Wild(life) Party in Baja

Arriving to the Los Cabos airport in March almost feels like waiting in line at a summer pop music festival. Hordes of college students with Greek letters fill the security lines; the anticipation of the upcoming parties is palpable. Fortunately our group left that scene behind the moment we hopped into our shuttles, the only wild time we were looking for was with the incredible ocean wildlife that lives in the Gulf of California and Magdalena Bay.

Our first wild encounter was the whale sharks that feed in the waters off La Paz. Ocean currents trap boatloads of plankton in the bay, creating a perfect spot for mostly juvenile (but still giant) whale sharks to feed. We met with Manuel Rodriguez from the Whale Shark Research Project who is studying these magnificent animals in the hopes of creating a protected area here to prevent these sharks from being struck by fast-moving boats leaving and entering the marina in La Paz.

It didn’t take long to spot the first dorsal fin breaking the calm waters. Our boat set up ahead of the path (out of the way though) of the whale shark and a couple of our participants hopped in to watch it swim by (and kick hard to keep up). Over the next couple of hours, our group, split between two boats, had several opportunities to snorkel with these amazing animals, which ranged from roughly 10 feet long to a bigger one possibly as long as 30 or more feet.

Overhead view of Balandra Beach

Overhead view of Balandra Beach

Our next stop was Balandra Beach, voted one of the country’s most beautiful beaches. But first was a detour to visit a colony of sea lions on a small island, followed by a group of bottlenose dolphins that joined us for a spell, at times traveling with us at the front of our boats. We then headed into Balandra Bay, an incredible range of blues set against the stark brown land. Balandra is a popular hangout spot for La Paz residents, who resisted efforts to put a large resort on the bay and helped to protect this area for everyone who wants to visit.

Our plan to return to the Gulf and visit the island of Espiritu Santo the next day was foiled by high winds, so instead we visited the beautiful town of Todos Santos. After a stroll around the town visiting the many artisan shops, we visited the hatchery of Todos Tortugueros, a local sea turtle conservation organization that protects the nests of olive ridley, black turtles, and the occasional leatherback turtle that nests near the town.

After two nights in La Paz, we then packed up and headed across the peninsula to Magdalena and Almejas Bays. On the way to our tent camp, on a strip of dunes between the two bays, we headed out to look for the gray whales that calve here. It didn’t take long to find the whales, and while none of them decided to say hello (these whales are the only ones in the world to sometimes approach boats), we had a chance to observe mothers and calves spyhopping, breaching, and feeding.

As we approached our camp, we spotted a seemingly out of place wild animal, a bald eagle standing on a sand bar. While this bird is now a fairly common site in Portland, Oregon, where many of our group came from, it was strange to see one in such a completely different landscape, though we learned that this area is the southernmost part of their range.

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Upon arrival at our camp, we were introduced to the RED Travel Mexico staff who did a fantastic job at making us welcome. The tents were spacious with cots and blankets for the cool desert evenings. The food was prepared with love by the excellent chef Hubert, formerly a turtle poacher who now dedicates his time to supporting ecotourism and turtle research for Red. Our guide Alonso, a goofy and friendly marine biologist, helped to keep the group entertained with his great stories and deep knowledge.

The next morning, Jesus “Chuy” Lucero of the Grupo Tortuguero, led our group to a spot in the bay to set nets to catch black sea turtles (a sub-species of green turtles) to study and release. It didn’t take long to catch the first turtle, which Chuy pulled into his boat within a few minutes of our arrival. By the time that one was done, we had another turtle already caught and we headed to the beach to collect the data. Our group took turns with various tasks including helping to measure the turtles, weigh them, tag them, collecting the information on data sheets, and lastly releasing them into the ocean. In all, we studied and released five turtles, most of which were juveniles who prefer this bay due to its rich seagrasses. In addition, another nine turtles were caught for other guests at the camp to study, for a total of fourteen turtles studied in our three days at the camp.

Chuy (left) and Hubert (right) studying a black turtle

Chuy (left) and Hubert (right) studying a black turtle

Once the turtle research was done, we had another opportunity to go whale watching. While the majority of whales had already headed back north up the Pacific coast on their way to Alaska to feed, many mothers and calves were still around and we had many opportunities to take photos and watch their fascinating behavior. Each day after our activities, we took a short walk across the dunes to the Magdalena Bay side to watch the beautiful sunsets and then back to camp for a delicious dinner and sit by a warm fire.

On our final morning, we took a short boat ride to a huge set of dunes, climbing up to the top for an incredible view of both bays and the surrounding islands and mainland. As if we hadn’t seen enough ocean wildlife over the week, a pair of dolphins were visible feeding from the top of the tallest dune. We then headed back to La Paz for a final celebratory dinner before our return to Los Cabos the next day for our flights home. During the week, we helped to support research into whale sharks and sea turtles and proceeds from the trip helped to fun Red’s community development work as well as protecting more than 1,300 hatchlings through our Billion Baby Turtles program.

Hawksbills Turtles Are Too Rare To Wear

One curse in working in wildlife conservation is that many of us after a while develop habits of searching out the threats to the animals we work to save all around us. With sea turtles, that includes finding plastic bags on the beach or watching people touch turtles while snorkeling. One habit I picked up years ago while working with leatherback turtles in Costa Rica was to look out for turtleshell jewelry whenever walking around the tourist town of Puerto Viejo.

So last summer when I found myself souvenir shopping with my daughter in the beach town of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, I ended up spending more time mentally cataloging the abundant turtleshell products for sale by the vendors and in the stores than actually looking for things to buy. I told my daughter that we wouldn’t be buying from anyone who sold those products and against my better judgment ended up arguing with a couple of the vendors about the legality of their actions (it is illegal to sell in Nicaragua but rarely enforced). After more than an hour, so many places sold turtleshell that my daughter begged me to just let her buy a braided bracelet anyway so we could stop shopping and go to the beach.

Turtleshell for sale in Nicaragua. Photo: Paula von Weller

Turtleshell for sale in Nicaragua. Photo: Paula von Weller

Turtleshell (sometimes incorrectly called “tortoiseshell”) comes from the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle. The beautiful color pattern of gold, amber, and brown (which helps them hide in coral reefs) combined with the ease of shaping the carapace (made of keratin) make this material popular for artisans, kind of like a natural plastic. The trade in the shells goes back thousands of years and was a multinational business for many years. Most of the shells were exported to Japan from around the world, where an entire industry of artisans made exquisite products out of the “bekko” as it’s called there, similar to the ivory carvers of China. Over a 50 year period, an estimated 2 million shells were shipped to Japan, which devastated hawksbill turtle populations around the world according to an excellent article in State of the World's Turtles (see graphic below).

Graphic from State Of The World's Turtles, Volume 3

Graphic from State Of The World's Turtles, Volume 3

Having worked with sea turtles my entire career, I knew this continued to be a problem but had no idea on how large of a scale the sale of turtleshell products currently is. Though the legal end of the international trade of their shells was finally outlawed as part of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in 1992, hawksbills have yet to recover their numbers. Estimates of the total number of adult female hawksbills worldwide range from only 15,000 – 20,000 (since the males don’t come ashore to nest, they are impossible to count) and they continue to be listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Hawksbills are not just a pretty shell; they are critical to the health of coral reefs, sometimes referred to as the “engineers of the coral reef.” These turtles primarily eat sea sponges, which compete with corals for space. Without hawksbills around, the sponges can take over and crowd out the coral. Sea sponges can be toxic to some animals; hawksbills are one of their few predators and can eat an estimated 1,000 of them in a year.

These reptiles are also important for coastal economies and divers and snorkelers. Many people flock to tropical reefs around the world hoping to spot them gracefully swimming in search of food, bringing in billions of travel dollars and providing lifelong memories. Unfortunately it is also many of those travelers who, sometimes unknowingly, take a piece of these turtles home with them as souvenirs.

