Turtles, Dolphins, and… Scarlet Macaws?

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.”

A gaggle of macaws (photo by Hal Brindley)

A gaggle of macaws (photo by Hal Brindley)

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.

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.

Mangrove hatchery (photo by Hal Brindley)

Mangrove hatchery (photo by Hal Brindley)

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.

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.

Dolphin watching with CEIC (photo Hal Brindley)

Dolphin watching with CEIC (photo Hal Brindley)

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, SEEtheWILD’s Adventure Travel 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.

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 the project of one of MMF’s PhD-students, Daniel van Duinkerken. His project, entitled ‘Habitat use and movement patterns of the reef manta ray, Manta alfredi”, 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.

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: 
    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.

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.

Green turtle swimming in Akumal Bay

Green turtle swimming in Akumal Bay

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.

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 and our partners at Lush Cosmetics (through its Charity Pot program) are 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.

Flora, Fauna y Cultura staff with SEE Turtles director Brad Nahil

Flora, Fauna y Cultura staff with SEE Turtles director Brad Nahil

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

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.

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

#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.

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!

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

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

#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: Earthwatch’s 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.

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.  

Exploring a tributary. Photo - Earthwatch Institute

Exploring a tributary. Photo - Earthwatch Institute

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.

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.

The Ayapua research boat. Photo by Earthwatch Institute.

The Ayapua research boat. Photo by Earthwatch Institute.

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.

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.   

Maria La Gorda, Guanahacabibes National Park

Maria La Gorda, Guanahacabibes National Park

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.

Photo by Brad Nahill

Photo by Brad Nahill

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:

Cuba Sea Turtle Adventure

Visit Cuba

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:

Costa Rica Ocean Wildlife Expedition (SEE Turtles)

Kenya Dolphin Volunteer Project (Global Vision International) 

 

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 and Turtle Research tour.

Giggling at Whale Sharks

An Interview with Reefs to Rockies Co-Founder Sheridan Samano 

Reefs to Rockies is a Denver, Colorado–based conservation tour operator that specializes in creating and guiding custom itineraries to wildlife hotspots throughout the Americas and Africa.  From swimming alongside whale sharks in the warm waters of Mexico to witnessing one of nature’s most amazing spectacles, the Great Migration in Africa, Reefs to Rockies has something for every traveler. 

From the beginning, the mission of Reefs to Rockies has been to promote wildlife conservation through tourism. The rigorous sustainable travel standards they have developed have created a win-win for their destinations by protecting wildlife and ensuring that local communities benefit from the presence of travelers.

SEEtheWILD’s Paula von Weller recently spoke with Reefs to Rockies Co-Founder and Principal Consultant Sheridan Samano about their commitment to sustainable wildlife tourism.

What inspired you to start a conservation travel business?

My background is in wildlife biology, and I've always had an interest in conservation issues. In 2004, Lynda Gregory (Reefs to Rockies co-founder) and I both visited Costa Rica for the first time. We fell in love with the diversity we saw there and the country's strides towards sustainable tourism. Shortly after that trip, I started a study abroad program at the community college I was teaching at so students would have the opportunity to work hands-on with endangered species. Reefs to Rockies evolved from there. Conservation through tourism has been the primary mission of our company from the start.

What are the most important steps R2R takes to ensure sustainable travel?

We hope to be in business for many years to come, so it's important that the destinations where we work are treated in a sustainable way, i.e. to prevent unnecessary degradation to the environment and the local way of life.

We take the following steps to ensure sustainability:

  • Book at locally owned hotels committed to sustainability and conservation, whenever possible. If the property isn’t locally owned, management must have a local presence and a majority of employees of the hotel must be from local communities.
  • Hire local expert guides who adhere to environmental guidelines to minimize impact.
  • Educate travelers about sustainable tourism, environmental stewardship, and resource conservation.
  • Maintain small group size when visiting environmentally sensitive areas.
  • Support on-the-ground conservation efforts at the destination.
  • Make carbon offset programs available for travelers.
  • At the office, we implement of measures including energy conservation, recycling, composting, and use of post-consumer recycled paper products.

You travel to “biodiversity hotspots.” What does that mean?

