Wallace J. Nichols on Turtles… and Tacos

Wallace J. Nichols (right) and Jeffrey Seminoff release an adult female hawksbill sea turtle with a satellite transmitter in El Salvador

While fact-checking an upcoming story on the pros and cons of development in Baja California, Senior Researcher Meg Weaver stumbled upon the story of Adelita, a loggerhead turtle who migrated nearly 7,500 miles from Baja, California to Japan in 1996. Conservationist, academic, and activist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols helped pin down the facts of Adelita’s astonishing journey and took some time to tell IT about his current projects, what he’s passionate about, and where to find Baja’s legendary fish tacos.

Can you tell us a bit about the work you’ve done with the California Academy of Sciences?

I’ve been a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences [in San Francisco] since 1999. CAS just reopened Sept. 27 as the greenest museum in the world. It is spectacular. I can’t imagine a better place to be associated with, as CAS has a great history of sea turtle research and is the center of natural history education for our coast.

How did your interest in and love of turtles begin?

It started when I was a kid, chasing animals in the creeks and hills. We used to catch snapping turtles and paint numbers on their shells and release them. When we recaptured turtles with numbers, we’d figure out the size of the population using simple algebra. Essentially that’s what we do now with sea turtles in the Pacific!

What draws you to turtles and compels you to devote your life working to study and conserve them?

There’s something core about turtles that’s hard to explain. I just dig them. I guess it’s a combination of their shape, their tenacity, their migrations, that they’re ancient animals that were on Earth with the dinosaurs (I was a big dinosaur fan as a kid), and their endangered status. It doesn’t hurt that they generally like warm, sunny, remote places, and so do I.

Tell us a bit more about Adelita and her amazing journey. How were school children involved in tracking her?

In 1996, we put a transmitter on Adelita in Baja California, Mexico, and she began to swim west. A fellow graduate student in the Computer Science department at the University of Arizona said “J, you should make a website.” I said: “What’s a website?”

We created a tracking site and before you knew it, kids all over the world were finding it. At the time, Adelita was the only animal being tracked, day-by-day on the Internet. And she just happened to be doing something no one had ever seen an animal do before–swim across an entire ocean. So, together with hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of other turtle fans, we watched her make her way from Mexico to Japan, and wondered each day if she would keep going.

The fishermen in the communities we worked with in Mexico didn’t have Internet, so I’d fax maps to them to keep them updated.

What are some of the biggest threats facing sea turtles in North America and/or worldwide?

First and foremost, sea turtle populations have been hit hard by over-hunting and over-collection of their eggs. For decades, sea turtles were hunted for their meat, skin, shells, and eggs. Add to that being caught in shrimp nets, gillnets, and longlines, and the development of their beaches and pollution of the ocean by plastics.

Climate change is also a major threat to sea turtles and their habitat.

What can we do to help protect them?

There are lots of things we can all do. Stop using single-use containers (plastic bags, bottles, cutlery) and when you must, be sure it gets recycled. Eat local, sustainable seafood and ask lots of questions about where seafood comes from, how it’s caught, and how far it has traveled. I avoid any seafood caught by bottom trawling or seafood that has been on an airplane. The idea of jetting fish from one side of the planet to another just seems a bit wrong to me.

What is the SEE Turtles project all about?

SEEturtles.org is a project that connects turtle lovers with the best places to see turtles and help them. People are always asking me where they can go see turtles, so we put together a collection of places where your vacation will directly benefit sea turtles, and you’ll have the time of your life. They’re not work trips necessarily, but your money will support local economies and local conservation projects. Increasingly, people want their vacation to matter and to help make the world a better place. To date, everyone who has gone on a SEE Turtles trip says it was one of their best vacations ever and that they want to do it again. I think we’re on to something.

On your website, I read that you feel there’s a generation gap in terms of how kids and adults understand environmental issues. Can you explain that concept and provide ideas as to how it can be surmounted?

This generation has grown up in a world where the environmental crisis is part of our daily conversation. There’s no doubt any longer that we’re causing mass extinction, climate change, and that our planet is stressed. Teaching kids about how we can all be a part of the solution is a lot easier. Years ago in classrooms, I’d show kids a photo and ask “What’s this?” And they’d say “A sea turtle!” Now they say “An endangered leatherback sea turtle, and they eat jellyfish and migrate from Indonesia to California!” And that’s before the sea turtle lesson! We can get into discussing some more complex ideas and solutions now. We all have a generation of environmental educators as well as writers, photographers, and filmmakers to thank for that … along with our parents.

I also noticed on your site that you feel that conservation is personal. What’s the notion behind that idea?