The good news is that travelers can be part of the solution and help end the demand for turtleshell products. Too Rare To Wear is a new campaign that SEE Turtles is helping to launch that is educating travelers about turtleshell and how to avoid it. We are encouraging people when souvenir shopping to not only but something different, but to avoid shopping anywhere that does sell it, and most importantly, letting the people selling these products why you won’t buy anything of theirs.

Learn more about this issue, read the guide to identifying turtleshell, and take the pledge to avoid it at TooRareToWear.org

Cover photo by Julie Suess.

Worth The Wait: Sea Turtles and Cuban Art In Many Forms

Arriving to Jose Marti Airport in Havana, the first hint you are somewhere different is the wait to get your bags. The throng of people standing around the two baggage areas, barely able to stand in the three hour wait to get bags checked for a 30 minute flight. The pavlovian response you feel whenever a new bag drops onto the conveyor, only to realize it’s not your bag.

The good news is that Cuba is totally worth the wait.

Once our group, participants in our Cuba Sea Turtle Volunteer Expedition, all got through customs and onto our bus, the real adventure began. Our intrepid group of travelers from across the US remained enthusiastic despite the arduous journey from Miami. One by one, we dropped the group off at their homestays, Cuba’s version of AirBnB, for some downtime before dinner. That dinner was the highlight of the first day, a fabulous multi-course meal at San Cristobal, a well-known paladar (Cuba’s unique family-owned restaurants set in former homes) where President Obama dined on his recent visit. The ornate décor combined with the creative menu, mojitos, rum, and cigars was the perfect introduction to this country.

After dinner, those not drained by the long day headed out to the Fabrica de Arte (the Art Factory), a unique Cuban institution. Few cultures in the America’s are as supportive of the arts and this museum/night club is the perfect example. A former cooking oil factory given to a group of artists, the Fabrica is an extraordinary mix of art forms, from photography and painting exhibits, to live music, a DJ, and a movie theatre (currently playing: Hail, Caesar!). The line outside was around the corner all night, something rarely seen at an art museum in the US.

But good food and the arts were not our primary reason for the visit. Our group was the first international group of sea turtle volunteers to come to Cuba, part of a partnership between SEE Turtles, Cuba Marine Research and Conservation, and INSTEC, a Cuban government agency in charge of the turtle conservation program at Guanahacabibes National Park where our group was headed the next day. Guanahacabibes is one of the country’s most important turtle nesting beaches for green and loggerhead sea turtles.


We met our bus early the next morning for the long drive to Guanahacabibes after a quick stop to pick up Dr. Julia Azanza, the biologist in charge of the conservation program (and her adorable son Dario). Our group stayed at the Maria La Gorda resort, named for a woman who by some accounts was the adopted mother of a group of pirates that once lived on this remote stretch of coast on the far western point of the island. After dinner the first evening, Dr. Azanza gave a presentation on the research program, which she has directed for more than a decade.

The next day our group headed out with Osmany, a ranger for the park to look for some of the unique avian critters that live here. Osmany is so good at bird calls that it was often difficult to tell where a call was coming from, him or the birds. In a short span of time, we got to see several bee hummingbirds (the world’s smallest bird at just 2 inches tall), the Cuban trogon, the emerald hummingbird, and many other species.

Bee hummingbird

Bee hummingbird

Cuban trogon

Cuban trogon

That evening was our first visit to the nesting beach. We hadn’t been waiting long at the ramshackle shelter that houses the incredibly dedicated student volunteers before a green turtle was spotted nesting near the water. Unfortunately just as the turtle was getting ready to lay its eggs, a storm moved in with heavy winds that forced our group from the beach. By the time it passed, the turtle had returned to the ocean. Over the next three days and nights, our group explored the coral reefs of the park by snorkel and diving during the day, and returning to the nesting beach each night. Some in our group spotted a hawksbill while diving as well.

Green turtle nesting at Guanahacabibes. Photo: Jeff Frontz

Green turtle nesting at Guanahacabibes. Photo: Jeff Frontz

The next two evenings we were treated to green turtles nesting and many in our group had opportunities to participate in the research by helping to measure the turtles, count the eggs, and walk the beach. The conditions that these turtles face on this beach are more challenging than most; between clamoring over exposed coral and dealing with roots and coral in the sand while digging nests, these turtles have to expend more energy than the average turtle nesting on a typical Caribbean beach.

We had originally hoped to have more than 3 turtles nest in four nights on the beach, but after two very high nesting seasons in previous years, the turtles were due for a down year this year. Our final night on the beach was idyllic; no turtles but a nice light breeze and full moon rising over the ocean as we waited.

Returning to Havana, our group dove headfirst into the extraordinary cultural treasures that we sampled the first night at the Art Factory. We were treated to a private concert by Mezcla, a well-known group that combines many styles of music including jazz, rumba, rock, and African rhythms. Many of our group took advantage of a last minute impromptu visit to the famous Cuban ballet for a wonderful performance of “Don Quixote” in the exquisite Gran Teatro and afterwards to see some local music at the famous Zorra y El Cuervo Jazz Club.

Pablo Menendez & Mezcla

Pablo Menendez & Mezcla

Cuban Ballet performance of Don Quixote

Cuban Ballet performance of Don Quixote

The one time we came across turtles that was not a happy occasion was on a visit to a handicraft market. As we walked by one stall, the owner quietly mentioned she had turtleshell for sale (see photo at right). We stopped to document this illegal sale; items made from the shell of hawksbill sea turtles (incorrectly called “tortoiseshell”) are a major reason why this species is considered critically endangered. The good news is that our staff met afterwards with a local organization called “ProTortugas” who is launching a campaign to educate people about turtleshell and encourage people not to buy these items.

Fan made from hawksbill turtle shell for sale in Havana

Fan made from hawksbill turtle shell for sale in Havana

Seeing these items for sale was sad but only serves to remind us why we do these trips and reinforces our need to take people to Cuba to work with sea turtles. By partnering with great organizations like CMRC and INSTEC, we can not only provide important financial support for conservation efforts but also help to educate travelers about wildlife-friendly shopping while there.

Ecotourism is proving to be a significant tool for supporting sea turtle conservation in Cuba, the tours that SEE Turtles and our sponsor Oceanic Society completed this year are providing $10,000 in funds to help protect the nesting turtles through our Billion Baby Turtles program. In 2017, we hope to provide even more support and to recruit other tour operators to spread the word about turtleshell products so we can reduce their demand.

Wild Blue Belize

As the EcoMar boat approached the dock on St. George’s Caye (an historic and beautiful island 30 min. from Belize City), a persistent buzzing sound hung in the air like a horde of angry bees. Fortunately for us, the sound came from a drone, used by Oceanic Society’s Eric Ramos to study the abundant manatees and dolphins found in these waters. Eric was looking for George, a resident manatee who spends most of his (we think it’s a “he”) time feeding on the seagrass around the island.

Footage by Eric Ramos of the City University of New York of George the manatee and historic St. George's Caye in Belize. 

The drone is just one way that ocean wildlife is studied by EcoMar and Oceanic Society in the Belize Barrier Reef and surrounding waters. For a week, our group was there snorkel looking for sea turtles, observe and record manatees and dolphins by boat, and study conchs by hand. The ocean is the lifeblood of Belize’s economy, generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tourism and fishing income, and protecting its waters is a priority for many residents.

Our group of travelers participating in our Belize Ocean Wildlife Research Expedition mostly from the Portland Oregon area, started off the week with a snorkel, exploring a reef known as Gallow’s Point (named for a person, not the infamous device). Near the end of the swim, we were greeted by a loggerhead turtle who we watched swim from a distance.