“Biodiversity hotspots” is actually a phrase coined by Conservation International. It refers to an area that has a disproportionately high number of plants and animals that are in drastic need of conservation. So, by definition, if you focus on areas that have a lot of wildlife, you can make sure clients see things they wouldn't necessarily see in other parts of the world, but also aid in the conservation by using a sustainable approach to travel.

What is your favorite trip or destination? Why?

My favorite destination is usually the last one I visited. Costa Rica is close to my heart because it's the place that spawned the company. I'm really in love with the Osa Peninsula. Talk about "wow" factor when it comes to wildlife. Wildebeest calving season in Tanzania is also another favorite since it draws large numbers of big cats. I could sit and watch a pride of lions for hours and hours. 

Travel to me is the world's best educational experience, and every destination has something new to teach its visitors. 

Tell us about your most amazing wildlife encounter.

I have several favorite encounters, but one that stands out was a couple of years ago while swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We were there with a group of friends, and the morning's weather had not been pleasant. We thought for sure the day was going to be a bust, but then the sun came out, the water flattened, and all of a sudden we were in an area with about 80 whale sharks.

You swim in pairs with a guide, and I happened to be in the water with my best friend. As we put our faces in the water, we saw two whale sharks swimming right at us with their mouths wide open. Immediately, we both pulled our faces out of the water and started laughing. Here we were, miles from shore in the middle of the ocean, laughing like two schoolgirls. I'll never forget that moment. 

Can you give me an example of how local communities in the areas that you travel to benefit from your tours?

In Costa Rica, one of our conservation partners is Yaguara, an organization that promotes biodiversity in the Osa Peninsula, an area that provides critical habitat for endangered species including jaguars. In 2011, we made donations on behalf of our clients that allowed Yaguara to purchase two camera traps. The traps are placed in key areas to study wild cat (ocelot, puma, and jaguar) populations for conservation. Photographs collected by the camera traps have helped Yaguara assess local population densities and have even proven the existence of species previously thought to be extirpated from certain areas.

Tell me a little about the Green Guide that you developed for Costa Rica.

Our Costa Rica Green Guide was a project that I became interested in because Costa Rica is a leader in sustainable tourism and the tourism board has their Certification for Sustainable Tourism, but what I found was that the properties where I was staying were very sustainable in their approach, but maybe they didn't have the staff and/or the funding to go through the certification process. So I wanted to develop a repository of hotels that showed a commitment to sustainable tourism in a wide array of price ranges so our clients could see what options are out there.

Are any new destinations on the horizon for Reefs to Rockies? Where would you like to design a trip to that you aren’t currently visiting?

We're always trying to improve the selection of opportunities we can offer clients and right now, we're working heavily on increasing destinations in Mexico. Mexico is a special place for me because my father was raised in Mexico City and I absolutely love the culture and biodiversity. There is a tremendous amount of opportunity there to experience wildlife, so keep an eye out for new options there. 

America’s Wildlife Laboratory: Yellowstone National Park

Wild animals in Yellowstone are not the shrinking violets of the natural world. They don’t shy away from long lines of cars and hordes of photographing tourists. The bison wander right down the middle of the road and the best spot to see wolves isn’t in the remote corners of the park, its right along the road in the Lamar Valley. In terms of the number of animals seen per day, few places in the world (outside of Africa) can match America’s first national park.

It didn’t take long to spot our first animal, just a few minutes after entering the West Entrance. Passing a meadow along the side of the road, a lone bison stood stock still in the far end near the forest. My daughter Karina and I grabbed our cameras and pulled over to take a couple of photos, elated that we had already spotted the enormous creature. A couple of miles later, we were treated to a small herd of elk foraging along a river.

In just a few short days of exploring this incredible place, it quickly became evident who was just arriving and who had been there a while. People just arriving would stop in the middle of the road, creating traffic jams to take a picture of an elk or bison that could easily be captured a mile up the road at a pull-out. As we waited for people to pull out the phones to upload pictures to Facebook, I spent my time drafting idealistic rules for the park requiring people to get out of their cars to earn the right to take a picture.

