|It Takes a
By Wendee Holtcamp
"Ah Maria! Ah Maria!" Juan
calls excitedly from the bow of his 18-foot fishing panga, the Caribbean Queen.
We're just outside of Baja's Magdalena Bay, and I wonder if Juan is exclaiming jubilant
Hail Mary's, when the reason for his excitement comes into view a domed turtle
shell floating on the ocean surface in the distance, a tern perched atop it. For a minute,
I consider that it might be a hunk of discarded rubbish, but as we approach, the tern
alights and the turtle attempts a slippery escape.
Before it can dive under, my husband Matt jumps into the cold Pacific and grabs the large creature from behind. His legs kicking
and his face barely above water, he steers the turtle toward the panga, where the rest of
the crew - Juan's brother Gabino, schoolteacher Louise Hayward, University of Baja
California student Melania Lopez, field assistant Marc Taylor, and the instigator of the project, Wallace
"J." Nichols help lift the turtle onto the boat. Juan jumps into
the ocean on the opposite side, fully dressed in jeans and a shirt. Laughing, he climbs
back on, fully dressed and soaking wet from head to toe, and says "I don't know why I
jumped in!" We all get a good chuckle.
Despite appearances, we're not seeking meat for turtle soup, but data and camaraderie.
I'm joining in a day of turtle scouting and research with Nichols, escorted by two
fishermen, Juan and Gabino Sarrabias, from the Baja California town of Puerto San Carlos.
Juan tells me "Amarilla," (pronounced Ah Maria) means yellow, but is a name for
Loggerhead turtle in the local lingo. Loggerheads are the main creatures we're looking for
today, but this turtle turns out to be an Olive Ridley.
University of Arizona doctoral student, hires the brothers as boatmen to take his
crew-of-the-moment out with their fishing panga. "I can't say enough about these
guys," says Nichols. "They are very honest, super fishermen, and really into the
project." Even though he could easily rent his own boat, Nichols likes to give back
to the communities he works in, and has formed some genuine friendships and loyal turtle
fans along the way.
Besides an inordinate fondness for turtles, Nichols holds some unorthodox ideas about
the interplay between science and conservation. Amidst many biologists that prefer to
remain dispassionate about the subjects of their research, or who have little time for
interaction with local citizens, Nichols stands apart. He believes conservation, science,
and community involvement go hand in hand -- particularly in countries like Mexico where
endangered species law enforcement is sparse, despite strict laws prohibiting harvest or
possession. "It's a combination of 'greed' and 'need' that perpetuates the illegal
activities," Nichols says. "Turtle is still considered the sea's best food, and
even politicians regularly partake."
In spite of many obstacles, Nichols has succeeded in influencing attitudes, arousing
interest, and effecting positive changes in the way Baja citizens from around the
peninsula think about sea turtles. Using a 'bottom-up' approach, Nichols encourages
people he encounters - including fishermen, students, teachers and professionals - to help
out in his conservation and research efforts. He regularly hires or trades with Baja
fishermen in exchange for acting as boatmen while his crew scouts for research turtles,
and encourages them to record information on turtles they spot when he is not around.
The turtle work has become "their project" as much as Nichols' own. He down
plays his role in the effort, "I view our work as a partnership," says Nichols.
"I played a part in getting it going but now it's just a matter of feeding it,
or getting out of the way if necessary."
The term 'Community Based Conservation' (CBC) has been coined for the type of community
involvement Nichols cultivates. CBC is perhaps best known in Africa, where wildlife
refuges regularly employ Africans as refuge guards to prevent poaching, and biologists and
eco-tourist companies hire locals to haul gear or lead wildlife safaris.
In Latin America, CBC is a newer concept, but few doubt its effectiveness - if done
properly. In a chapter on CBC and sea turtle conservation for an upcoming book,
Smithsonian Institution's Jack Frazier states, "Realistic conservation practices must
be integrated with, and supported by, the communities that interact with the turtles and
their habitats." Frazier notes that it's not unusual for people to wrap themselves in
the shroud of a noble conservation cause when their real motives are exploitation or self
promotion, but he says, "In J.'s case," he says, "this is not a reality. J.
is a person with great personal charm and honesty."
