When Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols presented his doctoral proposal to study the biology and conservation of sea turtles in northwestern Mexico, his committee told him it was a waste of time. They advised him to skip over the Black Turtles, which had been hunted to the brink of extinction. “They said it was too late,” Nichols recalls. “One funder later admitted to me that his foundation considered the grant he gave us the same as ‘burning money’ — a lost cause.”
Today, nearly 20 years later, the Black Turtle is a rare bright spot in the conservation landscape. Efforts continue and much work lies ahead, but for now the Black Turtle has sidestepped extinction, due in large part to the tight-knit group of local and international stakeholders that J. helped bring together through Grupo Tortuguero.
By land, by sea, and by air, Return of the Black Turtle will retrace J.’s efforts to build Grupo Tortuguero. With the initial help of a handful of pioneering fisherman, J. and his team have been able to protect the turtles from every angle, growing an expansive network by engaging researchers, government agents, ex-convicts, drag racers, as well as the Seri Indians of coastal Sonora, for whom sea turtles have long held important nutritional, utilitarian, and cultural value.
Through images, words, and video, Emphas.is backers will join J. and I as we travel the seas and walk the beaches with former poachers and talk with coastal community members who still eat turtle meat, although much less often. We will survey sea turtle foraging areas and trace the turtles’ migration from Baja to their nesting grounds in Michoacan. Much of the story will unfold as we immerse ourselves in the lives of the local families whose trust and open minds helped J. get his first toe-holds on the project.
Photographer + Scientist = Winning Conservation Team
Return of the Black Turtle will be a conservation photography expedition that proves the power of a symbiotic relationship between biology and art, science and storytelling. It will be a narrative rooted in scientific exploration, animated by the colorful characters of the Mexican coastline. It will be told through the personal anecdotes that connect cultural tradition and folklore, corrupt officials and poor fishermen, unmitigated pollution and against-the-odds survival.
With the support of Emphas.is backers, J. and I will document the impressive progress that Grupo Tortuguero has made toward saving the Black Turtle. In addition to sharing this important success story in our behind-the-scenes Emphas.is access area, we will pitch it to editorial publications and use it to target specific audiences whose influence could assist in fundraising and legislation that will ease continuing dangers for Black Turtles and ensure that their recovery continues. We will also continue to publicize our journey long after the images have been made, through interviews, lectures, podcasts, and in the development of a website.
The story of the Black Turtle is relatively positive, but overfishing and poaching are still entrenched problems across the world’s oceans. By highlighting Grupo Tortuguero’s unexpected partnerships and innovative work, we aim to inspire other conservation organizations to employ similar strategies — relying on long-term personal relationships, not just money, politics, and regulations.
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