Climate Researcher/Sailer

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment to the Adventuring Through an Evolving World series, through which members of the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, in collaboration with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, will lend a quantitative eye to environmental change and its relationship to the outdoor sports community.

Energy and Research Group graduate student Jess Reilly and partner Josh Moman aboard their research sailboat, Oleada. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

Energy and Resources Group graduate student Jess Reilly and partner Josh Moman aboard their research sailboat, Oleada. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

“We need to jibe now!” I yell as an animal the size of our 39-foot sailboat crashes into the water a few feet off our starboard beam.

We’re sailing in open water in the Pacific Ocean, off the west coast of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. The wind is blowing a steady twenty knots out of the north, and the boat surfs down rolling five foot ocean swells. But a frisky humpback whale just moved two-thirds of its 70,000 pound build out of the water and into the air — a dumbfounding event that also spells trouble for our boat in the middle of the sea. Running into distracted whales flying through the air is one of our many potential dangers out here.

At the wheel, I gently point the nose of the boat away from the wind so we are now headed dead downwind. My partner, Josh, cranks hard on the main sheet, using the leverage from the handle and the winch, to bring the boom to the center of the boat. Josh must yard this in rapidly so when the wind catches the opposite side of the sail as I turn, the rope is tight and the boom doesn’t slam to the other side of the boat with extra slack. Sailors have ripped booms off their boats or broken their masts doing this wrong.

Despite the increase in the wind and the chop on the water, our boat, Oleada, spins easily into the wind, and Josh deftly and calmly moves the main sail, then the jib (the sail on the front of the boat) to the starboard (right) side of the boat. Now the wind is coming over my left shoulder and the whale is back there too.

I breathe a sigh of relief before I realize that our new direction means that we are heeled over so much that we are dipping the bottom of the jib in the water; the cockpit feels like a double black diamond slope. Josh takes the wheel as I use all of my strength and speed to wind the jib up so that we have less sail area, bringing us back to a more comfortable angle, though waves continue to crash over the top side of the deck.

Thunderstorm in Mexico. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

Thunderstorm in Mexico. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

Tonight we’ll sail through the night to reach our destination, Cedros Island. We are aimed for Cedros because it’s supposedly one of the most sustainable small-scale fisheries in the world, and a reasonable place to stop on our southern pilgrimage to the tip of the peninsula.

There are no good anchorages between our starting point, San Quintín, and the island. Overnight passages on a sailboat require that one person stay at the helm at all hours, so Josh and I take turns sleeping. Because we have an autopilot on the boat, we can set a course (for example, 180 degrees, which is directly south) and, unless there is too much wind, which would overpower the electronic steering, we just have to be awake and looking for lights or other hazards. Lights could be other boats, usually fishing boats, or giant cargo ships. Hazards can be whales — which don’t breach at night, phew, but are easily identified downwind by their stinky fish breath — crab traps that can get wrapped around our propeller, or rafts of kelp that can snare the rudder.

When I’m on watch, the water looks inky black except for the reflection of the light from the top of our mast, 60 feet above the waterline. It casts a cool, eerie light out into the water. Based on our shifts, I have the coveted sunrise watch. I peer and squint into the slightest light of day. Are those clouds? Steep and jagged Cedros Island comes into view like the knobby dorsal hump of a Gray whale.

The sun breaks the morning clouds and the boat comes alive. Josh and I clamber around on deck, walking up and down the four steep stairs from the cockpit into the cabin. Josh makes coffee on the galley stove as I tidy different ropes on the cabin top.

At one point while fiddling with the jib, I feel so frustrated and sleep deprived that I consider crying. But the ocean immediately responds with dolphins. And it’s impossible to cry in the company of dolphins. They’re about my size, and they pump and glide just inches under the bow. I lean over the rail and we look at each other, curious. Then they dive and are gone.

A view from an unnamed canyon on Isla Cedros back to our boat, Oleada. The name means wave, swell, or uprising. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

A view from an unnamed canyon on Isla Cedros back to our boat, Oleada. The name means wave, swell, or uprising. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

After sailing partway down the twenty mile island, we finally “drop the hook” (set our anchor) on the island’s rugged east side. As we sit in the cockpit in the sun, a bright yellow panga motors into view from the north, piled four-deep with lobster traps. The fisherman motors over to the stern, sliding to stop only inches away like a skier on a groomed slope.

The fisherman introduces himself as Eduardo; he has fished here seasonally for twenty-seven years. The racket of elephant seals barking and screaming on the island continues, and Eduardo comments that this is the first year that the elephant seals have come to this part of the island. His style is thoughtful, pensive.

