- Beaches, mountains, sunshine and sprawl.
Welcome to Los Angeles, a place where the outdoors beckons.
But finding tranquility, let's just say, it's a struggle.
(groans) (helicopter whirring) A struggle that's totally worth it.
I've lived here for two years.
And despite the traffic, the sirens, the smog and the smoke, there are still ways to connect with nature in LA.
(peaceful music) (water running) If you can find them.
There are even places where the sounds of the city fade away, and you can discover something that's truly sublime.
My name is Baratunde Thurston.
I'm a writer, activist, sometimes comedian, and I'm all about exploring the issues that shape us as Americans.
This country is wild, and its natural landscapes are as diverse as its people.
- There it is.
There it is.
- How does our relationship with the outdoors define us, as individuals and as a nation?
- [Announcer] "America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston" was made possible in part by a grant from Anne Ray Foundation, a Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropy.
This program was also made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.
(upbeat music) Los Angeles, with sunshine more than 300 days a year, this is a city that seems built for going outside.
Incessantly good weather helped give rise to this metropolis, and the ocean waves and scenic heights have brought many here, including me.
But I'll admit that in a city of about 4 million people, it's easy to miss the palm trees for the skyscrapers, the 10 lane freeways, and the vast urban sprawl.
It often feels like city life is at odds with nature.
So I wanna know how my fellow Angelinos find their way to the outdoors in a city that sometimes keeps its natural spaces under wraps.
Here's a case in point, a place many locals don't even know about.
And if they do, they don't exactly see it as the place to get their nature fix.
What's up man?
- What's up Baratunde, come on in.
Fish are biting.
- Come on in.
This is Leno Jubolato, who wakes up at the crack of dawn nearly every morning to fish in a trash strewn channel many in Los Angeles consider little more than a glorified gutter.
The LA River.
Slowly making my way over to you in my natural steps.
- How you doing?
Good to meet you Leno.
- Good to meet you.
Good to meet you.
- Are you ready?
- I am ready.
Let's catch some fish.
- Get some sewer salmon.
- And maybe not garbage.
- Maybe not garbage.
(peaceful music) New York has the Hudson.
Memphis has the Mississippi.
But LA, who even knew it had a river.
Turns out it does.
And this morning, it's where Leno's invited me to join him.
We're gonna fish for carp.
Ooh, that smell.
- Right, smells good.
- That is not what the word I would use.
- Take a couple of deep breaths.
You'll get used to it.
(Baratunde laughs) - (Baratunde) These days, the LA River might be known best as a place for trash to collect.
But for centuries it's been the lifeblood of the region, allowing the city to grow.
Then in the 1930s, a series of deadly floods led the Army Corps of Engineers to encase much of the river in concrete.
It stopped the flooding, but it took a toll on the river's natural beauty, and was devastating to the native fish.
Over time though, several new species have moved in, like the invasive carp we're fishing today.
- Can you see those?
They're just partying.
- They're partying.
(Baratunde laughs) They're getting it on right now.
- (Baratunde) Oh, we're like invading their sex time.
- Well that's rude.
(peaceful music) Fish spawning here.
It's amazing how much wildlife can thrive in what's essentially a concrete tub.
- So, get it outta the water, and shoot.
That's a good spot.
There's fish right there.
- Keep your rod tip low.
If you hear me yell set, I want you to pull the trigger.
- (Baratunde) Okay.
How long have you been fishing on this river?
- God, close to 40 years.
When I was younger, it was just nothing but bass and catfish and bluegill, but carp have taken over the show.
- So, is this like your meditation spot?
Like what do you- - Absolutely.
This is like, who needs a therapist when you can come to the LA River, and stand in the water and fly fish.
I mean, I'm not even joking.
I mean, it's gotten me through some tough times getting out here.
This is my escape.
- [Baratunde] It's hard to believe anyone can find escape in the midst of all the trash and graffiti, but Leno's become famous on social media for posts of his catches, and dozens of his followers have asked to join him on the water.
- [Leno] People are not afraid to ask for help and just to come, and I'm more than happy to take 'em down and show 'em.
- What do you get out of that?
- I honestly, I'm one of those that gets probably more stoked when someone else catches a fish than myself, especially newbies, people who have never fished before.
It's the best feeling in the world.
There you go.
Set the hook.
Set the hook.
There you go, dude.
What do I do?
- Just keep on reeling when he stop.
No, keep it tight.
- Keep it tight.
- But when he stops pulling, you reel.
There you go.
Let him pull, let him get tired.
- Hey buddy.
- Oh, it's a big one.
It's a big one, I'm going on this side.
And just use the pole to pull backwards slowly, slowly.
- [Baratunde] Ooh wow.