The following day (Monday), our group split up in two to participate in manatee observation and a conch survey. The manatee group headed to the mouth of the Belize River, in Belize City, a popular hangout spot for the large marine mammals. To the delight of the group, one curious manatee surfaced near the boat as the group recorded the high pitch squeals of the more than dozen feeding in the area.

The area is a popular spot for local tour operators to bring people from cruise ships and then head upriver. Unfortunately many of the boat drivers don’t respect the “no wake zone”, driving their boats quickly through the area, which puts the manatees at risk. An estimated 30-40 manatees here die per year due to boat strikes according to Eric, something that EcoMar is hoping to address with an outreach campaign.

The conch survey was a favorite for many in the group. A weighted measuring tape was laid down in an area of seagrass and participants would search for conchs on either side within a meter of the line. Once found, the conchs were measured and recorded and returned to the ocean floor. This research is an important way to study where the conchs are most densely populated and what impact the conch fishery has on the population.

On Tuesday, the group’s stronger swimmers spent the day looking for sea turtles, snorkeling in a line keeping an eye out for the turtles. We spotted several green and hawksbill turtles though were unable to catch one to study. But the sightings will be documented as part of a database of turtle sightings around the country. The rest of the group participated in a dolphin survey, recording the behavior of bottlenose dolphins that inhabit the waters between the island and Belize City.

The highlight of the trip for many was the visit to Hol Chan, the country’s first marine protected area and a popular spot for snorkelers. After a 45 min ride, our boat pulled up to join a dozen or so other boats in the area near a well-preserved coral reef. We swam out to the edge of the reef, seeing a number of rays (stingrays and spotted eagle rays) and many reef fish and then came across what had to be the most patient green turtle I’ve ever witnessed, feeding on seagrass with a horde of people around it.

Next stop was an area where fishermen discard their conch shells and lobster heads. Two large loggerhead turtles found their way to this smorgasbord and were tearing into the lobsters with crunches that were clearly audible underwater. Unfortunately for the turtles, many fish and several rays also found the spot and proceeded to hound the turtles’ every attempt to get meat out of the shells. Their flippers acted both as hands to hold down the lobsters to crunch as well as to wave away the annoying freeloaders and the turtles resembled dogs with their beloved bones in their mouths as they tried to swim away from the fish.  

Our last stop was an area full of nurse sharks, which aren’t aggressive to people (but do aggressively beg for food from the tourist boats that feed them). A horde of sharks approached our boat but only for a short time until they realized that we wouldn’t be feeding them (it’s not generally a good thing for sharks to be fed by humans). But we did get a chance to watch these graceful sharks underwater once they dispersed. 

Our final day was nearly rained out, though with a group from Oregon, that wasn’t a deterrent. We did one more search for dolphins and then split in groups to do an additional conch survey and one final snorkel, where a couple of swimmers had the extraordinary luck to witness a spotted eagle ray launch itself into the air from underwater.

On Friday morning, our group reluctantly gathered before breakfast for a group photo, knowing it was time to leave this incredible ocean paradise. We gave our thanks to Linda & John who run EcoMar, as well as their great cooks and staff, and Eric with many promising to return again as soon as possible. We returned home knowing that our visit supported a bunch of important research and conservation efforts and dedicated people working to protect the extraordinary waters of Belize.

6 Tips for A Healthy Ocean

(Originally written for the Endangered Species Chocolate blog)

For decades, the ocean has been the ultimate dumping ground. Anything humans have ever wanted to throw away have been tossed ashore. The statistics are truly staggering, from a study saying there will be more trash than fish by 2050 to another saying that 5 large bags of plastic end up in the ocean for every 1 foot of coast, every year.

The problem is that “away” isn’t really away. That plastic comes back to us by contaminating our seafood, by killing animals that are important to ocean habitats and coastal economies like sea turtles and whales, by ruining beaches that used to be popular for tourism.

The good news is that this problem is fixable. This World Ocean’s Day, all of us can impact the ocean in a positive way. Here are a few tips to help make the ocean a bit more healthy.

1. Say Goodbye to Straws

It’s said that the human brain is the most complex thing in the universe. Do we really need a plastic tube to help get liquids from a drink to our mouths? Straws may seem innocent, but when you see video of a straw being extracted from a sea turtle’s nose, it’s enough to say “no straw please” the next time you order a drink.

2. Balloons Blow

Perhaps we could find a way to celebrate special occasions that don’t involve releasing a gaggle of balloons that often make their way to the ocean? In the water, with its string, a balloon (like plastic bags) can look a lot like a jellyfish to a sea turtle. If you are planning a celebration, consider other ways to have fun than releasing helium balloons and if you end up with a helium balloon, be very careful to keep it from flying away.

3. Reef-Friendly Suntanning

Did you know that our skin can be a source of pollution? Sunscreens that contain the chemical oxybenzone can damage coral reefs. Even a tiny bit can hurt; as little as one drop in the equivalent of six Olympic-sized pools can be damaging. PADI has put together a guide for sunscreens that are better for swimming in the ocean here.

4. Bear Your (Ocean) Sole

Flip flops are not generally made to last. They are one of the most common products found littering beaches around the world. In Kenya, Ocean Sole collects discarded flip flops from the beach and turns them into beautiful wildlife creations. You can find their turtles, sharks, and dolphins in the SEE Turtles online shop here, along with other great products that either recycle or help avoid plastic. 

5. Shop Carefully on Vacation

In many tropical places, especially around Latin America, souvenir shops and artisans sell items made from the shell of critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles (sometimes mistakenly referred to as “tortoiseshell”). Keep an eye out for these items and avoid shops that sell them. Hawksbills are key to the health of coral reefs and their shells don’t grow back.

6. Law of Reduction

Countries, states, and cities around the world are taking action to reduce waste through bans or fees on plastic bags, Styrofoam, and other plastic. These bans can have a huge impact, a tax on bags reduced their use at least 75% in Ireland for example and a bag fee in Washington DC has reduced their use by 50% according to studies. Encourage your decision-makers to enact these policies is a simple act that can have a huge impact. And of course, remember to bring your reusable bag whenever you shop!

Bonus Tip: Help Save Some Hawksbill Hatchlings for Free!

Visit our social media feeds between 6/8 & 16 to like, share, comment, or RT our promotional posts. Every share, etc saves a hatchling through a donation from  Endangered Species Chocolate!






Take a Vacation, Save an Endangered Species

Guest Contributor Melissa Gaskill

If you want to help save an endangered animal, go on vacation. No, really. A recent scientific study concluded that ecotourism can make the difference between survival and extinction for some rare and endangered animals.

Researchers from Australia’s Griffith University quantified the effects of ecotourism for the first time using a scientific tool called population viability models. These models, widely used in wildlife management, estimate change over time in numbers of a particular species. The researchers ran the models using existing data for nine species, including orangutan, cheetah and African penguin.

Young traveler and a green sea turtle. Photo by Hal Brindley

Young traveler and a green sea turtle. Photo by Hal Brindley

According to study co-author Ralf Buckley, ecotourism boosted conservation of seven of the species. That’s because ecotourism tends to lead to measures helpful to wildlife, such as creation of private reserves, habitat restoration, anti-poaching measures, and removal of feral predators.

These results come as no surprise to those familiar with sea turtle conservation. Ecotourism has long been an invaluable part of worldwide efforts to save these endangered marine reptiles. Many conservation and monitoring projects rely on tourists to help fund their work, generating income by charging visitors to join beach walks looking for nesting sea turtles or hatchlings leaving the nest and to tour hatcheries and research facilities. Others depend on volunteers, who pay for room and board and spend their vacation helping with beach patrols, collection of eggs, maintenance of hatchery facilities, and hatchling releases. As an added benefit, the very presence of tourists deters poachers.

