We’re coming up on Earth Day this month, and as a Green store, this day is a major holiday for us. I wanted to post something inspirational here on this blog to mark the occasion. I want this day to be a day of celebration, as well as a call for advocacy and action, but it’s hard these days to be able to create enough hope in our hearts to actually celebrate, or to act. I want to suggest something that might help to restore your ability to hope and give you the energy to affect change, even if it is small.
These are tough times for the environment, to be sure. It can be extraordinarily overwhelming to know that massive changes are afoot; knowing that both polar ice caps are breaking apart and coastlines are becoming inundated, hearing the news that every 26 minutes an elephant is poached, that right whales haven’t reproduced this year successfully, that monarchs are disappearing rapidly due to weed killing pesticides, or that we’ve just lost our last male northern white rhino. In this country we live in, in these political times makes all this sort of news even more dire, as our leader has chosen for the heads of all of his major departments people who have specifically been committed to eliminating environmental protections. These problems all seem so unapproachable and so overwhelming, it starts to hurt our souls, and certainly can seem like nothing we do could possibly influence anything. But of course, as damage is done by the cumulative actions of many, damage may also be slowed, and policies changed. But even I, who thinks of these issues daily, who started a nonprofit conservation organization for orangutans and helped to run it for 10 years, then teamed up with my husband to start a business that attempts to educate and support positive change in the lifestyles of our customers and in our industry, these feelings of desperation send me into a paralyzing lethargy.
As I ponder how to speak to this issue, I realize that the one thing that saves my spirit every time is when I seek out adventures that bring me to places of natural beauty, visiting ecosystems that are fairly intact, and observing wildlife in ways that don’t negatively impact them. Even better is when my presence does something positive in any way to benefit the wildlife that I’m seeing. This restores my spirit in a way that nothing else can. It makes me happy, peaceful, and most importantly inspired anew to do something, anything, to make a difference. I’m here to try and encourage you to do the same, in big or small ways. We all play around in our heads with where we might like to go on our next vacation. What if you made plans not just to see an area of natural beauty, but to seek out a trip where your money not only gives you access to neat experiences or beautiful places, but actually helps to benefit the conservation of that place?
I’d like to share some stories of my most recent adventure, filled with bucket list activities that turned out to be more magical than I ever thought they’d be. It was an incredible gift that I gave myself, and the money I spent helped to support some amazing efforts to conserve what I now think of as a magical place.
In September of 2016, I stumbled on a tiny paragraph in the PCC catalog describing a trip to Baja Mexico where I might swim with whale sharks, help with a sea turtle banding/tracking project, and visit the friendly gray whales in their calving grounds. I swooned. These were several things I’ve wanted to do since I was a teenager. The trip was put together by two cooperating organizations – SEE Turtles, and RED Travel Mexico. Both of these organizations work to bring tourists to areas of conservation interest and the money they spend supports the conservation projects on the ground. I started saving my money right away. Last summer on my 49th birthday I decided I would like to go on this trip in 2018 to celebrate my upcoming 50th. It was more amazing than I could have imagined.
Our home base was La Paz (a very pretty spot on the ocean and one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever seen) on the Sea of Cortez. We had a wonderful guide for the whole week that made sure everything went smoothly and educated us about the history of the places we visited, taught us about the plants, animals and geology of the places we visited, and introduced us to local people who had previously been fishermen who had taken it upon themselves to start up grassroots protection efforts to help protect their fisheries, and therefore their livelihood.
On the first day we were supposed to visit with whale sharks, but the ocean was very choppy – lucky us, we were then able to visit a National Biosphere Reserve (Rancho Ecologico Sol de Mayo), where a short hike through the desert where we learned about some of the threatened and endangered species of plants that were protected in this reserve suddenly ends in a stunning fresh water springs with a gorgeous waterfall, and we took a fabulous swim.
The next day the sea was calmer, and we were able to swim with whale sharks – a lifelong dream! I do have to say it was very different than I imagined – you see those photos and it seems like you’d get to hang out and watch them, but I’ll tell you – whale sharks are on the move, by design. The visibility is poor in these waters due to high concentrations of plankton, which is a whale shark’s food. To eat, they swim along at a steady pace with their big mouths wide open, gathering the bounty. You really have to swim your legs off to try and keep up with them and get just a few minutes to see them before they quickly outpace you. It was stupendous though to see them so close, to travel alongside them, and be in the presence of such a beautiful and enormous creature. Their spots seem illuminated from within. The best thing though was that organization we traveled with was responsible for completely revamping the whale shark tourist trade to be more responsible and to better care for the needs and safety of the whale sharks themselves. Apparently, just about everywhere else in the world that you can go see whale sharks, it’s a terrible circus. Whale sharks are crowded and stressed by boats and people, often injured by boat propellers. I would have been horrified to be a part of anything like that. RED Travel changed everything. Now, only a certain number of boats are allowed in these waters at a time, and the rest have to wait their turn. All boats must be licensed and display a flag, they must have a certified guide, and tourists pay a small fee that supports the industry and wear wrist bands as proof of payment – at one point a patrol boat came along and checked that all was in order. If another boat is near a shark, your boat may not approach that area. We only had 9 tourists in our group, and only half of us went into the water at a time. Our guide went first and signaled to us when it was time to slip in (not jump) into the water. Whale sharks don’t see well and as long as you give them room, I’m not sure that they really are very aware at all of their observers. I’ll never forget it.