Two hands, okay.
- Oh no.
- Oh no.
- Oh no.
(laughs) - Well there was that.
- [Leno] (laughs) Dude, that was right there.
- [Baratunde] Alright.
- I'm gonna count that.
- I mean you were gonna release it anyway.
So he just got ahead of me, right?
He knew his future.
(Leno laughs) (peaceful music) Many of the best stories to come out of this town have been about the one that got away.
And in this case I actually did get a proper Hollywood ending in the least Hollywood way possible.
After the cameras had gone.
Still finding a natural place of solitude in the middle of a sprawling metropolis feels like its own victory, like being admitted to a secret club.
And like all great secrets, it only leaves me wanting more.
What else is LA hiding?
It's definitely not my image of Los Angeles.
- Fly fishing in the LA River.
- Fly fishing.
- That's why they call 'em sewer salmon.
(laughs) - What do you call 'em?
- Golden nuggets.
- That's adorable.
- That's what they are.
They're a gem to me.
(peaceful music) (upbeat music) - [Baratunde] There's another character on this river who shares that feeling, kayaker and activist, George Bullard.
He's one reason people like Leno still have a protective place to catch fish.
He started kayaking the LA River in the mid 2000's.
And over the years, he estimates he's brought 10,000 visitors onto the river.
- [George] You might even see some carp along here.
- [Baratunde] My old friends.
Today, I'm gonna make that 10,001.
(upbeat music) Where are we right now?
- Ironically, we're close to one of the busiest intersections of traffic in the world.
- [Baratunde] Really?
- The 405 and the 101 in LA.
- And we're surrounded by birds and trees and water.
- You'd never know that this is right here.
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
It's an urban oasis that most Angelinos don't even know exists.
And without George and his fellow activists, it probably wouldn't.
Back in 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers tried to clear the way for more development along the LA River.
They argued that the river wasn't protected under the law because it wasn't a navigable waterway.
- It's 2008.
I started hearing local news about, is the LA River navigable.
It's a whole legal jargon thing.
If it's navigable, then it can be protected, and only then.
We were just trying to prove that it was navigable.
'Cause that was the legal thing we had.
That was the barrier that we had to surmount.
- [Baratunde] Right.
George knew there was plenty of boat traffic on the LA River because as he and others had been kayaking illegally on it for years.
So to save the river, he decided to prove the Army Corps was wrong.
- [George] The best way to do that was to go down the whole river.
- In one of these.
- [George] In one of these, yeah.
- [Baratunde] All told, it would take 51 miles of kayaking.
- Not knowing a whole lot about it, about what that entailed.
We sort of threw our hat over the wall, as they say, and committed ourselves to just doing it.
- [Baratunde] It would mean navigating around trash and tree limbs through some decidedly funky smells, and up and over places where the kayaks could run aground, all while dodging the LAPD.
- In the end, we ended up with about two dozen boaters between us.
- Oh wow.
- [George] People coming out for the sake of trying to get the river back.
- [Baratunde] The trip took three days in all.
- [George] We wrote up a report, we sent it to the EPA.
- [Baratunde] Okay.
And then they waited.
- [George] EPA took a year to decide what they were gonna do with this troublesome LA River.
And lo and behold, Lisa Jackson was the EPA, the head of the EPA at the time.
She came to LA, she made this very dramatic pronouncement.
- We're gonna designate the entire LA River, not a piece of it, the entire LA River as traditional navigable waters.
(crowd cheering and clapping) - That was like a historic moment.
- [Baratunde] As I drift down this slow moving, aquatic freeway, the winding course echoes the twists and turns in the LA River's own story of survival.
One that ended in victory for this city.
Sort of like getting a sports team, but with free access and no subsidies for billionaires built in.
- I'm used to rivers where people care about 'em.
It's hard to watch a river struggle.
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
- [George] To just stand by and go like there's no hope.
Let's just let it die.
- [Baratunde] Wow.
- [George] Yeah, people turn this corner, and it's like, what?
Come on, this isn't LA.
We just love kinda opening people's eyes to that.
And next thing you know, it becomes something that people recognize and can take pride in as you know.
Yeah, my river does this.
My river does that.
It's a beautiful thing.
- [Baratunde] A beautiful thing?
I've never heard the LA River described that way, but seeing it through George's eyes makes me realize it's true.
It seems nature in LA can be found where you least expect it, even hidden in the concrete.
Still I'm willing to bet most Angelinos would balk at jumping into the LA River for their nature fix.
Thankfully, there are other options.
Just ask the locals.
(upbeat music) - What I love about LA is you always can expect perfect weather.
- It's the palm trees, the birds.
- The mountains.
- The sun, the waves.