The study’s authors stress that not all ecotourism has a positive effect, and that is something the sea turtle community also knows all too well. Some “ecolodges” were built in prime nesting habitat, have bright lights that interfere with nesting, or allow activities on the beach that can harm sea turtles. Hotels on or near nesting beaches in some parts of the world charge guests a fee to ‘release’ a hatchling, even though handling is not good for the animals and the delay between hatching and reaching the ocean could prove fatal to them. Some places take crowds of people onto beaches to watch hatchlings emerge from the nest, without taking precautions against the hatchlings being trampled by careless tourists or disoriented by flashlights. Some have kept hatchlings in tubs of water for viewing by guests, sometimes for days. Even if these hatchlings are still alive when finally released into the ocean, they probably don’t survive.

Hotel built on a turtle nesting beach. Photo by Neil Osborne

Hotel built on a turtle nesting beach. Photo by Neil Osborne

Bottom line, ecotourism can make a positive difference if done right. It is up to you as a traveler to choose destinations and outfitters whose priority is protecting the animals and habitat rather than exploiting them. Biologist and author Wallace J. Nichols, ecotourism expert Brad Nahill (co-founders of SEE Turtles) and I wrote a book about sea turtle ecotourism destinations that operate in a responsible way. In general, keep these simple guidelines in mind. Avoid destinations that keep animals in captivity or allow tourists to touch, hold or feed the animals. Seek out local outfitters and guides so that your tourist dollars go directly to the community. Look for programs that educate tourists (and locals) about the wildlife, environment and local communities and that use local restaurants, accommodations and other services. When local residents can earn a living from ecotourism, they can conserve and protect their natural resources and hold on to their way of life.

Every year, more people seek meaningful encounters with wilderness and wildlife, especially endangered animals. We must take care that these encounters actually benefit those animals.

Melissa Gaskill is a freelance science and travel writer and co-author of A Worldwide Travel Guide to Sea Turtles, TAMU Press. Follow her on Twitter at @MelissaGaskill

Sweat The Small Stuff – Ridding the Beach of Microplastic

By now you have probably heard about the problem of plastic in the ocean. Whether it’s the discovery of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, the horrifying video of a researcher pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose, or the ambitious efforts of teen Boyan Slat to come up with a large scale solution, ocean plastic has been in the news a lot over the last few years. And with good reason, a recent study estimated that a large bag of plastic ends up in the ocean each year for every meter of coastline on the entire planet. Another study estimated that as many as one third of all sea turtles ingest plastic, confusing it for jellyfish, one of their favorite foods.

One solution to this problem is beach clean ups, which have been going on for decades. While these efforts have successfully kept millions of pounds of trash out of the water, beaches afterwards are not completely clean of plastic debris. The problem is that plastic breaks down into small pieces and become vectors for bacteria, making them especially harmful to beachgoers and wildlife, in addition to the toxic chemicals that plastic is made from. Marine microplastic also has the ability to absorb deadly toxic chemicals from ambient sea water. Lab research at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology which Marc contributed to and co-authored found that all marine microplastics contain PCBs and a range of up to 200 other deadly toxic chemicals at over one million times background levels. 

One of our partners, Oregon-based Sea Turtles Forever (whose green turtle nesting beach project in Costa Rica is supported by Billion Baby Turtles), is one of the few organizations tackling this problem. One of the hardest working turtle conservationists around, Marc Ward, developed highly efficient screens for filtering out the small plastic bits that get left behind. The Blue Wave teams (Sea Turtles Forever’s Microplastic Recovery Team) tackle stretches of Oregon’s coast, removing hundreds of pounds of debris with each clean up.

I had an opportunity to join Marc and his team recently for an event at Cannon Beach for Earth Week. It was an unseasonably hot weekend day at one of Oregon’s busiest beaches, but that didn’t stop a group of volunteer high school students and local residents from braving the strong sun to help filter the beach. It takes about 5 minutes to shovel the debris onto the screen, pick it up and filter, and then dump the debris, covering about 5 feet of beach. Blue Wave focuses on the “Back Beach zone”, where waves collect plastic and other debris. The screens, what they call the “microplastic filtration system”, can remove plastic pieces as small as 100 micrometers (the size of a grain of sand).

Blue Wave volunteers filter sand at Cannon Beach, Oregon

Blue Wave volunteers filter sand at Cannon Beach, Oregon

Marc’s work has not only helped Oregon’s beautiful coast; he has sent copies of his filters to organizations around the world. The screens have been sent to 4 countries and they have worked with researchers at the University of Tokyo and Northwestern to study this problem. The work of the Blue Wave team is both helping bring to light the problem of microplastics and offering a simple solution. 

Learn more about the problem of plastic in the ocean:

2015 in Review

2015 was a banner year and we have all of our travelers, donors, sponsors, teachers, and students to thank for it! This year, we nearly doubled the number of baby turtles saved at 8 important turtle nesting beaches across Latin America, we trained 40 teachers, college students, and community leaders in sea turtle education, helped hundreds of students participate in conservation efforts, and much more.


Here are the highlights from 2015:

Billion Baby Turtles: 230,000+ Hatchlings Saved (500,000 total to date)

  • More than 20,000 critically endangered hawksbill hatchlings at important nesting beaches in Nicaragua and El Salvador through our partners ICAPO & Flora & Fauna Nicaragua.
  • 150,000 endangered green turtle hatchlings at Colola, Mexico, the most important nesting beach for these turtles along the Pacific coast through the University of Guadalajara.
  • Nearly 40,000 endangered green turtle hatchlings at Guanahacabibes National Park in Cuba through Cuba Marine Research and Conservation
  • More than 10,000 endangered green and loggerhead hatchlings at Tulum National Park in Mexico.
Green turtle hatchling in Nicaragua (credit Hal Brindley)

Green turtle hatchling in Nicaragua (credit Hal Brindley)

Sea Turtle Education

  • Through our teacher workshops, we trained more than 40 Nicaraguan teachers, college students, and community leaders in sea turtle educational techniques and provided scholarships for them to bring their students to participate in local conservation programs. The workshops were done in partnership with Paso Pacifico and Flora & Fauna Nicaragua.  
  • Our School Fundraiser Contest raised more than $5,000 to help save 5,000+ baby sea turtles. More than 350 students at 17 schools across the US participated.
  • We provided scholarships for more than 400 Latin American students to participate in local conservation projects.
  • We gave our popular sea turtle educational presentations to more than 700 students in the US.
Teachers visiting a sea turtle hatchery in Nicaragua (credit: Brad Nahill)

Teachers visiting a sea turtle hatchery in Nicaragua (credit: Brad Nahill)

Sea Turtle Conservation Tours

  • 120 travelers visited sea turtle conservation projects in Costa Rica, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico. These tours generated more than $100,000 for sea turtle conservation and local communities.
  • Of those travelers, 95 volunteered during their trips, completing more than 300 work shifts.
A young traveler watches a green turtle return to the water in Costa Rica (credit: Hal Brindley)

A young traveler watches a green turtle return to the water in Costa Rica (credit: Hal Brindley)

There's one final thing we want to do by the end of the year - save 1,000 more hatchlings! We're more than halfway there and need your help. Every dollar donated helps save at least one hatchling and each gift comes with great thank you gifts. 

500,000 baby turtles!

When we launched Billion Baby Turtles 2 years ago, we had no idea how many hatchlings we could save and how fast we could save them, but we knew that with the help of travelers, green businesses, donors, and students, it could be a lot.

We are thrilled to announce that we have passed 500,000 hatchlings saved, a huge milestone! We focus our support on important turtle nesting beaches in Latin America, where small donations can go a long way towards protecting lots of endangered hatchlings and providing funds to hire local residents to patrol those beaches and help them get to the water.