The Elusive Wolf

My top priority was to look for wolves, though we were going at the worst time of the year for spotting the elusive canines. Early one morning we met up with Nathan Varley of local tour outfitter The Wild Side to look for wolves and other animals. We headed into the park before dawn to get a head start on the other wildlife watchers, heading to the famed Lamar Valley. Nathan was born to be a Yellowstone guide, having grown up in the park as a kid of park rangers. He started as a field biologist with the Gray Wolf Recovery Project in 1995, now recognized as one of the world’s most successful wildlife reintroduction programs.

The recovery of gray wolves in Yellowstone is a fascinating story. Once one of the widest ranging animals in the world, they now number fewer than 5,000 in the continental US and roughly 200,000 around the world (down from an estimated more than 2 million at one point). However, the few thousand now living in the continental US was the result of a monumental effort to bring back the wolf after decades of extermination.

In the early 90’s, more than 2 decades since a wolf had been spotted in the park, the US Fish & Wildlife Service announced a plan to bring gray wolves from Canada to release in Yellowstone. The opposition was swift and deep from ranchers afraid for the livestock and their allies in the government. Despite several lawsuits and bills intended to derail the program, the first wolves were released into the park in 1995. Now, the park has more than 300 resident wolves and hundreds more have moved out of the park, repopulating parts of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, and more recently my home state of Oregon.

The ecological impact of wolf recovery has been stunning according to Nathan. Few biologists predicted the widespread ripple effects of having these animals back in the ecosystem. Elk had been eating all of the trees growing along streams, increasing erosion and water temperature. Now that they are wary of the wolves, the trees growing along the streams in the park now grow, stabilizing the soil and providing shade that fish need.

With this incredible recovery, Fish and Wildlife is looking to take gray wolves off the Endangered Species List, despite the fact that their numbers have yet to recover across much of their former range despite their success in Yellowstone. While ranchers still strongly oppose wolf conservation, the numbers don’t lie. Wolf tourism to Yellowstone has been valued at more than $35 million per year, compared to under $100,000 in livestock predation by wolves (which has been reimbursed to ranchers). Click here to find out more and comment about this proposal.

While we didn’t see any wolves during our visit, Nathan showed us many other species including pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and of course lots of bison.

The recovery of bison in Yellowstone has been nearly as successful. A population of millions in the US had dwindled to roughly 50 animals in the park in the early 1900’s, there are now more than 3,000 of the giant ungulates roaming the park. These enormous creatures, weighing up to nearly one tone, can be quite dangerous due to their defensiveness and speed (sprinting up to 30 mph). The top injury in the park is tourists getting stampeded after being fooled by their seemingly docile behavior.

Grand Teton National Park

Heading south from the park, we spent a couple of nights at the Grand Teton National Park, which makes up in extraordinary beauty what it lacks in charismatic wildlife. There’s no better way to start a day than to watch the sun lighting up the soaring Teton peaks over Jackson Lake. Karina and I found the view from a kayak on Jenny lake is even better, though looking up at the steep mountains can be a hazard to your neck. To wrap up our wildlife tour, we stopped in on a bird research project managed by the Teton Science School’s Conservation Research Program. We piled into our car, my daughter and my sister’s family cramming into our Subaru for another early morning. Just south of the town of Jackson, we wound down a rural road, stopping at a private housing development.

There, we met up with Jennifer McCabe, an ornithologist who has been studying the area’s songbirds with the School since 2007. She took us on a tour of a beautiful property that the school manages, where songbirds are caught in nets to band and study before being released. The team catches as many as 60 species during a summer which includes thousand of individuals at 5 local sites.

On the third net we visited, Jennifer found a bird (species?). She carefully untangled the bird and gently carried it to the research area, where assistants were waiting to collect information including the birds weight and putting a small metal band on its leg. She showed the kids the different parts of the bird’s anatomy up close before letting it fly off back to the forest.

The research on these birds is part of a larger program that is looking at migration patterns of songbirds across North America, among other things looking to determine if climate change is impacting behavior. As towns like Jackson expand and ranches become housing developments in the West, knowing how this development will impact migratory songbirds is critical information.

Research and restoration are two of the most important ways to help bring back wildlife from the brink. Despite the crowds and traffic of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, it’s heartening to see the results of years of hard work in the abundant wildlife of the region.