A Million Fish

There were no less than one million fish beneath my board as I paddled to the island today.

It was the kind of morning on the Bay of Concepcion that you wish you had every day.

Wind the last few days pushed massive piles of seaweed to the shore, which reminded you that it would be no fun to paddle against the wind. 

But this morning the wind had let up and the Bay was as calm as I had ever seen it. No doubt I would be paddling to the island with such advantageous conditions. 

We camped at a new beach this time, Los Cocos, and we found in flying our drone straight above us that no fewer than 5 of the most popular beaches in Baja are within a short distance of each other here. 

The further I paddled away from our beach the more the other beaches became visible.

It was a case of tomato-tomato or six one way and half a dozen the other. The way the beaches lined up against each other it didn’t matter where you woke up on this calm morning. 

The island sits a little over a mile off the shore of our beach. And the closer I paddled the more I realized it was likely the same distance to the other beaches as well.

I imagined that I wouldn’t be alone on my SUP on a morning like this. I figured at least a dozen other people would be out paddling too. 

The sun hadn’t beaten off the morning clouds yet and so the overcast sky hid the details of the water beneath.

But as I approached the island what little sunlight broke through the clouds revealed a shiny blanket beneath me. 

This silver blanket slithered in one motion as it gently moved under the water. Only in times when the whole thing edged past my view did I notice the size of the fish that had schooled together to give its form. 

I imagine there are a million cliches and metaphors about the schooling of fish.

There is safety in numbers.

Don’t go against the flow.

And so forth. 

But with me, for some reason, I couldn’t help but think of what purpose these fish served, collectively and individually. 

The waters of the Sea of Cortez, particularly the Bay of Concepcion, have been notoriously overfished by Mexican fishermen eager for whatever their catch would fetch at the market.

Although there were basic laws and guidelines in place to protect marine species, like many things in Mexico (ahem, stop signs) without enforcement there was little need for regulation in the first place. 

The island has harbored fishermen for years who have illegally caught, filleted and dumped the carcasses of hundreds of stingray and shark on its shores.

They take plugs of the flesh and pass them off to tourists for scallops, since scallops have long since been overfished in the area. 

Large fish in the Bay of Concepcion have, like large sorts of any edible marine species, all but disappeared due to the overfishing.

Large nets draped across the bay give little chance to anything large enough to be unable to pass through. Gill nets, they’re called, as the fish get caught by the gills when they are too large to pass through and they can’t back out. 

These nets are far too large for the million or so fish beneath my board.

They were likely hatched just days ago, no longer than a dime or quarter at most.

And as they slithered together beneath me I thought of the futility of their purpose.

By tomorrow a sizable portion will have been devoured. Pelicans were already feasting on the school by diving into the middle of it and gulping big gulps of water to then filter through the fish. 

Larger fish would also begin to prey upon these millions. So would stingray. If they could survive a few more months even the gill nets might be small enough to snag them. 

There was no hope for these fish except to swim, slowly and steadily, as a snake slithering beneath the sea.

Their entire existence centered on finding what they might eat, on swimming together and on one day feeding the next larger creature on the food chain.

It reminded me of the day we drove through the all-but-forgotten fishing villages along the Pacific Coast of Baja.

They call it the “northern road,” but in fact, there was little road to it. We remained in four-wheel-drive most of the entire day as we drove along the coast. 

We had joined a caravan, a “giving caravan” as I have come to call it, where we were bringing clothing, food, medical supplies and toys to these remote areas of Baja prior to Christmas.

We met many wonderful people during this adventure. Nowhere near a million. 

Yet for some reason this morning I thought of those fishermen and their families the same as the million or so fish beneath my board.

Life, it seemed, centered strictly around survival. Each fisherman would wake, work and share in the bounty of whatever was left at the end of the day.

Kids would go to school, sometimes, but their fate was the same as their parents. And one day they too would trade in books for the gill net and traps.

I can’t argue with the way things are.

As someone told me once, we all eat the fish they catch don’t we (though, politically speaking, I think it is Chinese demand that consumes most of the seafood of the world these days)? 

In other words, the world needs fishermen to fish – to feed the next largest creature up the food chain.

And while I feel grateful that I do not share this fate, it puts a sense of urgency to every motivation and action I take.

If I am meant for something more, should I not be pursuing it with my whole life? 

Mornings like these are beautiful for paddling over still seas.

But when the wind is calm, even the restlessness of my heart and mind cannot be pushed against a shore of forgetfulness where I too can be resigned to simply live and let live like the millions of fish beneath me.