Turtles, Dolphins, and… Scarlet Macaws?

A gaggle of macaws (photo by Hal Brindley)

A gaggle of macaws (photo by Hal Brindley)

Our group of amateur marine biologists milled on a quiet Costa Rican beach, anxious to head out into the calm Golfo Dulce (aka Sweet Gulf) to study sea turtles as part of a local research project. The calm was broken with a sudden screech from two passing scarlet macaws, their bright red color standing out against the light blue sky. The harsh call of this spectacular bird would become the soundtrack to our exploration of the Osa Peninsula, described once by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on earth.”

Heading north out into the glassy gulf, our group applied their sunscreen and readied their cameras. After a smooth 20 minute ride, the boats came to a stop and the research staff of Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) started unraveling their nets and placing them in the water as turtles popped their heads out of the water to breathe. The nets are designed to catch sea turtles but also allow them to reach the surface and breathe. Our goal was to catch green and hawksbill sea turtles that forage in the Golfo Dulce so that we could collect data and judge their health before releasing them back to the water.

Located between the Osa Peninsula and the Costa Rican mainland, along the southern Pacific coast, the Golfo Dulce is an extraordinary wildlife habitat. Among the ocean wildlife found here include three species of sea turtles, two species of dolphins, several species of whales, and whale sharks. The Gulf is considered one of only five tropical fjords found throughout the world and is one of the only places in the world where two different populations of humpback whales come to breed.

After the nets were set, volunteers hopped in the water to swim along the nets and unravel any sections that got entangled. We then headed to the beach to wait. As if on cue, within minutes a large male green turtle was caught and brought by the researchers to the beach. Our group scrambled to claim jobs helping with the data collection including measuring the shell, plastron (underside of the shell), tail, keeping a towel over the turtle’s head (which keeps it calm), and writing down the data onto a data sheet.

Green turtle returning to the water (photo: Brad Nahill)

Green turtle returning to the water (photo: Brad Nahill)

After that turtle was released, our group spread out to explore the area. Some played in the water while others wandered along the coast to look for more macaws and other wildlife. Throughout the day, we caught four more turtles, all of them green turtles, and everybody in the group had opportunities to help. One of the turtles was well known to the staff, a female green turtle that migrates to the Gulf from the Galapagos each year. The sea grass beds and mangroves provide foraging habitat for the greens and hawksbills but where most of the turtles come from and go to afterwards is still a mystery.

Mangrove hatchery (photo by Hal Brindley)

Mangrove hatchery (photo by Hal Brindley)

The next day, we headed to LAST’s mangrove restoration project. Our volunteers lined up around a mud pit with nervous looks, unsure of what was to be asked of them. The coast around the Gulf is rich with mangroves but many acres have been lost over the past few decades. Mangroves are critical to the health of coastal species, providing both protection from erosion and storms and places for fish and other small animals to reproduce and grow. To our relief, our job was only to fill plastic bags with dirt and plant them with mangrove seeds. Working efficiently, our small group knocked out more than 200 bags, ready to be planted by the next group of volunteers.

 

After a couple of days focused on reptiles and trees, we turned our focus to marine mammals. Joining a group of researchers from the Cetacean Research Center (CEIC in Spanish), we headed out again into a different part of the Gulf to look for bottlenose and spotted dolphins. Each person was assigned a job to collect data every half hour during the day, including weather, air, and ocean temperature, and the level of waves. Our two boats spread out to cover a larger area and after about an hour we got word the other boat had found a large group of spotted dolphins.

Dolphin watching with CEIC (photo Hal Brindley)

Dolphin watching with CEIC (photo Hal Brindley)

Keeping mostly to the deep waters in the middle of the Gulf, the spotted dolphins travel in large groups for safety. Roughly 100 of the slippery cetaceans foraged, socialized, and occasionally jumped out of the water while our two boats recorded their behavior and took photos used to identify individuals by their dorsal fins. Once we had our fill with this pod, we moved to the coastal areas near river mouths where the bottlenose dolphins can usually be found. We saw two small groups of mothers and calves of this more solitary species of dolphin.

Our tally from the Gulf was five sea turtles, dozens of scarlet macaws, and more than a hundred dolphins. Through SEE Turtles, we raised roughly $1,000 for sea turtle and marine mammal research and conservation in addition to our volunteer help and several thousand dollars invested into local communities. 

Ecotourism Before Ecotourism Was Cool

Interview with Kevin Smith, Captain of the Maple Leaf

By Paula von Weller

Based in beautiful British Columbia, Maple Leaf Adventures offers wildlife and cultural sailing adventures aboard a 92-foot, classic sailing ship in the company of expert naturalists. Maple Leaf Adventures has received numerous awards and accolades such as National Geographic Travelers "50 Tours of a Lifetime", Frommer's "Canada's 6 Best Travel Experiences", and was recently named a finalist for Parks Canada’s National Sustainable Tourism Award.

Apart from their sailing cruises, what makes them different is their dedication to supporting efforts to protect this region’s incredible natural resources. From supporting and working with conservation organizations to advocating for environmental protection and educating clients about how to help, Maple Leaf Adventures goes beyond traditional ecotourism. SEEtheWILD’s Paula von Weller recently spoke to the company’s president, Kevin Smith.

What kind of traveler does Maple Leaf Adventures attract?

We attract adventurous spirits, people that are willing to look at their precious holiday time and say “yeah, I’d like to go to some place that’s maybe a little bit off the map and isn’t Disneyland or a Carnival cruise.” That means that right away when you get onboard you’re with a bunch of like-minded people that are up for an adventure. They understand that it might rain on them (because we’re in a rainforest after all) and that wildlife is not on a schedule or in any way contained like in a zoo and don’t perform on cue. If the Maple Leaf is able to get us out there in the best possible places then the likelihood is, if we keep our eyes open, we’re going to see what we came for.

Maple Leaf Adventures

Maple Leaf Adventures

Maureen Gordon/Maple Leaf Adventures

Maureen Gordon/Maple Leaf Adventures

What’s your most popular trip?

Probably our Great Bear Rainforest trip. It’s the area that MLA pioneered travel into. Nobody was doing trips there before we started going there and most of the area wasn’t protected. We began taking lots of media in to say “hey look, this is really important up here and deserves protection”. I volunteered 5 years of my life to work on the land use planning for that area and we managed to get about 35 percent of the area tied up as a new conservation area. I did that because I’m an environmentalist and conservationist first and a business owner second.

Tell me about your involvement with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s bear monitoring?

Unfortunately Raincoast is doing the work that our government probably has a responsibility to do but hasn't been, or can’t do properly. We’re tied to the hip these days and I have so much respect for the work that the organization does. They investigate and inform and inspire people. Being involved with them and the lead scientists doing their bear work is wonderful because we’re helping them with whatever small amount we can by reporting sightings, and they’re able to tell us the latest genetic information about the bears that they’re getting samples from, and what that means about the lives of the bears we know and see.

Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

On our tours, people understand the tie in between what we do and how we protect these areas and the truth is, people fall in love with these areas that they travel to with us. They fall deeply in love because they have an understanding of it at a deep level and the natural thing for all of our guests is to ask in the last couple of days of the trip "what can we do to help this area?".

And then we introduce them to the scientists and the conservation organizations that are doing the work here because they need help, letters need to be written, etc. In our case we can point to all kinds of really beautiful, big successes - new protected areas that we've absolutely been a part of. I've had the honor of actually drawing the lines of the map of costal British Columbia of brand new protected areas. That's my line and I made it as big as possible!

Many people have never heard of a Spirit Bear. Can you tell me a little about them?

Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

People haven't heard of them because they're only in one part of the world and that's right here on the BC coast. They are more rare than any bear on the planet, more rare than a panda and other small bears. The Spirit Bears are a white phase of the black bear; they are very distinct, they look completely different from all the other black and brown bears, they really stand out against all the dark greens of the forest so they sort of suddenly appear out of the forest edge to catch a fish then they quickly go back into the forest.

The First Nations elders told all of the communities not to tell anyone about the Spirit Bear because they knew that the Europeans that were coming to the coast for the last couple hundred years would very likely want to have one of these rare bears as a trophy and they didn't want to be any part of that at all. They had no tradition of hunting or eating bears and they lived with great reverence and respect for the bears.

It's only fairly recently that the Spirit Bear has been sort of championed by the BC government to become an emblem of the wildlife here and the pristine forests and wilderness, and fortunately now there's a complete and total ban on any hunting of the Spirit Bar which is important. We're always educating our guests and the wider population about these issues because we come up against it.

The mystery is why they evolved here. It’s thought they may have an advantage in catching salmon in the daytime over darker bears.

Can you tell me about your role in developing First Nations tourism in Canada?

It’s important to know that these communities are developing tourism themselves; it’s not paternalistic. What we provide is experience, long-term examples, recognition of their traditional territory, and economic benefits to the local communities from sustainable tourism that recognizes the economic value of conservation. This is in keeping with many First Nations ethics.

More than 10 years ago I worked to bridge the gap between non-First Nations-owned businesses like MLA going into First Nations traditional territory. Ours was the first company to set up protocol agreements with First Nations and we have several of those in place now and several we’re working on. These protocol agreements are legal mechanisms to show respect of traditional territory (land claims are unsettled here), agree on our values and how we work together, and recognize some but not all of the economic benefits. So now we travel into their territories with added mutual respect and it’s been copied and followed by other tour operators.

By our own planning, we leave significant resources behind in these communities. Our dollars fund watchman programs so they (First Nations) can go out and actually make sure poachers are not illegally hunting these bears in the area, for example. That's in everyone’s best interest and it's totally appropriate that the First Nations are getting the training to go out and do that work and keep an eye on the resources in their territory.

Wildlife Travel with a Side of Adventure

Incorporating outdoor sports that range from hiking to snorkeling, these Wildlife Adventure Tours are perfect for the active wildlife enthusiast. Learning opportunities abound as you explore the open ocean, mountains, rainforest and other stunning environments, viewing wildlife in their natural habitat, with the assistance of multi-talented, naturalist guides. In addition to offering tips on how to navigate Alaska’s coastal waters by sea kayak or stealthily trek the Amazon rainforest, experienced guides will educate you on local culture, flora and fauna. It’s a hands-on, thrill-packed learning experience – perfect for the adventurous at heart.

