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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sea Turtles

Air Date: Week of


CURWOOD: Sea turtles have inhabited Earth for more than 150 million years. But today, all seven species of the animal are endangered. One recent study in the journal Nature noted that present trends will push one species, the leatherbacks, on an irreversible path toward extinction within ten years. There have been some successes in protecting nesting beaches, but only recently have scientists begun studying how to protect turtles in the waters where they live. One such researcher works along the coast of Mexico's Baja California peninsula. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber has this profile of J. Nichols.


NICHOLS: We'll approach them slowly, and then try to sneak up on them, and when we get close enough, jump out of the boat and grab them. It's known in turtle research circles as turtle rodeo.

GRABER: Turtle rodeo. That's one way J. Nichols catches sea turtles. Nichols and two assistants take a small motorboat about 30 miles into the Pacific off the coast of Puerto San Carlos to find turtles. They look for small white birds that rest on turtle shells. But finding a turtle is only half the battle. Just try getting one into the boat.

NICHOLS: They're really strong. They can pull you under and there's no way you'd be able to fight it. Except, if you grab them a certain way, you can steer them to the boat.

GRABER: Nichols stands at the bow of the boat and searches the calm waters. At age 34, with sun-bleached hair and an easy smile, Nichols looks like a surfer. And actually he does surf, a talent that helps him keep his balance against the roll of the waves. Suddenly, he jumps into the water.

(Splash; voices: "Whoo hoo!")

GRABER: Within seconds, Nichols drags a turtle to the boat, and, with help from his assistants, hauls it on board.

(Thrashing in the boat; gasping)

GRABER: The turtle thrashes about, then takes a few gasps of air.

NICHOLS: Pretty clean shell, surprisingly. This is an Olive Ridley, about the size of a mature female.

GRABER: The turtle's mottled green shell is called a carapace. It's roughly the size of a manhole cover. The men toss a dark blue tarp over the turtle to calm it down. They measure and weigh the animal, staple a silvery marker tag onto one of its flippers, and toss it back into the water.


GRABER: Millions of sea turtles once swam in Baja's coastal waters. And for most of the past century, fishermen caught them, canned their meat, and tanned their leather for export.

NICHOLS: Really, it would seem like an unlimited resource. There were just really, so many turtles.

GRABER: But a few decades ago, the population crashed. The Mexican government tried to limit the fishery, but it wasn't enough. So a decade ago, the killing of sea turtles was outlawed. Even eating one caught accidentally, or that simply turned up dead on the beach, was illegal, too. Exports stopped, but local people continued to kill and eat turtles. The situation got so bad that when Nichols told his PhD advisors he wanted to study Baja's sea turtles, they told him not to bother.

NICHOLS: My committee was pretty skeptical. It may be too difficult to collect data. Too few turtles, too much ocean. Didn't seem like a good scenario.

GRABER: In the end, his advisors relented. Nichols came to Baja. He hired an old fisherman to take him out to sea in the middle of the night. As dawn broke, Nichols caught his first turtle.

NICHOLS: Measured it. Took photos. And jumped up and down in the boat a little bit, and put it back in the water. You know, kind of an emotional point. Looking back, it especially was one of the reasons why we decided to move forward with the project.

GRABER: Nichols continues to employ local fishermen to help with his research. After all, they are the ones who know where to find the turtles. Nichols also realized that each encounter gave him a chance to talk about why the animals may disappear forever. What Nichols said made sense to Rodrigo Rangel, a 26-year-old who grew up eating turtles. Now, he's one of Nichols' assistants.

RANGEL: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The people think there isn't a problem because all year there are turtles. I know now from doing this study that this is where turtles feed all year round. I think it's a study that needs to be done, and I feel good about it. For many years I have eaten turtles. Now, it's a good opportunity to do something to help them.


GRABER: After five long hours at sea, Nichols and his team have caught and tagged only one turtle. They decide to head back. But Rodrigo keeps a constant lookout. A few miles from shore, Rodrigo calls out and the driver quickly whirls the boat around. Rodrigo dives into the water and reappears moments later with a massive loggerhead.

