Saving the endangered sea turtle

Who says you can't make a difference? Two Mexican biologists and two American ecologists/entrepreneurs have taken a stand for sea turtle populations that is having a profound effect. And, they're inviting you to join them.

by Alice Martinez
hroughout the world, there are a number of serious, ongoing projects to restore and preserve sea turtles and their habitats. What follows is the story of one such effort, located in nearby Baja California, Mexico.
In 1978, at the age of 24, Antonio Resendiz moved to Bahia de Los Angeles to manage a sea turtle conservation project funded by the Mexican Instituto de Pesca (Fish Institute). Bahia de Los Angeles is a remote fishing pueblo located on the Sea of Cortez about 400 miles south of San Diego. This region of bays and islands is host to one of the world's richest aquatic communities. Visitors are often surprised while snorkeling by curious sea lions, by orca feeding close by or by having their boats escorted by playful dolphins.
At Bahia de Los Angeles, Antonio lived and worked alone in a pueblo of traditional fishermen and turtlers. He fought to educate the local people about marine biology and the need to conserve the area's aquatic life. His confiscation of illegally captured turtles and turtle nets and his documentation of other illegal fishing practices sometimes brought him into dangerous confrontations.
In 1988, Antonio took on a research partner (and subsequent marriage partner) Beatrice (Bety) Jimenez. Bety received her biology degrees from the University of Michoacan. Prior to meeting Antonio, she had spent ten years at a leatherback sea turtle nursery in Michoacan. Her work there consisted in part of long nights walking the beaches to safeguard nesting turtles and their eggs from poachers.
The couple's overall aim is to protect the region's fisheries and stocks of marine mammals and sea birds, as well as sea turtles. Information gathered by the Resendiz family is being used to help guide sea turtle conservation around the world.
Adjacent to the center, the family has developed a small campground, Campo Archelon, proceeds from which help support their work. It is here that they host visiting scientists.

Mexican reserves

Four of Mexico's 17 beach reserves are located in the state of Jalisco and managed by the University of Guadalajara in conjunction with the government and private organizations. Since 1982, the university has been developing a program to conserve Jalisco's sea turtle population through protection, research and education. Beach reserves are protected from poachers to the extent that money will allow. Biologists and students live and work at camps on remote beaches trying to revive the sea turtle population. A research program was started in 1987 to study the life patterns of hatchlings in their first year.
The government sea turtle station currently supports a small population of juvenile and adult turtles for research and education. Holding tanks have been built to hold three species of sea turtle: loggerhead (Caretta caretta), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata squamata), and pacific black (Chelo-nia mydas agassizii).

One man steps forward

In the summer of 1991, Carl Worl planned a three-week trip to Baja after graduating from Colorado State University. Carl was interested in experiencing the natural wonders of Baja and wanted to volunteer some of his time for wild life preservation or a research project.
During his travels, he met Antonio - who needed lots of help. Antonio's preservation work and research immediately struck a responsive cord with Carl. Carl started helping with various tasks around the camp: building palapas, painting, running errands - all those mundane tasks that are essential to supporting a field station.
He was also captivated by Antonio's spirit. "Antonio has so much enthusiasm. He never stops," explains Carl. "He runs everywhere - he doesn't walk. He talks so fast and his voice projects so much ... it lights people up."
Carl's three-week trip turned into 5 months.
In 1992, Carl met Heather Paige, a graphic artist vacationing in Baja. Heather was discouraged by the people's attitude toward the environment. "Society is so wasteful, it has to stop at some point," she says.
Working with Antonio and Carl proved to be the anodyne to her disillusionment. Together, Heather and Carl decided to work together to further turtle preservation.
Later that year they went on a four-month pilgrimage to Michoacan to do volunteer work, ranging as far south as Guerrero. Visiting beach after beach, their level of concern escalated.
"We went to a lot of deserted beaches that didn't have projects," says Carl. "There were a lot of turtles coming up and they were all poached. On some beaches, we could count, say, 40 nests that were all poached - every single one of them."
This direct experience of habitat devastation had a profound effect on Carl and Heather. "The sea turtles seem to be almost spiritual creatures - great turtle spirits," explains Heather. To allow the destruction to continue was unacceptable.
Carl and Heather are unable to say exactly when or how they decided to commit themselves to sea turtle preservation; however, the future direction of their lives had been decided.

Spreading the word

Having experienced the personal transformation resulting from direct exposure to the destruction of species and natural habitats, they committed themselves to finding a way to share the experience.
"The biggest problem with environmentalism is pushing all this literature," says Carl. "I'm not putting it down, because there's no other alternative. But it doesn't carry the feeling. When Greenpeace sends the literature about the dolphins, it's so detached .... But if the people got out and actually went on their boat and saw the animals, then they might really change their attitudes. I've seen people actually change when they go and deal with the animals - do the work to help them. But when they just see it on TV, it's just another thing."
Contacting a number of well-known environmental groups, they discovered that most were charging "volunteers" $900 a week and up! Many individuals were more than willing to donate labor and some money, but these rates were simply beyond most budgets.
After a little more digging, they discovered that there were many biologists and small conservation projects that needed their kind of support. They soon recognized the need for a low-cost alternative - a way to pair willing (but not rich) volunteers like themselves with scientists doing critical, but often underfunded, field research. They realized that the scientists' efforts alone are inadequate - there simply aren't enough of them. Moreover, achieving their goals will take the whole community working together.
In 1993, Carl and Heather formed One World Work Force (OWWF), a nonprofit organization, expressly to address this need. The goal of OWWF is to provide others with the opportunity to lend a hand with conservation research, species protection and other efforts to save our planet. By maintaining a low overhead and using donated equipment, they offer the chance to spend a week working with a scientist in the field at half the cost of other organizations. Their small staff is supplemented by volunteer assistance.
Carl is pleased with the support that OWWF is getting from scientists and biologists. "The scientific community is taking us as being credible, instead of just a super eco-tour company," he states.

