Now that August has arrived, we have some new volunteers! Welcome Steph, Melissa & Lydia (v2)! One of the project trainers, Kanina, went to meet the new arrivals at the ferry port and bring them back to the volunteer house. This month we have moved to Casa Havana, which is located on the eastern side of the island, and backs straight out on the ocean. After some brief introductions to everyone in the house, the new volunteers were free to spend their first day exploring the island. They tried their first real Mexican tacos (17 pesos for un taco vegetarian, which is about 80p!) and discovered the wonderful snorkelling we have in a new back garden!
That evening, one of the volunteers (Claudia) cooked dinner for everyone to celebrate National Swiss Day. She made ‘Ӓlpermagronen’, a very yummy traditional swiss pasta dish with potatoes, onion and cream served with ӧpfelmues (apple sauce). It was delicious and a lovely way to spend our first evening altogether.
Our second day was spent in our apartment-come-office, watching the new volunteer’s introductory presentations (and recaps from the July people). It was great to learn about everyone’s different backgrounds, past experiences and motivations for joining the project. We have all been brought here together united by our love for the oceans and for the majestic Mantarayas (Manta Rays in Spanish), with a determination to contribute to the Manta Mexico Caribe’s three main objectives: Research, Education and Awareness.
The volunteers also had an afternoon lesson from Santi (one of the trainers) on how to use the data visualisation program ‘Tableau’. This program has amazing capabilities to digest and visualise data in a variety of user-friendly formats. We analysed some data on Mexican fisheries, learning how to display the results on an interactive map (per state) linked with a series of easy-to-digest bubble charts. Cool stuff!!
Turtle Night Watch
The new volunteers were thrown in at the deep end by being put down for a turtle night watch shift on their first evening. This involves patrolling the beach for nesting turtles and helping to collect the eggs swiftly if they are successful in laying. Turtle’s lay clutches of 50-200 eggs that can be handled only within the first 24 hours, after which point you could damage their development, so you can only relocate if it is a fresh nest. Not only are the eggs at risk from predators (lizards, crabs, stray dogs/cats), but unfortunately, they now also face the anthropogenic threat of being stolen by poachers for consumption. All 7 turtle species are on the IUCN red list.
Our most important responsibility during the night shifts is to lead by example in terms of how to behave around nesting turtles, and to discourage the use of torches (red light is okay), flash photography and touching/interfering with the process by tourists and/or locals that come to watch the event.
Green, Hawksbill and Loggerhead are the three main species that come to nest on Isla Mujeres, returning to lay their eggs on the same beach from which they were born. Although it was an exciting experience for the new volunteers to witness their first nesting turtles, those first few shifts also served as a sobering realisation of the numerous threats these turtles are now facing worldwide. Coastal habitat destruction (for homes, hotels, beach bars etc), beach erosion, artificial sea walls, oil spills, marine debris and climate change are all reducing the availability of suitable nesting spots – and this message only became more meaningful as I stood by helplessly as multiple females turned back towards the ocean after trying really hard but failing to find a suitable body pit location. The artificial sea wall on the eroded (eastern) side of the island proves particularly problematic for the turtles, since there is simply nowhere for them to go once they have dragged themselves ashore. I also observed many females travelling up the beach towards the artificial lights before eventually finding their way back into the breaking waves. To me, it looked as if they were confused and disorientated by the lights. It really was heart-breaking to see.
It was also frustrating to observe how people behave around the nesting turtles, endlessly flashing cameras, even stroking the shell of one female during the laying process and obstructing her path back to the sea. As conservationists, we have a responsibility to educate those unable to access information for themselves, to communicate our message in the right way to the public. Only with education can people begin to appreciate and care about these important issues as much as we do. As the environmentalist Baba Dioum said in his famous 1968 speech:
“In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand,
and we will understand only what we are taught.”
This is not always going to be an easy job, because there will always people that do not want to listen (plus, a language barrier presents an extra challenge). But, we must try! After some initial frustrations, we felt compelled to try again the next evening, and I am pleased to report with more success. Many people we spoke to had no idea that it’s bad to use flash photography around turtles, and seemed grateful for us taking the time to chat to them. It is refreshing when you find people that are open to learning and willing to change their perspectives!
This week we went out for two field trips, both to the plankton-filled “Green water” area. Unfortunately we didn’t see any Mantas on either day, so now we are going to monitor the weather forecast closely to decide when our next best chance might be. A full moon is coming up in the next few days, which could be promising! Nethertheless, we still saw plenty of dolphins, turtles, a few mobula rays and two whale sharks (which was a first for some of the new volunteers!). It was great to be out on the boat and to begin learning some of the environmental monitoring research techniques used on the project.
Since we were on a new boat, Claudia took the opportunity to ask our guide to fill out another marine debris survey. This includes questions about their observations and attitudes towards marine debris as well as their experiences of the how increased tourism in the area has impacted the local charismatic megafauna. She has collected over 20 surveys so far and is still going strong. Go Claudia!
As always, we collect any marine debris we find as we go along. Here you can see part of a polystyrene container we found floating on the surface in the middle of the ocean, just one of the many articles we retrieve every field trip. This serves as tangible evidence in support for our reduce, reuse and recycle motto!
We continued to take our GPS location, CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) readings throughout the day, as well as deploying our new toy the “Manta Trawl” tow device, which sieves the water for micro-plastics (and also a fair amount of plankton and sargassum). Back at the house, we search through the sample for any fragments/micro-plastic films. Interestingly, we collected more plastic fragments during our second field trip, when the currents were stronger. In a few weeks time, we will be visiting a lab in Cozumel helping to analyse these tiny micro-plastics, which we are all very excited about!
Our work on the mural at Tortugranja continues! So far we have made lots of coral, many fish, jellyfish and finally our beloved Mantaraya from our recycled rubbish materials (egg cartons, crisp packets, plastic bags and chocolate wrappers…). When it is finished, we hope that the mural will help to raise awareness about the consequences of our disposal culture on the oceans’ ecosystems. Good work everyone!
We were also lucky enough to help spot the baby hatchlings in the hatching zone, and to take them inside (out of the scorching heat) to the pool indoors. They will spend their first day here before being released back in to the ocean that same evening (when it is cooler and there is a reduced risk of predators). This morning over 600 hatchlings fought their way out of their little egg chambers in the sand. What a privilege this was!