UCC students Madison Becker, Margaret Anderson and Brook West prepare to snorkel on March 28 in Baja California as part of BI 101A: Evolution, Diversity and Ecology of the Baja Peninsula.

Susan Jarvis attended the BI 101 trip as a reporter for The Mainstream

Students experienced sparkling sunsets, warm beaches, diverse plants and evolving ecosystems while discovering more about themselves as well as the beautiful natural world of the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico, on a spring break field trip.

Associate Professor of Biology, Ken Carloni led  an “ed-venture” for his BI 101A: Evolution, Diversity, and the Ecology of the Baja Peninsula students. Community members, bird expert Matt Hunter and volunteers also attended the trip with the Green Tortoise Adventure Travel bus.

Students were assigned field notebooks to document their observations. In hopes of fitting in and feeling like a scientist, I kept a version of a field notebook as I observed the class.

Day 1: Leaving Ordinary Behind

Thursday, March 22

Winchester, Oregon to

Northern California

Around 4 p.m., students met at UCC, hands full of  lab gear, camping materials, field notebooks and what appeared to be optimistic excitement.

“There’s an amazing comradery, and you meet people from all walks of life; you get a wider view of the world and the chance to experience a new country, an opportunity you otherwise could not do,” explained UCC student Galean Nash, Natural Resource Program major, as he packed in.

These 26 people, former strangers, did vocalize some concerns about living and sleeping side by side. However, the travelers seemed to make it work, expressing that ideal sleeping conditions could be sacrificed for such a fun trip. This was the first mention of Carloni’s “unifying purpose,” a phrase he used to connect everyone. Travelers seemed to realize that they weren’t headed to the Baja for commercialized tourism, but to learn about the natural ecology of the Baja California Peninsula.

A group dynamic seemed to quickly emerge: young, old, shy, outgoing, experts and new learners cohesively vocalized and assisted each other.

The group drove through the night and reached Button Willow, California the next morning around 7 a.m.

Day 2: Settling In

Friday, March 23

Northern California to Ensenada, Mexico

The group stopped for breakfast in Castaic, California around 9 a.m.

Relatively small area, truck stop town full of shops.

All ate together at Denny’s with Grand Slams, sizzling skillets, oatmeal, turkey sandwiches . . .  About 10:30 a.m., group continued on south toward the border, reaching the San Diego border at 5 p.m. Crossing was unexpectedly quick and simple.

Tijuana immediately felt like a whole new world. Flat roofs, brightly colored architecture, urban bustling landscape, and vibrant colors everywhere. I observed lots of concrete graffiti. Travelers responded with solemnity. The ocean was sparkling in varying hues of blue, plants everywhere, glowing green, and the painted houses shone brilliantly pink and bright yellow.

That night, around 8 p.m., the group arrived at the Romona Beach R.V. park. The hosts of the park claimed no record of the reservation, but welcomed the group wholeheartedly even after the bus backed up into their water pipe. They remained friendly and inviting hosts.

After a 10 to 12 hour day on the bus, travelers expressed relief at exploring the area, relaxing and taking in a stunning ocean view. The Green Tortoise Adventure Travel bus drivers, Lyle and Jake, began setting up for dinner with the help of a few apparently cooperative group members. For the first-night dinner, the group ate pesto pasta with a bountiful salad, bursting with vegetables. After a quick, thorough cleanup, all settled in like sardines on the bus for bed. Travelers could choose to sleep on the bus or in tents, but night temperatures in the low 50’s drove tent guests back on the bus where people slept foot to foot or head to head with little to no space in between.

Day 3: UCC>>UABC

Saturday, March 24

Ensenda to Romana Beach

Group was up and gone by 9 a.m. After making coffee and going for a quick lookout to view the ocean,

first stop was the Autonomous University of Baja California, in Ensenada where the group explored tidepools. Keystone species included sea-stars, sea urchins, mollusks and sea slugs. Group botanized for an hour at tidepools and then spent the afternoon exploring UABC’s botanical garden. Led by Carloni, tour guide Berto and professor Jose, the group also botanized with healthy boojum trees, cacti, desert flowers, turtles and more.

Following the UABC tour, the group ate dinner at a local Ensenada fish market. Lack of translators at the fish market led to double bills, inconsistent food orders and general confusion. Observed extensive foot traffic and multiple “Come in pretty ladies” as well as aggressive vendors. Stopped at a little stand and picked up an authentic churro filled with strawberry jam, easily the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. Purchased churro without translator and learned they come filled.

Bathroom stop at a cafe in Ensenada and night drive to the Bahia de los Ángeles.

Students, scientists and volunteers on the BI101A trip studied desert life to sea life as they traveled the Baja Penisula. The group above makes the Riverhawk sign.

Day 4: Beach of the Angels

Sunday, March 25

Bahia de los Ángeles to Laguna Ojo de Liebre

Group awoke on the Bahía de los Ángeles beach to soft orange and yellow hues of the sun rising against pale blue sky. This is the Beach of Angels.