- We like hiking, and we like playing in this playground.
- You have the ocean 30 minutes away.
You also have a park like this.
- Being outdoors is very beneficial for me.
I mean, look at my skin, super glowy.
- [Baratunde] All good things, but talk to enough LA residents, and you'll hear one thing on repeat.
- LA is a vibe.
- LA is a vibe.
- Just good vibes.
- I love to come out here and see everybody vibing together.
- It's a great vibe.
- The vibe.
(laughs) - The vibe.
(laughs) - [Baratunde] Right, so there's that.
And there's also a certain place where Angelinos seem to feel that vibe most.
- What I love most about LA is the sunny beaches.
- Of course the beach.
You can't forget the beach.
- The beach.
- The beach.
- My favorite thing about LA is the beach life.
- I just love the sand in between my toes.
(laughs) - [Baratunde] I do.
In a city as diverse as this, the beaches can feel like common ground.
- [Baratunde] A place where everyone can gather, and bask in the best of mother nature.
Now, basking at the beach is one thing, breaking out a surfboard for the first time in many years, that's another.
- All right, Baratunde.
- [David] So, this is gonna be your board today.
- Yeah, cool.
Look, here's the deal.
I have not been surfing in a very, very, very long time.
Maybe a decade.
I got kind of serious about it back when I lived in New York City.
I was that black dude on the subway with a surfboard.
And then I kind of walked away from it.
So you might see some things that one will call embarrassing.
- Yeah, yeah.
- Already got it, already.
- But I trust that these people, they got me.
It's been a while since I've done this.
I'm very super rusty.
Y'all got me?
- Yeah, we got you.
- We hear you loud and clear.
- Thank you.
(all laughing) - [Baratunde] Meet Lizelle Jackson, Joy Madison, and David Malana.
All surfers who started an organization called Color The Water.
So what is Color The Water?
- Color The Water is a surf community where we offer free lessons for black and indigenous people of color to have access to the ocean.
Learn how to surf, have a good time.
- [Baratunde] That sounds real good right now.
- It's a hot day.
- It is a hot day.
A good day to jump into the free pool that is the Pacific Ocean.
(all laughing) (waves crashing) - Ready?
(upbeat music) - This feels so cool.
I feel like the surf gang.
- Wait until the rest of the group is here.
- What's up?
- How's it going?
- I can't help but notice the four of us draw a lot of eyeballs.
- Being up in the parking lot and walking through with our surfboards, people turn heads.
They're not used to seeing people that look like us out here.
They're so used to seeing kind of the Californian surfer, blonde, tan, thin.
So for us to be able to share that with people that have the same identity is huge.
That LA surfer stereotype is a far cry from the very first surfers thousands of years ago.
Who were the original surfers?
- The popular opinion is that it's from Hawaii, but people were riding waves in Peru, Micronesia, Melanesia.
Like all these people of color were riding waves, and in harmony with nature.
- [Baratunde] It was the Polynesians who brought surfing to Hawaii when they migrated there in the fourth century.
Surfing didn't take off in Southern California until the 1960s.
But these days the surfboard is practically a registered trademark for LA, and surfing's origins in communities of color are all but wiped out.
Why does it matter to you, the image of surfing in LA?
- Because oftentimes it's presented as a privilege, right?
To live ocean side and to have access and all that.
Like it's a luxury.
What I access when I enjoy surfing, I think is a birthright.
- [Baratunde] Oceanside access is fiercely guarded turf in some parts of LA.
Many of the best spots are claimed by groups who've been known to throw rocks, slash tires, and physically threaten outsiders just looking to catch a wave.
People of color have often faced the worst of that harassment.
But it was another act of racism in 2020 that inspired David to start Color The Water.
- We were all reeling after the murder of George Floyd.
So I caught notice of a paddle out in Santa Monica.
- What's a paddle out?
- A paddle out is a ceremony that was originated in the Hawaiian culture where if someone dies, then everyone will paddle out, form a circle, and just a reverence and a moment of silence.
And so there was a paddle out organized on behalf of George Floyd.
(horn blaring) - Say his name.
- George Floyd.
- Say his name.
- George Floyd.
- Like a couple things became apparent.
One is that the surf community is predominantly white, and two, the disparity of the levels of surfing and water comfort were so wide.
And for me, someone who's enjoyed surfing for almost 20 years, I realized right then like, wow, I've put these blinders on to enjoy this.
And so maybe there's a way that I can shift that.
That's how Color The Water started.
As of today, we're just a little under 500 people that want to learn, and help, and contribute in some way.
- [Baratunde] But even when you find your people, there can still be questions of fitting in.
Does my whole body go in there?
Like, how am I supposed to fit in to this wetsuit?
You say so.
Oh, got it over the booty.
Yeah, that's better.
Now that I'm suited up, it's time to get my Point Break on.
(water splashing) (peaceful music) Surfing.
What do you get from it?
What does it do for you?
- To ride energy that is completely natural, and that you have to be there for as it's breathing it's last breath, is just a really profound experience.
- For me, it is an opportunity to connect with the deepest part of me that is inaccessible anywhere else on the planet.
- The ocean's just a place of calm.
And it's humbling being out there.
- [Baratunde] Humbling is the perfect word for what's happening right now.
(groans) My larger board should make it easier to balance in theory.
Provided of course, that I ever do catch a wave.
(upbeat music) Thank you.
That felt like it lasted forever and not at all.
Thank you Pacific Ocean.
That's my boo right there.
And just when I had said to myself, I don't care if I get up on the board or not, Lizelle gave me the shove I needed, that loving shove, to help me catch that wave.
I've never been in the ocean with that many black people in my life.
Feeling surrounded by love.
Can I go that far?
I think I can.
I felt this embrace from the ocean.
Maybe it was the squeeziness of the wetsuit, but also this community of people around me.
And I felt really held up and really supported, not just by the surfboard, but by the people.
(uplifting music) People.
They really can be the key to unlocking the outdoors.
Because true access to nature requires that you feel welcome when you get there.
But getting there is much harder for some folks than others.
In Los Angeles, it boils down to two things, geography and transportation.
But the biggest city parks are largely located in the wealthy neighborhoods in the north of the city.
And LA's freeways and public transit system effectively cut off those parks from poorer, predominantly minority neighborhoods.
In some cases, the freeways were even laid down across existing park space in those communities.
Nature has become something residents in these areas have to fight for.
Here's a fun fact.
Years before I moved to LA, I'd hiked to Baldwin Hills.
But this will my first time back as an Angelino.
I'm ready to go.
- Hold up.
(laughs) Rosie Alvero has explored Los Angeles high and low on her local PBS show, SoCal Wanderer.
- We are not racing.
- We are not racing.
She's brought me here to experience one of the city's best parks in a part of Southern LA that for years had little access to green space.
This is popping.
- Like the hills are literally showing off.
- Literally popping.
Love these colors.
The bright orange geranium.
- [Rosie] Last stretch, almost there.
- [Baratunde] Rosie promises the sweat is worth it for the views at the top.
Oh, there it is.
Isn't it beautiful?
Describe to me where we are right now.
- So this is Baldwin Hill's scenic overlook.
It's a park in Culver City.
And in the late nineties, a private property development company purchased it to build homes.
And then luckily through community organizing, and conservation efforts, the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy purchased it on behalf of California parks, and made it a park for us instead.
- It was a hard fought victory.
Baldwin Hill's scenic overlook is the result.
And despite the ever present smog, this is about as good as natural vistas in LA get.
Alright, so I'm seeing purple trees popping up like a sort of a Prince Memorial distributed throughout the land.
What are these purple trees?
- [Rosie] Well, that's the Jacarandas.
So they bloom twice a year in the spring, and then again in the fall.
- And what's funny about them is though they're ubiquitous to LA, they're actually not native from- - Like a lot of Angelinos.
Like a lot of Angelinos.
- We often hear that Los Angeles is a county and city of immigrants, but that's not just about people.
- It's not just about people.
- It's also the wildlife.
(upbeat music) - [Baratunde] LA's year round sunshine has made it a great landing spot for plants from all over the globe.
Even that quintessential symbol of LA, the palm tree, is actually a transplant.
- Is these really tall, skinny ones that are so iconic to LA.
- That trademark LA palm tree.
- Yes, those are from Mexico.
That's a Mexican fan palm.
And I believe they imported 40,000 or so for the 1930s Olympics to beautify Los Angeles.
And while some trees come from just across the border, another hails all the way from China.
- In my neighborhood, we have a lot of loquats as well.
Those are also- - Is that a fruit?
- It's a fruit.
- And they're everywhere in the neighborhood.
And if they're hanging over enough for you to reach it, you as a bystander, passerby, you can take that fruit.
It's for you.
You heard that right.
In LA, if a fruit tree grows or hangs over public property, anyone can pick and eat it's fruit.
Of course, I always ask first.
But those trees are mostly found in the city's richer, whiter neighborhoods.
In the poorer, largely black and brown communities, trees are scarce, fruit bearing, or otherwise.
And those are the areas that could really use them.
But I'm heading to meet someone who is working to break down this outdoor inequity.
Florence Nishida is a master gardener here in West Adams, a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood in south LA.
This garden is part of an effort by Florence to turn the area's barren lots into urban farmland, growing healthy, fresh food.