OWWF takes off

OWWF is offering three trips in 1994 focused on scientific research, education, habitat restoration and hands-on protection of female sea turtles and their eggs during the nesting season. The trips will be to Antonio's center at Bahia de Los Angeles and to Tenacatita Beach and Mismaloya Beach on the Mexican mainland.
At Bahia de los Angeles, OWWF makes their base camp at Campo Archelon. To those for whom "nature" means tall forests and green valleys, the site may appear desolate. But to those familiar with the deserts of the Southwest, it is a fragile paradise.
"The area has towering mountains, tons of endemic wildlife and plants - like 80 species of cactus found only in that area - pristine beaches and warm, crystal-clear water," says Carl. "The camp is natural and beautiful. The palapas are right on the beach. There is excellent snorkeling right off the beach. The camp is natural - not developed at all. Cactus grows right next to the palapas. Little roads wind through the elephant trees."
Each morning, the team helps clean and refill the turtle tanks. Other daily projects include collecting food for the turtles in order to maintain their natural diet. This entails snorkeling for seaweed and spearfishing for fish and stingray. While maintaining the center, the Resendiz utilize volunteers in numerous other projects, ranging from shark parasites to sea hares (Aplysia californica).
While aiding in the research conducted by Antonio and Bety, volunteers also collect data for Scott Eckert of Hubbs-Sea World. Efforts to protect sea turtles are handicapped by lack of knowledge of their life cycles, migration patterns, food preferences, social structure, and growth rates - all issues that volunteers help these researchers tackle. Without the volunteer efforts, it would be impossible for any of this on-water data collection and research to take place.
It has been said that there are no extraordinary individuals - only ordinary individuals with an extraordinary commitment. Antonio, Bety, Carl and Heather embody that commitment, and invite you to join them for an extraordinary experience.

The lost arribada

Twenty years ago the Mexican state of Jalisco received an arribada, one of nature's most awesome events. The arribada, Spanish for "arrival", is a peculiar nesting event of the olive ridley. In a span of only a few days, wave after wave, thousand upon thousand of females come ashore to lay their eggs. Local fishermen who experienced it twenty years ago claim that a person could walk down the beach on the backs of the turtles without ever touching the sand.
At the arrival of the arribada, turtles and eggs were harvested intensively for food and leather. The massive number of turtles gave the false impression of an unlimited, never-ending, source of turtles.
The arribada no longer comes to the beaches of Jalisco. The olive ridley population there has plummeted from approximately 20,000 - 30,000 nesting turtles in the 1960s to only about 1,000 today. Worldwide, only 4 of the 7 beaches that used to host the arribada still experience them.
Listed as an endangered species, the olive ridley now nests intermittently in Jalisco over a broad expanse of beach, making conservation efforts difficult and expensive.

A turtle nursery story

One key project is the maintenance of a sea turtle "nursery." Sea turtle nests are carefully dug up and removed from the beach, where they would be subject to poaching. The eggs are then reburied in the "nursery," a fenced-in compound where their temperature, moisture and development can be monitored. When the eggs hatch, the young turtles are released into the ocean.
On one small beach, this might seem to have an insignificant impact. The numbers tell a different story.
A sea turtle lays between 50 and 200 eggs in each nest, which is buried in the sand. About 80 percent of these eggs may eventually hatch and produce baby turtles. A baby turtle is very delicate. A wide variety of natural and man-made obstacles drastically reduce their numbers.
Natural beach erosion can uncover the eggs, destroying a whole season's nesting. Animals like coyotes and racoons (and man, of course) dig up and destroy nests.
After emerging from the nest, the baby turtles immediately head for the ocean. Before reaching the water they are subject to additional problems. Crabs and birds, in addition to racoons and coyotes, find the young turtles a tasty meal. A tire track in the sand can trap an entire nest of young. The young are drawn to the light, so any man-made lighting will interfere with their trek to the sea, as will sunlight if they emerge during the day. Having to cross a road to reach the beach is obviously a problem.
Once in the water, the turtles swim out to sea. They probably swim for two days - the amount of food reserves they are born with - without stopping. Of course, once in the water they are preyed upon by sharks and other large fish, such as the skipjack.
It is estimated that less than one percent of the turtles survive to maturity.
Eliminating land-based predators and ensuring that all of the young turtles make it to the sea greatly increases their survival rate. Although natural survival rates are not accurately known, one nest that makes it to the nursery may produce the equivalent of five or 10 nests on the beach. Survival from ten nests in the nursery may be the equivalent of 100 "natural" nests!

Alice Martinez is a long-term San Diego resident, environmental reporter, computer specialist, and San Diego Earth Day volunteer.