With the help of partners and donors, we have accomplished a lot since our launch:

  • Saved 70,000 Eastern Pacific hawksbill hatchlings in Nicaragua and El Salvador, possibly the most endangered sea turtle population in the world with fewer than 1,000 adult females by supporting our partners ICAPO and Fauna & Flora Nicaragua;
  • Saved nearly 250,000 black turtle hatchlings in Mexico, a population once written off and now rebounding due to local efforts over the past decade due to the great work of the University of Guadalajara;
  • Saved 100,000 green turtle hatchlings at Guanahacabibes National Park, Cuba, the islands 2nd most important turtle nesting beach in partnership with Cuba Marine Research and Conservation and INSTEC.

Over the next few years, we will increase the number of hatchlings saved by offering new tours to destinations like Belize and El Salvador, starting new partnerships with socially-responsible companies, and through our annual School Fundraising Contest

One great new way that people can get involved is to become a monthly donor, helping to save baby turtles all year long. Check out our thank you gifts at each level of donation here. 

This success wouldn't be possible without help from hundreds of donors, travelers, and students as well as sponsors like Endangered Species Chocolate and Nature's Path / EnviroKidz.

Exploring Cuba's Natural & Cultural Treasures

The large green turtle arrived to the beach as if on cue, just minutes after our group arrived to the main nesting beach in Guanahacabibes National Park, near Cuba’s westernmost point.  We waiting anxiously for her to dig her body pit and start digging it’s nest, which is when we can approach without worry of scaring her off. One of our group volunteered to be the one to count the eggs as they fell, getting a front row seat to the action. The turtle spent more than an hour digging through the coral-filled sand to lay her eggs and then we watched as she made her way slowly back to the water.


This Cuba Sea Turtle Adventure was the result of more than 2 years of discussions, negotiations, planning, and marketing, the result of a fledgling partnership between SEE Turtles, the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation project, Altruvistas, and the Center for Marine Investigations. This partnership includes funding for beach patrols at this park through our Billion Baby Turtles program and developing a model for this project to become self-sustaining through educational and volunteer tours.

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It didn’t take long to be introduced to Cuba’s reputation for long lines. A third of our group ended up in the slowest immigration line and were the last ones through to baggage claim. On the bright side, we expected that our bags would be waiting for us when we got through. We were wrong. It was another 3 hours before the last of our bags came out and darkness started to fall as we made our way to dinner. Taking advantage of the dying light, we had dinner at El Torre, a restaurant at the top of one of Havana’s tallest building, giving us a stunning view of the city and Caribbean.

Now free of the lines, we started the next day with a presentation from Dr. Patricia Gonzalez of the University of Havana on the state of Cuba’s coral reefs, which are some of the healthiest in the Caribbean. A walking tour of Old Havana allowed our group to compare the squares and buildings that have been beautifully restored with sections that are awaiting restoration. Few places in the world (especially in the America’s) have such an incredible mix of architecture from more than 5 centuries and every block has an important historical or cultural treasure.

The next morning, we boarded our bus to head to the Viñales Valley, a stunningly beautiful region that is in the heart of tobacco growing country, about 2 hours west of Havana. We stopped at an organic farm with a beautiful view of the valley for one of the largest family-style meals I’ve ever had, with plates coming non-stop for more than a half-hour while an acoustic band sang in the background. That evening, we headed out for a party with a “Committee for the Defense of the Revolution”, a neighborhood organization that acts as a form of local government. After a few words of introduction, the music started and soon our entire group was dancing with our new Cuban friends.

The next morning, we hopped again on our bus headed for Maria La Gorda, the resort near Guanahacabibes National Park. Our exploration of this incredible park started the next day with a bird watching tour; the participants braving hordes of mosquitoes to see some extraordinary birds including the world’s smallest, the bee hummingbird. That afternoon, our group snorkeled the reefs off the beach in front of the resort while a few, including myself, went diving, where we saw a beautiful young hawksbill sea turtle. We then rested up for the main attraction, the visit to the nesting beach where we saw the large green turtle.

The next day our group took a group snorkeling tour to explore the incredible reefs around the area. Guanahacabibes National Park includes some of Cuba’s healthiest reefs as well as nesting beaches and coastal forests. A smaller group went out again to look for nesting turtles and were rewarded with a smaller green turtle that we were able to observe for a short while before heading back to the resort.

On our last full day in Cuba, we drove back to Havana in time to check in at the Hotel Nacional, one of the country’s most famous and historic hotels. We were treated to a private rooftop concert at dusk by Pablo Menendez and Mezcla, one of Cuba’s most popular bands, which was followed by our best meal of the trip, a multi-course feast at La Casa, and then more music at the well-known jazz club Zorro y Cuervo (Fox and the Crow) in downtown Havana.

One final tour of the National Aquarium and souvenir shopping on the last morning wrapped up the trip before heading to the airport. To bookend our marathon wait for our bags the first day, it took our group about 3 hours to get through check-in and security, though thankfully the plane was late and nobody missed it (though there were a few missed connections in Miami). But getting acquainted with Cuba’s charmless airport did not distract from an incredible week of exploring the country’s natural and cultural treasures.  

Exploring Drake Bay & Isla del Caño

Fully loaded with SCUBA gear, I leaned back off the side of the boat, falling headfirst into the cool water. After a second to get my bearings, I headed to the rope and made my way 50 feet down into the ocean with the dive instructor. Visibility was good with a fair current. Within minutes we saw our first shark, a white tip reef shark quietly resting near a large rock covered in coral. It didn’t take long to realize my top priority for the dive (other than finishing the certification of course), seeing a turtle (hawksbill I think) hanging out under a rock at the bottom.

Drake Bay

Drake Bay

Isla del Caño is one of Costa Rica’s most popular dive sites, a small island in the southern Pacific region near the popular Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. Many consider it to be the next best thing to Cocos Island, a world-famous dive site way out in the Pacific ocean. The island and its surrounding waters are a wildlife reserve, protecting dozens of both terrestrial and marine species. Drake Bay is the beautiful stretch of coast where rainforest, dark sand, and deep blue water meet up and where divers and other travelers stay while visiting the area.

Getting to Drake Bay was more of an adventure than expected however. I was based in La Palma on this stay and had a few days of rest between taking volunteer groups to work with green and hawksbill turtles in the Golfo Dulce, a spectacular body of water between the Osa Peninsula and the southern Pacific mainland of Costa Rica. What should have been a quite hour-long bus ride turned stressful (and expensive) when the owner of the bus decided to leave a half-hour early, leaving me stranded and looking for a taxi.

Once on the way however, watching out the window as we passed through tiny little towns and over (sometimes through) small rivers, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride. Having brought many tour groups to explore this beautiful country over the years, I rarely get outside our standard locations to see new areas. The Osa is extremely well conserved, with more than 2/3rds under some form of protection, and the views along the way were incredible.

I stopped at El Progreso, a small town about 20 minutes before Agujitas, the beach town where most people go, instead staying at Drake Bay Backpackers, a small hostel run by Fundacion Corcovado, a local organization that works to protect the area’s wildlife, including sea turtles nesting on the nearby coast. While the hostel didn’t have the more upscale rooms and beachfront views available at Agujitas, it offered many benefits those other places could not, including immersion in small-town Costa Rica, an opportunity to give back to the community and reduce my environmental impact, and also to save quite a bit of money.

Drake Bay Backpackers (photo: Rob James / Fundacion Corcovado)

Drake Bay Backpackers (photo: Rob James / Fundacion Corcovado)

The hostel is a new and innovative way for Fundacion Corcovado to support the local community. Built by the organization, management of the hostel is being passed on to local residents and provides a local base for tourism for a town that most travelers only pass through on the way to the beach. They offer more than a dozen tours to explore the area’s rich wildlife, all run by local residents who are able to supplement their income. The hostel acts as a base of operations for the organization’s successful sea turtle conservation program, offering volunteers a place to stay while patrolling the beaches at night protecting olive ridley sea turtles.

