits of the apocalypse. I put them in the trash but I know how garbage works. You just move it around. It files where it wants to fly as much as fish swims where it wants to swim. Wind currents are as strong as Pacific currents.
“Claire says there is so much development in Cabo. Desalination plants in an attempt to meet the tourists’ needs. At least here, they’re working together. Max, our driver. He’s from here. And Rogelio and Miriam. Miriam was born here. They’re worried about development.” Rogelio and Miriam have been cooking for us. I have Zoe ask them in Spanish if the climate is changing down here.
Miriam says, “It’s hotter than it used to be.”
They all are worried about the way tourists change things. The water changes. The beaches change. The town changes. Money is good but not quite worth it.
They should be worried. Norma Sanchez, founded an organization called Angels of the Estuary near Cabo San Lucas to fight the development and digging of a new marina doesn’t want Cabo’s bay to turn into San Deigo’s. In Cabo, dolphins and whales still swim, although at perhaps eighty percent fewer than when the investors started pouring in.
“There are better ways to build than by disrupting whole towns, using up a lot of scarce water, and creating huge waste issues. Why can’t developers understand that they can still make money if they do the right thing environmentally?”[i]
But in Cabo, they’re still disrupting whole towns, whole populations of whales. But there are big houses up there, sealed off from the town by big gates. The people with the big money aren’t looking for little things like run-off from the energy-dependent desalination plants.
I imagine Los Bariles in a few years, Cabo-fied. But I don’t say anything. I don’t want to bring everyone down. Ellie is telling us the happy story of Claire who is struggling to keep the garbage off the beaches and the plastic out of the ocean. What kind of lecture am I to give? And what’s the point of interjecting a hopeless story anyway? Members of Greenpeace tied themselves to bulldozers and still they and Sanchez lost the battle. The marina has been dug away. Salt water rushes into the estuary where purple gallinules and blue herons stand in marshy grasses fed by some of the only fresh water in this desert peninsula.
I try to focus on Claire. I imagine her walking down the street by the Frutas y Verdus shop, picking up water bottles and grocery bags off the dusty ground, keeping the developers at bay from the small town of Los Barriles and its one tiny waterfall.
I am looking for the sharks they had seen from the terrace the night before. I look for traces of turtles. Of dolphins. Of whales. I have read about bubble netting, the way whales swirl around schools of tuna corralling them. The whales force air at the fish through their blowholes like juice through a straw. The tuna, confused, cling together. They don’t know until it’s too late, that clinging together, makes it easier for the whales to eat all of them at once, efficiently.
At first, I don’t see anything at all. The water is cloudy. The sandy bottom barren. And then, again, the silver snapper. Almost transparent. I follow them from above. They don’t notice me. I could be a shark. I see some of the yellow and black Finding Nemo fish. I follow them. We’re all swimming together. I don’t seem to be bugging any of them. I wonder if I can stay down here forever. We follow the current. It’s easier that way. I follow and follow until I’m afraid that the current will take me too far south, too far to swim back.
There are so many fish in the sea.
The fish swim in schools. Unlike shoaling, when fish just loosely swim together, in schools, its coordinated work—muscles moving in synch with one another, an instantaneous flap of the tail to swim upward, a quick fin twitch and everyone is moving to the right. It’s in not only in their blood. It’s in their genome. Researchers consider fish schooling to give insight into human social behavior.[ii] But, of course, that requires you know how to swim. Plus, you’ve got to figure out who your school is. If she were black and yellow and white she would find her match, but very few people are short and square as I am. I wonder where the square fish went. Maybe it would match with her.
We are cleaning up cans of beer and putting them in the recycling. Bottles of beer to the trash. Boxes of juice and their tiny straws. I don’t want to leave. Erik’s step-aunt is scrubbing the table. His step-grandma is folding the towels. His other step-aunt is sweeping the patio when I hear, “That’s a whale.” I look up and sure enough, I see his fluke.
“Wow. It must be a blue whale,” says one aunt.
“Or maybe a gray.”
“I don’t think so,” I say. “A blue whale is too big for the gulf.”
“Blues come up all the time by me,” Tippy says.
I want to argue. It seems impossible a blue, the biggest creature in the world, would come in the strip of water this out of season, this near shore. But what do I know? I want to look at the internet. I want to confirm. I really, really want to know what kind of whale it is but how hard it is for me to just take her word for it? It’s blue. It’s okay. It’s the wrong season. It’s okay.
I come in from the beach. I stand on the hot sand and stares out at the blue. I will miss the fish. The anonymity. The non-knowledge of water. I knows one thing: the fish will not miss me. They are doing fine on their own.
My husband’s step cousin asks me how I brought myself to have kids. She doesn’t need to explain why she would ask. Everyone is wondering. Hot ocean. Hot air. Bombings and shootings. Pollution and traffic and smog. So many bad, hard, seemingly unfixable things.
“I think kind people raise kind kids. And you’re so kind. And your mom is so kind. Don’t you think?” I say.
“It’s hard to know if it’s a good idea,” she says.
“Maybe it’s the kids who will save us. This twenty year old kid from The Netherlands has invented a plastic contraption that might be able to collect the 8 million pounds of garbage that ends up in the ocean every year.”
Maybe the key is to come from many lands, even the nether ones.
I take a cue from my mother-in-law and focus on the good news. “Twenty year old kid. Heck, Zoe’s ten. Halfway there. Save the pulmo! No pressure,” I yell off to Zoe who is doing a good job of cleaning up the random Solo cups.
She just shakes her head and says, “Pulpo means octopus, mom.”
“Max has sixteen years! Between the two of you: solar powered cars made out of recycled plastic culled from the ocean. Get your friends together. Save the world! No pressure!”
Max, hearing his name, comes over. “Did you see the whale? It was definitely a whale. Not a shark. Did you know sharks are left over from the dinosaurs? They’re a kind of dinosaur. A sharkosaurus.”
“What about whales? Are whales dinosaurs?”
“No mama. But whalesharks aren’t either. They’re a kind of fish. The biggest fish. The Claire lady told me so. She saw one.”
Erik’s step-grandma comes over. “He’s a lot like you. She says. Smart. Talks a lot. Talks a lot.”
“I’m not that smart.” I can see by her face that she probably meant emphasis on “Talks a lot.”
I ask Erik’s sister to remind me the name of the fish I like. “
“I will have to keep texting you to remind me of the name.”
“Call them the yellow fish. I’ll remember. You can text me anytime,” my husband’s sister says.
I go out for one more snorkel. I have to click through the potential names to remember what I’m following: the Irish Morehounds, the Idle Mares…until by association I arrive at the right one by thinking of my sister-in-law: Moorish Idols. I follow silver dudes and big-eyed white ones and some sneaky blue and yellow ones. When I come up for air, everyone is pointing. A seal flops through the waves breaking on the beach. He wriggles up the shore, lifts his shoulders up and then falls flat onto the sand. My brother-in-law thinks he’s sick.
“Only a sick seal would drift alone down here.”
I turn away even though all I’ve ever wanted to do is gather mammals and fish with my eyes. I don’t want this seal to die in front of me. I don’t want the people on the beach to pester it. I don’t want this seal, whatever is going on, to be alone. I console myself by thinking of all the fish swimming unseen around my feet that their sheer abundance will keep him company.
Nicole Walker is the author of two forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story and Microcosm. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.