(Splashing, thrashing)

GRABER: They'll take this turtle back to Nichols' base in the village and tag it with a satellite transmitter. And they've given the turtle a name: Max.

Three years ago, Nichols put his first satellite tag on a loggerhead turtle, a female named Adelita. He tracked her across the Pacific to Japan. Scientists long suspected loggerheads born in Japan make their way to Mexico to feed, and then return to Japan to reproduce. But Nichols' study was the first to conclusively prove the Japan-Baja connection.

NICHOLS: I mean, I was completely fascinated every time I got new data. I was just mapping it and playing it and watching this turtle start to slowly cross the Pacific.

GRABER: Nichols wanted to share his data with as many people as possible, so he had a friend set up a Web site. Soon, teachers and students around the world were able to watch Adelita cross the Pacific. Today, ten turtles are crossing the water over cyberspace. After five years of research, Nichols has proved the waters off of Baja remain a crucial feeding ground for four species of endangered sea turtles.

NICHOLS: It started off, that was the main focus, was science.

GRABER: But Nichols realized something early on in his research. Turtle nesting beaches were being protected in Mexico and Japan, and more juveniles were reaching Baja to feed. But many of the animals that came to Baja were eaten or caught accidentally, and so never made it back to their nesting beaches to lay eggs of their own.

NICHOLS: Just watching the turtles that I was studying disappear, be eaten, the light went on. You know what? I could sit around and look at turtle DNA for the next five years while these turtles get wiped out. That would be unethical.

GRABER: Mexican officials insisted no turtles were being illegally consumed. So Nichols talked to villagers all over the peninsula. He discovered the occasional turtle meal remains an essential part of special events, such as birthdays and religious celebrations.

NICHOLS: Anybody with money can buy a turtle. It's not uncommon for politicians even to eat turtle. So that kind of keeps some of the poachers pretty safe.

GRABER: And turtles are not killed just for food. Their oil and blood have long been a part of traditional medicine in Baja.


NICHOLS: So this is what we call the turtle cemetery. Basically, these are all carapaces that have been collected over the past year and a half, and I guess there's about 200 of them.

GRABER: The cemetery, located behind Nichols' base, is layered with turtle shells collected from back yards, beaches, and dumpsters. Nichols brings people from the community and government officials here so they can see for themselves the effects of turtle poaching. The once rich, varied shades of the carapaces are all dark gray now, the color of wet cement.

NICHOLS: Here is a very, very tiny loggerhead. This is about the smallest size loggerhead that we find here. This is, you know, barely enough for a couple of tacos. I mean, what the heck?

GRABER: Nichols figures about 10,000 turtles are eaten in Baja each year. Of the turtles he's tagged, he says about a quarter are eaten. Nichols knows this because the locals bring him tags from turtles they've had for dinner. They do this, Nichols says, because they trust him.

NICHOLS: I think people realize that I'm just going to keep coming back, and that I'm not here to make major problems for individuals. Some fishermen are curious and they'll bring a tag and they'll say, "Where did this turtle come from? When did you tag it?" And that, albeit, it's a dead turtle, that's a small step toward protecting the animals. And it's a step that wouldn't have been taken if the situation was polarized.

(Men call out)

GRABER: On a hot, sunny afternoon, two fishermen drop by Nichols' apartment to pay a visit. The Serrabia brothers, Gabriel and Juan, used to help Nichols with his research. Now, they have a tagging program of their own. They tie a bit of wire to the shells of turtles they catch accidentally out in the bay. Gabriel says once they trapped a turtle while out fishing with a 14-year-old helper. The teenager protested when Gabriel and Juan told him to throw it back.

G. SERRABIA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: He says it's about 50 kilos, and it's worth 15 pesos a kilo. It's good money. We say no, we explain why. He says okay, I'll put it back, marked and everything. The boy who came out in the boat, he'll go and say to his dad, "You should put it back." But when he goes out with other fishermen, he'll tell them that the Serrabias put the turtles back.

GRABER: Nichols calls fishermen like Gabriel and Juan the real heroes of sea turtle conservation.

NICHOLS: These guys that are making decisions that are not popular, that are ridiculed by their families, and really sincerely working to protect an endangered species that is food for most people. Really, I can't really imagine what it would be like to be in a community where I grew up and go against something of such a deep tradition.

