Hope, Heartbreak and Hope. What I Learned from Directing an NGO in Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. A Scuttlefish Feature.

by Dawn Pier

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Cabo Pulmo. “Impossibly Beautiful.” Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins, Courtesy: Wildcoast/Costasalvaje

The complexity of the life pattern on Pulmo Reef was even greater than at Cabo San Lucas. Clinging to the coral, growing on it, burrowing into it, was a teeming fauna. Every piece of the soft material broken off, skittered and pulsed with life, little crabs and worms and snails. One small piece of coral might conceal 30 or 40 species, and the colors on the reef were electric.

 –John Steinbeck “The Log from the Sea of Cortez
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Only a handful of uninhabited, un-fished reefs found in the Pacific Ocean exhibit the abundance of fish you will see in the waters off Cabo Pulmo, a tiny village (population approx. 200) situated just an hour’s drive northeast of the San Jose del Cabo International Airport in the heart of the region known as the East Cape of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

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Photograph by Jeff Hester, National Geographic Your Shot

Compared with the frenetic pace of nearby Cabo San Lucas, visitors to the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula are often surprised by the tranquility here. And just offshore of this tiny solar-powered village another surprise lies hidden beneath the sea’s azure waters—a garden teaming with marine life including a huge variety of fish, coral, sea-fan gorgonians, starfish, eels, rays, sea turtles, and sharks. While small in total surface area (7,111 hectares or 17,572 acres) relative to the other two national marine parks in the Sea of Cortez—Loreto Bay at 206,581 ha and the Gulf of California Islands covering 358,000 ha—the bay at Cabo Pulmo is the site of the only hard coral reef system in the Northeastern Pacific, a unique habitat supporting a level of biodiversity and abundance unparalleled in the Gulf. Steinbeck wrote famously in The Log from the Sea of Cortez of the vast and various wildlife he and his traveling companion Doc Ricketts found on the Pulmo Reef during their 1940 voyage to collect marine specimens.

Dawn and Stanford University scientists visiting Cabo Pulmo as part of a recreation of the Steinbeck-Ricketts voyage, discuss marine biology with community members. Photo by Linda Cicero.

In my time living and working there, I have seen humpback & grey whales, dolphins, green, olive ridley, leatherback, and hawksbill sea turtles, whale sharks, bull, hammerhead, white-tipped reef, and nurse sharks. On one occasion, I was enchanted by a tiny Mexican Dancer Nudibranch.

In spring, cow head and morbula rays arrive in such numbers they block the sun from penetrating to the depths. While diving in the park, more than once I felt like I was part of a National Geographic documentary. I floated a mere 30 feet from the surface, surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of jack crevalle schooling in a cylindrical formation from the sea’s surface to the sandy bottom, when suddenly a bull sea lion broke through the silvery wall of fish. In an attempt to evade capture, the fish shot outwards in all directions like fireworks. Others darted about in concert staying just out of the sea lion’s reach. At one point all I could see was the thick flashing silvery cloud and my heart raced as I worried that in his furious attempts to catch his dinner the lion might blindly grab me. But the wall of fish parted and I watched as the sea lion swooped by within arms reach, revealing power and grace remarkable for his bulk.

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Photo courtesy: Wildcoast/Costasalvaje

Despite the current richness found in the bay off Cabo Pulmo, this area has not always been the flourishing underwater nursery it is today.

In the early ‘90s, decades of overfishing and anchoring damage left the area’s coral reefs depleted. The corals were bleached and broken, appearing grey or white in many places. Fish were present, but mainly in small sizes and numbers. The large groupers, whale sharks, and reef sharks were gone. Sea turtles were a rare sight. In hopes of reversing the damage, a few individuals from the local community joined scientists and students from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur in La Paz to convince the Mexican federal government to protect the area, and in June of 1995 Cabo Pulmo was designated as a national park.

After the park was founded, things changed quickly. None but a few of the community’s most brazen patriarchs could get away with fishing on the reef for grouper as pressure from key community members, in particular those surviving from eco-tourism, made it unacceptable. Fishermen showing up from outside the community were summarily run off by the guides and panga drivers from the locally owned SCUBA diving businesses.  Similarly, the community would call in the federal environmental protection agency (PROFEPA) to stop commercial fishing vessels and the local fishing cooperative from fishing over the reef. Pleasure boats and sailboats attempting to anchor in the area were sent to areas where they could not inflict any damage on the key reefs.

I first visited Cabo Pulmo National Park (CPNP) in 2001 as a tourist, drawn to the region because of its remoteness and its status as a marine park. My sister and I were trying to decide the best place to get our SCUBA certification when I stumbled across an Outside magazine article that described the East Cape of the Baja Peninsula and held a short section dedicated to Cabo Pulmo. The article’s photos conveyed the image of a quaint village of thatched roof bungalows painted in bright colors reminiscent of the Caribbean. Similarly, the sea’s waters were the transparent, bright blues and aquas you expect to see on the east coast of Mexico rather than its northwest. The article described a local dive shop operator who worked as a grass-roots conservationist and was the first volunteer director of the park. I called the dive shop and booked the course.