- Take a bite of that.
I'm gonna pick some flowers.
What do you think?
- This is spicy.
- It is actually a mustard.
Nasturtium - Nasturtium.
- Just gotta let it pass.
That opened up my sinuses.
- Thank you for that.
- Never had anybody faint in the garden.
- No, no, no fainting.
(peaceful music) Why do you care so much about people growing their own food?
- Because I think a lot of people worry that they won't have enough food, and a lot of people are not eating food that's really good for them.
If you wanna sustain yourself, and you wanna sustain your children, your family, then you wanna provide the best quality, packed with nutrients that you can.
- [Baratunde] In 2008, Florence began to teach workshops in this neighborhood on how to turn grass field front lawns into fruit and vegetable gardens.
- You know, Los Angeles has the perfect climate for growing food.
We're not utilizing all the available farmland space, which is everybody's front yard.
Why are we growing grass?
Can you eat grass?
- No, I've tried.
I don't recommend it.
- We actually dug up people's lawns, which is crazy.
I said, dig here, do this, add this.
- I brought seeds.
I brought some little plants.
So that by several hours later, that person had a garden.
- You basically did a home makeover garden style.
- [Florence] We did.
- [Baratunde] Her next step was building this teaching garden, planted on the former site of a vacant lot.
Community gardens were nothing new in south LA.
But this one was different.
- In our garden, we have no fence.
- Yeah, I just walked right in.
This is a garden that everybody in the neighborhood who lives around here feel comfortable, just strolling in.
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
- People can taste and they can also learn.
- Florence's commitment to the people in this neighborhood runs deep.
She grew up just a few blocks away.
Tell me about your connection to gardening and the outdoors as a small child.
- You know what?
My father was a gardener.
In LA, there was this thing about Japanese gardeners.
- [Baratunde] Okay.
In the aftermath of World War II, Japanese American gardeners were a common sight in the city's wealthier enclaves.
Most had just been released from concentration camps where the US government had detained them with their families as part of our response to Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor.
(plane soaring) (loud explosion) When the war ended, many Japanese Americans had to start over from scratch.
Florence and her parents were among them.
- We came out of those camps that the government put us in.
- And when the head of householder came out, he got $25.
- And if you're a man, you need to support your family.
And that's where the Japanese gardener stereotype came from.
- [Baratunde] Wow.
For Florence, gardening is still a way of providing for those in need.
But while her father was a gardener just to get by, Florence sees it as an aspirational role that she's chosen.
And one that others may choose as well.
- I'm trying to be a different kind of gardener.
I'm trying to show everybody that they can be a gardener.
- Everybody can grow their own food.
They just need to feel that they can do that, and get the instruction.
Florence's garden contains over 115 different fruits, vegetables, and herbs from all over the world.
- Pull it up, and then knock off the dirt.
- [Baratunde] Whoa.
But this place is about more than just food.
- Unless you touch nature, the tension of your life can't go away.
You need to be able to find a place that where you can just settle, relax, smell things, taste things.
- And that's what our garden welcomes.
A good harvest here.
- Salad time.
You can help by stripping.
You can strip off the leaves from the stem, and then I'm going to peel back the beets.
- More kale.
This is enough kale?
- Little more kale.
It turns out that when you combine the power of nature with the power of food, you end up with a pretty unstoppable force for change.
- The gardens brought people out.
That's what creates community.
Once you start sharing the food, you're sharing other things too.
- [Baratunde] Right.
- And you're making that human connection.
- Can we toast?
- Cheers - Cheers.
- Well, you can't get any fresher than this.
- No, we just picked it.
I was there.
There's no better example of what the outdoors can give us than this.
But nature has more to offer than just gardens, and green spaces.
LA's filled with critters, from coyotes, cougars, and bears.
Hey, little buddy.
You can't come in.
To that possum that once took control of my backyard.
Sometimes we're in closer contact with wildlife than we're comfortable with, or than we even know about.
(upbeat music) But some folks have found ways to bring our urban menagerie into focus.
This is Carlos Guana, a drone pilot and aerial filming.
Am I interrupting something?
- How you doing?
- Can I look in?
- Yeah, sure.
Check it out.
- [Baratunde] Oh, that's great.
- We're so fortunate that we can live in a metropolitan area like Los Angeles and go hiking, and have an encounter with a bobcat.
- See whales in our backyard.
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
- Things that a lot of people don't have, and Los Angeles has that.
(upbeat music) This is, I mean- - It's beautiful.
- It's really amazing.
- Seeing everything from above.
- [Baratunde] The water is so beautiful.
It's easy to see why Carlos is drawn to this bird's eye view of LA's wild spaces.