The sound of the 55 horsepower motor humming over the ocean is interrupted by more
excited pointing toward another Olive Ridley with a tern perched upon its shell.
"I no look for turtles, I look for birds!" jokes Juan in English. Marc
and Matt jump in, and guide the turtle toward the panga, lifting her sixty-pound bulk over
Over the next couple hours, we find and capture four turtles, all Olive Ridleys, and
three donning perched gulls. The Ridleys are an unusual catch -- Nichols has only seen
twelve total Olive Ridleys at sea in the past six years he has worked in Baja. Once
the turtles are on the panga, Melania Lopez places a t-shirt over the turtles' heads to
calm them. The reptilian beasts squirm and crawl on top of each other, but their activity
quickly abates. I reach down to stroke one of the turtle's necks. I am surprised at
the soft feel to the cool reptilian skin. I didn't expect it to feel so, well, alive.
"It seems that as a society we are moving further away from the animals, although
we care so much about them," Nichols says. "Those moments when you can
spontaneously interact with a wild animal, one on one, in their environment--whether it's
under the ocean, on a mountain, in the middle of the desert--are pretty special, life
I watch the way my husband, a long-time outdoor enthusiast, is radiant from his
one-on-one interaction with the sea turtles, and I understand what Nichols means.
Hands-on turtle work means more than 'us helping the turtles;' it's also about the turtles
In addition to the community based conservation, Nichols started an international
network of students, teachers, aquariusts, and conservation organizations that follow the
global movements of his satellite-tracked sea turtles using maps and the internet. A few
of teachers and a group of students raised funds to travel to Baja to help out with the
turtle work in person, versus from the classroom. Louise Hayward, who is with us today,
came down so that she could make the project more alive to her students who track the
turtles during the year.
With the afternoon sun growing long in the sky, we head back to San Carlos here Nichols
and crew will measure, weigh, and id-tag each turtle. After that, they will release the
turtles back into the vast Pacific.
On the way, we stop at a laid-back island town for snacks. Not ten feet from where we
beach the panga is a pickup bed used as a trash dumpster, and inside lies the rotting
carapace of an adult Loggerhead turtle -- one that might have been the perfect size for a
I am disheartened to see the hard evidence of illegal turtle harvest right in front of
me. But the more I ponder, I come to realize that these people - who know Nichols stops by
on a regular basis - must have a deep trust and respect for him to be able to discard the
shell in public view. They even share with him details about the turtle for his research,
including the sex and whether it had an ID tag or not. "The people need to know I'm
not 'the police' before they will tell the truth about their activities," says
Nichols. "The first thing they tell you is usually not the truth."
While declining sea turtle numbers don't allow legal regulated take, many fishermen
continue to harvest them because of the timeless tradition of turtle meals.
"Turtle is a very traditional dish -- one that brings their community
together." says Nichols. Turtles have been central to the Bajaway of life for
thousands of years, as food and as a part of their culture. Because of this, people
genuinely care about sea turtles, and can usually be easily persuaded to undertake
Nichols offers simple suggestions for ensuring the long-term survival of sea turtles.
He explains that if they must kill a turtle, it's better to take the males than
females, and the smaller non-reproductive turtles over the larger reproductively active
ones. Though some might argue that Nichols' permissive attitude would encourage
rather than dissuade turtle harvest, he believes there's a difference between those
harvesting one turtle to eat and harvest for sales and illegal export.
"Occasional local consumption isn't the problem," he says. "It's
uncontrolled commercial harvest that leads to depletion. There are only a few who catch
turtles to sell, and most people don't respect their behavior." Nonetheless, those
few are perhaps the most crucial, yet hardest to reach, with his message.
