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The Black Turtle Project

By Dr. Wallace J. Nichols Every expedition begins well before the official start and ends far after its conclusion. This is especially the case with The Black Turtle Project, an unfolding and evolving effort to join conservation photography, communication and biology.  I can assure you that this project began long ago and will live on...

By Dr. Wallace J. Nichols

Every expedition begins well before the official start and ends far after its conclusion. This is especially the case with The Black Turtle Project, an unfolding and evolving effort to join conservation photography, communication and biology.  I can assure you that this project began long ago and will live on into the future.  The past two weeks in Baja are just the start of a collaborative effort that will transpire over the coming year and document the nascent and emerging success story of the black sea turtle’s return to the Pacific coast of the Americas.

A flag marks one end of a poachers net, extending 300 m along the bottom of the bay. The illegal net was set at an historic monitoring site to catch black turtles for sale on the black market.

For myself, the expedition links back to graduate school and a decision to – against the odds, against my advisors’ wishes and with no funding to speak of – focus several decades of my life on sea turtle research and conservation.  For conservation photographer and Associate Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, Neil Ever Osborne, this project also extends back into his past and includes his decision to pick up a camera and set aside a career as a biologist.  For our colleagues in Mexico, from Michoacan to Baja California, this project represents decades of committed conservation efforts, dedication in the face of despair, thousands of all-nighters and – most-recently – some signs of hope. The story of the black turtle is about people: poachers, children, scientists, artists, fishers, politicians, teachers, conservationists, photographers, narco-traffickers, guides, leaders and followers, musicians.  What I’ve come to realize is that all of the people in this story wear several of those hats, simultaneously or sequentially.

Alejandro Osuna and the rescued black turtle, pulled just in time from a poachers net.

In the late 1990’s the location in Baja that we are visiting now was one of our research sites. We caught black turtles here, tagged them, measured and weighed them and then released them back into the bay. We learned that young turtles caught here would return to the same spot, even if released in another part of the bay. But eventually poachers wiped out all of the sea turtles at our site, making our research impossible. So we moved our efforts to a different part of the bay.

Our temporary camp at Estero Los Cuervos. Leave no trace practices are used but the tides and the wind in the dunes ensure that even our footprints disappear within hours.

Alejandro Osuna was one of those sea turtle hunters. With his father he caught and cooked sea turtles right where we are camped now, in the mangrove-lined Estero Los Cuervos, a branch of Bahia Magdalena. Now Alejandro is our captain and guide, one of the local leaders working to bring back the turtles.  When we arrived to our former site to set our research nets we weren’t sure what we might find. Had the turtles come back, just like many other locations along the Baja coast or was the area still recovering. The plan was to set out our nets for 24 hours to find out if Estero Los Cuervos could be a viable monitoring site, as it was so many years ago. Our answer came more quickly than expected, but not using the techniques we anticipated.  At our site we found that a net was already there. It was an illegal net belonging to poachers who had set it for turtles. Alejandro wasn’t pleased.

A stingray, guitarfish, three young halibut, an undersized lobster and a black turtle were rescued from the net and all released alive. An hour longer and the turtle would have been dead.

We set to work pulling up the net and immediately removed a 48 cm juvenile black turtle. Another hour in the net and the turtle would have been dead. Two juvenile California halibut, a stingray, guitarfish and an undersize lobster followed. All went back into the bay alive, except for the turtle. This beauty had to wait for us to gather valuable data and apply a small tag to its rear flippers.  Alejandro decided that we would send a message to the poachers by twisting the net onto itself, requiring a frustrating process of detangling. The tides also did their work on the poorly positioned net, resulting in a big mess of mesh. We kept an eye on the gear through the night and set our own net which resulted in a second turtle. This one a near adult sized female.

Alejandro, assisted by Natalie Brandsma, measures the black turtle and records the information as part of a regional community-based sea turtle monitoring program coordinated by in a dozen coastal towns throughout northwest Mexico.

The good news: the black turtles are back.

The bad news: so are the poachers.

The better news: the turtles have strong local allies now.

There’s still a long road ahead for the black turtle, but at least we are on the road.  That’s the kind of story this is: hopeful, heartbreaking, timeless and occasionally unbelievable. Learn more at Grupo Tortuguero

This project was fully funded thanks to

Nichols in the bow of the panga, checking the illegal net and listening as the poacher's boat motored closer. Poachers came within 50 m of their net, but then turned away when they realized the researchers were there. They returned in the morning to salvage their tangled net

About Dr. Wallace J. Nichols

Wallace “J.” Nichols spends his time discovering nature.  He spent his youth exploring oceans and forests, as well as his own family history.  Resulting in a fascination for genetics and animal migration, as well as human culture and conservation. Through field research, his work with commercial fishermen, and the time he spends in coastal villages, he encounters among people a common appreciation for the ocean’s beauty, abundance and mysteries.  Nichols finds successful conservation efforts often include unexpected alliances and that there is common ground to be found between so-called “enemies” of nature.

About Neil Ever Osborne

I am an associate member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and a contributing editor and photographer for the Canadian Wildlife Magazine. Using conservation photography practices, I blend my backgrounds in science and photojournalism to bridge gaps between people whose conservation goals are best met through collaboration.

The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of the International League of Conservation Photographers and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to exchange ideas or comments, but National Geographic reserves the right to edit or delete abusive or objectionable content.

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Meet the Author

International League of Conservation Photographers
The mission of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) is to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography. iLCP is a Fellowship of more than 100 photographers from all around the globe. As a project based organization, iLCP coordinates Conservation Photography Expeditions to get world-renowned photographers in the field teamed with scientists, writers, videographers and conservation groups to gather visual assets that are used to create conservation communications campaigns to foment conservation successes. iLCP is a 501 (c) (3) organization. Support our work at this link.