Turtle Rescue on the Eco Side of Baja

by Melissa Gaskill

A tent on the sand with a solar-powered light, solar shower hanging nearby, composting toilet behind a gnarled palo blanco tree. Travel doesn’t get much more eco than this.


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Organized by Baja Expeditions, one of the oldest outfitters on the Mexican peninsula, and SEE Turtles, a non-profit promoting conservation tourism, this trip includes three days in the Gulf of California and three on Baja’s Pacific coast with a night in La Paz in between. We also take part in a local sea turtle monitoring project that, once a month, puts out nets to catch sea turtles, measuring, tagging and then releasing them. The data helps determine the success of efforts to help these endangered animals.

The first day, the group gathers in the hotel lobby for a quick van ride to Baja Expedition’s office for breakfast, wetsuits, masks and snorkels. Then we load onto a panga, one of the blue-and-white fiberglass boats common along both coasts of Baja. Our route crosses La Paz Bay to Isla Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited mountainous island. A line of white tents along a fingernail of matching sand overlook a gem-blue bay where pelicans, cormorants, and brown and blue-footed boobies crash into the water on a dawn-to-dusk pursuit of fish. Two cooks prepare our meals on a gas stove inside the kitchen tent, using fish straight from the nearby waters, peppers grown north of La Paz, hand-made tortillas, and other fresh, local ingredients.

After settling in, we motor to the island’s north end to snorkel around Los Islotes, a collection of craggy rocks populated by sea lions and birds above the water, a massive school of sardines and riot of tropical fish below it. The young sea lions hanging out at one end of the rocks came ready to play; when I follow them under the water, they dart in close, swoop away, and dive deeper than I can go. The day ends with a brilliant sunset over the peninsula followed by stars spilled across a black sky, then the full moon rising from behind the island’s mountainous spine.

Next day, we kayak along red and cream-colored cliffs weathered in intricate patterns, dipping into each cove. Some hold tiny beaches, others rocky shores or swaths of green mangroves. A panga brings lunch, then takes us farther down the island to the ruins of a pearl-collecting village and a healthy reef only about 20 feet below the surface for another snorkel. The following morning, we hike up the rugged slope behind camp, spotting huge blue lizards and colorful hummingbirds, before heading back to La Paz for the night.
For the three-hour drive to Puerto San Carlos, we pile into one van, giving the trip less of a carbon footprint than it might have had. From there, another panga ride ends at a mangrove and shell spit in Bahia Magdalena, a mangrove-lined bay on the Pacific side of the peninsula. Our camp here is eco-friendly, too; we sleep in tents on the narrow shell beach, eat clams and shrimp caught with sustainable methods in this very bay, and compost our waste.
By participating in the sea turtle monitoring program, we tourists provide direct financial support for the monitoring. We also support and encourage this kind of alternative to typical tourism development (i.e. high-rise resorts, desert golf courses, and other eco-unfriendly options), and help create meaningful, dignified work for people in the local community. Our camp crew, members of a local cooperative, trained by working with established cooks and guides on Baja Expeditions outings before striking out on their own here.
Our group of ten, plus two guides and four members of the monitoring project, heads out in two pangas to place nets in the bay where turtles come and go with the ebb and flow of tide. Starting at 6 PM today through 4 PM tomorrow, two crew members and two guests check the nets every two hours. We can also help with measuring and tagging, and get to name untagged turtles.
In between shifts, we take a panga ride through lush mangroves, where we see a variety of herons and egrets as well as kingfishers, jays, pelicans, and osprey. After lunch, we cross the bay and hike over dunes towering more than four stories high and about a half-mile wide, forming a barrier between the bay and the Pacific Ocean. The beach there is broad and disappears into the distance in either direction, with no signs of civilization. The clear water is a perfect temperature for swimming, and sand dollars the size of my hand litter the sand.
Next morning, we observe local fishing methods, including handlining, crab traps, and a specially designed shrimp trawl that doesn’t drag bottom and moves slowly enough for fish and other potential bycatch to get away.
Returning to the San Jose del Cabo airport the following day, I’m struck by the contrast between the sprawling, gated hotels, bright green of golf courses, and cruise ships bobbing in the distance and the cozy camp that, by now, has completely disappeared from that tiny island. I can truly call this an eco-adventure.

4 thoughts on “Turtle Rescue on the Eco Side of Baja”

  1. I would love to volunteer with the sea turtles, they have always held a special place in my heart. It is something I have wanted to do for many many years now. Your site is amazing and I would be excited to get involved helping in anyway I can. I currently live in Oregon and would like to do volunteering on the west coast if possible. How can I get involved?

    Thank you,
    Autumn

    1. Thanks for reading, Autumn! Here is Melissa’s response:

      Yes, great question!
      Sea turtle volunteer opportunities are a bit limited on the West Coast – no sea turtles nest there, although they do live in the waters off the Western US. (And I’m afraid I don’t know of any opportunities in Oregon, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist!) The Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California accepts volunteers – call Jeff at 858-546-7152. You might also check with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco (Volunteer department 415/379-5111), the Monterrey Bay Aquarium (http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/aa/aa_jobs/aa_jobs_volunteer.aspx), and Scripps Institution of Oceanography (http://aquarium.ucsd.edu/Members_and_Friends/Volunteer/) about volunteering. Volunteer jobs at these places generally work best for people who live nearby, but folks at these organizations may know of opportunities closer to you, or can direct you to people who do. There may be rehabilitation facilities in your area, for example. And even if a volunteer job isn’t directly related to sea turtles, if you help the ocean, you help sea turtles.
      Next time you are traveling, especially to Mexico or the Caribbean, SEE Turtles offers a volunteer match program – you let them know what you want to do and where and they work to find an opportunity that fits your needs. Go to their website, seeturtles.org, click on Volunteer on the left hand menu, and fill out a Match Form.

      Finally, I’m currently working on a book that will provide details on sea turtle volunteering around the world – there are opportunities on the East Coast, in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, and in Texas, as well as throughout the Caribbean and the Southern Hemisphere. I hope many others will be inspired as you are.
      Thanks – and good luck!
      Melissa