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Originally published Monday, September 2, 2013 at 12:07 AM

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‘Telling Our Way to the Sea’: wonders of the Sea of Cortez

Aaron Hirsch’s natural history/memoir “Telling Our Way to the Sea” vividly brings home the natural splendors of Baja California’s Sea of Cortez. Hirsch will discuss his book Friday, Sept. 6, at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Aaron Hirsch

The author of “Telling Our Way to the Sea” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at www.townhallseattle.org or 888-377-4510 and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.

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‘Telling Our Way to the Sea — A Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez’

by Aaron Hirsch

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 394 pp., $28

Book review

What is bioluminescence for? How do scientists determine where young green turtles go their first several years at sea? Why did the number of animal genera soar from about 50 to 1,200 at the beginning of the Cambrian Period? How did jojoba nuts save whales? What do fishes’ otoliths — ear stones — reveal?

The answers, or at least the fascinating speculations, about such questions and many more arise daily as Aaron Hirsh and his wife, Veronica Volny, both biologists, and Graham Burnett, a science historian, shepherd a dozen students through an intensive summer field course of observation in the Sea of Cortez, along with seminars at the Vermilion Sea Institute in Baja’s tiny fishing village of Bahía de los Ángeles.

In this, Hirsh’s debut book, experiences from a decade of classes form a composite that focuses on one special group. He has changed some names and attributes, but allows his students, their curiosity, interactions and insights to fill a practical role: as they explore and make discoveries, they stand in for us readers, teaching as they learn. (Unfortunately, the book lacks bibliography and index; a website, meant to substitute, really doesn’t.)

Hirsch explains that events, in general, actually happened. On the first day in the water, Volny strokes a sea cucumber to demonstrate how it will relax. But something goes haywire and the creature reacts as though under attack, shooting its internal organs out its back end. A predator would find these innards toxic and probably move on. But the cuke? It “would later generate, from stem cells in its empty body cavity, a complete set of internal organs.” How? We can’t help but marvel.

On another journey in two pangas — 20-foot fiberglass skiffs with outboard motors — the group encounters shoals of devil rays that circle them repeatedly. “They are nothing but wing ...” Hirsh notes of their graceful underwater flight, “ ... their movements as steady and timeless as weathering stone.” Why do the rays approach and linger? Are they curious, too?

And when fin whales, which can be 80 feet long and weigh 260,000 pounds, sneak up behind a panga and one whale’s “great blasting explosion of water and mist detonates” right below the bow, is it play or a joke? When a false killer whale speeds toward Hirsh’s panga, stops inches short and sings, is it trying to communicate?

These magic adventures are complemented by Hirsh’s sections on science and history, which include contemplations on evolution and environmental change. He puts forward a couple of theories. First, that we don’t notice what’s missing now — the pearl oysters, the yellowfin, that first day’s rare sea cucumber — unless we seek earlier frames of reference such as local fishermen’s stories, old books by Joseph Wood Krutch or John Steinbeck, and the much older letters of Hernán Cortés.

Second, we see what we expect to see. The students believe they’re in the midst of spectacular biodiversity until a hurricane delivers “the gulf’s whole menagerie,” a bounty of new species from waters farther south. Made aware of how much they’ve been missing, students spend their final evening discussing ways to conserve and restore this remote but endangered area. They imagine “a seaside village abounding in natural wealth,” Hirsh writes, adding that he “felt, for the first time in years, somehow hopeful for Bahía de los Ángeles.”

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner lives and writes in New Mexico.

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