THE BLOG
05/21/2010 12:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Saving Sea Turtles, Creating Jobs, Changing Lives

Two years ago we founded a project called SEE Turtles with the straightforward goal of saving sea turtles by helping people to experience the joy of these animals in the wild while generating income and work for people living with endangered sea turtle populations.

The concept came out of more than a decade of working with sea turtle hunters in Baja and turtle egg collectors in Central America who mentioned they'd rather take people to see the turtles. Rather than wait around any longer for existing ecotourism outfitters to do it, I decided we should get started ourselves.

I teamed up with Brad Nahill, Chris Pesenti and Luis Garduno whose backgrounds in community organizing, environmental economics and ecotourism complemented my own as a marine biologist and we picked three important locations to begin the work. We knew that many grassroots organizations sought visitors and volunteers to help combat poaching and to provide alternative incomes, but lacked the resources to make that happen. We could provide that marketing reach by combining their efforts within a single portal, designed to find would be turtle lovers looking for different and meaningful travel. We partnered with strong organizations in Baja California, Mexico, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago and set about connecting people with the trip of their life.

Now we have reached a milestone of sorts, having generated more than $100,000 in new income in the communities where we work--funds used to expand protection efforts and connect fiscal well being with restoring these endangered animals. To date, more than 200 travelers have visited nesting beaches and turtle nursery areas and volunteers have covered more than 500 work shifts, saving the projects thousands of dollars. We are now poised to build from this strong base of healthy relationships.

To be sure, tourism has its downside. There's the carbon footprint, plastic footprint, cultural footprint and the potential negative impacts hoards of visitors can have on the wildlife itself. SEE Turtles, like many others, works to redirect would be travelers to places where their footprint is minimized and the positive effects are amplified.

Every bit helps as the odds are stacked against sea turtles, whether the threat is in the form of fishing nets, plastic pollution, beach development of consumption of their eggs and flesh.

But as Brad points out, "when every dollar spent visiting a turtle conservation project helps to improve conditions for sea turtles and people that goes a long way towards showing that these amazing creatures are a valuable and to protect."

To celebrate these successes, SEE Turtles is offering a free trip to visit a turtle conservation project in Costa Rica or Baja California Sur, Mexico. One winner will receive a free spot on an upcoming tour run by ecotourism companies EcoTeach or Baja Expeditions. To enter, visit SEEturtles.org and sign up for the monthly e-newsletter. The contest runs through August 31st, 2010 and the winner will be chosen at random in early September.

An added benefit is that when people come back from these kinds of trips they are even more dedicated to local conservation work. Connecting with a wild animal as ancient as a sea turtle on its terms can be transformative, for the visitor, for the residents and for the sea turtles.

No matter why you travel, to see turtles or to make friends, make it count.