The Cortez Chronicles


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The Old Woman of the Sea

Take 2: Going Home

October 3, 1998


The old sea lion looked neither backward nor forward. It was the time in her life to celebrate each sunrise anew, thankful for one more day. She had spent her life in these fertile waters, and it had been a full, rich life with few enemies and plentiful food for the most part. Basking and foraging with her harem in the warm waters of the northern Sea of Cortez by day and returning when possible to the safety of their traditional homeland, Sea Lion Islands1, by night, she had produced countless pups. Her genes had provided in several generations a strong basis for the survival of her pod and that of several others in the northern gulf.

Recent years, however, had seen a significant decline in the octopus and fish populations; mostly due to that dark and mysterious land creature, man, whose increasing numbers encroached steadily with each passing year. From his makeshift, floating machine he stretched invisible snares to surround and capture food fishes by the millions. The old sea lion couldn't understand that behavior, harvesting more than could be eaten, spiriting it away to some distant and forbidden place deep in his two-dimensional world. Forced to go further and further from home for sustenance, the pod sometimes stayed away for days on end, fattening themselves and their pups and basking by night along unprotected coastlines in the normally docile waters of the Cortez.

Hurricane George really hadn't given any warning. It came late in the season, quite unexpectedly. The pod, far from their island sanctuary, had started for home some hours before the fury hit and had had no real choice but to go on. Most of them had held out pretty well in the ordeal, their agile bodies sporting plenty of fat to withstand the hunger and sleeplessness. The strongest had little trouble finding their way home after the storm, and most of the others arrived over the next several days.

The old sea lion was not the only one who didn't make it back to the homeland. Several calves were lost, weakened by the absence of regular feeding, which caused a critical shortage of body heat. There were also a number of other elderly individuals separated from the pod. Unable to keep up during the peak of the storm, they had dropped behind, drifted on heavy currents driven by diurnal tides, and become scattered. Exhausted and near death, they had been cast onto a series of beaches ranging over 300 miles along both gulf coasts.

The old sea lion was among the eldest. Low body fat and an atrophied hind flipper made her a particularly high risk in these matters of nature. Yet, with experience and patience equal to her years she beat the odds, coming to rest for four days and nights on this lonely coastline protected on the north by Rio De la Concepción and on the south by a somewhat flawed barrier known to humans as Barra los Tanques.

When she first washed ashore, this looked like as good a place as any to try to recuperate from the storm. She had arrived just after high tide and rested comfortably the first day a short distance from lumpy, sandy cliffs. But as the storm and tide retreated she found herself nearly half a mile from water's edge. In her weakened state it would be exceedingly difficult to reach safety in the event of danger, but she took one day at a time. She had come here against her will, knowing her end was near and willing to die a peaceful death if necessary.

There is, however, no peace where coyotes are concerned. This beach belonged to them, and although they had never tasted live sea lion, the two were not the least bit shy in their advances. They approached her again and again - nipping, snapping, biting. The sea lion had experience with coyotes. It wasn't that they were so dangerous; she simply could not get badly needed rest under their constant affronts. They hounded her for most of three days, as life imperceptibly drained from her ancient body.

And so it was that when the infernal pollution machine carrying the two humans crossed her path late that afternoon, for a long moment she felt only relief at their setting the coyotes on the run. Yet, she couldn't simply ignore the advances of humans. She had come across these dangerous creatures as a pup and had narrowly escaped as they captured her sister and set upon killing her mother with their death rods. Her sister had been bound and thrown into the back of an infernal machine, to disappear in dust and receding twilight. The bellowing of her dying mother was a distant memory now, but it had been burned into her psyche, become an instinctive ache.
  Old Woman of the Sea - Barra los Tanques, 1998
She summoned all of her remaining energy and began moving, as best she could, across the flat toward the gentle surf, dragging her useless flipper behind her. Gaflump, gaflump, gaflump, gaflump. Her body ached to exhaustion. The human, a beachcomber, easily circled to one side and ahead, blocking her retreat. She stopped to rest. The beachcomber approached cautiously. Unable to avoid the confrontation, she simply waited, head held high with the characteristic dignity of her ancestral legacy.

The beachcomber held to his face one of those infernal devices of which humans are so fond. Unlike a fire-stick, it was blunt and strapped to one hand. It whined, imperceptibly to the human, but an acrid, piercing pitch to the sea lion. She waited, ready to be relieved of her burden. The man approached to within a few steps and stopped. The whine ceased as he dropped the device to his side.

The old sea lion looked pleadingly into the man's eyes. With great insight born of natural innocence, she felt a human soul. She saw ignorance, gross ignorance of the world and of all living creatures. But she relaxed; she had also seen compassion, and knew that this particular human would do her no harm.

As the man turned away, his face sparkling strangely in the late afternoon sunlight, the old woman of the sea saw a very curious thing in a land species with eternally dry skin. She realized for the first time that on rare occasions the strange species called human could be a far more complicated creature than she had previously observed. She watched until he almost reached his infernal pollution machine, then turned, and once more strained against fatigue and age. If she could reach the sea, she might be blessed with one more sunrise. As she labored her mind drifted to dense schools of herring in sunlit shallows. The pod was there, feeding and cavorting. She felt the embrace of a suckling pup.

Reaching the surf, she continued until there was enough depth to support her aching body. Exhausted, she turned and drifted freely on her back in motionless ecstasy, only her snout and three flippers protruding from the water. In the warmth of the shallow water her mind now returned to her homeland and the harem basking in that protected cove. She dozed.


As she fought her way from the deep recesses of the dream world, the old woman of the sea became distantly aware of a searing pain within her rib cage. There was a lot of commotion and shouting. Humans! A boat! She struggled weakly in vain attempts to avoid the searching probes of a gaff, and might have made it but for her useless flipper. She fought to stay lucid and felt a peculiar sensation of rising into the air; then suddenly met the floor of the boat with a dull thud, snout first.

More commotion, and the vibrations of a lot of scrambling. Humans seemed to make a lot of noise. She heard with clarity one voice above the others:

"¡Mucho poco loco la cabeza! Tú puede ver cada costilla de ella cuerpo. No mas carne allí, y éste malo2!"

For just a moment she tuned her ear to this strange madness with clear curiosity; and then they were gone -- men, boat, noise and all.

The pain was gone now; she was at complete peace, floating there. Her mind drifted back to the warm waters of the cove and her suckling pup. For a moment, she felt with absolute clarity the touch of her own mother's warm snout, the ecstatic tickle of whiskers, and nestled against her nurturing body.

In her altered state she felt only the first few impacts, and those with great distraction. The sharks were having their way now, her body tumbling over and over with each blow; yet, she felt nothing of the substantial insults. No matter one more sunrise; in the brilliant white light of the afternoon she felt the warmth and deep contentment of total peace. She was going home.

October 3, 1998


1The Pelican or Sea Lion Islands, known collectively to humans of the area as Bird Island, lie some 20 miles off the coast of Sonora in the northern Sea of Cortez, southwest of Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

2Translation: "You're crazy in the head! You can see every rib of her body. Not much meat there, and it's bad!"



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