The next day, I got a ride into town early in the morning to meet the dive instructors. The 45 minute ride to the island was calm and relaxing and we even had an opportunity to see a few dolphins before getting in the water. After a quick stop to register at the guard station on the island, we headed back to a shallow area to begin diving.

Welcome sign at Isla del Caño

Welcome sign at Isla del Caño

Once in the water, it wasn’t long before I saw my first turtle hiding in a small space under a rock. It looked like a juvenile hawksbill but I wasn’t close enough to be sure.

Having worked with sea turtles on and off for more than 15 years, this view was different from my normal turtle experience, seeing them drag themselves up onto the beach to nest. On land, sea turtles are awkward and slow but their grace and beauty in the water is entrancing. We stopped to watch for a moment before it swam away with a few powerful strokes of its front flippers.

After the turtle, we made our way around an area called “Paraiso” (Paradise), an area of rock and coral formations with impressive numbers of stingrays, reef sharks, and large schools of fish. At one point, we approached an area of seagrass, long black blades moving with the current. Only it wasn’t grass I learned once the little blades retracted themselves into the sea floor, they were garden eels.

Back in El Progreso, I explored the town, walking down a quiet road lined with cow pastures and African palm oil plantations. Near a small creek, a turtle of another sort was making its way across the road. I stopped to explore this much smaller cousin of the animal I know so well, which I later learned was a white-lipped mud turtle. Back at the hostel, I received a tour of the hostel’s innovative water filtration system by Fran Delgado, the Administrative Director of Fundacion Corcovado. By filtering all its gray water (from the sinks and showers) and releasing it back to the ground, the hostel significantly lowers its environmental impact on the town. That evening, I had a great conversation with (soda owner and father) about the town and rural living over an excellent typical dinner.

White lipped mud turtle in El Progreso

White lipped mud turtle in El Progreso

Making my way back to La Palma after a few days of diving and exploring was as much of an adventure as getting there and made me realized that I didn’t miss much the first day by taking a taxi. A group of young travelers were well into their Imperial beers and about halfway through their packs of cigarettes by the time I got on board. Fortunately the volume and air quality of the inside of the bus improved dramatically when the group decided they preferred riding on top of the bus (up and down the same steep hills and through the same creeks). All part of the non-stop adventure that is traveling in Costa Rica…

Learn more about the Corcovado Foundation's turtle volunteer program here. 

Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere

By Katie Ross, Outreach Manager

For the past couple decades, scientists have come to different results when estimating the amount of plastic in our world’s oceans because it is hard to gauge how much trash is really out there. But there is one thing they can agree on, there is too much and it is causing a negative impact on the health of all our oceans and the animals that depend on them. This problem will only get worse if we don’t take action and address this issue right now.

An article was recently published by John Schwartz in the New York Times about a study on plastic in the oceans that was published in the PLOS One journal. The team of scientists from the organization 5 Gyres, used computer models to estimate figures from their samples and came up with very surprising results. They predicted that there are “5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, large and small, weighing 269,000 tons could be found throughout the world’s oceans”. The leader of this study, Marcus Eriksen, says that a lot of the debris by weight is discarded fishing nets and gear. He suggests to solve this problem, an international program could be put in place to pay fishermen who bring in reclaimed nets.

It isn’t just industrial junk out there though, common household items can be found floating everywhere from toothbrushes to plastic bottles and bags. Even your discarded electronics like cell phones and computers are out there! Most of this trash makes its way to the ocean by floating down our rivers coming from landfills and other urban sources. The trash then gathers at gyres where ocean currents converge and sunlight and waves have a chance to break up the plastic into smaller pieces. I went to school in Hawaii for a year in 2008 and when I’d walk on some of the beaches I would see small pieces of very weathered plastic that was soft to the touch. I would pick up as many pieces as I could, but the stuff was everywhere and it seemed like more would wash up the next time I would visit that beach.

Plastic on a turtle nesting beach in Mexico. Credit Brad Nahill

Plastic on a turtle nesting beach in Mexico. Credit Brad Nahill

The small pieces of plastic may break up until they eventually become as tiny as sand particles. Eriksen and his team expected to find a lot of sand-sized plastic particles floating in their samples because their computer models predicted there would be. The tiny pieces weren’t as abundant as they estimated them to be in their samples so it left them to think that maybe they either sink to the bottom or wash up on beaches, or they might even be ingested by marine animals like fish and whales.

Whether it is small or large plastic pieces in our oceans, we know that hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, fish, whales, and other marine animals die each year from ingesting or getting entangled in debris. Plastic bags floating in the water look just like jelly fish so turtles easily mistake them for food. Once they are swallowed, they can cause blockages within their digestive system that can lead to death. Fishing nets and lines can entangle turtles and either injure or drown them by not allowing them to resurface to breathe. At this point, it's likely that every single sea turtle on earth has to deal with plastic, swimming through it, crawling through it on the beach as hatchlings, or confusing it for food.

Green turtle in Costa Rica. Photo: Neil Ever Osborne

Green turtle in Costa Rica. Photo: Neil Ever Osborne

It is easy to get overwhelmed thinking about all that trash in our oceans, but we can help by not adding to this global problem. The best way to reduce the amount of plastic entering our oceans is simply to buy fewer products made of plastic or that use plastic packaging. By using reusable water bottles, food containers, and shopping bags, we could greatly decrease the amount of plastic we use and depend on. Also, choosing whole foods and fruits rather than packaged and processed foods is a great way to use less plastic and to eat healthy. We can send a message to the companies that make all the products we use by choosing to only buy items that are created sustainably or have a smaller carbon footprint to produce. The health of our oceans affects us all, and everyone who is a consumer is contributing to this growing problem.

Learn more:

Sea Turtles & Plastic

Shop our online store for recycled plastic and plastic-free gifts and items

Turtle Conservation & Cultural Reality

By Jessica Pate, Marine Scientist, Sea I mester

On a picture-perfect Caribbean morning on the island of Bequia, my first mate dropped me off at the dinghy dock to provision vegetables for our 18-man crew.  As this was my third attempt in forty-eight hours to acquire all our veggie needs, the walk down the dock was a familiar one.  However, as I approached the junction between water and land, I saw something new and unwelcome.  Lying on its back was a large (sub-adult/adult) hawksbill sea turtle, apparently dead.  I took a quick glance (and a quick photo with my smart phone) and headed to some benches within sight of the dock.  Having travelled extensively, I’m aware that locals do not like to harm charismatic animals in front of visitors or tourists. Within a few minutes some men with a dull machete approached the turtle and began to cut its throat.  I watched with unease as I realized that the turtle was still alive, its flippers flapping in protest against its side.  This lasted for what seemed to me a long time, and before the decapitation could be completed I fled inside the veggie market to collect my order.

In early September, I began working as a Marine Science Instructor for Sea|mester, a company that takes students to sea for a semester, teaching them sailing, diving, leadership skills, oceanography and marine biology.  Sea|mester owns and operates two sailing vessels.  Ocean Star, the one I currently work and live on, has been travelling the Caribbean for almost two decades.  Up until taking this job, my resume has largely revolved around sea turtle conservation and biology.; ranging from my first post-undergraduate position as a research assistant tagging Olive Ridleys in Costa Rica to recently completing my Master’s thesis on comparative morphology in hatchling sea turtles.  Through this experience, I have seen much evidence of the misfortunes of turtles including eggs being poached on the beaches of Central America and Florida, the circling tracks of hatchlings disoriented by the lights of condos, and even a female loggerhead that died of head trauma while attempting to nest, after falling in hole dug by happy beachgoers the day before.  In West Africa, I have eagerly followed the alternating flipper tracks of a nesting Olive Ridley, expecting to find a female in part of the nesting process, only to find the flipper tracks end and be replaced by the smooth track of a turtle that’s been flipped over and dragged on her carapace to someone’s hut. 