GrupoEcoTortuguero_257.jpg

In addition to offering tips on how to navigate Alaska’s coastal waters by sea kayak or stealthily trek the Amazon rainforest, experienced guides will educate you on local culture, flora and fauna. It’s a hands-on, thrill-packed learning experience – perfect for the adventurous at heart.

As always, proceeds from these tours support local conservation efforts at your destination, while tour operators, lodging, meals and other services are locally sourced in order to strengthen local economies and promote sustainable tourism. In short, you can enjoy a spectacular adventure while doing your part to support wildlife conservation.

The following five trips are our most popular adventure tours; you can also browse our full selection of adventure tours on our website.

  • Glaciers and Grizzlies: Delve into the coastal rainforest habitat of Southern Alaska as you explore the shoreline of Glacier Bay and the rugged wilderness of Denali National Park, home of North America’s tallest peak. Hike through thick old growth in search of bears and other wildlife, and view calving glaciers and whales by boat. This 11-day trip starts at $6,395 per person.
  • Nicaragua Wildlife Adventure: Venture into Nicaragua’s rich cultural history, rural villages, and stunning natural landscapes by foot, bike and kayak on this family-friendly tour. You will explore key sea turtle nesting beaches, rainforest, volcanic craters and peaks, as well as colonial architecture and vibrant towns. Starting at a mere $2,850, this 9-day trip will give you more than your money’s worth.
  • Peru Andes and Amazon Expedition: From the heights of the Andes to the lowland rainforest of Tambopata, you will explore a vast swath of Peru’s fascinating landscape. Walk among the towering edifices of the Sacred Valley, visit Inkaterra’s spectacled bear conservation project, and boat and hike through species-rich rainforest on this 11-day tour. Starts at $3,375 per person.
  • Yellowstone Wildlife Safari: Explore one of the world’s first and most famous National Parks, Yellowstone, as well as its gorgeous neighbor, Grand Teton National Park. On wheels and on foot, you will seek out wildlife ranging from wolves and bears to bison and elk. Stops at stunning geothermal landmarks including Old Faithful and the Midway Geyser Basin, and views of soaring peaks will complete your experience. This 7-day trip starts at $3,995 per person.
  • Whale Sharks and Turtles of the Yucatan: Experience the highlights of the region known as the Mexican Riviera. Swim with whale sharks, the largest species of fish in the world; walk sea turtle nesting beaches; tour the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve; and explore the Mayan ruins of Tulum. Opportunities to enjoy world-class beaches and soak in cultural experiences also abound. This incredible 7-day experience starts at a mere $1,995 per person.

No matter the sport, wildlife or region you wish to experience, you will find ample adventure and enjoy wildlife conservation education on these eye-opening trips. It’s a great way to support conservation while getting your travel fix.

5 Things to Consider About Conservation Vacations

Ecotourism, green travel, sustainable tourism – call it what you will, it’s one of the fastest growing parts of the tourism market. Minimizing the negative impacts of travel has the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions, benefit low-income communities, and support efforts to protect endangered animals.

Unfortunately, so far, the impact (whether good or bad) of travel on wildlife has been an afterthought for most travelers. Tourism and the infrastructure it requires can destroy wildlife habitat, worsen climate change, result in litter and other pollution, and increase stress on wild animals. When done carefully, however, what we call “wildlife conservation travel” can be a force for good, providing volunteer help and generating funds for local conservation groups. Perhaps the most significant way that conservation travel can help endangered species is by creating economic benefits for local residents who otherwise would earn a living through fishing, hunting, or other activities that harm wildlife.

As you plan your next vacation, here are some things to think about before you decide where to go and what activities to do while you’re there.

1. Is your destination is a wildlife hotspot?

According to Conservation International, about half the planet’s species live in “biodiversity hotspots” occupying less than five percent of the world’s land. If you visit one of these spots, read up on which animals live there and look for opportunities to visit research and conservation programs. Some of these programs may offer short-term volunteer opportunities where you can participate in activities that few travelers get to experience. Many of these programs work through tour operators that offer these volunteer experiences together with transportation, food, and accommodations.

2. Supporting conservation and local communities.

If you decide to travel through a tour operator, do your research to make sure the one you choose actively supports environmental and social projects in its destinations. Some operators will offer discounts for travelers who donate to funds set up to support community groups; a great example is the Travelers Conservation Trust established by Wildland Adventures to support conservation organizations in various countries. Most of the operators who truly support such programs will be transparent about where the money goes.

If this information is not readily available, make sure you ask the operator what they do to support wildlife conservation. After all, if their business is based on travelers going to see lions in Africa or tigers in India, shouldn’t they want to make sure those animals will always be around? If they can’t answer that question, let them know you’ll be looking elsewhere. There’s no better way to motivate a company to improve its practices than by denying it your business.

Photo: Wildland Adventures

Photo: Wildland Adventures

3. Does your operator go beyond donations?

Giving money is one of the easier ways to support wildlife. Ask operators if they also support environmental protection and local residents in other ways. Do they offer volunteer programs? Do they employ people from nearby communities and use locally owned hotels and restaurants? Do they advocate for wildlife protection or participate in efforts to improve tourism practices? 

One of the best examples of going beyond donations is Canada’s Maple Leaf Adventures, whose founder Kevin Smith has been a leader in setting tourism standards for the Haida Gwaii Islands and promoting bear watching over bear hunting in British Columbia. The company also provides financial support to conservation organizations such as the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Photo: Maple Leaf Adventures

Photo: Maple Leaf Adventures

4. Make sure your vacation plans do not include activities that could harm wildlife.

Once you know which animals live in your destination and what your operator is doing to protect them, the next thing to think about is whether your choices of accommodation and activities might impact local wildlife. Are you staying in a high-rise chain hotel on a turtle nesting beach? If so, you might want to look for a locally owned cabin away from where the turtles come ashore instead. If you plan to use jet skis or boats, make sure to drive slowly, obey all regulations, and stay away from habitat for manatees and other animals. Check out this Turtle Watching Guide for ways to prevent harming turtles on nesting beaches and at sea. The Coral Reef Alliance also has several guides for travelers.

Photo: Neil Ever Osborne

Photo: Neil Ever Osborne

5. Stay off the beaten path.

Many of the most popular places to see wildlife become overrun with tourists, encouraging uncontrolled development that negatively impacts wildlife habitat. However, by doing a little research, you can usually find other places to see the same animals that don’t get nearly as much traffic. There are dozens of turtle nesting beaches in Costa Rica, yet the vast majority of travelers go to Tortuguero National Park. For your next African safari, consider places like Mozambique or Namibia’s Communal Conservancies instead of following the crowds to see lions in Kenya. 

By following these five recommendations as you plan your next adventure, you can enjoy a wildlife travel experience that not only leaves you with indelible memories but also has a positive impact on the places, people, and animals you’ve traveled to see.

Protecting Mozambique’s Gentle Giants

By Daniel van Duinkerken, Marine Megafauna Foundation

In 2012, the Marine Megafauna Foundation won a grant of $3,000 in a SEEtheWILD contest. With 1,236 votes for MMF on Facebook, we were overwhelmed by the amazing support for our conservation efforts in Mozambique.  But what were these funds exactly used for?       

The grant went towards a project entitled, ‘Habitat use and movement patterns of the reef manta ray, Manta alfredi”, which aims to gather information on movements and habitat use of manta rays along this very productive coastline. However, the reef manta ray population here has been very hard hit. With an 88% decline in manta ray sightings over an eight-year study period, more information on these enigmatic fish is needed. By using intricate tagging technologies to find out where these mantas go, we hope to be able to better protect them.

Marc Henauer, Dreamstime

Marc Henauer, Dreamstime

So how does this tagging work? We implement a type of tagging called ‘acoustic telemetry’. This sounds complicated, but the principle is in fact quite simple. ‘Acoustic transmitters’, which are the tags, and ‘acoustic receivers’, similar to an underwater microphone, are used together to monitor movement. Whenever a tag is within 300 to 500 meters of a receiver, it gets logged onto it. By tagging manta rays with acoustic transmitters and downloading the data from the receivers every couple of months, we will be able to see where the gentle giants hang out.

We have deployed 12 acoustic receivers at known manta aggregations sites, such as cleaning stations on reefs, or feeding sites.  This entire array, which stretches about 330 along the southern Mozambican coastline, has just been completed, and in the next six months, we aim to put 30 acoustic tags on manta rays.

So what type of information will this give us? It will show us how often and for how long the manta rays visit these sites. It will elucidate how far they move up and down the coastline and if they have preferences for specific areas. This will give us information on where their critical habitats and important movement corridors are located, indicating possible locations for future conservation efforts.

Some of our preliminary research efforts already showed some very interesting behaviour of these animals. For example, they seemed to only visit inshore sites during the day, and spend their time elsewhere during the night. Although they seemed to travel up and down the then 95-kilomtere acoustic array, they also showed strong preferences for specific areas. With our newly expanded array, we hope to find out more on their movements and habitat use. 

SEEtheWILD’s funding has enabled us to buy the little, much-needed transmitters.  In the next six months we will be deploying 30 of these tags and we hope to follow the movements of these elusive rays for one to two years. The data gathered from this study will greatly aid us in developing an effective conservation strategy for the reef manta rays here in Mozambique. So a big thank you to SEEtheWILD and to everyone who voted!

5 Wildlife Adventures for the Whole Family

Rising concern over the diminished role of nature in children’s lives has been the topic of serious discussion in the past couple of decades, and has led to publications such as Richard Louv’s best-seller Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. According to several studies, most kids rarely play outside, and they also learn about wild animals in zoos or in school, rather than first-hand.

A shift in the educational system is not close to fruition, but in the meantime, your family can enjoy first-hand experiences with animals in their natural habitats on one of the Family Wildlife Adventures offered on SEEtheWILD.org. These family adventures are suitable for all ages, providing families a memorable travel experience with lasting impacts. From studying sea turtles to learning how a jaguar researcher sets a camera trap, your family will have an unforgettable adventure while supporting conservation programs.

The five trips listed are our most popular family adventures; you can browse more options on the SEEtheWILD website.