He piques my interest. Without any leading words like “weather” or “climate,” I ask, is it different now here, or the same?

He turns his eyes to the sky and purses his lips, carefully considering my question. I lean forward.

A curious visitor to the boat on Cedros. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

A curious visitor to the boat on Cedros. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

Narrowing his eyes, he replies, “Different.”

“There are far fewer lobster now,” he says. “This year, from the effects of El Niño, the water is warmer, which is good for lobster, but generally there are far fewer now.”

His gaze stretches to the shore as he speaks, sifting through his memory. “Much has changed,” he continues. “For example, in 1997, there were three kinds of abalone: white, red, and black. That winter we had an El Niño, and the black… they disappeared.”

“Disappeared?” I respond, surprised.

“Completely,” he answers.

We chat more about life on the island, then he putters slowly away.

Pangas anchored in the harbor at the only town on Isla Cedros. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

Pangas anchored in the harbor at the only town on Isla Cedros. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

So what happened to the black abalone? To Eduardo, the abalone disappeared because of El Niño, the weather phenomenon created by warmer-than-usual water in the Pacific at the equator. Peruvian fishermen noticed the warm water around Christmas in the late 1800s, thus naming it “El Niño” after the baby Jesus. In 1997, El Niño was credited with disastrous hurricanes in the Pacific and a horrendous winter for northeastern North America, among other weather challenges.

El Niño is a natural phenomenon, but climate change drives the frequency and severity of El Niños. Here’s how this works: the ocean is a lot of water (H2O), absorbed carbon dioxide (CO2) and heat (energy), and it has been absorbing over 90% of the extra carbon dioxide and heat we humans have added to the atmosphere since 1955. If you add heat and/or carbon dioxide to water, it expands. When we’re talking about a lot of water, like the Pacific, the heat becomes energy in the form of currents, eddies, and storms.

Hurricanes gain strength with the constant heat and moisture from open water, and they start to lose their energy once over land, in part because they can no longer draw warmth (energy) from the ocean. The hurricane season therefore ends as the water cools for the winter in both the Pacific and the Atlantic. But El Niño keeps the water warmer longer in the Pacific, and this has a global weather (energy) impact.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared in April that El Niño is officially here for 2015… though Eduardo could have told us that back in December, because he was seeing more lobsters and fewer big fish. Back in 1997, he also knew the fishery was different and the water was warmer, and, it seemed to him, a permanent change occurred as the result of that difference.

The magically iridescent interior of a red abalone, a species still harvested in Baja. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

The magically iridescent interior of a red abalone, a species still harvested in Baja. Photo: Courtesy of Jess Reilly

If you look up the cause of the mortality of the black abalone, you find Withering syndrome, a bacterial infection that causes the foot of the abalone to shrink, thus making it unable to cling to a rock. For this reason, the black abalone is globally listed as critically endangered. So was it just coincidental that they disappeared from Cedros during El Niño?

As with many diagnoses, the answer is more complex than one cause. Black abalone can live in harmony with this bacteria — it doesn’t affect them. However, as soon as the water warms up even a little bit, they are overcome by this bacteria. Therefore, the abalone at Cedros may have been living with the bacteria, but a rise in ocean water temperature — less than four degrees Farenheit — brought about their collapse. Like a murder mystery, the bacteria is the smoking gun, but it was El Niño that pulled the trigger. Eduardo lives in the neighborhood and can testify as a witness.

Scientists are calling this year’s El Niño “Godzilla,” and compare it to 1997. Already record number and intensity of hurricanes have occurred in the Pacific as the water warms. These changes impact not only the small abalone or the individual fishers like Eduardo, but the largest mammals ever to live on earth: whales. In warmer, nutrient-poor water, whales, like the one we saw breaching in the Pacific, struggle to find enough food. Whether or not we see them, the whales still exist under the surface, adapting or suffering with change.


Much of the time, changes in climate are hidden from everyday view and our lives continue without a breach. But once in a while, these changes explode to the surface to disrupt our view, crashing down with an enormous splash. Indications of these changes are lived and breathed by Eduardo and others who live tied to the coast. We can listen to their observations and take heed of their accounts of the sudden or long-term change. We can learn how to adapt nimbly and with care for our resources. But we must always be on deck to scan the horizon for these events. Fishermen like Eduardo are standing watch at the helm — we just have to be there to listen.

For more from Jess Reilly, head on over to And catch up on her work with the Institute of Current World Affairs.

For more information on the people and organizations behind Adventures Through an Evolving World, be sure to check out the Energy & Resources Group at UC Berkley as well as Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.


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