Despite all these experiences, I still hadn’t prepared myself for the sight of a turtle being brutally slaughtered alive, especially on such a picturesque Caribbean morning.  To be honest, I was woefully ignorant on the status of turtle conservation and management in the eastern Caribbean islands.  I was completely unaware that many of these islands have an extended turtle fishing season.  Sometimes open turtle season overlaps with nesting season, resulting in the capture of gravid females.  According to the Fishery Division of Bequia’s website, open season for sea turtles runs from August 1st-February 28th and hawksbills must be at least 85 lbs to be legally taken (Leatherbacks must be 350 lbs, green turtles 180 lbs and loggerheads 160 lbs).

Despite the fact that many of these Caribbean islands allow endangered species to be hunted, there are many people supporting turtle conservation in the Caribbean.  On the island of Nevis, my students and I observed nesting hawksbills on Lover’s beach with Emile of the Nevis Turtle Group.  Emile and his group of volunteers tag hawksbills, green turtles and leatherbacks during the nesting season.  At night, after the females finish nesting and leave the beach, the volunteers wipe the turtle tracks away from the sand in order to disguise the location of the eggs from poachers.

Also in Bequia, the island where I observed the turtle slaughter on the dock, there is a turtle sanctuary established by a retired fisherman, Orton ‘Brother’ King.  He established the turtle sanctuary in 1995 (at the age of 57!) when he noticed a decline in turtle’s swimming on the reefs.  Mr. King raises the turtles up to 3-5 years of age, until they are large enough to avoid many predators, and in this way gives them a ‘head-start’ in life.  Talking to Brother King at his beachfront turtle facility left me feeling hopeful for turtles in the Caribbean islands.  It is always inspiring to see someone who used to make their living from the ocean, dedicate their life to saving its inhabitants.

After collecting all my vegetables from the market, I walked outside and found the turtle being ‘dismantled’.  I walked over and politely asked if I might take some photos.  The man with the machete acquiesced, and acknowledged that he knew I didn’t like what I was seeing but for him it was a way of life.  The head and flippers of the turtle had been removed, and all of the internal organs had been taken from inside the shell and placed inside a cardboard box.  I peered inside and I was surprised to see the turtle’s heart still beating.  I detached myself from my inner soft-hearted ‘turtle hugger’, and marveled at the chance to see the anatomy of these amazing creatures.  

From a group of men off to the side, I heard “Hey you, are you a turtle conservationist?”  I had forgotten I was wearing one of my many sea turtle shirts and this man, on seeing my shirt and camera, was obviously concerned.  Not wanting to cause trouble, I simply told him I was from a schooner anchored offshore and was simply curious about the turtle’s fate.  Not completely believing me, he began to tell me how this turtle had been attacked by a shark and would not have survived in the ocean.  I didn’t remember seeing any shark bites when I walked by earlier, and know he was just trying to assure me, the tourist, that they only kill these animals for altruistic purposes.  I simply said ‘Okay’ and talked with him for a little about free diving and fishing off the coast of Bequia.

This interaction tugged at two parts of myself that are often contradictory.  First, the part that believes in peoples’ right to carry on cultural traditions without input and dissension from outsiders (including myself).  To see different ways of life is one of my main reasons for traveling and nothing upsets me more than to see traditions fall away due to the infiltration of Western ideas and technology.  The other side of me knows that killing animals who reach sexual maturity at a late age and have a low hatchling survival rate cannot sustain all the human pressures being put on them.  It is this constant internal battle that compels me to travel and find the balance between conserving culture and protecting wildlife (not necessarily mutually exclusive objectives).

I am more than halfway through my first ‘seamester’ and I look forward to what interesting surprises (good or bad) the rest of the Caribbean has in store for me.

SEE Turtles Joins Forces with Oceanic Society to Grow the Market for Sea Turtle Conservation Travel

SEE Turtles, the world’s first non-profit focused on supporting sea turtle conservation through ecotourism (founded in 2008), is joining Oceanic Society, America’s first non-profit dedicated to ocean conservation, established in 1969. The new alliance will allow both organizations to reach a larger audience and bring more people to experience ocean wildlife and conservation efforts worldwide.

To date SEE Turtles has raised more than $500,000 for sea turtle conservation and local communities and has connected hundreds of people with local projects through a focus on:

  • Conservation Travel: Unique tours and volunteer trips that support community-based sea turtle conservation projects in Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador;
  • Billion Baby Turtles: An innovative fundraising program that partners with leading green businesses and others to save turtle hatchlings by supporting important turtle nesting beaches in Latin America; and
  • Sea Turtle Education: Field trips, classroom presentations, fundraising programs, workshops for teachers, and scholarships to bring kids to participate in important turtle conservation programs.

A pioneer in ecotourism, Oceanic Society’s mission is to conserve marine wildlife and habitats by deepening the connections between people and nature. Over the past 40+ years Oceanic Society’s international eco-expeditions and San Francisco Bay area whale watching programs have provided educational nature travel experiences for tens of thousands of people. Oceanic Society also maintains an active field research and conservation program at Turneffe Atoll, Belize through its Blackbird Caye Field Station, supports community conservation programs in Ulithi Atoll, Micronesia, contributes to global sea turtle research and conservation through management of the State of the World’s Sea Turtles (SWOT) Program and the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group, and pursues an innovative communications strategy through its “Blue Habits” program that seeks to motivate ocean-friendly changes in human behavior.

The integration of SEE Turtles comes at an exciting time for Oceanic Society, which is launching a new website and expanding its travel offerings. SEE Turtles’ programs will help to expand Oceanic Society’s impact on sea turtle conservation worldwide and will enable the organizations to collaborate on new destinations and trips that benefit sea turtle and ocean conservation.

SEE Turtles has been a project of The Ocean Foundation since 2009. We thank the staff of The Ocean Foundation for their tremendous support over the past 5 years; the project's success would not have been possible without their help.

Sea Turtles, Dolphins, & Scarlet Macaws

By Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles Director

Our group of amateur marine biologists milled on a quiet beach on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, 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 this 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.

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.



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.



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.



Our tally from the Gulf was five sea turtles, dozens of scarlet macaws, and more than a hundred dolphins. 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. 

Guanahacabibes: Cuba’s Little Visited All-Inclusive National Park

by Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles Director

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. 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.   

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 supports this work, having provided enough funding to save roughly 65,000 hatchlings over the past two years. This visit was our first opportunity to see the hatchlings that we have helped to save and our partners didn’t disappoint.

Green turtle (credit CMRC)

Green turtle (credit CMRC)

Green hatchling (credit CMRC)

Green hatchling (credit CMRC)

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. Guanahacabibes' incredible beaches, spectacular reefs, and extraordinary sunsets make this park an ideal location for a wildlife conservation tour.

Oasis in a Sea of Humanity: Wildlife of the Yucatan Peninsula

by Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles Director

The Caribbean was calm as our boatload of snorkelers headed northwest from the Yucatan Peninsula on a bright summer day. A group of dolphins known locally as the “Rude Boys” made a brief appearance. To our left, the only view on the horizon was Isla Contoy, protected as a bird sanctuary.

After an hour or so, a small city seemed to appear on the horizon. As we approached, the city morphed into a group of boats collected together in a seemingly random spot. Once we got close, we saw the large dorsal fins that attract thousands of people to jump into these deep waters.