  • Costa Rica Ultimate Wildlife Adventure: (Reefs to Rockies)

    Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula has been called “one of the most biologically intense places on Earth” by National Geographic, and rightly so: it is one of the best protected locations in Central America. Explore this lush environment as you actively learn about jaguars, monkeys, birds and reefs. Your family will snorkel the coastline, learn how to set a camera trap, and hike stunning landscapes before retiring to comfortable accommodations each evening. Starting at $1,995 per person, this 8-day trip gives you more than your money’s worth.
  • Undiscovered Belize Adventure: (Wildland Adventures)
    This trip is listed as one of National Geographic Traveler's "Tour of a Lifetime" with good reason. You and your family will journey off the beaten path to experience Belize’s cultural and natural resources. You will enjoy the remarkable diversity of sea life as you snorkel some of the world’s most renowned dive sites, and find jungle wildlife as you paddle down a river. On land, you will explore Mayan ruins, experience local culture, and hike tropical forests. This 9-day tour starts at $3,850.
  • Galapagos Adventure: (Natural Habitat Adventures)
    Explore one of the world’s most unique wildlife hot spots by private yacht. You will snorkel with sea lions, hike stunning landscapes, and get the chance to view the Galapagos’ famously unique species, including giant tortoises and a plethora of birds. Your family will also get the opportunity to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station, explore lava formations and camp among giant tortoises (optional). This 11-day trip starts at $5,695 per person.
  •  Whale Sharks and Sea Turtles of the Yucatan: (SEE Turtles)
    Enjoy the splendors of the Mexican Riviera’s coastline, culture and history. Your family will spend ample time snorkeling among gentle sea turtles and whale sharks, and viewing other marine species. On land, you will get the opportunity to explore the well-preserved Mayan ruins of Tulum, set upon cliffs overlooking the ocean, and to hike the wetlands and forest of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. This trip starts at $1,950 per person and lasts 7 days.
  • Great Bear Rainforest: (Maple Leaf Adventures)
    Explore the rugged wilderness of British Columbia by schooner, Zodiac, kayak, and on foot as you look for a variety of species. This lush temperate rainforest is home to grizzly bears, black bears, and the rare white Spirit bear, while the coastline and open ocean are frequented by humpback whales, orcas, and dolphins – the latter sometimes swims alongside the ship! Naturalist guides also teach you about local ecology, including the “salmon forest.” Starting at $2,630 per person, this voyage lasts 10 days.

Spanning multiple continents, species, and types of activities, these trips offer options for families of all ages, fitness levels, and interests. Where you go is up to you. What is important is that you choose to impart a love of the natural world, and the skills to explore it, to your children. Wherever you go, this is an important lesson to convey.

Oasis in a Sea of Humanity: Sea Turtles of The Yucatan

“We may have to walk a bit to see a turtle,” I told my 11-year-old daughter Karina as the huge supermoon rose over the Caribbean. My family was standing on X’cacel beach, one of Mexico’s most important nesting beaches for green turtles, located in a national park near Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

As it turned out, we only had to walk about 20 feet before a dark round shape appeared in the surf.  The turtle emerged right in front the research station run by local organization Flora, Fauna y Cultura de Mexico. To give the green turtle space to find a good spot to lay its eggs, we retreated back up the walkway, only to have the turtle follow us up the path. It eventually changed its mind, however, and made its way back to the water.

It wasn’t long before several other turtles came up on the beach. We waited until the closest turtle was laying its eggs before approaching to avoid disturbing it at a sensitive point in the process. This was also a green turtle, a female weighing probably over 200 pounds. Its multicolored shell appeared faintly white in the moonlight. Though I’ve worked with sea turtles for more than a decade, this was the first time Karina had seen one laying eggs, and she was entranced by the spectacle of the ancient ritual.

Karina at the turtle hatchery at X'Cacel

Karina at the turtle hatchery at X'Cacel

X’cacel is located on a nondescript road; no signs promote this incredible place, which in tourist-friendly Mexico may be a good thing. Turtles nest all along the stretch of beach from Cancun to Tulum known as the Riviera Maya, but this is one of the only spots where the beach is free of large resorts and hotels. Lights, beach furniture, and crowds all reduce the number of turtles that come up to nest, so undeveloped stretches like this are critical to keeping these ancient reptiles around.

Flora, Fauna y Cultura has spent the past 30 years protecting three turtle species that nest on more than 10 beaches in the region. These turtles face an array of threats including human consumption of their eggs and meat, and here – perhaps more than anywhere else in the world – coastal tourism development. Despite being a national park, known as Santuario de la Tortuga Marina Xcacel-Xcacelito, Xcacel still faces a threat of having its natural coastal area developed into big resorts.

The next morning, we headed over to Akumal (Mayan for “Place of the Turtles”), which has a bay well known for the green turtles who feed on the seagrass. We got there early to beat the crowds and put on our snorkels and headed out in search of the ancient reptiles. Before long, my wife found a turtle calmly grazing on the grass and we quietly watched it at a distance. Its beautifully patterned orange, brown, and gold shell was much more clear than the one we’d seen the night before on the beach.

Green turtle swimming in Akumal Bay

Green turtle swimming in Akumal Bay

We had the young green turtle to ourselves for about 15 minutes before other snorkelers moved in. The reptile moved slowly along the seagrass, occasionally rising gently to the surface to fill its lungs before sinking back to the bottom. Most of the observers gave the turtle enough space, though one overzealous snorkeler eventually drove the turtle away by getting too close and trying to follow it with a video camera. Exhilarated by the experience, my daughter said later that watching that turtle go about its business gave her hope for the future of this species.

By the time we were done, dozens more people were getting into the water. After we got out, we had a chance to chat with Paul Sanchez-Navarro, the tall scholarly director of Centro Ecologico Akumal, an organization that works to protect turtles both in the water and while nesting in this area. He explained that the large numbers of people swimming in the bay have a real impact on the turtles that feed on the seagrass, causing them to eat less and increasing stress. The good news is that a new management plan should be in place soon to enforce how visitors and tour guides act while around the turtles.

That evening, we headed south to Tulum. Everything slowed down as we turned off the main highway and drove our rental car over the frequent speed bumps along the road towards Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. At Hotel Nueva Vida de Ramiro, a local hotel that works to minimize its ecological footprint while creating an inviting setting, most of the grounds are planted with native trees.  The small resort hosts rangers from Flora, Fauna y Cultura and a hatchery to protect the eggs laid by turtles that come up this stretch of beach.

After settling into the hotel, I met up with Lluvia Soto, the young and friendly Country Director for SEEtheWILD partner Global Vision International (GVI). We hopped into her SUV, a requirement for traversing the rough road into Sian Ka’an, the only major protected area along the coast south of Cancun. GVI is partnering with Flora, Fauna y Cultura to monitor a formerly unprotected stretch of nesting beach (used by loggerhead and green turtles) inside the park.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

After more than an hour of navigating the flat dirt road through coastal forest and mangrove, we emerged onto a thin peninsula of land, barely wider than the beach and the road, sandwiched between turquoise ocean and a dark blue lagoon. This beach would be one of the more beautiful I’ve ever seen if it weren’t for the stunning amount of trash, washed up here from around the world. Learn how trash affects sea turtles here.

Even in this oasis of nature, the turtles need to crawl through trash to find a place to lay their eggs, and the emerging hatchlings are smaller than the plastic bottles and flip flops. Part of GVI’s work in the area is to reduce this waste; their staff and volunteers do weekly clean-ups in the reserve, which can result in up to a ton of trash collected in a day. They have also set up a recycling center in the nearby town of Punta Allen, located within the refuge. Learn more about this sea turtle volunteer program.

That evening, back at Nueva Vida, the rangers knocked on our door to let us know that a turtle was nesting right in front of the hotel, one of the few to turn off its lights that face the water during nesting season and remove furniture from the beach at night. Such common-sense measures are a necessity when sharing a beach with sea turtles, but unfortunately, many resorts here do not make the effort.

This turtle, a green, headed towards the resort’s hatchery but changed its mind and returned to the water without nesting. Fortunately another green turtle emerged just a short walk down the beach, so we were able to see the whole nesting process, from digging the nest and laying the eggs to camouflaging the nest to hide it from predators. My wife, also a turtle conservationist, helped the ranger collect data on the turtle while I explained the fascinating process to a couple of tourists who happened upon the scene.

On the way back, we saw a fresh set of tracks that led to a lounge chair in front of a brightly lit resort. It was clear from the tracks that the turtle had turned around without nesting once it met the chair– further evidence that resorts like this one have replaced poaching on this beach as the biggest threat. Learn more about how coastal development affects sea turtles.

Flora, Fauna y Cultura staff on Tulum Beach

Flora, Fauna y Cultura staff on Tulum Beach

Our tour of the area’s turtle beaches finished up with a meeting with our friends at Flora, Fauna y Cultura and a group of Mayan youth who patrol a beach in nearby Tulum National Park, near the town’s famous ruins. This beach, with its location near the town, is a hotspot for egg poaching. Our Billion Baby Turtles program is helping to fund this program, which provides employment for these young men while helping to protect an important nesting beach for green turtles and hawksbills.

During our visit, we walked with the turtle protectors over to the beach. While my daughter buried her feet in the water, the young mean told us about their hard work. Each night, they spend the entire night on the beach, walking up and down the sand in search of emerging turtles. At dawn, they are picked up and return home to rest and recover. It’s this kind of dedication that is needed to keep the turtle returning to these beaches year after year.

The Magic of the Haida Gwaii

An Interview with a SEEtheWILD Traveler

Whale watching from the Maple Leaf. Photo by Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

Whale watching from the Maple Leaf. Photo by Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

Along Canada’s West Coast there lies a unique archipelago called the Haida Gwaii. This collection of 150 forested islands are a natural and cultural paradise that is explored by few people. The Haida Gwaii are home to more than 40 endemic species and sub-species and the waters are filled with wildlife from whales to birds and otters. The First Nations cultures here have inhabited these islands for possibly more than 10,000 years, living off the bounty of the land and waters.

Our partner Maple Leaf Adventures is one of the few tour companies to take people to these islands on board their classic schooner. They were one of the founders of the Gwaii Haanas Tour Operators Association and helped to develop a Code of Conduct to make sure that people respect the fragile environment and rich cultures. Laura Waldo and her husband found this special trip through SEEtheWILD and answered a few questions about their experiences.

#1: Haida Gwaii is known as the Galapagos of Canada – what interesting animals did you encounter? And what was your most memorable wildlife experience?