The plan was to spend the day on the beach, snorkeling and exploring.

Unfortunately, choppy water, intense winds, and unsafe weather conditions postponed snorkeling. Matt Hunter, our community bird expert, showed students red-breasted mergansers, blue herons, seagulls, willots, and more.

Carloni pointed out several types of mollusks and sea crabs on the rocky shoreline. Then the group hiked to a lighthouse with sack lunches where Viviana  found sand dollars and the group botanized sand dollars, discovering that they vary in color from vivid dark red to brown when alive with little hair-like fibers.  Before dinner, Carloni brought out his guitar and banjo and began singing and playing folk music, some of which he wrote himself. Group teared up. Carloni also set up his field presentation of “The History of Evolution” with flags across the  beach to represent the history of evolutionary events in an interactive, visual way that seemed to inspire students.

“Charts do not give science timelines justice. The field activity put things into perspective in a new way,” UCC student Katy Hunter, AAOT major, noted.

Group volunteers joined bus drivers to create  Mediterranean cuisine for dinner. Students exposed to falafel and goat cheese stuffed dates. Group chat focused on the highlights of the trip so far in a discussion Carloni called “Roses and Thorns.” Carloni then serenaded everyone on the banjo with more music. Following the performance, the group slept on the bus as it traveled to Laguna Ojo de Liebre.

Day 5: Whale watching wishes wilt

Monday, March 26

Laguna Ojo de Liebre to San Ignacio

We woke up in Laguna ojo de Liebre for scheduled whale watching. However, intense winds, overcast skies and dangerous weather conditions prevented the group from whale watching today. Observed multiple hats blowing away, including my own. The owners of the company gave us their apologies and informed our group that they would not be doing any whale watching trips. The group headed to San Ignacio early, passing by natural salt flats, exotic shrubs and the first set of major ecoregion change: directly from ocean sand into dusty desert. The group botanized in the Vizcaino desert, examining wild cacti.

Five hours later at a campground in San Ignacio, the group pitched up tents and got ready for a hike to a freshwater laguna. Students used plastic bags to collect minnow, mosquito larvae, sedge, rush, and flower samples to observe under microscope. Carloni hooked his laptop up to the microscope, and students used their phones to take pictures of the scope samples. After the late night oasis observations, students and travelers went off to their tents for bed. Night temperatures now at about low 60’s.

Day 6: San Ignacio: Mission, Museums, and Milkshakes

Tuesday, March 27

San Ignacio to Bahia de Concepcion

In San Ignacio, students explored the Mission, the town museum and a little outdoor cafe. The group drove to the Bahia de Concepción beach, past some beautiful ecotypes. Students were able to watch desert turn to beach, turn to oasis, turn to desert, and then immediately back to beach. Group noted the Baja ecosystem is nothing like the Pacific Northwest. Group behavior is growing more comfortable, and I observed joke telling and increased socialization between diverse travelers. UCC Students Madison Becker, Margaret Anderson and Brook West found some unidentified bird bones by the campsite.

Day 7: Finally, Snorkeling! Salty Shrubs, and Sea Stars

Wednesday, March 28

Bahia de Concepcion

This morning, students were up early with temperatures near 70 before breakfast. We’ve seen seagulls, hummingbirds, fly-catchers and more. The plan for today is hiking, snorkeling, swimming and more botanizing. People expressed gratitude for a good night’s sleep off the bus in tents. Excitement and optimism hang in the air. I observed a dead tarantula hawk wasp in brilliant blue and orange and learned their venom is rumored to be one of the most painful stings which can paralyze tarantulas. Ten minutes later I unfortunately was stung; fortunately it was just from a regular honey bee.

For breakfast this morning, Meredith LaFrance helped provide a delicious egg and cheese scramble with fresh, local fruit salad from Ensenada. The fruit in Mexico is extra flavorful, picked fresh. After breakfast, the group snorkeled, and students saw minnows and small seahorses. Students crossed almost the entire bay into the Sea of Cortez. Alan Bunce, our group’s diving expert, brought wet suits for everyone and gave snorkeling lessons. The ocean is clear and full of life.

After snorkeling, Carloni took the group to examine Mangrove trees and creatures living on the shoreline, explaining that mangroves naturally exude salt from their leaves in order to filter out the saltwater. Alan tried to eat a sea cucumber and concluded that they do not taste the same as regular cucumbers.

At the shoreline, Ken found a brittle sea star with curly legs. We botanized for awhile, hiked around the rocky ridge and identified little desert flowers. Christine Smith, Jocelyn Valencia-Chaves, Tiana Fabiana and I soaked in the sun and found a brittle sea star whom we named Beth.  Tiana and I then created an entire life story for our new seastar friend.