Afterwards, we stopped for lunch on a little mangrove covered island, and got to know our boat captain and hear his fabulous story. He is a fisherman who fishes mainly for a species of clam that reaches sizes of over a foot long, but which had become dangerously over-fished and had almost disappeared. He slowly convinced other fishermen in the area to create a coalition to restore this clam population. They made an agreement to leave the smaller clams in place so they could actually grow large enough to reproduce. They only harvested clams after they were a certain size, and set limits for how many each could remove at a time. They each also volunteer their own time for shifts to monitor this area in their own small boats to ensure the rules were being followed, and this population is once again flourishing. This was no small feat! RED travel finds projects like these and supports and strengthens them, and also hires these people as boat captains for the tourists. This helps to supplement their income while also giving them another way to maintain their presence in the area watching out for their clams. ((Bonus for us: he also made us a fabulous ceviche for our lunch!)
This is the focus of this great organization. Many economic development activities simply aimed at income generation are likely to have negative impacts on biodiversity, unless the values of the biodiversity and related ecosystem services are factored in. If protecting habitat and the species that live there can create economic advantages for the people that live there, these areas will be well protected in order to protect this economic value. For example: Protecting mangroves creates habitat for thousands of animals, but most importantly, they are the nurseries for many species of fish. When the mangroves are protected, the fisheries can remain strong. When the residents are educated about the important role mangroves play in ensuring a healthy fishery, they are also shown the economic value of protecting it. When tourists come to see mangroves, they provide added income to residents. The tourists are given the opportunity to see these amazing places and learn about these relationships between healthy habitats and benefit to humans, they may carry this knowledge with them and see the world through this new lens. The money they bring to the area stimulates the economy thereby ensuring the area remains protected to be able to host more tourists.
On another day we visited Isla Espiritu Santo, an UNESCO world heritage site and Biosphere Reserve. It’s difficult to describe its beauty (that completely secluded beach at the top of this post is where we had lunch). This massive island was a geological wonder to me – every corner we turned looked different, geologically speaking. As a birder, traveling by a big Magnificent Frigate bird rookery and seeing the tiny fluffy white chicks through my binoculars while Blue Footed Boobies and other seabirds flew overhead was fantastic. As a treat we stopped and snorkeled near a colony of sea lions. People have been snorkeling here for more than 30 years, and the youngsters are quite happy to entertain themselves by swimming by and investigating the tourists (who are cordoned off from much of the rookery). It was amazing for me, as I once worked with captive sea lions, so it was a gift to watch them from underwater in their natural element – they are incredibly graceful and beautiful in the water.
We traveled across to the other coast of Baja to Isla Magdalena. The bay is a major calving ground for Gray whales. There were so many whales everywhere in this bay! We stayed in an isolated tent camp on the desert island with no one else for miles around.
It was truly magical. The bright stars filled the sky from horizon to horizon. While I was walking at night in complete darkness close to the shore, I suddenly heard a whale spout and then deeply inhale, so very close to me. What chills that gave me! Coyotes who were passing through the tent grounds before dawn stopped and sang their crazy group song, right outside of my tent. We went out in the boat at night, in complete darkness, with the stars sparkling overhead and the water of our wake sparkling with bio-luminescence. We had breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, our 360 degree view unimpeded by buildings or trees.
Our primary activity at the camp besides whale watching was to participate in their Sea Turtle research. The man running our data collection project had been a fisherman who caught sea turtles and sold their meat like any other “fish”. When he encountered this project and the people at RED, he began to see turtles in a whole new light, growing to admire and respect them. He and several other local men are now employed by the project coordinating the data collection events, though funding isn’t as available to do as much data collection when tourists are not present. The more often tourists visit the camp, the more often the project can set up the nets, the more often data can be collected, and the more income they have. The turtles are tagged and the data they take sheds light on growth rates and health of the population (a few that we caught were recaptures, so they will be able to compare their data with the last time they were measured and weighed. The data is then shared with other organizations, and other projects that encounter these tagged turtles have valuable information on their movement patterns, etc. This project also regularly invites other fishermen from the area to observe data collection, as some have described a shift in perception when they see the importance of these animals through the eyes of the people studying them and the reverence that tourists have for the animals they’re interacting with. Now they make it a point to invite them when they can, and some ultimately become involved with the project themselves. It was a real privilege for us to see these beautiful animals up close, to be sure.