But a few years ago, when Carlos was filming whales off the coast of Malibu, he caught side of something he found a little more disconcerting.
- I actually saw an adult great white shark, just about a 200, 150 yards out.
Great white sharks are the largest predatory fish on the planet.
And this one was right in one of the most popular swimming spots in LA County.
I have a sense when I look at the ocean that it's empty, and I see surfers out there and they're chill, partly because they're not surrounded by sharks.
How often are you seeing sharks near people?
- Oh man.
I'd say almost every day.
I've learned that encounters with humans are probably more common than we ever thought they were.
- [Baratunde] Carlos started posting his shark videos on YouTube, and soon they took the internet by storm.
Viewers were stunned to see sharks swimming so close to people, from paddle borders to kayakers.
And in one case, even kids.
- They're just boogie boarding.
Not even far out, like right there where those people are right there.
Just right there.
- [Baratunde] Uh huh, that sounds real close.
- [Carlos] Very, very close.
- That's my heart rate increasing.
Just so you know, it's telegraphing my internal.
- It's definitely made my heart rate go up.
- [Baratunde] Carlos might have shocked his YouTube viewers, but his videos confirmed something scientists have been saying for years.
That sharks aren't nearly as dangerous as we've been led to believe.
- And I think it's decades and years of us being conditioned to that.
But now, as I see more, I'm realizing that these white sharks are just chilling.
They're just hanging out.
There's no better word to describe it.
They're just chilling.
- I get people almost touching them, and they have no idea they're there.
- [Baratunde] I've always thought of sharks first and foremost as predators.
And while Carlos has captured them attacking prey, like this dolphin, he always stresses that context is key.
- [Carlos] The dolphin was already dead.
- [Baratunde] Okay.
- Something that a lot of people may not realize is that sharks essentially are the cleaners of the ocean.
- Oh, okay.
- So they'll rid the ocean of stuff that is like a dead dolphin- - Yeah, ocean janitors.
- Yeah, they're ocean janitors.
- [Baratunde] Okay.
- So that's a major part of their diet.
Although sharks are vulnerable worldwide, their numbers here are growing.
And scientists are seeing an increasing number of juvenile sharks move further up the California coastline.
- These shark populations have skyrocketed.
There's no hard way to know exactly what their numbers are.
- But places like the California State University, Long Beach shark lab.
- It has a shark lab?
- [Carlos] And those scientists, they actually tag the sharks.
- And they're able to monitor shark populations based on tag movement.
- [Baratunde] I can't help but wonder what scientists are learning about these neighbors I never knew I had.
- [Carlos] I'm bringing it down here, grab it.
(laughs) And I'm equally curious to know what working for a shark lab is like.
Turns out, that requires getting on a boat, and heading just off the coast of Santa Barbara.
(intense music) Alright, I'm about ready to start seeing some sharks.
I still can't believe I'm about to do this.
Today, thanks to the fog, the beaches here are basically abandoned.
But it seems there are other swimmers below the surf.
- This is kind of the hot spot.
So welcome to the nursery.
(Baratunde laughs) - [Baratunde] The man responsible for my nervous laughter is Chris Lowe, a Marine biologist who's been tracking the changing movement of sharks off the California coast.
For years, he's been the director of the shark lab.
- [Chris] Let's fly the drone up.
- [Baratunde] And just like any good director, it doesn't take him long to identify his star.
- [Chris] Oh see, there it is right there.
- [Baratunde] Yep.
- Just tooling along.
- Oh wow.
- [Baratunde] Cruising along.
- [Baratunde] Chilling, just like Carlos said.
Oh my God.
But right now I admit I have zero chill.
Oh my God.
Oh my God.
- [Chris] And that's a toddler, right?
- [Baratunde] A toddler, yes.
But according to Chris, there's an entire nursery out here of 40 young sharks.
- [Chris] Think about it.
You're at a beach.
- [Chris] You know, that's literally 150 feet away.
- [Baratunde] It's right there.
- It's maybe 10 feet deep right here.
And then we've got all these sharks.
- Hanging out on the playground.
- It's their playground.
And the number of juveniles in these playgrounds is only getting bigger as they congregate in large groups and learn to hunt.
- When we first started, getting access to sharks was hard.
Over 16 years, it's gotten much easier.
And that's because numbers are going up.
- [Baratunde] Chris and his team wanna understand why juvenile sharks are showing up in these waters in greater numbers.
Their tool of choice, high tech GPS trackers.
- [Chris] It's slowly coming up.
Nice and easy.
- [Baratunde] The trick is actually getting them on the sharks.
- [Chris] Nice and easy to 12 feet, 15 feet.
- So close.
- [Chris] Keep coming a little bit more.