Our boat came to a stop on the edge of a swirling mass of giant sharks. My wife and daughter pulled on their snorkeling gear as I readied the camera. As they slipped into the water, an enormous creature slid by the boat. One thought ran through my head: Am I crazy to bring my family thousands of miles to come face to face with the largest shark in the world?“

I knew these animals were big. I’ve seen lots of photos, read many stories, and heard first-hand accounts of their gigantism. However, none of that prepared me for the actual sight of a whale shark. From the boat, their length is astonishing. But once you are in the water, you realize that the overhead view of these sharks is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. 

After donning my own snorkeling gear and getting my first underwater view, I quickly lifted my head, needing a second to comprehend what my eyes had just seen. The whale sharks’ easy grace in the water belies the fact that these animals can be up to 40 feet long and weigh up to 20 tons.

To maintain such a large size, they spend nearly all of their time feeding, moving along the surface with their gaping mouths collecting plankton and fish eggs. This area is one of a few different places around the world where whale sharks gather in large groups. Our group of 10 people rotated in and out of the boat with our two guides every few minutes, giving everyone several chances to see the sharks from the water.

The next night, my family visited X’cacel beach, one of Mexico’s most important nesting beaches for green turtles, located in a national park near Playa del Carmen. "We may have to walk a bit to see a turtle,” I told my daughter Karina as a huge supermoon rose over the Caribbean. 

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.

Cloaca and eggs of a green turtle

Cloaca and eggs of a green turtle

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. Karina was entranced by the spectacle of the ancient ritual.

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 in Akumal

Green turtle in Akumal

Hatchery at Nueva Vida

Hatchery at Nueva Vida

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 great 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.

That evening, 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. This turtle, also 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. 

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 friends at Lush Cosmetics 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.

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.

Bay of Turtles: Bahía de Jiquilisco, El Salvador

by Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles Director

To arrive to a new place in the dark is like tasting a new food with a blindfold on. You can feel the edges, but a full color appreciation isn’t possible until daylight arrives. Night time in the small town of La Pirraya on an island in Jiquilisco Bay is quiet; the fishermen and their families gather in small compounds preparing the days catch and saving energy for an early rise the next day. But hiding outside the lights of the town is the beginning of a conservation movement that could save one of the world’s most endangered populations of ocean wildlife.

My arrival to Jiquilisco Bay in southern El Salvador started at the small port town of Puerto Parada. We waited for the boat to arrive on a small concrete dock at the end of the main road into town. There was little indication that we were on the edge of the largest wetland in the country other than the mangrove trees across the channel. The dark boat ride was punctuated by distant lightning that was more entertainment than threat. Once our group, an international team of sea turtle conservationists, was settled into our rustic cabins, our night began. We received word of sea turtle hatchlings at a nearby hatchery and set off on a short boat ride up the beach.

The few dozen hatchlings in the blue bucket at the hatchery were the first newborn hawksbill turtles I’d ever seen. With a red flashlight to protect their eyes, we inspected this healthy group who were eager to get to the water. No sooner had we released them on the beach than we received a call of a nesting female hawksbill on a nearby island. We hopped back into the boat for another short ride across the calm water.

Hawksbills are well known for their preference for nesting much further up the beach, normally venturing into the beachside vegetation to lay their eggs. That knowledge didn’t prepare me for the location of this turtle, probably more than 50 feet inland on the other side of a barbed wire fence that was tall enough to keep people out but let turtles through underneath. That turtle was the perfect illustration of why this population remained hidden for so long; many turtle experts had considered the hawksbills of the Eastern Pacific functionally extinct until just a few years ago.

That turtle decided not to nest so a few of us broke off from the group to visit another hatchery where we waited for sunrise to inspect three hawksbills that were being held to put satellite transmitters on the next day. Along the way, we stopped the boat to see another hawksbill that was on another isolated stretch of beach. Finally, we arrived at the hatchery with an hour or so left in the evening. I stole off to find a hammock and was asleep before I could even take off my sandals.

I wish I could accurately describe my first impressions of Jiquilisco Bay in the daylight but after the long night, I was so disoriented my vision was pretty blurred. Stumbling out of the hammock, I walked over to a four-foot deep hole where three large hawksbills were calmly waiting to be released. These turtles were much larger (their shells measured about 3 feet long) than the one small hawksbill I had worked with years before in Costa Rica; if I didn’t know better I would have thought they were a different species. In addition, there were more hatchlings to release.

Our visit to Jiquilisco was organized by ICAPO (The Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative) and these turtles are part of an ongoing study looking to unlock the mysterious life cycles of these turtles. There are estimated to be fewer than 500 nesting females hawksbills left in their range, which goes from southern Baja California, Mexico to Peru. Until recently, researchers assumed that hawksbills only lived in and around coral reefs, of which there are relatively few along the Pacific coast of the Americas. However, research by ICAPO and their partners has shown that these turtles live primarily in mangroves, a fact that surprised many turtle experts.

Jiquilisco Bay is estimated to harbor nearly half of their nests and most of the rest are found in Padre Ramos Estuary, not far south in northern Nicaragua. Through the hard work of several organizations working in these two hotspots, there is a growing group of people working hard to ensure these turtles are around for a long time. ICAPO and its partners coordinate a local team of 75 residents, known as “careyeros” (carey is Spanish for hawksbill) who patrol key beaches around the bay, looking for nesting turtles and relocating their eggs to hatcheries.

Once I finished photographing these turtles and headed out to the beach, the incredible beauty of this area hit me full force. Across the water, a series of perfectly shaped volcanoes rose up over the bay. As the baby turtles slid into the water, the human residents of Jiquilisco were just getting started. Fishing boats crossed the water, heading to preferred spots in the brightening day.

As we arrived back to La Pirraya, the town was in full swing, preparing for their annual hawksbill festival, complete with parade, dignitaries, throngs of media, and more. The parade got off to a loud start with the Navy’s marching band and a parade of more than a hundred local students. The students held home made signs about protecting turtles and keeping trash out of the ocean and a few wore turtle costumes despite the quickly rising temperature.

While I was pleasantly surprised at the large turnout to the festival, the sheer number of media outlets in attendance was shocking. Roughly 30 people from seemingly every media outlet in the country was there including TV news, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and more. Many citizens of El Salvador are proud of its role in protecting hawksbills and the mix of cutting-edge technology, international turtle experts, and beautiful children was a potent combination that media outlets could not ignore.

Many of the students stood outside a canopy, looking over the shoulders of the researchers to catch a glimpse of the turtles being prepared for attaching the transmitters. It took more than an hour to clean and sand down the shells, place several layers of epoxy around the transmitter, and allow them to dry. Once completed, the turtles were taken to the water and released. The crowds were kept back to give the turtles room and once they had their bearings, they went directly to the cool water.


I wish this story could have a neat and tidy ending with the turtles heading off into the water, their transmitters providing valuable information for years to come. However, less than a week later I got word that one of the hawksbills was already found dead. The likely culprit was blast fishing, a barbaric practice where fishermen use homemade bombs to kill everything in their range of impact. Read more about this tragedy on our partner EcoViva’s website here.

That news was a reminder that, despite a tremendous amount of progress studying and protecting Jiquilisco Bay’s turtles over the past few years, there is still a lot of work to do. The first order of business is to ensure that the bay receives protection; effective regulations are currently lacking for this spectacular wildlife hotspot. ICAPO is hoping to guarantee protection of the critical hawksbill habitat, namely the 50 meter fridges along the primary nesting beaches as well as all the marine habitat within the estuary. These actions by the government of El Salvador are the minimum necessary to give hawksbills its best shot at survival in the eastern Pacific.


Get Involved:

SEE Turtles supports this project through our Billion Baby Turtles campaign. Click here to donate, every dollar saves at least 2 hawksbill hatchlings.

Read more about ICAPO’s efforts to protect Jiquilisco Bay and how to volunteer with the program here.