This adventure was an amazing wildlife experience! Personally I cannot get enough of whales and eagles and we weren't disappointed! We had a wonderful naturalist on board who enjoyed sharing his knowledge of the variety of species we encountered: eagles and humpback whales, bears, puffins, albatross, otters and a mind blowing variety of avian species. We traveled with other passengers who had a great love for birds and it was enlightening to be around them and to "catch" their enthusiasm when puffins would perform "fly-bys" and to learn how cool it was to see an albatross flying within sight of land!

#2: For those who aren’t familiar with these islands, would you recommend people visit and if so, why?

Haida Gwaii is a magical place. In this day and age of large cruise ships packed with people and "all you can eat and drink" vacations, this type of "cruise" was wonderful! We loved, besides the scenery and wildlife, how intimate we felt with the islands and the ocean. The "Maple Leaf" was a wonderful way to get into areas and moor that most people would never have the opportunity to do.

Haida totem poles. Photo by Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

Haida totem poles. Photo by Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

Every day we would ride a zodiac from the boat to land and explore...and what a place to explore! Where we live, our forests are beautiful but sparse compared to the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest; the sheer volume of life growing on top of life was awe inspiring... nurse logs supporting a whole other generation of trees, fern, and moss. The absolute size of the Sitka spruce was as amazing as the Giant Sequoia in California... you could really feel the "aliveness" of the forest...what a gift!

#3: This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas agreement which led to the protection of the area. Can you share some of what you learned about this First Nations culture?

We knew nothing really of the First Nation Culture before our trip. We had visited Native American reservations in the United States and we were so saddened by the abject poverty, despair, and repression of the people that lived there. Our experience of the First Nation culture on Haida Gwaii, however, was a such an uplifting experience! To visit with people who are so very proud of who they are, where they came from and are so furiously protective of the land was a joy to see.

Having the experience of watching gifted carvers working on a memorial pole, and visiting the Watchmen (and women and baby Raven!) who live on the islands was such a unique experience, too. We had the opportunity to visit the building where the Haida had staged a logging protest (which was successful in halting the operations) and you could almost feel the energy, hear the conversations, and smell the ceremonial fires they had while living there. I had approached this trip as primarily a wildlife experience, but I was so gladdened to have the experience to be immersed, even in such a short period of time, into the Haida culture!

#4. Tell us about the Maple Leaf. What is it like spending a week at sea in a classic schooner?

The Maple Leaf is a wonderful schooner with an incredible history. The absolute love that Kevin, the captain, has for her is obvious and he is a fitting steward for her care! The crew were wonderfully supportive...from the excellent, beautiful gourmet dishes served every meal to the a wonderful deckhand, Skye, whom I convinced to jump into the 42 degree ocean with a go-cam! The one thing that did not occur to me was the fact that we would really not be physically moving our bodies while on the Maple Leaf. My hobby is ultrarunning; so going from running 50-60 miles a week to 0 miles was a little bit of a shock to my body! I will tell you, we started doing some short jogs on any beach we came to!

#5. Maple Leaf Adventures is known as a leader in responsible tourism. Can you tell us how they work sustainability and wildlife education into their small ship cruises?

The Maple Leaf crew does an incredible job of minimizing any negative impact on the planet. As any one that has eaten at a restaurant can see, the sheer amount of food waste that is generated is sobering. What was so refreshing on the Maple Leaf was to observe how wonderfully the food was cooked and prepared, how portions were given that were satisfying but not overdone, and how there really was no waste.

Left over fresh caught seafood was put back into the crab traps for bait; and speaking of the traps, Kevin and the crew of Maple Leaf made it a point to teach about sustainability; when emptying a crap trap, each crab was carefully measured and any ones that were not of legal size, were gently released.

I think one of the highlights of this trip was having a naturalist on board, like Colin Bates, who had a passion and love for sharing his knowledge of the natural world. When viewing whales, he brought up books on deck for reference and discussion; when a rare bird would make an appearance, he would immediately direct us where to scan and then discuss some of the pretty cool facts of that species. 

Finding a skeleton of a salmon laying in the forest initiated a discussion on genetics; due to bears fishing and bringing the salmon inland to eat and the carcass decomposing and feeding the soil, 25% of the sitka spruce along the rivers have salmon DNA- how cool is that! In fact, after showing us examples of the myriad of mosses, ferns and plants of an area and demonstrating their evolution, he had us all lay down in the moss and just “hang out”….called  “mossing”…pretty incredible!  I think I am going to try that at home.

Stars Over the Amazon: Amazon Riverboat Expedition

By SEEtheWILD traveler Judy Bradshaw

In August 2013 I flew to Iquitos, Peru to meet a group of volunteers participating in a project to study biodiversity in the Amazon Rainforest in northern Peru for fifteen days. The project was headed by Dr. Richard Bodmer, a conservation biologist, who worked at the University of Kent in England. Dr. Bodmer has been doing studies in the Amazon since 1984 with a slew of Peruvian biologists and others who were interested in rainforest ecology, especially related to climate change.

Exploring a tributary. Photo - Earthwatch Institute

Exploring a tributary. Photo - Earthwatch Institute

We were there to act as inexpert hands while we lived on a boat and chose various activities supervised by the biologists. We lived for the week on the Ayapua, a refurbished boat built in 1906 during the rubber boom which had been used to transport rubber out of the area.  It fell into disuse as other materials and other countries became more profitable to use in the rubber trade.  

We were very fortunate to be on this last voyage of the Ayapua which was to be converted into a maritime museum to be docked in Iquitos. Our group was small, only seven of us, so we each had our own room. There were three single American women (from Denver, Houston, Portland), a Scottish couple, and a woman and man from Australia who did not come together.           

After meeting in Iquitos and staying at the Casa Morey Hotel, our group of 7 from around the world took a bus about two hours upstream where we boarded the Ayapua and then cruised another day and a half upstream on the Marañon  River, a tributary of the Amazon.  We eventually anchored at the mouth of the Samiria River where it flowed into the Marañon. This is an area very rich in wildlife and especially plentiful in fish that attracted much of the wildlife. There were several Cocama Indian villages in the area. We anchored there for about a week and then traveled a short distance upstream and anchored for another week.

The Ayapua research boat. Photo by Earthwatch Institute.

The Ayapua research boat. Photo by Earthwatch Institute.

Our living quarters were comfortable, the food was good (wonderful fish), and the staff was competent and kind. There was even a nurse on board who tended to a few of us with our colds and various other ailments. We had air conditioning in our rooms and in the dining room. The generator was turned off at 11 pm and back on at 6 am.  The jungle was hot, humid, buggy, and we covered up and wore headnets if we were doing any of the land transects. We used very strong insect repellant which seemed to help. Maybe.

Our daily activities looked like this:

  • 5:30/6:30 am – 9 am:  Macaws or water birds which involved counting birds using a GPS unit while traveling in a motorized canoe.
  • 7 am-noon:  Terrestrial transect in which we took a boat to an area and slowly walked in 1.5 km (about a mile) and then back out, while observing and counting terrestrial animals (mainly monkeys, some birds).
  • 9:30 am – noon:  Fish survey which involved going setting up a 50m net for one hour and using rods to fish. The fish were gathered, placed in buckets of water, identified, weighed and measured, and then released. 
  • 2-4 pm:  Frog transect which involved walking on land and turning over leaf litter with sticks and watching tiny frogs hop up. These were identified, weighed and measured and then released by the frog biologists.
  • 3-5 pm:  Dolphin survey in a motorized boat, counting the gray and pink river dolphins. The gray dolphins liked to leap in the air; the pink dolphins didn’t.
  • 4-6 pm:  Macaw and water bird survey, depending on the one that we didn’t do in the morning.

In the evenings, we had a Happy Hour, dinner, and then met to discuss the day’s results. There was also an option to participate in night projects which involved going out in a boat and counting caiman or water frogs using a giant spotlight to see them. 

So…what did we volunteers do? We did what they told us to do.  We recorded, counted, observed, and entered the data in the computer in the library when we returned to the Ayapua. We talked to each other and the biologists and looked at the incredible surroundings and wildlife and fell into bed exhausted every night.  Mostly we worked.  At the end of the trip, Richard complimented us on being such a hard-working group.

Highlights of the trip:

The neotropical cormorants were migrating through from July though September.  No one knows where they come from or where they go.  One morning, on a 12 km. boat ride, we counted twenty-two thousand of them roosting in trees.  Yep.

The gray river dolphins hunt in pods and drive the schools of fish into the shore and then move in a feeding frenzy. The fish explode into the air…silver in the sun with the dolphins below churning the water, leaping and gulping. We also saw a pair of giant river otters and their two babies…the first that have been seen in the area in years. The ban on hunting them is working. Richard was ecstatic.   

We participated in the anniversary celebration of the founding of Bolivar village fifty-one years before. Twenty-six families lived there.  We watched soccer games and drank a fermented manioc drink from shells and had simple conversations with the Cocama Indians who were kind to us and didn’t treat us like anything special, a relief after the many other tours I have taken We later returned to the village and gave the children school supplies we had brought for them.  It was wonderful sitting with them, being just one of the troop in the Amazon rainforest.

Doing the early morning bird counts, in the quiet dawn.  There is nothing like Dawn on the Amazon with the mist rising over the water, the pink sky and the howler monkeys howling.  In the afternoon there is nothing like Afternoon on the Amazon with the heat and bugs.  In the evening there is nothing like Dusk on the Amazon as the heat breaks and the sun disappears.  In the night when standing on the deck looking up, there is nothing like the stars over the Amazon.  Nothing.

Guanahacabibes: Cuba’s All-Inclusive National Park

Our group of marine biologists transferred from boat to van in the coastal town of La Coloma for the short ride to Pinar del Rio, the largest city in the province with the same name. The “stuck in time” feeling one gets traveling through Cuba was especially strong here, as we passed actual milkmen delivering their dairy canisters in horse-drawn wagons. Entering the city, the skyline was dominated by a large, stark, gray apartment building that seemed transplanted from Moscow.

We were headed to Guanahacabibes National Park, which covers the far western end of the island, for a workshop on Cuba’s sea turtles, invited by our partners at Cuba Marine Research and Conservation. As we waited for our colleagues coming from Havana to meet us, we passed the time with Cuban beers and music in a hotel bar. Once on the bus, we passed through charming towns with every house fronted by columns as well as empty fields waiting for the next tobacco crop to be planted.