The drive to Cabo Pulmo from La Paz took much longer than I anticipated, but just when I began to think we were hopelessly lost, we drove up a rise on the mountainside that is the backdrop to Cabo Pulmo Bay and the village. From that vantage, the shoreline undulates back and forth, defining the bay by a small cape at the north end and a large, stony grey headland to the south. The village sits unobtrusively near the north end of the bay, its presence indicated by a large patch of palm trees and a few palm-thatched roofs, towering above the scrubby native vegetation. It’s a tiny development unlike any I’d visited before. Beyond the shoreline lay a tranquil bay, where several fingers of the reef were visible through the gin clear water and bright white foam, as swell lines broke across the coral. It was more beautiful than any magazine article could possibly convey.

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Cabo Pulmo. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins, Courtesy: Wildcoast/Costasalvaje

Conversations with the dive shop owner revealed that six years after receiving special designation, the park still lacked infrastructure, staff or a place in the national budget. It had become what is known in the conservation world as a Park On Paper (POP). When I related to the dive shop owner how I intended to move to Costa Rica to volunteer in the national parks there, he suggested that I join him in his efforts to protect the park at Cabo Pulmo instead. When he found out I was a biologist, he dangled a fancy title; Director of Research of his foundation, before me.

My “other” reason for deciding to leave eastern Canada for more tropical climes, aside from the obvious ones, was to learn to surf. And I’d discovered there was surf not too far South of the village. It all sounded ideal and blinded me to the otherwise obvious reason he’d named the foundation after himself.

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“Dawn’s Point” Photo: Nancie Brown

When I returned home to Canada to tie up loose ends, I also began searching for funding for the dive shop owner’s NGO. I might have been a bit more circumspect about his proposal, except that the Internet was awash with glowing reports of the grassroots conservation efforts he’d made on behalf of the park and he counted among his supporters and friends a California Supreme Court justice, a critically acclaimed environmental journalist, and several heads of successful environmental organizations. I figured his vetting had already been done.

I returned to Cabo Pulmo to live full-time in March of 2002. It unfortunately took me less than a month – during which I conducted interviews with as many residents as possible – to realize my new conservation associate was widely mistrusted by members of the community. (Note: My interviews to this point were mainly with the ex-pat community because I didn’t yet speak Spanish. The few Mexicans who spoke English expressed similar misgivings about this individual.) Discouraged, but not defeated, I decided I just needed to change tack and get someone else on board whom the community trusted and respected to champion the cause of park conservation.

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Javier Villavicencio, director of the Sea Turtle Conservation Group of the Californias, shows the group how to collect biometric data from the first sea turtle we captured. Photo: Dawn Pier

That person appeared in the form of another dive shop owner, whom I’ll call Pablo for the purposes of this article. Pablo’s sister, who spoke excellent English, introduced us. En route to a sea turtle conservation workshop I dragged him to, Pablo expressed skepticism about our ability to engage people in conservation and in particular convince them not to eat sea turtle.

“I’m sorry Dawn,” he said. “But you will never convince Mexicans not to eat turtle. It’s part of our culture, part of our heritage.”

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A young Pulmeno collecting data from a nesting olive ridley. Photo: Dawn Pier

But a presentation by a World Wildlife Foundation scientist about endangered species changed all that. Afterwards, Pablo took me by the shoulders and implored, “Dawn, we have to do something! I had no idea so many animals were in danger of extinction!”

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Photo: Dawn Pier

Charismatic by nature, sea turtles offered the means by which we engaged the community in what would become a broader conservation ethic and ultimately created the necessary push to improve park management. Over the course of the following year, Pablo and I organized a small contingent of volunteers, most of whom were members of his extended family. Together we launched two projects: a SCUBA-based adult sea turtle monitoring program (the first of its kind in the northern hemisphere) and a sea turtle nest care and monitoring program. Through ongoing networking and word-of-mouth, volunteers gradually appeared from elsewhere in Mexico, the United States, and France. They patrolled the park beaches looking for turtle nests and created fun educational programs for the local children that produced the first park infrastructure; hand-painted signs notifying visitors they were entering Cabo Pulmo National Park.

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Photo: Dr. Octavio Aburto Oropeza. Courtesy: Wildcoast/Costasalvaje

In September of 2003, after many months of bureaucratic hoop-jumping, Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo (Friends for the Conservation of Cabo Pulmo) was legally registered as a Mexican NGO with the mandate to protect the natural resources in and around CPNP, with special focus on sea turtles and the coral reef. We were getting closer to our goal. The team unanimously agreed that I should be given the title of Executive Director and, if and when we got some funding, that I would receive a salary. After almost two years of networking and writing grant proposals, we were awarded a significant operating grant in January 2004. It took six months for the money to actually arrive and for me to receive my first, very modest paycheck, but it released me from the significant financial stress I’d been living under so I could finally focus on what I considered the ultimate goal; a reef monitoring program.