We decided that she is a burnt-out Broadway star who plays in shows night after night, never truly satisfied. One night, after a back-to-back showing of The Little Mermaid, she told her co-worker to break a leg and made her getaway to the beach. After getting back to her roots in the Baja, Beth learned that one does not need glitz or glamour for a meaningful life.

Later, student Galean Nash brought out his kite. With precise control, he made it preform big dips and turns. It was like watching performance art. The kite was his paintbrush and the air his canvas. The best part? He was more than happy to share.

That afternoon, a student brought a fish skeleton to the camp which had teeth strikingly resembling human teeth. Carloni explained that it was a parrot fish, and the human-like teeth eat and chew coral. He also taught us that rollie-pollies are land crustaceans. Before dinner, students created a phylogenetic tree from items found locally.

Carloni later distributed U.V. flashlights for a night-time scorpion hunt. The spotting activity was successful, and students discovered that scorpions have a natural bioluminescence which allows them to appear bright green under U.V. light.

Day 8: Sunrise, Botanize: Hello Mulege

Thursday, March 29

Bahía Concepción to Mulege

Travelers awake by 5 a.m. to watch the sunrise. Breakfast is french toast, local fresh fruit and cereal.

Debra, a local professional botanist, showed students several types of desert grasses, flowers and herbaceous plants, including desert lavender, that smelled delicate and soft.

Mulege, population 3,821, was bustling with life. Students used a guest house for bathrooms and showers, and were given us oranges from the host’s tree. Eventually, students came back for a night-time bathroom stop, and then the family came outside, sang karaoke and danced with the group. Mulege was celebrating Semana Santa, otherwise known as Holy Week.

Day 9: WHALES, Spirit Caves, Dr. Seuss Trees

Friday, March 30

Mulege to Cataviña

At the Laguna Ojo de Liebre, the group finally got to whale watch. It was a cool morning, and students noticed an osprey feeding its baby on a pavilion roof.

Once the boats were filled, the sun came out, and the water calmed. Vibrantly colored jellyfish were spotted in bright hues of blue, green and yellow. Suddenly, a giant gray whale breached up out of the water. Gradually two gray whales, a mother and her calf, came up right next to our boats, curious and inquisitive. Nearly everyone pet the whales, which felt soft and squishy. “Greatest hit of the trip,” explained Margaret Anderson, AAOT major.

Following our whale adventure, a five hour drive to Cataviña led the group to cave rock paintings at 3:30 p.m. Christine Smith and Jocelyn Valencia-Chavez prepared Spanish to English translations for the informational signs leading up to the mouth of the cave.

The travelers learned about ancient Chochimi people and their way of life. The group hypothesized about the meanings behind the cave wall symbols. The hike to the cave was clean and easy, with cardons, cactus and boojum trees. Despite the heat, students actively botanized the area until dinner.

When the moon rose, Hunter brought out his telescope, setting its focus directly on the moon and pointed out the “rabbit of the moon” marking on its surface. I observed students again taking pictures of the moon on their cameras through the scope.

Day 10: Goodbye Mexico: Hello Aquarium!

Friday, March 31

Laguna ojo de Liebre to Cataviña to Los Angeles

We left Cataviña that night and arrived at the San Diego border around 7:15 a.m. Thanks to the packing tips from our bus driver Lyle, the border crossing process was relatively smooth. However, each person who attended the trip walked all of their own bags and gear back into the states. This early-morning experience taught students to pack minimally on future trips.

“Survive not thrive” became the morning motto.

Around 8:30 a.m. we arrived at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve for breakfast and hiking. Torrey Pine trees are an endangered species of pine tree, growing only in the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Students discussed forest treatment.

Next stop was the Birch Aquarium in San Diego, to observe marine bioluminescence, deep sea creatures, outdoor tide pools, and the impacts and observations of global climate change. We left the Birch Aquarium at 3:15 p.m. and were quickly introduced into L.A. traffic.

Carloni helped pass the time by pulling out his little guitar and banjo. He serenaded the bus members with music varying from reggae to old whaler songs and garage rock. We had our last dinner as a group, and the travelers expressed that a family-like bond had developed. Nobody seemed quite ready to leave the green “bus planet.”

Day 11: Happy April Fools Easter Day

Sunday, April 1

Northern California to Winchester

This was the last day of the adventure, and the fifth day without a shower. Travelers woke up somewhere in northern California. A general feeling of sadness was expressed by the travelers, observations were made about Alan’s foolishness, David’s spunky attitude, laughter, smiles, memories, new friends from afar. The bus made it back to UCC by 1 p.m. When everyone said goodbyes and parted ways.

Field courses provide an innovative type of learning, as the diary likely shows, especially for natural science courses. In the natural world, in an unfamiliar place, the human senses become more stimulated and active. Students were engaged, captivated, and remained focused on the educational aspects of this trip.

Anyone interested in a life-changing educational travel adventure, can contact Dr. Ken Carloni at Ken.Carloni@umpqua.edu.