Maria La Gorda, Guanahacabibes National Park

Maria La Gorda, Guanahacabibes National Park

Eventually the fields gave way to forests as we entered the park. Large iguanas lined the road as we wound down to the coast. We stopped for pictures at a lighthouse that marks the westernmost point of the island, just 100 miles or so from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The island and the peninsula are intimately linked, by migratory ocean animals like sea turtles, as well as topography, with its limestone rock foundation. The exposed limestone is so rugged that Cubans call it “diente de perro” or dog’s teeth.   

The park is home to one of Cuba’s most important green turtle nesting beaches. This season was the most successful period for nests that our partners with the Center for Marine Research at the University of Havana have ever had, with nearly 900 nests, nearly double their previous high. Our Billion Baby Turtles project recently supported this work, providing enough funding to save roughly 14,000 hatchlings, putting us over 100,000 hatchlings saved for the year. This visit was our first opportunity to see the hatchlings that we have helped to save and our partners didn’t disappoint.

Green turtle hatchling. Photo by Cuba Marine Research & Conservation

Green turtle hatchling. Photo by Cuba Marine Research & Conservation

Spreading out among dozens of nests that were nearing maturation, our partners found one ready to go. Dozens of green turtle hatchlings made their way over the sand to the clear blue waters while our group watched in awe. This beach is the most important nesting beach on Cuba’s main island and second most important overall though funding has been hard to come by to adequately monitor the several beaches in the park where turtles nest.

The next day was an intensive course on the sea turtles of Cuba. Researchers from local projects spoke of the history of Cuba turtle conservation (complete with a photo of Fidel and a turtle). International turtle experts (including yours truly) presented on how the country can develop tourism that benefits conservation efforts and local communities while avoiding the negative impacts that the industry has had in many places especially in the Caribbean.

That evening, at the Villa Maria la Gorda, the group bonded over Cuba’s favorite pastimes, music and rum, at the oceanside bar. The hotel’s odd name (translation: Fat Mary’s) comes from Guanahacabibes’ legendary patron who supposedly watched over pirates that formerly inhabited the area. The latest of a string of extraordinary sunsets over the water provided the backdrop to the music and conversation.

Guanahacabibes is known as a world-class diving site but generally is left off the itineraries of people coming to visit this Caribbean island. The water drops off quickly from shore, to over a thousand meters providing a number of dramatic options for experienced divers. The terrestrial part of the park also has its attractions. One day a few of us took a guided tour to the Pearl Cave, an impressive collection of underground halls and rooms carved out by rain.

On our last day at the park, I hopped into the water with Fernando from CMRC, for a quick snorkel around the resort’s dock. An incredible amount of fish was sheltering in the dock’s shade as we swam through the crystal clear waters. Cuba's incredible reefs and wildlife, spectacular sunsets, friendly people, and fascinating culture are a unique combination that few destinations can offer.

Learn More:

 



Loving Dolphins to Death in Zanzibar

Last year, I had the distinct proviledge of spending 4 months studying abroad on the beautiful island archeapelago of Zanzibar, a hot-spot for tourism off the coast of Tanzania. While spending a month in Kizimkazi, the home of Zanzibar’s dolphin tourism industry, I had the single most awesome experience  of my life thus far; I went out on a boat late one evening and got in the water to swim solo with a pod of 30 wild indo-pacific bottlenose dolphins.

I was surprised by how relaxed they were around me, moving slowly so that I could keep up with them and coming incredibly close to me, checking me out and making eye contact with me. A mother even brought her small calf within arm’s reach. For a species known to be very protective of their young, I could only guess that she trusted me enough to not harm her precious baby.

Photo: Paula von Weller

Photo: Paula von Weller

Many people say the ocean is a peacefully quiet place, but those people didn’t hang around dolphins! There was constant chatter of whistles and clicks, and whether they were talking to each other about the stranger in the water or trying to get me to talk back, it was a truly humbling experience to have such an intimate interaction with an intelligent being of another species. The dolphins let me stay with them for about 20 minutes before they decided they either had better things to do or were offended I wasn’t responding to their persistant calls. They picked up speed, disappearing into deeper waters. I got on the boat ginning from ear to ear - it was nothing short of a magical experience. However,  most dolphin swims here aren’t anything like what I had just done.

The dolphin tourism in this area can only be described as rampant. Every morning tourists arrive in Kizimkazi from the main city of Stone Town and pile onto boats owned and operated by local fishermen to head out in search of dolphins. The boat owners race to make sure their tourists get the best view of the dolphins first and there can be anywhere between 2 and 18 boats with a single group of dolphins at one time. Boat drivers then race around the pod at full speed, trying to drop the tourists into the water right on top of the dolphins.

Unlike when I swam with them, the dolphins are stressed by the flurry of boat activity and the dozens of noisy swimmers in the water. They take deep dives and move quickly away from the boats, but almost all of the groups around here have young calves that can’t make it too far without needing to breath. As soon as they’re spotted surfacing, boats race at them again and the harassment continues. Studies here have shown that the dolphins no longer have sufficient time to forage, rest, socialize, mate, and nurse their young. If it’s kept up, the local population is expected to decline.

I know from my personal experience swimming with the dolphins that it’s not inherently stressful or harmful to them. If they didn’t want me there, they could have swam away and there was no hope of me being able to keep up. Instead, they were curious and trusting of me.

Everyone can and should have this kind of wildlife experience. If you ever go to watch animals in the wild, be it a safari, turtle walk, or dolphin swim, do it the right way. Go with an organization that is conservation-conscious and make sure tour groups are of reasonable size - too many people will cause stress to most animals. If possible, talk to locals and ask their opinions of the tourism. If it’s harming local wildlife, they’ll have noticed.

If you think an experience you booked in good faith seems to be harmful, please, don’t go through with it. Many of the tourists in Zanzibar said that the dolphins seemed stressed but they had already spent the money and they were already there so what difference would it make for them to leave? I know it’s hard to give up something you’ve paid good money for (trust me, I’m a broke college student), but isn’t the welfare of the animals worth just a little bit more?

For more information about Zanzibar or the dolphin tourism of Kizimkazi, you can download Rebecca's paper here.

Dolphin Conservation Expeditions:

 

Dive Into the Magical World of Gray Whales

During the 17th and 20th century, the whaling industry had depleted the gray whale population causing this magical animal to become nearly extinct. Thankfully, today their numbers have increased to an estimate of 20,000. They live  in the Eastern North Pacific Ocean, the Western Pacific Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean.

The United States removed the gray whale from the endangered list in 1994, but is still protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The gray whale plays an important role in the overall health of the marine environment and it would be devastating to see these magical animals disappear.

Here are some interesting facts about the gray whale:

  • The scientific name for the gray whale is Eschrichitius robustus. The name is derived from Eschricht, which was the last name of a Danish zoology professor, and robustus which is the Latin world for strong.  
  • The gray whale's common name is due to their appearance. They are dark gray with lighter gray patches and white spots.
  • These white spots are barnacles and whale lice giving them the appearance of a crusty ocean rock.
  • They can grow to be 48 feet long and weigh 80, 000 pounds.
  • They live up to 50 to 70 years! 
  • Pacific gray whales are known as the "friendly whales" since they are known to approach boats at their winter calving grounds in Baja California Sur, Mexico. 
  • The gray whale has one of the longest migrations of any mammal. It travels 10,000 miles round trip every year from their Arctic feeding ground (where they search for mollusks, tube worms and small crustaceans) to their birthing lagoons in Baja, Mexico.

Even with the help of acts like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the gray whale does face threats. Some of these threats include habitat degradation, collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing gear, chemical pollution, oil and gas development. Let's look at some of these threats in detail and how they harm the gray whale.

One of Baja's friendly gray whales. Photo by Yohena Raya/Marine Photobank

One of Baja's friendly gray whales. Photo by Yohena Raya/Marine Photobank

One of the top most concerns is the pollution caused by oil and gas development. According to spokesperson Leigh Henry of the World Wildlife Fund, oil companies have overlapped their gas leases with the gray whales feeding grounds. When looking for oil, sonic booms are used creating a deafening noise which can disorient the gray whale who uses deep sounds to do just about everything. Gray whales use deep sounds to navigate through the oceans, locate food, find mates.

Not only does this noise affect their day to day activities but it can cause the calf to separate from its mother! Oil companies also bring the risk of oil spills and some companies are not prepared to handle these incidents. A great example of this concern was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago. Oils spills have caused the gray whale to change its migration pattern and foraging for food habits which has caused them to come in closer contact with fishing boats. Gray whales have been found with injuries from the propellers of these boats. 

Would you like to meet the gray whale up close and personal? Check out the fascinating opportunities like the Baja Whale Watching and Turtle Research tour.

Bald Eagles - Symbol of A Nation and A Movement

Though Benjamin Franklin considered a turkey a better icon for our plucky nation, the bald eagle's regal countenance makes it a compelling symbol for the United States. This large, white-headed raptor, unique to North America, has proven itself an inspiring example of the power of environmentalism in the past forty years. Thanks to a collaborative conservation effort that spanned multiple states and many environmental disciplines, the bald eagle has come back from the brink of extinction to fly—and flourish —again.

The species' delisting from the Endangered Species List in 2007 marked the completion of a four-decade effort to restore plummeting bald eagle populations. Down to a mere 417 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states in 1963, the bald eagle was nearly extinct due to a wide array of environmental factors:

  • DDT - Widely used before it was implicated for the decline of bird populations in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and subsequently banned, this agricultural insecticide caused bird egg shells to thin and break before they hatched, limiting bald eagles' ability to replenish their numbers.
  • Deforestation - The accelerated clearing of virgin, old-growth and other forests in the first half of the 20th century took away key habitat for bald eagles. It also didn't help that this continued into the second half of the 20th century... But at least more logging regulations are in place now, thanks to concerns raised in the 1970s during the height of the environmental movement.
  • Hunting - Not only were bald eagles killed due to suspicions that they might harm livestock, but also their prey (including ducks and other waterfowl) was also suffering a population decline due to over-hunting.
  • Water Pollution - Before the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972, rivers, lakes, streams, you name it, were severely contaminated due to unchecked dumping of industrial waste and other pollutants. Given that bald eagles rely largely on water for their food—fish, waterfowl, frogs, etc.—this also significantly affected their health.

In short, a broad array of seemingly unconnected problems was leading to the demise of the bald eagle. A comprehensive approach had to be implemented, and fast.