(Men speak in Spanish)

GRABER: Early one morning, Nichols plays host to two fishermen on his research boat in Banderitas Estuary. The men represent a cooperative that's just gotten fishing rights to part of the estuary. In the calm, clear waters, it's easy to spot a turtle, if you know where to find them. And these fishermen do.

(A man speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: I saw one out here earlier. A big one.


GRABER: The men set up a makeshift office. A cooler topped by Nichols' plastic equipment case serves as the table. The two fishermen spread out maps of the bay, and point out the region they now control. Nichols tells them that tourists who come to the area to whale watch in the spring might stay another day and pay to see turtles in an area they know is protected. The fishermen are interested.

(A fisherman speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: I'd like to protect them for my own benefit and so that they don't become extinct. I see them now, and my kids, when they're older, may not be able to see turtles if they aren't protected.

GRABER: It does seem strange to call one particular area a turtle refuge in a country that already has protection on the books. But Mexico's law isn't working. Right now, there are only five government officials to enforce all resource management laws in southern Baja. So that's why Nichols needs the fishermen. They are the ones who will patrol the fishing grounds each day. They are the ones who will watch for trespassers and turtle poachers.

NICHOLS: There's not another animal that is as integrated with life and symbolically represents Baja. The sea turtles are the Baja totem, in a sense. I think by promoting that idea, people will take some pride in protecting them.

(Voices in Spanish)

GRABER: A day after the loggerhead Max was captured, it's time to bring her back. With the help of some American students, Nichols carries the 90-pound turtle over to the boat. An olive green satellite tag, about the size of a cell phone, is attached to the shell with a small amount of glue.


GRABER: The boat heads out into the bay. Nichols says people call him an optimist. They find it difficult to understand how he can persevere in the face of such a difficult situation. But, he says, he doesn't have a choice.

NICHOLS: Your options are, be optimistic and work hard, or just forget about it and go home. If I thought this was a waste of time, I wouldn't be doing it. And I don't want to waste my time, or my life.

GRABER: These days Nichols has reason to be optimistic. The group of fishermen who own the rights to Banderitas Estuary have officially declared it a turtle refuge, the first ever in Baja. And they announced intentions to go house to house to tell everyone that poaching will no longer be tolerated in the estuary. Three other communities around the coast are moving to do the same. It's a beginning, but it's unclear whether it's enough, or in time. These are only a handful of protected areas spread out over more than 1,000 miles of coast. And the turtles still face fishing nets and hooks and marine debris as they swim thousands of miles back to their nesting beaches. In the face of these obstacles, Nichols keeps one clear vision.

NICHOLS: I imagine being an old man and sitting around with some of these fishermen that are my age, with our grandkids. And seeing some turtles swimming around in a place that's beautiful. And I think, God, that's going to be great.


GRABER: Finally, Nichols decides on a release spot for Max.

(Shifting around in the boat)

NICHOLS: Okay. What we're going to do it, we're going to pick up the turtle and I'll hand it over to you guys. Set it down, and you guys can kind of pull the tarp down around it. And let it go.

GRABER: Two young women slip into the water and spread a dark blue tarp between them. Nichols and an assistant grab hold of Max's flippers and slowly lower the turtle over the side and onto the tarp.

NICHOLS: Walk her out a little bit. Of course we're outside.

GRABER: And then it's time to let Max go.

WOMAN: All right?

NICHOLS: Pull down, pull down.


GRABER: Max hesitates, and with a push of her flippers clears the tarp. She takes one last, long breath and disappears under the waves. Nichols says a quiet goodbye.


GRABER: Far enough to avoid the nets and hooks of fishermen. Far enough to bring new information to the scientific community and to the world. Far enough to help Nichols realize his dream of seeing Baja's waters filled with sea turtles gliding beneath the water's surface. For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber in Puerto San Carlos, Baja California, Mexico.

(Nichols and a woman talking)

(Music up and under: Stranglers, "Golden Brown")

CURWOOD: For more information about J. Nichols' conservation work in Baja, or to see turtle Max's travels on the Internet, go to Living on Earth's Web site at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

(Music up and under)



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