Two years ago, hawksbills were thought to be all-but-extinct in the eastern Pacific. However, thanks to the dedication and hard work of Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO) members, this population has been rediscovered and put back on the global sea turtle map. Yet, although progress has undoubtedly been made and a few important remnant nesting and foraging sites have been located, the overall numbers are still very low: it is estimated that a mere 500 females come to nest annually along an extensive 15,000 km stretch of coastline. The battle to protect this small but significant population of hawksbills, while underway, has only just begun.
SWOT Team member Alexander Gaos is on the frontlines of this critical campaign to save the eastern Pacific hawksbill. In 2009 he traveled along the Pacific coast from California to Costa Rica, visiting hundreds of communities and interviewing thousands fishermen. The purpose of the trip? To find out whether hawksbills could be found nesting or foraging along the Pacific coast and, if so, where they were, how many they were, and in what density. Here, he shares one of his stories from the field.
In July 2009, my wife Ingrid and I, along with our then 1-year-old son, Joaquinn, were returning from a 16,000+ km drive from the US to Costa Rica and back. We had been conducting fisher interviews and in-water monitoring to locate hawksbills, and had just reached the central Pacific region of Mexico.
On previous research trips to Mexico, we had used tangle-nets to capture hawksbills with considerable success. However, on this trip, many of the hookah fishers we interviewed suggested that we would have even more success finding hawksbills by diving at night. Local fishermen are vital allies to conservationists, as they have specialized knowledge of local waters. Indeed, as soon as I started going out with them at night, I began consistently encountering hawksbills. Once captured, we’d examine, measure, tag, and tissue sample each turtle. The pattern of encountering hawksbills during night-dives held all the way up and down the coast. However in all cases, the hawksbills we found were juveniles, holed-up and resting in caves close to shore. As successful as these night dives were, we had yet to capture an adult turtle.
When my family and I arrived at Punta Mita, a rocky headland located just north of the state line between Jalisco and Nayarit, we received word that hawksbills could be found just offshore. I met up with Mario and Octavio, two skilled night hookah fishermen with whom I had quickly struck up a friendly relationship, and before long had convinced them to take me out in search of hawksbills.
We followed what by then had become the typical night diving routine; they went about their fishing activities, while I snorkeled nearby. Most often the fishers, who had the advantage of using a hookah, would spot the hawksbills and signal me with the flashlight so I could swim down and grab the turtle.
That night we started at about 9PM at the northern end of the point and began a systematic search. After having no success at what the fishermen considered the most promising areas, waters full of boulders and caves, we managed to remain optimistic. However, several hours later we still hadn’t found a hawksbill. Our fingers had turned to prunes, our mouths were puckered and our hopes had been dashed. Just after 2AM Mario said we’d make one final dive just to get a bit more fish, but because it was an open, boulder-free area, the chances of finding a hawksbill were essentially zero.
While I was cold and exhausted, I figured it was my duty to get in the water and at least take a look around. The sea floor consisted of flat rocks with thick lettuce-like vegetation that swayed gracefully with the incoming waves. I had a small flashlight that shot a single beam of light about a meter wide, leaving the surrounding areas in darkness. Casually surveying the area and having wandered well away from the others, my light suddenly locked in on the carapace of a large female hawksbill. Before I could appreciate what I was seeing, I was pumping my flippers and rocketing towards the turtle, determined not to let her get away. I kept my beam steady on her eyes in an effort to keep her in a state of confusion (a theory of mine which has held thus far). Then in one motion I grabbed her by the carapace, tilted her upward, and shot to the surface. Once up I yelled for the boat captain, who fortunately saw my flashlight flailing in the night. He swung over and we hoisted the turtle on deck. It was only then that I was able to fully appreciate the moment; we had aboard the first, and what remains the only, adult hawksbill turtle I have ever caught at sea in the eastern Pacific.
Mario and Octavio, busy fishing, were completely unaware of what had happened. They returned to the boat chagrined, disappointed they hadn’t been able to help me find my beloved hawksbills. I casually asked Marco, ‘nada’ (nothing)? When he shook his head I pointed to the space behind the rear seat of the skiff. He looked at the turtle and stared back at me dumbfounded, it was the biggest hawksbill he had ever seen.