The kinds of changes that need to happen in our society will involve a whole range of personal choices from what we eat, to where and how we travel to what we buy. It will also involve decisions about how we teach kids about the planet we live on. Lots of these changes will happen and will be communicated person to person, eyeball to eyeball and not through mass media. When I go to the beach and politely talk to people, face-to-face, about making sure they leave it clean, I think it has a much bigger impact than a sign posted by the state at the trailhead. We need to have personal conversations about what’s at stake here.

You were involved in Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental film, 11th Hour. What was that experience like?

Making a film with Leo DiCaprio sure sounds exciting, doesn’t it? We filmed the interviews in the garage of his childhood home, where he was raised by his parents to care deeply about the planet. He made the film to give his friends who work in conservation a louder voice and a wider reach. I think that was very, very cool of him. And I’ll tell you, it got my parents’ attention and now they’re greening their town.

You say the ocean is often neglected in environmental discussions. How so and what can be done about such an egregious omission?

Over and over at conferences, in films and books and certainly in the funding world, the ocean gets far less attention than it deserves. It covers over 70 percent of our planet and holds most of the biodiversity, after all. Our climate, our food, the air we breathe, and our fondest dreams come from the ocean. We should be taking much better care of the ocean and we should be working much harder to understand it.

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How is Ocean Revolution working to raise awareness for these issues?

We started Ocean Revolution to fill a perceived gap in the ocean conservation community. We felt like there was a lot of ocean science education going on for young people, but nowhere for them to go if their thing wasn’t just science. So we created Ocean Revolution to serve young ocean activists growing up in the age of connectivity. By that I mean that OR has a very horizontal structure, little bureaucracy; it strives to collaborate and share everything and views much of what we do as experimental. We work with young ocean leaders from Mozambique to Mexico to Manhattan. They blow me away with their creativity and energy. We keep our staff and our budget small so that we don’t get stuck or frozen by paperwork and policies. Simply put, we help young ocean activists help themselves become the best they can be at saving the ocean. And we have fun doing it.

How can we balance the needs of the local people in Baja California, for example, with the necessity of protecting animals and ensuring the ocean is healthy? As you well know, there’s a lot of development ongoing in Baja California; the building of resorts, golf courses, high-end homes, the proposed Escalera Nautica, etc. These projects provide work for the local people (as well as for migrant workers from the mainland) and help boost the economy, but they also potentially threaten the coastal ecosystems of the peninsula. How best to navigate this tricky situation?

We’ve seen the boom and bust cycle over and over around the world. A stunningly beautiful place is converted into a crowded mega-tourism mecca and then the crime, pollution, roads, and hotels mask what made the place so great to begin with. There’s no doubt that it’s possible to transform a living coastal desert into a cash cow, but we’ve got to decide which places to set aside for all time so that future generations can be inspired and nourished by nature. I know that we are smart enough to figure out how to have jobs and wild places and sea turtles all at the same time. But it will take a society based in reality where people understand where they came from, where their food and water comes from, and where our waste goes.

Please tell us a bit about your experience(s) working with the National Geographic Society and your latest involvement with the Planet in Motion project. And I also notice that you’re a big fan of one of our Explorers in Residence, Sylvia Earle.

I began working with NGS as a graduate student (not counting my childhood work trying to read every NG magazine) when Boyd Matson, the host of Explorer [and a Traveler columnist], came to Baja to film an episode. I thought, “Man, that guy has a great job.” And from then on I have worked with NG Kids, other TV and film projects, the Crittercam team, and the magazine on several articles. Most recently I’ve been working with the Planet in Motion team. It’s an honor to work with so many talented people. And yes, I’ve had a big crush on Sylvia for a while. I told her that a few years ago while introducing her at the National Press Club on World Ocean Day in Washington, D.C. And I gave her a poem that I had written for her. I was touched to find out that she had framed the poem and it hangs above her desk.

What are some of your favorite places in Baja California? Can you share one of your most memorable experiences there?

The Baja California peninsula holds onto me. From the first time I landed on a Baja beach until now, I just look forward to my next expedition there. It suits my personality (laid back, likes solitude) and interests (ocean, sea turtles) as well as my food preferences (fish tacos) and climate preferences (clear, sunny, tons of stars). After two decades doing research there, we have so many dear friends all over the peninsula that it’s like visiting family; there’s always a place to stay and a good fish taco. My favorite is the Hermanos Gonzales stand in La Paz!

Photos: Top, Mike Liles/FUNZEL; Bottom right, Adelita’s path across the ocean; Bottom left, photo Oceana.

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