The Mexican people are well aware that sea turtles have suffered massive declines over
the past years. Nichols says conservation leading toward sustainability just takes a bit
of voluntary restraint on the part of fishermen. The Sarrabias brothers are an outstanding
example. "They like the taste of turtle, but throw them back if they catch them in
their [fishing] nets," says Nichols.
Nichols learns a lot from the locals. "Fishermen know a lot about the sea,"
he says. "I appreciate that, and love to learn and share what they know."
The fishermen know where the turtles are likely to be found, and have seen some unusual
behaviors not yet documented scientifically, like sea turtle hibernation.
Likewise, he tells me that his research findings intrigue the fishermen, "I'll ask
them, 'how far do you think the turtles swim?' and they'll say 'far' but when I tell them
the Baja turtles migrate all the way to Japan, they are blown away!" It gives them a
new perspective on the turtles, he says.
One fisherman from the tiny seaside town of Juncalito, Juan de la Cruz, has been
particularly influential to Nichols. He tells me, "As we became better friends he
told me about his life as a fisherman and how he had killed thousands of turtles when it
was legal. Then he gave me the spearhead that he used to kill the turtles with. He said he
has seen the destruction caused by over fishing in his lifetime, and he wants to leave
something for his daughters. Now he would work to help the turtles." De la Cruz
has been working with Nichols since then, as a boatman and field assistant when Nichols
makes his rounds near Juncalito.
|We head back to San Carlos, and hitch the panga to the Sarrabias brothers'
vehicle. We haul the panga -- turtles still inside it -- 500 feet to the
Center for Wetland Studies, a college-level program run by the U.S.-based School for Field
Studies. It stands like an oasis amongst the modest town, despite just having simple
thatched roofs on white-painted concrete huts.
||It takes two hours to do all that is needed - taking skin
samples for genetic studies, recording information about the turtle's shell including the
locations of barnacles and number of "scutes," attaching a metal ID-tag to each
of the turtle's flippers, and weighing and measuring each of the four turtles. All
four Ridleys were the size of
| reproductively active females, possibly heading south
It's late afternoon now, and the deep blue water of Magdalena Bay stirs to the gentle
breeze as I stroll down the San Carlos beach. The stench of decaying squid entrails
makes my nose wrinkle. This summer's skyrocketing squid numbers in the Pacific has
drawn men from all over Mexico to cash in on the ocean's bounty, and many have set up camp
on the normally isolated beachfront. A day's worth of squid fishing nets each fisherman
around US$100 a day - about five times what they're used to. True to form, Nichols
uses the influx of fishermen to the sea turtles' advantage.
Marc Taylor passes out flyers to fishermen camped on the beach, explaining in Spanish
about the hour-long "tortugas marinas" slide show Nichols plans to give in the
evening at the Center for Wetland Studies conference room. We have no idea that nearly
fifty people will show up quite an audience to share tales, photos and ideas with.
Fifteen minutes after the talk is scheduled, men start to trickle in. The seats fill up
as Nichols turns the lights out and the slide projector on. Speaking in Spanish, Nichols
shows slides of each turtle species found around Mexico, explains his own research, and
gives advice about eating the smaller sized turtles, if they must eat any at all. The guys
ask questions, seem responsive, and laugh when Nichols says the turtles mate for several
hours at sea. Despite my paltry understanding of Spanish, the talk strikes me as extremely
successful. Nichols approaches them on their terms laid back,
non-judgmental, and with an understanding of their interests. "For our efforts
to be successful, it's important to consider the perspectives and opinions of
others." he says, "In my experience, I've come to know that I don't know
Including San Carlos, Nichols regularly visits six main places along the Baja
peninsula, networking with locals, biologists, and non-profit organizations in the cities
and small villages. "I don't want them to think of me as a 'turtle-hugger' but
to go home with a greater appreciation of the turtles they encounter at sea."
Ultimately, Nichols hopes the people he meets will incorporate ecological awareness into
their daily lives that will lead to the conservation of more than just turtles.
Wendee Holtcamp writes for Discovery Channel Online, Audubon, Animals,
E the Environmental Magazine, among others from her home in southeast Texas.