Fortunately, the newly-formed United States Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Departments, conservation organizations and state governments banded together to address all of the problems listed above. Bald eagles benefitted from the following solutions:

  • DDT Banned — At the very end of 1972, over a decade after the publication of Silent Spring, DDT's use in US agriculture was banned. (NOTE: it is still used worldwide against mosquitoes)
  • Eagle Killing Prohibited — As per the Endangered Species Act, it became illegal to hunt and kill the already-scarce bald eagle.
  • Water Quality Improved — Thanks to the Clean Water Act and more targeted regional efforts, water quality in lakes, rivers, streams, etc. improved dramatically — and so did the health of species that rely on them.
  • Habitat Protection and Restoration — The availability of tall snags (dead trees) for nesting was guaranteed by habitat restoration projects and protection of forests. Also, access to key habitat areas was restricted — human disturbance often disrupts nesting.
  • Captive Breeding — Bald eagles were raised in captivity at zoos and other sites, and released into the wild. Thanks to the San Francisco Zoo alone, 100 eagles were released in 16 years.
Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

It all boiled down to basic arithmetic and basic cooperation. The arithmetic that if you add more eagles to the ecosystem than what you remove, their populations will grow. And if you provide more habitat and food than you take away, they will have enough.

Cooperation was also a key component of this effort, and what makes it such an inspiring story. The broadly recognized need for eagle conservation, and for environmental protection in general, sparked a national effort spanning disciplines from agriculture to federal policymaking, conservation to restoration.

And let's not forget the freedom of speech and of the press that started it all—manifested in the strong case for ecologically sound practices brought forth by a well-educated and outspoken woman, Rachel Carson.

Big takeaway? Our much-vaunted freedoms can be used for the good of the environment, as well as our own benefit. And thanks to this idea, the bald eagle is thriving again.

Check out bald eagles in the wild on the following trips:

5 Things You Can Do To Protect The Ocean

World Ocean Day is coming up on June 8th and what better way to celebrate than by helping to protect the ocean and the creatures that call it home? Most of the news we hear these days about the ocean is bad; giant islands of trash, sharks being killed for their fins, and more. But there is still hope to save the oceans and everyone can help no matter how far you live from a coast.

1. Use Less Plastic

Neil Ever Osborne

Neil Ever Osborne

Many people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch out north of Hawaii; not many people know that all five of the world’s oceans have currents (called “gyres”) that collect plastic waste. This waste endangers sea turtles, birds, seals, and other wildlife.

How to help: First, avoid plastic wherever possible. You can support local bans on plastic bags and take the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Pledge to refuse disposable plastic. You can also volunteer in the International Coastal Cleanup and help keep trash out of the oceans.

2. Eat Less Fish or More Sustainable Fish

Many of the world’s major fish stocks are overfished and collapsing. This is more than a food issue; these fish make the marine food web survive and many coastal communities depend on the industry. The good news is that there are alternatives for those who don’t want to completely give up seafood.

How to help: First, avoid the most damaging seafood such as shrimp. In some places, fishermen catch up to 10 lbs. of other fish and animals for every pound of shrimp. Also, print out a Seafood Watch Guide or download their smart phone app that tells you which fish are being caught sustainably and which ones can have high levels of toxins.

3. Use Your Voice (or Your Email)

There are many opportunities to speak up for ocean conservation. For example, you can participate in the Sea Turtle Restoration Project’s campaign to enforce the use of turtle excluder devices on shrimp boats in Louisiana by emailing your Senator.

4. Volunteer With A Sea Turtle Conservation Project

Hal Brindley

Hal Brindley

Ever wanted to see what the life of a marine biologist is like? SEE Turtles offers volunteer sea turtle conservation programs in Latin America. Patrol a turtle nesting beach, helping to measure and tag sea turtles and move their eggs to a protected hatchery in Costa Rica, Cuba, Nicaragua, or Mexico.

5. Take An Ocean Wildlife Conservation Tour

SEEtheWILD is the world’s first non-profit wildlife conservation travel project and our website promotes tours where you can get up close to ocean wildlife including sea turtlessharks, and whales. Every trip benefits conservation programs through donations, education, and volunteer opportunities.

Bonus Action: Share A Blue Marble

The Blue Marbles Project is a simple experiment in showing gratitude for the ocean. Millions of these marbles are passing around the planet, from hand to hand. The premise is simple, give a marble to someone doing good things for the ocean. Pick up some marbles here and share the stories of the people you give them to on Facebook.

Anatomy of a RED Sustainable Travel Camp

By Jenni Denekas, SEEtheWILD Communications Manager

The chatter of coyotes rises and falls in an eerie chorus. The cool desert air soothes your sunburned face, and the rest of your body is warm under thick blankets. You are still marveling at the plethora of stars you saw in the dark, velvety sky while you were brushing your teeth at the outdoor sink. Tired but exhilarated from the day’s adventures, you set your watch alarm for another early morning.

Camping along the remote shorelines of Magdalena Bay may not involve 300-thread-count sheets, marble floors, or even plumbing. But it is highly luxurious by backcountry standards, and it is a spectacular experience for anyone enthusiastic about the outdoors.

One of the most popular destinations on our website are the wilderness camps set up by RED Sustainable Travel, a non-profit operator based in Baja California Sur, Mexico. SEEtheWILD promotes two of RED’s trips: Baja Whale Watching and Turtle Research, and Baja Sea Turtles and Kayak Adventure. Both trips involve camping on the remote shorelines of Magdalena Bay. I enjoyed the opportunity to experience a RED trip recently; here’s the lowdown on the accommodations:

Guests’ Tents (Las Carpas): When you arrive, the roomy two-person tents are already set up, your bed is made, and on your pillow are two welcome gifts: a personalized card and a small trinket. Each guest gets a twin-sized, slightly firm but delightfully thick mattress with clean sheets, blankets, and a soft pillow. Between the mattresses is a broad aisle, and a small wood slatted nightstand, perfect for stashing an alarm clock (battery or solar-powered) and headlamp, and anything else you want handy during the night. The tents have zippered vents to provide air circulation during the heat of the day and a rain fly to keep out the wind and dew at night (the desert can get chilly after sundown). A bamboo mat serves as the “front porch,” a convenient place to remove and stash shoes. A small brush is provided for each tent to manage the sand that will inevitably get tracked inside.

Kitchen and Dining Area (La Cocina): There are two large kitchen tents – out of which come healthy, delicious meals with local flair. The large, long dining tent is next door, and contains three wooden tables, plenty of plastic deck chairs, a cooler with purified water, and a bookshelf featuring tomes on plant, bird and animal identification, Spanish language, and other useful topics. The walls of the dining tent can be tied back to catch a breeze during the day, or closed to block the wind at night.

Paths through Camp (Los Senderos): To protect fragile desert vegetation, walkways are lined with 
white stakes, stuck in the soft desert sand every few feet. Interspersed with the stakes are solar-powered lamps, which provide enough illumination at night that one doesn’t need a headlamp or flashlight to walk through camp.

And now onto everyone’s favorite place…

Composting Toilet (El Baño): There are two outhouses, situated a distance from the kitchen and the tents. This arrangement is clean and practical, and the bañosthemselves are tidy, sanitary, and even smell good (you’ll learn why in a minute).Enclosed by three walls and a roof, the white plastic toilet faces away from the tents into the vast, uninhabited space that surrounds the camp. It is a wonderful view – and there is no one to see you! Obviously there is no plumbing at a camp in the middle of the desert, so once you are done, you sprinkle a handful of woodchips into the toilet. The woodchips help the composting process, masks smells that may attract animals, and keeps the baños smelling surprisingly fresh. There is also a sealed bucket full of clean, fresh toilet paper rolls next to the toilet – plenty for everyone. All used paper is then deposited into another sealable bucket next to the toilet (the paper does not easily biodegrade and has to be disposed of separately). Once that’s all taken care of, you can head over to the...

Camp Sinks (Los Lavados): There are two, one near the baños, and one by the doorway to the kitchen. Stepping on a pedal under the sink causes water to squirt out the delicately arched faucet and splash into the bronze-colored bowl. This lovely sink even has large clam shells lining the bottom (classy, no?). Biodegradable soap is provided in a bottle next to the sink. The used water drains through plastic tubing and into the nearby brush. A small towel hangs alongside the sink, and there is a small counter. The one downside? During the day, bugs were drawn to the water.

Shower: A tall, 3-walled enclosure houses the camp “shower.” Sun-warmed water awaits in metal containers and a rubberized mat with drainage holes prevents sand accumulation on your wet feet as you wash off. This water source also drew a lot of bugs. But this is more than most backcountry camps offer, so it’s hard to complain.

So there you have it: RED Sustainable Travel camps are well-organized in order to provide a comfortable experience for guests, maximize efficiency, and minimize ecological impact. Basic needs (and then some) are met with a wonderful combination of rustic charm and classy innovation. Of course, it is not for everyone. If you are leery of anything from insects to slightly firm mattresses, this may not be the trip for you. If, however, you have camping experience or an eagerness to learn about the outdoors, you will enjoy a comfortable and invigorating stay in a beautiful desert setting.

Volunteering in Mexico’s Riviera Maya

Head south from Tulum, Mexico until the paved road becomes dirt and you’ll have arrived at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. A rare oasis in the Mexican Riviera’s crunch of large resorts, this reserve protects remote beaches, lagoons, coral reefs, mangroves, and more. Few of the millions of people that visit the Yucatan each year leave a positive footprint but volunteer tourism company Global Vision International (GVI) is one who puts it travelers to work on a dizzying array of programs.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

I recently met up with GVI’s Country Director Lluvia Soto to visit their Pez Maya (translates to “Mayan Fish”) research station, run in partnership with Amigos de Sian Ka’an (a Mexican non-profit), to learn more about their work in the area. Along the slow drive navigating the unpaved road’s giant potholes, Lluvia introduced me to the various options open to people who want to give back to this special area.

My main interest was their new sea turtle conservation project. Green turtles and loggerheads nest on one stretch of beach in Sian Ka’an but local organizations haven’t had the manpower to work at this beach until now. GVI recently launched a new partnership with Flora, Fauna y Cultura de Mexico (a local NGO that is also a partner of SEEtheWILD) to have people patrol this beach for the first time. From May to October each year, volunteers will walk the 3 mile stretch, working with researchers to collect data on the turtles and make sure their nests are high enough up on the beach to avoid the high tide. Learn more about this volunteer program here.

