On Assignment: Orion Magazine: Tortuga Rising

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Tortuga Rising

A Conservation Success Story

Story by Andrew D. Blechman

It was at this time that a doctoral student named Wallace J. Nichols proposed studying the biology and conservation of sea turtles in northwestern Mexico for his thesis, but was told that cultural inertia was too great to overcome and it was too late to even bother trying. Undeterred, Nichols and a colleague traveled to Baja California to study the five species of sea turtle that congregate on both sides of the peninsula’s nineteen hundred miles of coastline to feast on crab, jellyfish, sea sponges, and algae. With the help of a fisherman and a Mexican biologist, Nichols attached a transmitter to a captured loggerhead’s shell. The turtle, named Adelita after the fisherman’s daughter, swam seven thousand miles from Baja California to nesting grounds in Japan, although green sea turtles have inhabited the Pacific coast of Mexico for millions of years, for the past few decades these ancient mariners (known locally as tortugas prietas or “black turtles”) have struggled to survive a relentless onslaught of hunting. As recently as the early 1980s, there were still some twenty-five thousand of their nests each year along the Mexican coast. But as demand grew for turtle meat and eggs in Mexico and across the U.S. border, turtle hunting multiplied exponentially. When the Mexican government outlawed the tracking of sea turtles in 1990, turtle hunters were labeled poachers and smugglers overnight, but the practice continued. By the mid-1990s, poaching, fishing nets, and habitat pollution and destruction had caused the number of nesting females to drop to less than five hundred.

It was at this time that a doctoral student named Wallace J. Nichols proposed studying the biology and conservation of sea turtles in northwestern Mexico for his thesis, but was told that cultural inertia was too great to overcome and it was too late to even bother trying. Undeterred, Nichols and a colleague traveled to Baja California to study the five species of sea turtle that congregate on both sides of the peninsula’s nineteen hundred miles of coastline to feast on crab, jellyfish, sea sponges, and algae.

With the help of a fisherman and a Mexican biologist, Nichols attached a transmitter to a captured loggerhead’s shell. The turtle, named Adelita after the fisherman’s daughter, swam seven thousand miles from Baja California to nesting grounds in Japan, marking the first time any animal had been tracked swimming across an ocean. The experience convinced Nichols that the best way to change cultural habits was to earn the trust and respect of a local population, rather than alienate them through guilt and reams of scientific data.

“These turtles are big, strong, and wild—yet gentle,” Nichols says of these 150-pound sea creatures. “And you can get close to them and interact with them. There aren’t many creatures that big that you can do that with in the wild, and on their own terms. My goal was to share that sense of wonder; not to preach.” So Nichols invited dozens of turtle-hunting fishermen to a meeting to talk about their knowledge of local turtles and the possibility of their extinction. In time, many of the poachers agreed to catch and eat fewer turtles — which are traditionally prized for their red-meat-like flesh — and soon began working with Nichols to monitor local turtle populations and collect data.

Twenty years later, Grupo Tortuguero, the grassroots network that Nichols helped found, is active in fifty coastal communities. Hundreds of local volunteers, many of whom are former poachers, work to protect and promote an appreciation for and pride in these gentle animals. Says Nichols, “If given the chance, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to tell their grandkids that they helped rescue from extinction an animal that’s so central to their culture?”

This year there were some fifteen thousand green sea turtle nests on the beaches of southern Mexico.

Originally Published In

When Neil's optic nerve signals his trigger finger to capture an image it begins a generous chain reaction of events that lead to gorgeous magazine and online articles, banners wrapped around buildings, students finding purpose, better friendships, more sea turtles in the ocean, and bigger love for our blue marble home.

Wallace J. Nichols, New York Times Bestselling Author