Project Dragonfly uses inquiry-driven learning to teach students. Where typical education presents information and allows you to study it in a classroom, Project Dragonfly allows us to apply the skills we’ve learned through actions. Graduate students are required to complete three Earth Expeditions that apply to our field of interest. As a first-year student, I completed the Baja: Field Methods program. This was a 9-day course where our time was split between the desert and the sea, although those two aren’t as different as they may sound!
The team met in San Diego, California and made the long 15-hour drive down Highway 1 through the Vizcaino Desert in Baja, Mexico to Rancho San Gregorio, a family-owned ranch that is home to some of the most unique desert plant species on Earth. This includes the world’s largest cacti, cardon (Pachycereus pringlei) (pictured to the right), and boojums (Fouquieria columnaris). We spent three nights sleeping out in the open, looking up at the Milky Way. During the day we learned how to do action-driven inquiry. We developed comparative questions based off observations, then data was collected through well-thought-out methods, statistically analyzed, and then presented to the group allowing for deeper discussions on findings.
Conducting our research allowed us to hike through the desert where we saw turkey vultures, crows, roadrunners, scorpions, rattlesnakes, lizards, bats, and more! Hiking there was a challenge, not only for the heat, but for the chollas or jumping cacti! If you even brushed up near one of the cacti, you would have a whole bunch of thorns stuck to you. There was an underground spring near the ranch, which is the source of life in the desert. Being fully immersed in this landscape gave us a deeper understanding of how life can thrive even when water is scarce. We were lucky enough to hear from the ranch owner, Rafael, whose family has run this ranch for centuries. He taught us about the native plants and their medicinal purposes. He also shared the story about how his family almost gave up on the ranch, but then instead partnered with the McDonald family to turn the ranch into a place for students to visit and learn in partnership with the Vermilion Sea Institute.
The road to the Vermilion Sea Institute was hand cleared through the rocky desert, weaving between the mountains. As we drove from one end of the peninsula to the other, you could see the landscape changing. The closer we got to the Sea of Cortez, the less vegetation we saw. After several days looking at reds and browns in the desert with a splash of green cacti and agave here or there, the sight of the blue sea was shocking. The Vermilion Sea Institute is in Bahia de los Angeles, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and biosphere reserve right on the shore of the sea. The sea is a deep blue with brown mountains in the background that are sparsely scattered with small vegetation.
Baja was an amazing place that truly gave me a deeper appreciation for both the fragility and strength of nature. The desert and the sea can both be harsh places, but the closer you look you can see that life finds a way. Bahia de los Angeles is a small fishing town that has a deep appreciation for what they have, and it is clear they are trying to protect it. They have already experienced the loss of the vaquita, so they are trying to make sure nothing else disappears. Ecotourism is developing for the whale shark tours, but it is strictly controlled and monitored. Communities play a huge role in conservation, and their values and needs must always be factored in for a chance at success.
These concepts can be applied in any conservation situation, and they teach us to look at the bigger picture, rather than just focusing on one aspect of the problem. Each time we broaden our perspective it will help us to achieve our main goal- conservation of the natural world!