More, keep coming, keep coming.
- [Baratunde] Catching up with one of these young sharks is kind of like playing tag with a pack of unruly kids.
- [Chris] Little bit more.
Give me a little more.
He scared it, peeling off this way.
It's between the two boats.
He's a little too deep.
- [Baratunde] But finally like a conservationist Captain Ahab, Chris zeros in on his target.
- [Chris] Nice and easy.
Slow down, slow down.
- [Baratunde] Man, the jab.
(laughs) I didn't do it, but I feel accomplished.
That was great.
(laughs) It really was.
And that's not the end of it.
The hits just keep on coming.
- [Chris] This way.
- [Baratunde] I feel like it made you work for that.
- It was gonna take the pole.
(Baratunde laughs) - [Baratunde] To be fair, it feels like the sharks are owed something.
They're offering Chris and his team invaluable insight into what's drawing them to these waters and beyond.
In fact, the shark lab scientists have found that young sharks are migrating as far north as Monterey, 200 miles from here.
- What we've noticed is these young white sharks like this nursery habitat that has warm water.
And what we found was that the water off Monterey over the last 15 to 20 years is getting progressively warmer.
- So that means nurseries are shifting north.
That's climate change.
- [Chris] Animals are gonna start showing up in places where they haven't been before.
- [Baratunde] Chris and his colleagues are sharing their data with lifeguards to get them familiar with the movement of sharks along their beaches.
But there's another message they're sharing.
Humans and sharks can get along in the great outdoors.
So, long as we learn to understand them.
- It helps people respect the wildlife, or respect the locals as we say, if they know who the locals are.
- Okay, so the now we're talking just basic neighborliness.
And knowing that your neighbor is actually nicer than you think, that goes a long way.
- That helps a ton.
(peaceful music) It's a common thread, actually, that I keep encountering in my journey across LA.
The outdoors is all about community and respect.
How we connect with it, how we see it, how we treat it, that can have major consequences.
And that's nowhere clearer than on the edges of LA, where warning signs are everywhere that our bond with nature is starting to break.
- California tonight is home to a record shattering heat wave and about two dozen wildfires currently burning across the state.
(sirens blaring) - There's been little relief from a record breaking fire season that has burned more than 5 million acres.
- It's so surreal, almost like how everything is just gone.
- [Baratunde] Climate change has brought Los Angeles rising temperatures and historic droughts.
Transforming the landscape and locking LA in a near constant battle with wildfires.
In 2020, California saw five of the six largest wildfires in its history.
With the fight against fire sow as urgent as ever, more and more are being trained for the front lines.
- Alright, we gonna do some jumping jacks on my count.
One, two, three- - [Baratunde] Royal Ramey is doing just that.
As one of the co-founders of the Fire and Forestry Recruitment Program.
- [Recruits] Nine, ten.
- Push up position.
- So your name is Royal.
First of all, just like that's a cool name.
- Thank you.
(laughs) - Congratulations.
So what's the training program like to be able to fight wild fires?
- You gotta be physically fit.
You on fires constantly for a 14 day assignment.
You doing 16 hour days.
- So physically fit, being able to run a certain amount of miles, long distance, push ups, sit ups, jumping jacks.
- [Baratunde] Fighting fires requires serious physical fitness.
- [Recruits] Three.
- To be fair, Royal's trainees knew what they were signing up for.
- [Royal] Down.
- [Baratunde] That's because nearly all of them have already been fighting wildfires for years as inmate firefighters in the California penal system.
- [Royal] Up.
- [Baratunde] Around 30% of the states' wildfire force is made up of incarcerated men and women earning just a few dollars a day to risk their lives.
Until his release in 2014, Royal was one of them.
And for him, the program opened doors.
I'm relatively new to California.
So I didn't realize it was on fire all the time.
- (chuckles) Alright.
- Like there's a fire season.
And then I learned that this state is heavily dependent on incarcerated individuals to fight those fires.
How did that sit with you when you were one of those firefighters?
You know, on the other side, on the inside?
- Honestly, obviously you got a good opportunity.
- When you go there, right.
'Cause you're not actually locked up.
I think that's one of the benefits, like the little carrot that's hanging there.
- So you went to prison and got to be outside.
- That's not most people's understanding of how prison works.
It doesn't work that way for most people.
- Why did you stay in fire?
You're no longer incarcerated.
What's the connection?
What's the lure?
- I loved fighting fire when I was there.
But I noticed that it wasn't like a true pathway.
We know that it's a lot of people that have a passion, a true passion, but they just don't know how to apply it when they come home because of people say you can't be a firefighter because you got a felony.
So I took it upon myself with my partner.
We try to figure it out.