But even before the funds arrived, I began to hear murmurs of discontent about the nature of my position and responsibilities within ACCP. The problem arose in part because I worked tucked away in front of a computer in a house on the other side of the village, which made it difficult for people to see how much time I devoted to the group. It also didn’t help matters that I surfed most mornings. The fact that I had worked pro bono for over two years was soon all but forgotten. Each time finances came up, I calmly explained the nature of my work and Pablo, as ACCP’s president, backed me up, at least initially.

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Dawn (in white on right) and Crew. Photo: Dawn Pier. 

I don’t know if it was purely coincidental or if the incremental success of our little group created enough of a stir, but in May of 2004, nine years after the park and a little over a year after ACCP were founded, the Mexican federal government appointed the park’s first salaried director. Unfortunately, the director was a staunch Mexican nationalist who didn’t like foreigners getting involved in matters of national import. He stoked the fire of discontent among those who felt I wasn’t making enough of a contribution in return for my meager salary. As is typical in small towns and villages, complaints eventually morphed into rumors.

That September, Pablo called me into his dive shop and accused me and his uncle, the group’s only other salaried employee, of stealing all the grant money – despite the fact that we didn’t even have access to the funds. It took the American NGO who managed the funds a ridiculous amount of time (months) to produce the accounting and bank statements that would clear our names and I continued to work as the group’s director throughout that time and for several more months, but the accusation left a bitter taste in my mouth. Without the trust and sense of community that I’d worked so hard to build, the work became a chore that I began to avoid. I resigned in April of 2005.

ACCP went on to falter, fold, and then experience a resurgence in 2009, organizing to fight a Spanish developer who proposed the construction of a mega-development, Cabo Cortez, along the northern boundary of the park. Thanks to the tireless efforts of many environmental organizations, including ACCP, WildCoast, and Greenpeace Mexico, in June 2012, President Felipe Calderon cancelled all environmental permits for the development, one of his final acts as head of state. It was during this campaign that ACCP won an award in the environmental category of a prestigious national competition, Initiativa Mexico!

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Photo: Baja.com

Despite the difficulties and learning curve I faced, I still live a short drive away, and will always love Cabo Pulmo. My own takeaway from this experience is that members of a community – in this case, the locals of Cabo Pulmo – often bear a strong sense of ownership and control over their resources and are rabidly protective of them as a result. It was this initial desire to protect the bounty of the park for their own purposes and use (primarily eco-tourism) — in the absence of any formal government management or enforcement — which ultimately saved this place.

My experience in Cabo Pulmo also illustrates how community conservation efforts can be derailed by factors outside of one’s control. I assumed, naively, that I would have little difficulty building trust within the community and bridging ethnic and cultural differences. Throughout my experience, I believed I would gain the trust of the people I worked with and that in turn, this would signal to their friends and family that they could trust me as well. But that’s often just not how it works in remote communities the world over, because in such places, especially where poverty runs up against money, it’s often the case that no one trusts anyone. This lesson would be well-heeded by any foreigner who chooses to work in smaller villages, where community politics and rumor mongering are a simple fact of life. If the community has had any negative history related to foreigners, which is also common unfortunately, the challenges multiply.

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Dawn discusses sea cucumber biology with Cabo Pulmo’s young conservationists. Photo by Linda Cicero

In 2005, Cabo Pulmo National Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2008, it became a Ramsar International Wetlands Site. In 2011, renowned ocean conservationist Sylvia Earle described Cabo Pulmo as a “Hope Spot,” a place she deems to be critical to the health of the world’s oceans. On a more personal note, Pablo’s uncle, ACCP’s hardest working volunteer, went on to become the director of the Sea Turtle Conservation Network of the Californias (Grupo Tortuguero de las Californias), and currently works as their fieldwork program coordinator.

Regardless of my own personal experiences, CPNP serves as proof positive to those who would question the effectiveness of marine reserves. A Scripps Institute study conducted between 1999 and 2009 demonstrated the abundance of fish increased an unprecedented 463%, making this the most successful marine reserve in Mexico, and probably the most successful worldwide. According to National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, who led the study: “In 2009, … we jumped in the water, expecting fishes to be more abundant after 10 years of protection. But we could not believe what we saw–thousands upon thousands of large fishes such as snappers, groupers, trevally, and manta rays. They were so abundant that we could not see each other if we were fifteen meters apart. We saw more sharks in one dive at Cabo Pulmo than in 10 years of diving throughout the Gulf of California!”

During my time working in Cabo Pulmo and in the following years, I often questioned whether my efforts would produce real dividends. Early on I heard a lot of negative responses when I told community members of my desire to get them working together to protect the park. A fellow scientist and CP homeowner who had made efforts along similar lines went so far as to say, “If you want to be effective and really do something to conserve the Sea of Cortez, you should go to La Paz and work with an existing organization there. Don’t waste your time here.”  Fortunately, my stubborn nature kept me plugging away and my new found passion for surfing provided an almost daily diversion from the difficulties I faced back at “the office.” It didn’t hurt that my office was on and often in one of the prettiest bays in the world. These days I’m content with the knowledge that those three challenging years were, in fact, time well spent and I would encourage others considering similar work to go for it – but with eyes wide open to what they might be getting themselves in to.


Read more of Dawn’s work here:

https://dawnpier.wordpress.com/

Click for her previous Scuttlefish stories.

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