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


Air Date: Week of

Sandy Lanham pilots her 48 year old Cessna plane with Mexican environmentalists to help them track endangered wildlife. Reporter Barbara Ferry accompanied Lanham on a recent flight.


CURWOOD: Federal and state fish and wildlife agencies in the U.S. employ hundreds of pilots to track endangered wildlife. But across the border in Mexico, there are very few who do that job. One of them is Sandy Lanham. She flies her 48-year-old Cessna hundreds of hours each year in Mexico’s skies. She searches for leatherback turtle nests, counts endangered pronghorn antelope and scans the Gulf of California for giant Blue whales. As part of the series Border Stories, reporter Barbara Ferry of Homelands Productions has this report from the coast of Baja, California, in La Paz, Mexico.


FERRY: Sandy Lanham walks around her tiny airplane doing a safety check before taking off from La Paz' airport. Her long brown hair whips around her face as she leans over the propeller on the windy tarmac, surrounded by giant Aero Mexico jets taking off and landing.

LANHAM: Feel the propeller, in case a stone hit it the last flight. See if there's any nicks or cracks or anything bad.

FERRY: Lanham's plane, nicknamed Emily, is a 1956 Cessna. Its chipped yellow and brown paint gives it a raggedy look. But Lanham says Emily has earned her scars. The plane is the oldest of its model still in the sky.

Sandy Lanham looks for whales, antelope and other endangered wildlife from her 1956 Cessna.

LANHAM: I like that it’s an old airplane, and I think it's doing the best work of its life, at the end. It appeals to me, gives me hope. I tell people it has bad paint and a good heart. [Laughs]

FERRY: Sandy Lanham founded Environmental Flying Services after working as a flight instructor, a social worker, a belly dancing teacher, and a print saleswoman. She says it was just good luck that she realized she could create a new career out of three things she loves: Mexico, wildlife and flying.

LANHAM: I was living in Mexico for ten months. I had bought an airplane, didn't know what to do with it, had to do something with it, could not afford it. And I went away for the weekend, and when I got back the kids ran up to me – kids living on the block in this Mexican little town – and said, The police are looking for you, the police are looking for you. And, yeah, it scared me.

FERRY: As it turned out, it was the environmental group Conservation International that had asked the police to track down Lanham. The group was looking for a pilot to help with a research project over the Gulf of California. That flight led to others, and Lanham soon found out that researchers were desperate for pilots. Now, 11 years and thousands of miles later, she makes a quick stop into the airport office to file her flight plan, before taking off on today's mission.


FERRY: Today we'll be flying over San Jose Channel, a narrow waterway between the Baja Peninsula and a tiny island. Our mission is to track blue whales, part of a long-term study to understand the importance of the gulf to these largest mammals on Earth. Diane Gendron, a biologist with the Interdisciplinary Center for Marine Sciences in La Paz, heads the study. Armed with binoculars and a camera, Gendron climbs on board, next to Lanham.


FERRY: We take off, leaving behind the brown desert city. Soon we're flying, though it feels more like floating, above the brilliant jewel-like sea.

LANHAM (in plane): Boy, look at the view of that lagoon, with the mountains, brown mountains, reflected in the water. It's incredible.

GENDRON: Yeah, that green, red.

FERRY: The ocean is like a thick soup of marine life. Everywhere we look, we see something. Gendron and Lanham point out schools of dolphin and mackerel, along with fin whales, hump backs, a sperm whale, even a rarely seen Sei whale.

LANHAM: Oh, there's a whale. Oh, maybe that's the sperm, let's go look.

GENDRON: It looks like a blue whale.


FERRY: The blue whales are about 80 feet long, four times bigger than our plane. But as we lean out the open windows, they look like small steamships chugging along in the water.

LANHAM: Looks blue.

GENDRON: It's the blue, isn't it?


GENDRON: Turquoise-lime.


GENDRON: They're so easy. What a pretty place for it to be.

FERRY: Some days, Lanham flies for hours and hours without seeing anything, and though she says the absence of wildlife is valuable information, Lanham admits it's more fun when she circles down low to get a close look at something.

GENDRON (in plane): There’s something out here too. Oh, it was a fluke. I think it’s the humpback.

LANHAM: Oh, great. Sometimes, you fly so low or you drop down so low because of an updraft or, I'm not sure what. You know, all the spout, the blow of the whale, drifted through the open window. I mean, we were literally wiping a blue whale's breath off our faces. [Laughs] Our faces were wet with blue whale breath.

FERRY: Getting this close to the water can be perilous, and there are other dangers: fog can roll in suddenly, tiny stopover airports can run out of fuel. Lanham keeps a life raft on board, as well as a marine radio. And affixed to the dashboard she has a medallion of San Ysidro Labrador. He's the saint Mexicans pray to for rain. Lanham prays to him for no rain, at least not while she's flying.

LANHAM (in plane): I'm going to see if I can get rid of this tower -- there's something else right ahead, let's do him first. Something I'm going to put on your side.

FERRY: During the 700 hours or so she spends in the air each year, Lanham sees wildlife in places no one imagined. Her sightings of threatened shore birds, rare turtle nests, and endangered pronghorn antelope, have helped win critical habitat protection for these species. And Lanham sees animals behave in ways that surprise even the scientists who spend their lives studying them. Just yesterday, she saw a gathering of hundreds of sharks in the water, a sight that baffled marine biologists. Even more common behavior can be a remarkable site from 1000 feet up.

LANHAM: You fly over an area that looks just like when you lift the lid on your washing machine when it's in the agitate cycle, let's say, on the dark clothes. You see your Levi’s and you're not quite sure which is a leg and which is a button. That was kind of going on. You know, I didn't know what was happening. And then, kind of my confusion cleared up pretty quickly. I understood that this was a copulation circle, which took at least three animals – male, female, and a juvenile male, who was helping to hold the female up against the male, holding the animals together so they could copulate.


LANHAM: It is a definite nine, way point 819. Good. And she's going down. Oh, she's a fluker, she's a fluker. Great.

FERRY: Lanham uses a satellite-based global positioning system to record the exact position of all the whales she and Gendron see. Later, Gendron will hook up the GPS to her computer, to download the information for each whale they've spotted.

LANHAM: And I got a sperm whale, right underneath me.

GENDRON: I have a blue whale, too, when you have a chance.

LANHAM: The sperm whale is a 35, one sperm whale.


LANHAM: Yes. For you.

FERRY: After four hours in the sky, we head back to the airport.


FERRY: Back on land, Lanham remembers wanting to be a pilot ever since she was a young girl growing up outside Detroit. Although she loved exploring the woods near her house, the tall trees of Michigan made her feel claustrophobic. She imagined herself flying high up above them, with a long view of the earth. But it wasn't until she became a mother and was going stir crazy at home with her daughter that Lanham signed up for flying lessons.

LANHAM: And after about a year of this, she was in nursery school, and the teachers were having the kids write little books, and it was about what mommies do, what daddies do. And her little book which she brought home was: Daddies go to work, read the books, drive the cars. Mommies take care of the kids, cook the foods, and fly the airplanes. [Laughs]

FERRY: Since those early days, Lanham has learned a lot. She's now known as one of the best bush pilots working in Latin America. And research colleagues, like whale biologist Diane Gendron, say they inherently trust her.

GENDRON: Since the first time I flew with Sandy, I felt very safe. And when she hear me saying that, she always look at me and say, “You can't say that, because it's not safe to fly, you never know what's going to happen.” But what I mean by that is that I feel that I am in good hands.

FERRY: Lanham is so devoted to her work that friends joke she should wear a sign that says, “Will fly for food.” And it's true that, even with all the time she spends writing and occasionally landing grants, Lanham makes a lean living at times. But her clients say Lanham's services are invaluable. Jorge Canzino, of the Center for Biological Research in La Paz, studies endangered pronghorn antelope in the deserts of Baja, California.


VOICEOVER: Without her, we don't fly. Maybe we would look for other options, but with the costs and with the way we work, there really isn't any other way.

FERRY: As an American working in Mexico, Lanham feels frustrated that environmental groups are relatively well funded in the United States, while those south of the border struggle to survive. As she flies back and forth across the border, that political line is as invisible to her as it is to the wildlife which migrate across it.

LANHAM: The border is relevant only to a political system, but if you want to protect ducks in the United States, you have to protect their wintering ground in Mexico. If you want to protect whales, I'm not trying to protect Mexican whales. These are whales that don't recognize the border, not part of their DNA, let's say.

FERRY: After a day of flying, Lanham gathers with her colleagues at a restaurant in La Paz. Over seafood, margaritas, and cigarettes, she entertains them with tales of her airplane adventures. Sometimes, even bathroom stops can be dangerous.

LANHAM: We're in the bushes, when I notice that there are four men like running down the runway towards us, with guns. With guns. Right. So I'm pulling my pants up as I'm running back into the airplane, climbing in, he climbs in, doors shut, no back taxi, no engine warm-up, just crank the thing on and go. I mean go.

FERRY: Running into narcotraficantes, or being mistaken for a drug runner by the Mexican Air Force, are the kinds of adventures Lanham says she'd rather avoid. Of course there are plenty of times when flying is just tedious and exhausting.

LANHAM: When you're flying pronghorn surveys, you're half asleep half the time; it's so boring. Then all of a sudden, out of the corner of your eye, you know, you've got – you catch a movement, and it's an animal that's running, second fastest running animal in the world. It's moving like a sail. And you see a group of ten and I guess you kind of wonder how so much life and how much energy can happen, in a place that's so still.

FERRY: It's moments like these which help explain why, despite the low pay and risks, Lanham thinks she has the ideal job. Some might call it a crazy career choice, but she says she's one of the lucky ones.

LANHAM: If there's any, like, goal in life, it's just to find out what it is that you can do well, put it together in a way that you can both enjoy your life and also do some good, do something that matters. I mean, how can you be any better than that?

FERRY: For Living on Earth, I'm Barbara Ferry, in La Paz, Mexico.

CURWOOD: Our story on Sandy Lanham is part of Border Stories, a series by Homelands Productions.

[MUSIC: Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos “Aqui Como Alla” MARC RIBOT Y LOS CUBANOS POSTIZOS (Atlantic – 1998)]



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