While poaching doesn’t appear to be a problem on this remote beach, plastic waste is. Despite being miles from any town, the beaches in Sian Ka’an are routinely covered by trash floating up from around the world. At their nearby basecamp, volunteers do their best to stem this pollution with weekly beach clean-ups, collecting as much as a ton of waste in a day. They have also set up a recycling project at Punta Allen, a community located inside the reserve.

In addition to sea turtles and collecting plastic waste, GVI runs a wide variety of programs benefitting local residents and natural areas. Their coral reef research project has resulted in some of the best data of any stretch of beach along the entire Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Volunteers who commit to a 6 month stay can get their dive PADI divemaster certification while exploring the beautiful coastal waters.

Their social programs include volunteering at a children’s center, assisting local veterinarians, and more. GVI’s support for local communities goes beyond volunteers; their Charitable Trust provides scholarships for students to go to school or get trained in various fields. Lluvia embodies this program, as she started out as a scholarship recipient and is now a community leader, helping GVI extend its reach across the Yucatan Peninsula to benefit both local communities and wildlife.

Best of Both: 5 trips that Combine Wildlife and Culture

International travel is not all about wildlife. Preserving the natural environment also is closely associated with protecting indigenous cultures and strengthening local economies. To attain a truly fulfilling travel experience, it is also important to delve into local culture, to test out the language, and to learn about the history of your destination. Travelers can also help to strengthen the communities they visit by utilizing local businesses, investing in tours that emphasize the region’s heritage, and even volunteering on community development projects.

SEEtheWILD recognizes the importance of developing mutually beneficial relationships with local communities, and strives to teach travelers about the rich cultural heritage of their destinations. Learn more about our Culture & Nature Trips.

Earthwatch Institute

Earthwatch Institute

Amazon Riverboat Expedition:  Visit with indigenous residents of Peru’s rainforest as you help local field biologists to conduct wildlife surveys on the Amazon River. Species that are studied include river dolphins, giant otters, and a variety of tropical birds. This information will help drive the development of regional conservation strategies that will benefit both wildlife and local culture. This exhilarating expedition, offered by the Earthwatch Institute, starts at $3,475 per person and can last between 8 and 16 days (your choice!).

Cuba Marine Research & Conservation

Cuba Marine Research & Conservation

Cuba Sea Turtle Adventure: Explore the Caribbean's most unique island on this SEE Turtles trip. See green turtles nesting and explore the reefs of Guanahacabibes National Park. Get to know the fascinating city of Havana through walking tours, meeting Cuban conservationists, and explore the beautiful countryside of Vinales.

Maple Leaf Adventures

Maple Leaf Adventures

Haida Gwaii Islands, British Columbia: Explore the rugged coast of British Columbia in a luxurious classic schooner on this Maple Leaf Adventures expedition. The Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte) Islands is home to a plethora of species, as well as many First Nations villages both traditional and modern. The tour will include a visit to a historic village that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as the opportunity to view totems and interact with local residents. Wildlife also abounds; humpback whales, orcas, and myriad seabird species frequent the area, and travelers will get the chance to get up close and personal with these creatures on kayak excursions and hikes. This 9-day voyage starts at $4,750 per person.

Global Vision International

Global Vision International

Kenya Primate Research: Join Global Vision International for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience Kenya’s rich culture and famed wildlife. Volunteers will stay in a traditional Swahili village on the Shimoni Peninsula, enjoying ample opportunity to soak in local culture, tour historic sites, and even learn some of the language. The village also serves as a “base camp” for wildlife surveys in the surrounding forest; volunteers will study primates, birds, butterflies, small mammals, and their habitats. This 14-day volunteer experience starts at $1,641 per person.

Namibia’s Desert and Delta: Learn first-hand about innovative community-based solutions to environmental issues as you tour some of Namibia’s and Botswana’s richest wildlife habitats. You will talk with members of the semi-nomadic Himba, who work with international companies to sustainably harvest and sell myrrh, a key ingredient in many perfumes; speak with game wardens and communities about the impacts of poaching; and, more simply, tour some incredible wildlife habitats frequented by lions, elephants, and other animals. Conducted by Reefs to Rockies, this 8-day trip starts at $6,195 per person.

 

As the last example suggests, local communities throughout the world face significant social and environmental challenges and have met them with creative, community-based solutions. These Culture & Nature tours allows you to experience these struggles and triumphs firsthand, and to develop more intimate knowledge of local culture.

Protecting El Salvador’s Largest Wetland From the Bottom Up

(Part 3 in a series exploring El Salvador)

Four volcanoes watched over us like sentries as we ate dinner on a covered dock which doubles as a waterfront dining area in the town of La Pirraya on an island in Jiquilisco Bay, El Salvador’s largest wetland. Our tour group of Americans sat out over the water watching the sunset and the fishing boats return with the day’s catch. Later huge bolts of lighting streak across the sky in the distance as the gentle waves slapped against the wooden posts of the dock. Nobody was on their smart phone, no car horns blared.

Jiquilisco Bay in many ways is an idyllic place. This bay, which includes mangrove forests, seagrass beds, many islands, and more is not only a place of great natural beauty; it’s a working landscape, providing sustenance and livelihoods for thousands of people. Industries that are based on the Bay and its forests include fishing, transportation, firewood collection, and tourism. Managing the Bay’s resources and ensuring that there is enough for everyone is a big job, too big for any single government agency or community organization.

During a weeklong tour I led in July 2013 to explore El Salvador, our group saw first hand how a coalition of community development and conservation groups are taking the lead in conserving this bay, protecting its wildlife, and reducing the environmental impact of fishing. We learned about the many threats to the bay’s ecosystem and visited projects run by local residents to make sure that the bounty of the bay can sustain both its human inhabitants as well as its wild ones. 

One sunny morning, our group boarded two “pangas”, the fiberglass boats that are the primary form of transportation around Jiquilisco. We headed out to explore the mangroves that are critical to the health of the Bay by providing habitat for birds and wildlife and a place for fish to reproduce. After years of degradation from fishing, agricultural pollution, and aquaculture projects, the mangrove is now growing again due to restoration efforts.

The main focus of our visit was to see and learn about sea turtles, of which 4 species live in and around this area, the hawksbill, green, leatherback and olive ridley turtles. After our boat tour, we headed to the town of Isla de Mendez to visit a sea turtle hatchery where eggs of olive ridley turtles are protected by Asociacion Mangle (a leading community-based development organization). While learning about this hopeful program, we received bad news.

Chema, our genial guide who works with our host organization EcoViva, shared the bad news with me. He got a call from one of his fishermen friends who spotted a dead hawksbill turtle near the edge of the nearby mangrove wetlands. A small group of us headed out by boat to retrieve the turtle and take it with us to hand it off to the staff of the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (known by its acronym ICAPO), a conservation organization that is a partner of SEE Turtles.

Though the turtle was too decomposed to determine a cause of death, our partners were reasonably certain the culprit was fishing. The biggest threat to the hawksbills in the bay is blast fishing, where a combination of household chemicals are combined into a homemade bomb that kills everything in its wake. More than 20 hawksbills, many of which were adult females, have died from blast fishing in the past five years (fewer than 500 adult female hawksbills are estimated to exist in the entire region). Other types of fishing also impact turtles, including nets that entangle turtles and keep them from reaching the surface to breathe.

One of the primary areas of focus for Asociacion Mangle and EcoViva is promoting “pesca limpia” (“clean fishing” in English) where they promote hook and line fishing, which helps to reduce the number of turtles and other animals that are caught. This program helps to set up artificial reefs for fishermen that are monitored to make sure everyone follows regulations to ensure there are enough fish for everyone. Many former blast fishermen now participate in this program, which has helped to reduce the impact of explosives on certain areas of the Bay.

Fishing is just one of the threats to sea turtles in this area. ICAPO, EcoViva, and Asociacion Mangle also work to protect sea turtle nests by purchasing the eggs from local residents who formerly sold the eggs for consumption. Since consuming eggs (and other turtle products like meat) was banned in 2009, a network of hatcheries across the country has grown to receive the eggs, where they are protected until hatching. Among local conservation organizations, more than 1 million hatchlings have been released to the ocean to date.

Another risk to hawksbill survival is the commercial development of nesting beaches in the Bay. El Salvador is in line to receive a large influx of funding for economic development from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US entity that handles some of our foreign aid. Local organizations are worried that coastal land critical to sea turtles and the maintenance of local livelihoods in the Bay may be the focus of large tourism developments. EcoViva has brought local residents to Washington DC to make sure that community leaders are involved in big decisions that will affect the area.

We visited one of these beaches at sunrise one morning. Our group was based in the town of La Pirraya, where ICAPO’s field operation is located. A knock came early on our door, alerting us that a hawksbill had been found by one of the local tortugueros (i.e. egg collector). We quickly dressed and hopped in the boat to head to the beach on the other side of the Bay. With the orange sunrise providing the entertainment, we arrived at the beach as the research team collected tissue samples and basic info such as length and width of the turtle’s shell. The researchers sent the female hawksbill on its way with brand new tags on its flippers.

After breakfast, our group set out to explore this fascinating bay. Winding through narrow channels, we saw some of the largest mangrove trees I’ve ever seen, some topping 50 feet tall. In addition to turtles, the Bay has 5 species of mangrove, more than 50 species of birds, and hundreds more species of fish and other animals. Our group’s bird enthusiast rattled off the avian species we saw including egrets, herons, and many more. After a stop off at ICAPO’s hawksbill hatchery and a round of coconut water, we hopped in the water to float on the outgoing tide.

Our main course of turtle watching came later that morning as we piled again into the pangas to look for black turtles (a sub-species of green turtle) that forage on seagrass in the Bay. Heading to a calm area near the peninsula that encloses most of the Bay, our group fell quiet as we looked for the small reptilian heads popping out of the water to take a breath.

It wasn’t long before the first turtle was spotted and ICAPO’s local field staff sprung into action, encircling the turtle with a large fishing net so the research team could bring it into the boat. Once the turtle was in the net, we motored the boat around the edge of the net until we found the big male. Neftali, the ever-smiling local coordinator for ICAPO hopped in the water and I followed behind, helping free the turtle from the net and passing it to our colleagues waiting in the boat.

