Baja communities play a key role in conservation

articles Travel & Destinations

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 California’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.

Baja communities play a key role in conservation © Wendee Holtcamp 2008Before 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 canaraderie. 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, a name for Loggerhead turtles in the local lingo, but this turtle turns out to be an Olive Ridley.

Baja communities play a key role in conservation © Wendee Holtcamp 2008Nichols, a 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.

Nichols is here for more than just his doctoral research. Besides an inordinate fondness for turtles, he holds some unorthodox ideas about the interplay between science and conservation. Amid many biologists that prefer to remain dispassionate about the subjects of their research, or who desire little 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.

Baja communities play a key role in conservation © Wendee Holtcamp 2008The turtle work has become “their project” as much as Nichols’ own. He downplays 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.”

Likewise Greg Carter of Ocean Resources Foundation (ORF) says, “We cannot venture into Latin America and tell the locals this is the way they should live their lives. We can only lead them to draw their own conclusions and change their customs for the consideration of their children, because they feel it is right.” ORF helps supports Nichols’ project through research grants and public education.

Baja communities play a key role in conservation © Wendee Holtcamp 2008The 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 the edge.

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 changing even.”

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 is also about the turtles changing us.

Baja communities play a key role in conservation © Wendee Holtcamp 2008
© Wendee Holtcamp 2008

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 these 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 where 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 satellite transmitter.

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 Baja way 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 conservation measures.

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 overfishing 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 to nest.

* * *

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 and human feces 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 and 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. Marc, Matt and Gabino get out more and more folding chairs to make room for everyone. 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 hours at sea. Despite my understanding only about ten words of the talk, it 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. “I’ve come to know that I don’t know much.”

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.

The efforts to protect sea turtles in Baja California and throughout Mexico continue to grow. Some might even call it a Sea Turtle Revolution! The grassroots conservation network, Grupo Tortuguero, now represents more than 500 people from 25 coastal communities. The group promotes sea turtle conservation through the media, festivals, educational programs and literature. They also provide the scientific knowledge to guide conservation. Each year the entire network meets in Loreto, Baja California Sur to celebrate and share their mission. And it’s paying off. Sea turtles are returning to many bays, estuaries and beaches of the region. New protected areas for sea turtles have been proposed, and non-profit and government support for sea turtle protection has expanded greatly. There is still a long way to go to ensure the safety of these endangered animals, but there is a strong reason for hope.

The success of Grupo Tortuguero has inspired a new global network of young people called Ocean Revolution, united in their effort to protect the oceans. Visit for more information and to get involved.

(Originally published in Animals Magazine Nov/Dec 1998)

Published or Updated on: February 16, 2007 by Wendee Holtcamp © 2008
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