But Oh, the whales! Visiting the friendly gray whales of Magdalena Bay was truly the most meaningful part of the trip for me, and was one of the most special wildlife encounters I’ve had in my life. In Magdalena Bay there’s a very special situation: Starting in October gray whales leave the Arctic and travel down the coastline, arriving by late December or early January to their calving grounds in the warm waters of this protected area – the longest migration of any mammal. The females don’t feed much during this time in the bay- most of their activity centers around nursing and teaching the calves valuable survival skills in safe surroundings, so they have a fair amount of leisure time. They seem to really enjoy occasionally visiting with people who are on the little boats and the whales are the ones who choose to do it. I’ve always been strongly opposed to the idea of any human trying to get close and interact with wildlife as it carries such a risk, not just for the people involved, but more importantly for the animals, killed for behaving like the wild animals that they are. Habituation all too often leads to conflict and the wildlife always loses. Except here, in this very unique situation. It makes sense, actually. The whales are incredibly intelligent, more than we humans understand I believe. They’re enormous (40ft long) and in charge of this situation. Gray whales don’t generally engage in this behavior any other time except in this place (though occasionally our resident population of gray whales off the coast of Oregon will approach a boat and take a closer look at who’s visiting), which also makes sense. When you’re a gray whale, everywhere else there’s pressure to survive: you must feed intensely to maintain energy for the migration, especially in the intense cold of the Arctic. Orcas try to hunt your babies. There are oil rigs, fishing vessels and massive Swordfish gill nets to avoid. You have to get somewhere far far away and you can only travel at 5 miles an hour. But in Baja in the warm waters of this protected bay it’s all vacation time for them, and also have plenty of time to teach their babies basic skills they’ll need on their migration. Just like with whale sharks, there are now strict rules surrounding tourism in these waters. The whales certainly don’t approach every boat. The female and baby that approached ours traveled alongside us for about a half hour first. I hear that if they approach a boat and no one interacts with them they leave. This mother (Lucrecia) even boosted her calf (Lunar) up a bit to reach us better, so we could reach him! Our guide had told us, “We won’t follow or approach them, but if a whale reaches up to you, you may go ahead and touch it”. His nose was squishy and rubbery and I cried. We all got chances to visit with him. We also saw some behaviors that genuinely looked like training exercises (ask me in the store – I’ll glad you tell you stories about the amazing things we saw them do) and we even watched a female nurse her baby. It was transcendent. Our guide said, “This bay used to be a place of carnage for these whales. Throughout history we have treated whales horrifically, and still they forgive us.”
I feel so grateful that our perception as humans towards the wildlife has changed in this beautiful, special, sacred place, and that we now honor the animals that come to Magdalena Bay and who rely on it as a sanctuary. I’m grateful that there are ways for tourists to honor and support the people who live there and who value the environmental resources that they have, so that the habitat is worth more when it’s intact than when it is destroyed. I hold that concept dear, and hope that others can visit places all over the world like this, to learn about the magic and beauty and importance of nature, and more importantly, to make sure that their activities don’t harm the species they go there to see. And it’s even better if their presence results in the economic support of efforts to protect that area for others.
Luckily, we can learn about and have magical moments experiencing the wild places close to home, often for free.
There are a myriad of organizations here and all over the world that seek to help visitors do this. Having a guide really enriches the whole experience of exploring a new place – you wouldn’t imagine how many things you otherwise might miss that someone who knows the habitat can teach you. You’ll come to appreciate the complexity and inter-connectedness of all of the plants and animals that share that beautiful place. If you have kids, it’s critical in this day and age to teach them about the people and wildlife of the region they’re visiting, and of the environment we all share.
Next time you want to get outdoors on the weekend, check out some of the local resources below. Many guided experiences are free, but perhaps you’ll make a small donation to the organization that’s hosting you, to support their work. Next time you want to take a bigger vacation, Google words like “conservation ecotours”, or “volunteering in Costa Rica”, for example. You never know what magical experiences you’ll find! Here are just a few:
SEE Turtles (the Baja trip I took even allowed kids as young as 7 to participate)
RED Travel Mexico – there are day trips and multi day experiences, including each of the activities I described above. They’ll even set up a tent camp for small to large groups.
Friends Of The Gorge outings – With 100+ guided outings a year to choose from, there is something for everyone! Whether it be wildflower walks, kayak trips, geology tours, or bike rides they’ve made it easy for you to enjoy unique outings in all areas of the Columbia Gorge. Each outing has an educational theme and is led by knowledgeable volunteer hike leaders and shepherds. Many are free.
Explore Oregon Hikes and Events – all hikes are free!
Audubon Society – “On short hikes and easy walks, we’ll focus our attention on trees, wildflowers, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies and other insects, and geology. And as always, we’ll be on the lookout for birds and other wildlife!”
They offer Eco trips all over Oregon, Alaska, Olympic Peninsula, New Mexico, etc, as well as spring summer and winter break camps for K-12
Green Life volunteers – solar power project, parrot rehab on the Osa Peninsula (an amazing place), turtle projects, and even dog rescue!
REI Adventures – Trips to so many fabulous places!