Paddling for a Porpoise

To make a difference, focus on what you are good at.

A vibration woke me from my exhausted sleep at 3 a.m. I thought the five-foot sand embankment next to which I had set my tent up was collapsing. I had just completed a 20-mile paddle the previous day through sweltering heat, tough sea conditions, and relentless mental exhaustion from being on the water for so long, which meant the last thing I wanted was to be woken up.

a rugged coastline seen from a height

Sean Jansen went on a 1000-mile paddleboard expedition along the Sea of Cortez in Mexico to raise awareness for the critically endangered vaquita porpoise whose survival depends on strict enforcement of gillnet bans. Photo by Jansen.

I sat up in my sleeping bag to assess what exactly was going on. After a few seconds I realized the sand embankment was holding firm. What had woken me up was an earthquake. “That’s cool,” I thought for a moment, until panic set in. I rushed to grab my immediate necessities and run inland to a high point.

When I conceptualized this paddleboard expedition along the Sea of Cortez in Mexico to raise awareness for the critically endangered vaquita porpoise, I pictured being harassed by cartel members, shark encounters, and perhaps a stingray, scorpion, or rattlesnake bite. Some 400 miles into the 1,000-mile paddle trip, I had in fact dealt with gale-force winds, a hurricane, five-to-ten-foot waves, a shark encounter, and even some questionable locals. But nothing scared me as much as the earthquake did. I had nowhere to go. Camping on the beach was as vulnerable as it gets.

I have been exploring remote areas via paddle boarding for decades. There is something to be said for the pioneering aspect of using a standup paddleboard to explore rugged sections of coasts. Over the years, I have traveled along the Southern California coast, in Yellowstone National Park, and on mountain rivers via paddleboard. It is so satisfying to be able to pull up on the sand and have everything I need in dry bags at the ready.

Paddling along the treacherous Sea of Cortez offered an irresistible challenge. The added conservation aspect of my exploration made it feel all the more meaningful.

Luckily, I survived the earthquake that day without any damage, aside from sleep deprivation, and was able to continue paddling down the rugged Baja coast for the rest of the trip, successfully completing the journey from San Felipe to Cabo San Lucas. The survival of the species I was paddling for, however, can’t be left to luck. There are barely a dozen vaquitas left in this world.

a man at seaJansen takes a selfie during the 123-day solo paddle journey in 2022.

Growing up in Southern California, most of my young adult trips to the Baja peninsula involved chasing swells or going fishing. I’d been visiting the area for over 17 years, and over time, I started to feel that there was a selfishness to my actions. I was just taking from the place, feeding my soul with surfing and food, and not giving back to it.

Something needed to change.

So, I decided to combine my passion for conservation, stand-up paddling, and my ever-growing desire to write stories that make an impact to raise awareness about the vaquita’s fate.

Vaquita are the world’s smallest and most endangered marine mammal. Endemic to the shallow waters of the Upper Gulf of California, their population has been nearly wiped out as a result of entanglement in fishing gear, especially illegal gillnets set for the totoaba, a large and critically endangered fish whose swim bladder is prized in Asia for its purported cosmetic and medicinal properties.

The survival of the few remaining vaquitas now hinges on changes in the kind of gear used by fisheries within the Gulf and strict enforcement of gillnet bans. But the remoteness of the region and the involvement of drug cartels in the illegal totoaba trade makes monitoring fishing fleets challenging.

When I began my 123-day paddle journey in 2022, I didn’t set out to break world records or feed my ego. I wanted to give back. But with my background of average student grades, addiction recovery, and personal self-doubt, I was unsure that what I was setting out to do would be effective at drawing people’s attention to the imminent extinction of the species.

However, throughout the trip, I was able to reach thousands of people via social media, blog posts, and magazine articles. I’m also currently writing a book about the trip. I hope that through these avenues, at least a few individuals will learn to care about the vaquita and push for their protection.

If there’s one thing I learned during this experience, it is that if I want to make a difference, I should focus on the skills I do have instead of those I don’t, and put them to the best use possible.

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