Duke Alumni Magazine

Duke Magazine-The Culture of the Gun    

Sea-turtle populations in Mexico’s Baja California are declining, despite a ban on fishing. Meanwhile, a researcher is working to protect this endangered species, whose consumption is rooted in custom.

arly morning: A light breeze barely ruffles the waters in Banderitas Estuary. Flashes of silver dart underneath the turquoise motorboat. Along the shore, bright green mangroves dip their gnarled, entwined limbs into and out of the water.
Photograph by Jeffrey L. Brown.
  If someone knew where to look, it would be relatively easy to spot sea turtles swimming and eating in this calm arm of Magdalena Bay. On the Pacific side of Mexico’s Baja California, it’s the perfect spot for a meeting on sea-turtle research and conservation. Two Mexican fishermen point out where they’ve recently seen turtles to Wallace J. Nichols M.E.M.’92, known to everyone simply as “J.” Then they climb over the side of their fishing boat onto Nichols’ newest research pontoon.
  The vessel is a piecemeal affair. Nichols and some friends fashioned it from an old boat that had been used in the winter and spring to bring tourists out to see whales calving in the bay. He noticed it lying dormant in a vacant lot and negotiated a good deal with the owner. Atop the flat wooden boat, there’s a small stove, coolers of food, a table with a radio, a cot, and boxes to store personal belongings. Nichols, his Mexican assistant Adan Hernandez, and the two fishermen pull up plastic chairs around an Igloo cooler, top it with
Nichols’ hard plastic equipment case, and pull out a map of the region.

More Information
Conservation Versus Culture Wildcoast
(the conservation organization of which Wallace J. Nichols is the director)

Chelonia: Return of the Sea Turtle
(a children's book co-authored by Nichols)

Turtle Trax
(a sea turtle tracking website)

Caribbean Conservation Corporation

Baja Life Online's Eco Watch
(provides reporting on the Baja project and the participation of the local fishermen)

Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences

Dukenvironment magazine

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
(protecting marine mammals)

Nichols tags them for migration and population research.
In its own way, this is an official meeting, or at least an introductory one. The fishermen head the cooperative that recently received the rights from the government to control fishing in part of the estuary. They had noticed Nichols’ research pontoon floating in their area, and his work, while not threatening, excited more than mild curiosity. The evening before, they stopped by the American field school Nichols uses as his base in Puerto San Carlos. Nichols told them about his most recent research project and its goals and invited them to join him on the water this morning. They agreed. He hopes to persuade them that Banderitas Estuary is the ideal site for Baja’s first sea-turtle sanctuary.
  Sea turtles are a crucial part of food and culture in Baja California, despite Mexico’s ban on killing and consuming the animals. Baja California is also one of the most important Pacific feeding grounds for four species of endangered sea turtles. These two facts are why Nichols has dedicated his life to researching and protecting turtles in the area.
  He started working with sea turtles in 1992, but his fascination with turtles began back when he was a child. “I always loved dinosaurs,” he says, “and turtles are like living dinosaurs.” Sea turtles, in fact, appeared on the planet about 150 million years ago, while dinosaurs roamed the Earth. They survived to see humans invade their waters. But whether they’ll continue to survive is the current urgent question: All species of sea turtles in the world are endangered, faced with threats from fishing nets, pollution, and hunters who prize them for their shells, meat, and eggs.
  This fascination with turtles grew after Nichols completed his first graduate degree in natural-resource economics at what is now Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. In 1992, he worked with the Caribbean Conservation Corporation in Costa Rica on a nesting beach—walking the shoreline, counting turtle eggs, and tagging turtles, and connecting with the local community in developing a protection strategy.
  With friend and colleague Jeff Seminoff, Nichols wanted to continue working with these captivating endangered creatures, so the two hatched a plan to visit all the turtle-nesting beaches in Mexico. The next year, after beginning their Ph.D. work at the University of Arizona, the pair packed up a truck and drove for four months, visiting fifty-two research and conservation sites, from Texas to Belize, from Guatemala to California. They met researchers and concerned citizens and made contacts that would last into their careers as turtle researchers.