These black turtles remain a mystery here in Jiquilisco; few nest here and researchers don’t yet know how many are around. Though most of the turtles they find are untagged juveniles and adults, once a turtle was found with tags from the Galapagos, so ICAPO staff suspect they migrate from the Ecuadorean islands here to feed and grow. The male we found was the first of several we would spot that day. Several of our group had the opportunity to help collect the data and release the turtles back into the water, a highlight of the trip for several people.

The following day, as our group took its final boat ride across Jiquilisco Bay to the port town of Puerto Parada, I enjoyed in the tranquil views and the calm that comes after unplugging for several days. At more than 150,000 acres, the Bay seems immense but with tens of thousands of people using it every day and depending on it for survival, grassroots efforts to protect its resources are more important than ever.

Read the first two parts of the series:

Part 1: Rebuilding from theAshes of El Salvador’s Civil War

Part 2: A New AgriculturalRevolution Takes Root in El Salvador
 

Learn more about the El Salvador Sea Turtles and Community Development trip.

A New Agricultural Revolution Takes Root in El Salvador

(Part 2 of a 3 part series exploring El Salvador)

The temperature went from warm to scalding as the morning clouds dissipated. Streams of sweat rolled down our arms and backs as we dug into the clay soil. Large quantities of sunscreen and water held off the sunstroke. It was the best morning of our vacation.

Two days into our July 2013 trip to explore El Salvador with EcoViva, a US-based development organization, our group of Portland OR residents and Evergreen University students took a short bus ride to a local farm for a volunteer work project. We had heard from EcoViva Fellow Aaron Voit that agriculture was a major area of focus of local organizations and here was our chance to get our hands dirty.

Victor (left) & Aaron (right)

Victor (left) & Aaron (right)

Our host for the day was Victor Velasquez, a technician with Asociacion Mangle (EcoViva’s sister organization), who works with their sustainable agriculture program. He showed us how we would be adding a sweet-smelling type of compost called “Bokashi” to saplings of mango and nispero trees as a substitute for the chemical fertilizers commonly used in the area.
Working through the morning, our group managed to complete the process with dozens of saplings, saving the farmer days worth of work. There’s no better way to understand a person’s situation than by walking in their shoes and by the end of the morning, our respect for the farmers of El Salvador had reached epic proportions.

After lunch and a siesta, we continued our lesson in organic farming, Salvadoran-style, by processing a batch of the compost. Bokashi is a Japanese composting technique that uses fermentation to break down organic material. Mangle has developed their own recipe using discarded resources commonly available in this area such as sugar cane waste, rice husks, and cow manure. 

Bokashi fertilizer

Bokashi fertilizer

To jumpstart the microbes that break down these materials, a mixture of yeast and molasses is added and the piles turned. This compost is one small part of Mangle’s Diversified Production program. The compost, of which more than 50,000 pounds were distributed last year to farms around the region, helps to restore soil after years of overuse before the war when most of the land was cotton and sugarcane plantations.  

El Salvador in the past wholly embraced the concepts of the “green revolution”, importing huge quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and converting thousands of acres to monocultures of cash crops like cotton and sugarcane. The benefits of these techniques helped to dramatically increase production for the few wealthy families who owned the farms, but the costs were borne by the farm workers and animals that were exposed to the toxic chemicals.

Even today, many of the so-called “dirty dozen” of the most toxic pesticides that are banned in many countries are still used in El Salvador including DDT. The impact of these chemicals can be seen in the extremely high rates of liver disease found in the region and groundwater that remains polluted after many years of use.

Before the green revolution, many Salvadorans survived by subsistence farming, growing many varieties of plants to feed their families. But since the end of the war in the 1990’s, many farmers here now grow just a few crops, primarily corn, which has affected nutrition. Mangle has made crop diversification a major focus of its work to help reduce the risk of crop failure due to pests or weather and improve diets. Their seed bank provides a variety of crops for local farmers, developed specifically for local soils and climate.

I spent one early morning while checking out Mangle’s organic demonstration farm that grows dozens of varieties of fruits and vegetables. The centerpiece of the farm was a water pump, powered by one of the largest solar arrays in rural El Salvador. While there, I met Juan Luna, the engaging and intelligent leader of the Diversified Production Program.

Juan told me about one of Mangle’s biggest successes, taking on agrochemical giant Monsanto whose corn seeds the government of El Salvador was handing out to farmers across the country. While touted as a program to help reduce hunger, the reality is that the use of these seeds locked farmers into purchasing expensive chemical inputs and new seeds every year, as the yield quickly dropped after first planting. Mangle, in partnership with other organizations, convinced the government to cancel the contract and now works with the government to produce and distribute native seeds grown by local farmers that produce high yields for years with little or no chemicals. 

Mangle and its partners do much more than just distribute seeds and compost. Their technical support program has helped to train hundreds of farmers in sustainable agriculture techniques, they provide loans to help farmers transition to organic, their organic demonstration farm grows dozens of varieties of food, and new markets help local producers earn more income. To help combat the liver disease, they convinced the government to build a brand new hospital in Ciudad Romero focused on this pervasive problem. Even local schools are getting involved; one school in Romero is growing a garden funded by the government as part of a pilot program to provide more healthy school lunches.

At the end of our week, our group got to sample one of the most delicious products of Asociacion Mangle’s work – cashews! The nuts are grown, processed, and roasted by a cooperative of 16 women and are some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Do the organic techniques improve the taste of the food? Who knows, but supportinggrassroots efforts to improve El Salvador’s foodsystem definitely helps one enjoy its bounty.

Read the other parts of this series:

Part 1: Rebuilding from the Ashes of El Salvador's Civil War

Part 3: Protecting El Salvador's Largest Wetland From the Ground Up

Learn more about the El Salvador Sea Turtles & Community Development trip.

Rebuilding from the Ashes of El Salvador’s Civil War

(Part 1 of a 3 part series about El Salvador)

On the surface, the small town of Ciudad Romero, El Salvador is much like others around Latin America. Small homes line unpaved homes, walking is the main form of transportation, and most people meet your eye and smile when you walk by. As the sun starts to set everyday, herds of cows take over the streets, a bovine rush hour with moo’s instead of horns.

Its not until you start talking to the people who have lived in this town since its founding in the early 1990’s does the incredible story of courage and determination come alive. The journey of these people from landless farm workers to refugees to a self-sustaining community gives hope for areas of conflict around the world and provides a model for others to follow.

In July 2013, I led a group of travelers to El Salvador to learn about the cultural and natural revival of the area surrounding Jiquilisco Bay, the country’s largest wetland. We were hosted by EcoViva, a US-based non-profit that works closely with local organizations to support local community development. During an intense but exhilarating week, we learned about the struggles of these rural communities to recover from war, carve out livelihoods from exhausted lands, build infrastructure, and restore natural areas devastated by years of abuse.

El Salvador’s civil war was one Latin America’s most violent. The seed of this conflict was stark inequality; the vast majority of land was owned by a small number of families and most of the citizens were relegated to poverty. From the late 1970’s until the Peace Accords in 1992, at least 75,000 people died and more than 700,000 people were forced from their homes, including the residents of Ciudad Romero.

On our first day in Ciudad Romero, we met Marta Alvarenga, a community elder (and fantastic cook), who shared their gripping story with our group. Marta’s gentle smile belied the emotional story that she shared about her community’s survival. She told us about the town’s namesake, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was a hero to the poor for speaking out against the atrocities of the government. In March 1980, he paid the ultimate price and was assassinated while giving mass.

Two months later, the army arrived to the original Ciudad Romero, then located in the southern highlands, and burned down the town. Fleeing through the jungle under the cover of night, the survivors made a four-day trek to Honduras. Not wanted in there and with little to eat, the group eagerly accepted an offer from the Panama’s President Torrijos and left after six months. The group of several hundred refugees was given land in the Panamanian rainforest to build a community and they carved out a life in the jungle, surviving from food they grew.

After a decade in Panama, the residents of Ciudad Romero were ready to go home, though the war was not yet over. Panama’s government was reluctant to let the people return to a warzone but the determination of the Salvadorans to return home was too strong. More than 600 people trekked across the jungle to Panama City and held a hunger strike at the El Salvadoran Embassy. After two years of pressure, they finally began to make their way back to El Salvador despite the dangers that still existed.

Once they picked out their land, a huge former plantation for cotton and sugar not far from the Lempa River, a small group returned to start building the new Ciudad Romero. Though peace talks were occurring, the group still faced danger. Several times on their journey, the first group was harassed by police and the army, one time facing down tanks that stood in their way. As refugees began returning from across the region, the new Ciudad Romero became a home base as new communities were created in the abandoned fields.

Marta’s storytelling was accompanied by two murals which brought alive the struggles and emotions of the residents. One, hanging in the town church depicts the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the violence that the people fled, was carried back from Panama by hand (at right). The other mural, on the outside wall of the town’s communal kitchen (above), shows the move to Panama and life in the rainforest.

The Peace Accords were signed in 1992 but the problems didn’t end there. Violence and poverty continued for several years until leaders of 14 communities (including Ciudad Romero) organized to improve their communities. They started by creating an emergency plan to respond to major floods that covered fields and damaged the fledgling towns. This group blossomed into an organization known as La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa (Coordinator of the Lower Lempa), which now involves nearly 100 communities in the region.

One of the most impactful meetings of our group’s visit was a discussion with leaders of one of the most active local groups, Asociacion Mangle, formed to manage new programs for La Coordinadora. Among their achievements include a community radio station that reaches more than 200 communities, a program that provides opportunities for young people to develop important skills, and an agricultural program that is reducing the use of toxic chemicals and improving soils. Their environmental programs are helping to protect endangered sea turtles and end destructive blast fishing (the practice of using homemade bombs to kill fish).

Over the week, we visited a number of these development projects and met dozens of leaders working to improve their communities. Our group tested out a high efficiency wood stove in action, helping to reduce deforestation and improve air quality while making delicious tortillas. Another day we visited the area’s clean water project, providing drinking water for more than 13,000 people, created and managed without government support. One especially hot day, we spent a couple of hours helping out at a local farm, adding organic compost to fruit trees.

It was an action packed few days but just the beginning of our El Salvador adventure. 

Read the rest of the story here:

Part 2: A New Agricultural Revolution Takes Root in El Salvador

Part 3: Protecting El Salvador's Largest Wetland From the Ground Up

Learn about the El Salvador Sea Turtles & Community Development trip with EcoViva.