We got a lot of doors slammed in our face, but we just was persistent.
- [Baratunde] It can be an uphill battle, convincing state and local fire departments to hire applicants with a criminal record.
So Royal co-founded the recruitment program to provide further firefighting training and job placement to former inmates.
Why do you come back to the fire?
- I came back to change the perspective of what people say, oh, he's a gang member.
He ain't gonna do nothing in life.
I'm a first responder now.
I'm a firefighter.
The look of my kids eyes, it means everything to me.
That my dad ain't a bum no more.
He's a firefighter.
- Oscar, why did you come back to the fire?
- I came back to the fire because I feel like it was my duty to come back and get back to society, and be able to protect the land, and be able to protect people's property, and defend their homes.
Let's line up.
- [Oscar] And also for the teamwork that we show amongst our group.
- Last man got it.
- It's phenomenal.
It's like a family here.
(uplifting music) - [Baratunde] Delaney Montoya entered the California penal system in 2017.
Two years later, she was offered the opportunity to become an inmate firefighter.
When you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?
- I wanted to be a princess.
(both laughing) I never thought I would be a firefighter ever.
- [Baratunde] What is your favorite part of fighting fire?
- It's exciting.
Like there's nothing that could possibly explain the feeling it is to be out there when the whole mountain's on fire, and you have to stop the fire from going further.
Helping people and saving lives.
And then the gratitude.
Having people come up to you and tell you, thank you for your service.
And I'm an inmate.
I used to have prisoner down my leg.
I have prisoner across my back.
And they're saying, thank you.
We appreciate you.
There's just the most amazing feeling to feel like you're doing good.
Like you're wanted.
- Going from being a mess up and just a low life, to being accomplished and doing things that are like unfathomable.
It's an incredible feeling honestly.
- [Baratunde] In the summer of 2020, Delaney learned she was being released from prison early due to COVID.
But she didn't celebrate because she didn't wanna leave.
- I found out in July that I was getting out in three weeks.
- Oh wow, yeah.
- And I was devastated.
I was all write me up.
I don't wanna get out.
I loved fighting fires so much that I wanted to do that.
- And I just didn't think it was possible to do it out here.
- [Baratunde] Yeah.
(chainsaw revving) This training program now makes becoming a professional firefighter a possibility for Delaney.
She still has some certifications to earn, but knowing how hard she's worked here- - [Delaney] Free falling.
- [Baratunde] I have no doubt her dreams are within reach.
- Whether it's on an engine or a crew, if I have to do grunt work, I don't care what I have to do to be successful.
I am going to be a firefighter.
I know it's not gonna happen overnight.
I've never quit on anything ever.
You wait and see.
I'm gonna do great things.
- I believe it.
If there's a fire coming for my house, I want you there.
- Thank you.
(uplifting music) - [Baratunde] Firefighting is about saving others.
But in many ways, Delaney has been saved by firefighting too.
It gives me hope to see the passion of Delaney, and her fellow trainees for their work.
And for the great endangered outdoors.
Because this landscape all around us, and Los Angeles itself need all the help they can get.
No one knows the stakes more than Royal and his team.
- Oh, look a deer.
- You saw that right?
(laughs) - Yes.
That was cool.
- (laughs) That was very cool.
That deer was fast.
- [Baratunde] Now that you've been out here, and your work is involved in fighting fires.
What does nature mean to you?
- It means a lot.
I wanna preserve it.
I want everything to exist the way it is, and animals and everything.
Like everything has its little place.
And if the fires burn it down, things go extinct.
And I love the outside.
I love animals.
I love the earth, and I just want it to survive.
(uplifting music) - [Baratunde] Finding nature in the city, and fighting to preserve it.
That's the story I've seen so often in Los Angeles.
It's not just battling wildfire.
It's saving a river, planting a garden, claiming a wave, or just enjoying nature in whatever form you find it.
- I've only lived in Los Angeles for a few years.
I can remember when I got here, I was surprised by how green it is, by how big the mountains are, by how loud the birds are, at least in my neighborhood.
But filming this episode has reminded me of how much nature so easily passes me by.
It's like a floral arrangement.
- [Rosie] It really is.
It really is.
- This is so much color.
But if I choose to put my attention just on the natural landscape, I could easily forget that I'm in a city at all.
A city where you can forget you're in a city.
A 21st century metropolis where you can find natural spaces that feel ancient.
- Hold it, hold it, hold it.
- [Baratunde] A place where you must fight to save mother nature.
But where nature just as often will save you.
LA is full of contradictions, but who wants to sit around making sense of it?
The sky is blue, the sun is shining, and I'm starting to feel a vibe.
- LA .
(both laughing) That's the vibe.
♪ ♪ ♪