The rich coastal waters off Baja California provide food for four species of endangered sea turtles: black turtles, also known as East Pacific green turtles; loggerhead turtles; olive ridleys; and hawksbills. Leatherback turtles have one nesting site near the southern tip of the peninsula.
Black turtles, which feed in bays and estuaries around the peninsula, are one of the main species on which Nichols’ research focuses. They nest in southern Mexico, in the state of Michoacan, and swim more than a thousand miles to feed on algae, sea grass, and occasionally invertebrates such as crabs. Most of the turtles caught in Magdalena Bay are black turtles.
Out in the Pacific, loggerhead turtles migrate all the way from Japan to feed on pelagic red crabs in the deep ocean waters near Baja’s shores before returning to their natal beaches to nest. Catching these turtles to study them is more difficult than throwing out a net and waiting, as Nichols does to catch black turtles in the bay. Instead, he travels miles out in the Pacific on a small motorboat and searches for a small white bird that rests on the backs of basking turtles. When he and his assistants find one, they dive into the water and wrestle the turtle over to the boat.
Of the two other species that feed near Baja, olive ridleys are plentiful enough that Nichols says the need to study them is not as urgent. But the numbers of hawksbills have dwindled so significantly that scientific research is extremely difficult.
Olive ridleys, with their mottled green-gray carapaces, or shells, have been recovering in Mexico due to beach protection and the dynamics of their nesting sites and migration patterns. Like the loggerheads, they spend time offshore in the deeper waters of the Pacific.
Hawksbills live around the Pacific, but the ones that feed in Baja come from nesting sites in Mexico. Populations of these animals have been decimated because of their beautiful shells, so finding one swimming in Baja’s waters today is extremely rare.
  “It was kind of a reconnaissance effort,” says Nichols. “It seemed like a setback in terms of time, but invaluable in terms of education and contacts and friendships. Looking back, it was a genius move—but at the time it just seemed like a lot of fun.”
  What he learned during these travels was that Mexican biologists and researchers were doing a remarkable job protecting turtles on their nesting beaches. The populations, though, continued to decline, and Nichols saw that little research effort was focused on the animals’ time in the water, where they spend 99 percent of their lives. He decided this would be his focus, and that he would concentrate on Baja California. “There were some references to the area in earlier literature,” he says, referring to a scientific paper written on Baja’s turtles and the fishery in the 1970s. “There was some documentation on the legal fishery. It was clearly an important feeding ground. But there was not much contemporary research on the animals there. There was clearly a big gap in both protection and knowledge of the animals.”
  He went back to his Ph.D. committee with a proposal to study Baja’s sea turtles. The committee, though, was skeptical. They said the region had basically been fished out back when there was a legal turtle fishery in the area, and that there wouldn’t be enouanimals to conduct scientific research.
  Nichols asked for a year in which to prove that a scientific study was feasible. He went out in the Gulf of California with fisherman Juan de la Cruz, who claims to have caught more than 3,000 turtles with his harpoon. Together, as dawn broke, they caught a big black turtle. “This convinced us that we could do it,” says Nichols. “We could go out on the water and catch turtles. It wasn’t a lot, sure, but it was one—I definitely felt like it was the beginning of something.” He also worked with Antonio and Bety Resendiz, at the time the only Mexican sea-turtle researchers in the area, who had little funding or support from the Mexican government.
  Nichols proved that there were enough turtles around to conduct a scientific study. Since then, he has gone even further, proving that Baja remains a vital feeding ground for four species of endangered sea turtles and that, in fact, tens of thousands of turtles still live in the region.
  In the past, turtles swimming in the rich waters off Baja’s coast numbered not just in the thousands, but probably in the millions. The turtle fishing industry, once simply a part of life, became a huge commercial export business in the Fifties and Sixties, but it soon crashed. In the 1980s, the government tried to manage the turtle fishery and limit the catch, but it was already too late. The number of turtles continued to drop rapidly. In 1990, the Mexican government banned the killing and eating of sea turtles altogether, even those caught as by-catch or washed up dead on shore.
Despite the ban, communities all over Baja continue to prize turtles as a delicacy. The region today is likened to the American Wild West—and is just as difficult to govern. Small fishing communities and slightly larger towns and cities are separated by sometimes hundreds of miles of dry, dusty roads. More than 2,000 miles of coastline wind in and out of inlets around the peninsula. Only five government officials are responsible for all resource-management enforcement in the southern half of Baja—everything from poaching to forest management to protecting endangered species.

“Scientific research wasn’t enough. Now what we’re doing is a lot of social sorts of things, understanding the economics and policy issues as well as marine science.”

—Wallace J. Nichols

Nichols began his work by measuring, weighing, and tagging all turtles he caught to study populations—figuring out how big the turtles living there were, at what ages they arrived, and how long they stayed in the region. He did DNA studies to provide clues linking Baja’s turtles with specific nesting beaches. He wanted to know exactly where the turtles were coming from and where they were going, so in 1997 he and the Resendizes put a satellite tag on a loggerhead turtle that a local named “Adelita.” They tracked Adelita as she made her way all the way across the Pacific to Japan. Nichols was so excited about what he saw that he had a friend set up a turtle-tracking website so that people around the world could watch Adelita’s journey (www.cccturtle.org).
  Scientists had long suspected that turtles born in Japan make their way to Baja to feed, but his study was the first to prove conclusively the Japan-Baja connection in detail. He also showed that these turtles, upon reaching reproductive age, take months to swim thousands of danger-fraught miles to their natal beaches.
  As he continued his research, Nichols discovered something else: Conservation on nesting beaches was working. More turtles were able to safely lay eggs, and more of those eggs hatched, with more hatchlings reaching the water. But if those turtles made it to Baja, many of them never made it out again. “It’s kind of like blocking off the kitchen door,” he says. “They come here to feed, then they’re killed as they’re eating. They never leave the kitchen.”

• continues on page two

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor