Impact Marathon Interview
Nick Kershaw from Impact Marathon Series talks with Rowland Griffin about sea turtle conservation, running, and his passion for Guatemala!
Running for sea turtle conservation in Guatemala!
Welcome to the first Indigo Expeditions and Impact Marathon Series Podcast. It’s a great thing to be doing, it’s been a long time since you and I have been talking about this. So I’m Rowland from Indigo Expeditions. I’m here with Nick Kershaw from Impact Marathon Series.
I guess, where to start with this whole story? For me, the amazing thing is how did two British guys who have on the outside very different interests, end up meeting on a beach, on the south coast of Guatemala? I mean that’s quite an incredible thing just in itself isn’t it?
Nick: A strange Christmas meeting wasn’t it, it was just before Christmas 2015
R: Correct, yes.
N: And yeh, the thing is I was up the beach at a different place where I had been staying and doing some research in terms of what we were doing with Impact Marathon, and we just got this call saying some leatherback turtles have hatched down at el Banco and we all jumped in the back of the pick-up truck to come and release them, and then there we were down there and it’s a completely different tortugario to where I was at, but we got the opportunity to meet with and release the leatherbacks that day, and I guess shortly afterwards we were actually just walking back and I just heard the British accent and was missing home I think.
R: Something like that.
N: Talking to you, I was just like ‘ah someone I can talk to’ .. my Spanish is terrible.
R: Yeh. For me, I’d just been in the other end of the country in the north of the country for two weeks surveying for snakes, and had come out of the jungle, gone down to the beach to relax and we’d been involved in that tortugario for a while and just had gone along to see what was going on that day. What’s really amazing for me is that those leatherbacks were not due to hatch for another 5 days. So they hatched out early, it was like it was an act of God or something. Because if that hadn’t of happened that day,
N: Yeh I think I was leaving the next day or two. I’m pretty sure. I can’t remember what day it would have been so absolutely, I remember them saying there are some leatherbacks down there, and they may not hatch. We all were just hoping and hoping and hoping that they would hatch. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the olive greens. It’s just you know like, you want the leatherback don’t you?
R: They are incredible animals, and you know we haven’t had any nests of leatherbacks this year.
[NOTE: Spoke to soon! 21 January saw a female leatherback lay 84 eggs which are now safely incubating at the tortugario el Banco].
N: Just so people can understand, the rarity. If you could talk a little bit about that?
R: Sure. On the south coast of Guatemala there’s a little community called el Banco and it’s a great beach for sea turtles to come up and nest. Sea turtles in general over the last 20 yeas have been declining, and I think it reached it’s peak about 10 to 15 years ago where most species where in serious danger of becoming extinct. Numbers, because of conservation efforts, numbers are increasing for most species, and on this beach to put it into context, the main turtle that we have coming up, the main species is what you referred to as the olive green, the olive ridley turtle, which for an example last year at tortugario el Banco, we released 130,000 baby turtles over the whole season. We only released 6 leatherbacks. So leatherbacks in the eastern Pacific are in trouble. They’re considered to be critically endangered.
N: And what would be the survival rate of both the olive ridley or the leatherback?
R: In general for any species you are looking at a survival rate of one percent. So if you release 100 babies that’s one adult. That’s going to make it. That’s with conservation efforts. Before conservation efforts on that stretch of beach, I was talking to a local this weekend. He said one percent of the eggs used to make it to the sea. And then you have a one percent survival rate after that. And that’s why numbers declined so dramatically for most species. They were incredibly abundant and people thought that it was a limitless supply.
N: And what are the main factors in that survival rate, which has it grown so high, what is it human factors? Is it natural factors? What is causing the problems.
R: Naturally the survival rate would be about one percent and so the strategy of sea turtles is produce lots of eggs, and most of them are going to get eaten, a lot of the nests would get eaten naturally by things like foxes, vultures.. whatever. And then once the turtles hatch they’ve got to make it from the nest to the sea, and so then they get predated upon again by things like foxes, vultures, sea birds, then they get to the sea and have to deal with fish. And then they’ve got in the case of olive ridleys turtles, seven years until they reach adulthood. They are are few centimetres long when they hatch, they are food for all kinds of things. So there’s really high predation rates. There’s also a really long generation time. So for olive ridleys which have the shortest generation time, you are talking about a decade. So when you’ve got a survival rate of one percent, a generation time of ten years, if your numbers are consistently being depleted, you get to a point where the next generation is not there. And what was happening was a lot of almost 100% of the eggs were being either consumed by humans for food or they were getting eaten, the nests were getting eaten. So there’s a lot of domestic dogs on that beach, they were finding the nests, eating the eggs, vultures were eating the eggs, so that’s why very few eggs were surviving even to hatching. It was because of being eaten. So now what happens, when a turtle is found coming up from the beach, people stay with that turtle and they are allowed to collect those eggs, but they have to give a percentage of those eggs to a tortugario. What happens in most cases is, and certainly at tortugario el Banco, is that people give the entire clutch. They get money for that so they still keep their livelihood as it were, but those eggs are then incubated and with olive ridleys we have between 70% and 90% hatch rate. So that increases numbers dramatically. And those efforts have been going on at el Banco for 25 years now.
N: We’ve gone straight into Part 2 which since it’s happened naturally it’s always useful to carry on with that, but is it the case that the whole of the Guatemalan Coast is a hatching area for turtles?
R: Yes, it is. There are, we know of three species that nest on at least on our stretch of beach. This season we had our first Green turtle come up to lay a nest which was really cool. So we have the Green turtle, the leatherback turtle and olive ridleys. I also believe that hawksbill turtles will come up occasionally as well. And then there’s loggerheads use the ocean in Guatemala but they’ don’t come up to lay. So actually on the south coast of Guatemala there are five species of sea turtle. And there’s only seven in the whole world.
N: What are the conservation efforts outside of el Banco up and down the coast? Is there a concerted effort or is it community by community?
R: It’s more community by community it seems. There are many tortugarios similar to the one that we work with at el Banco, that collect eggs, in different ways everyone does it differently and releases them. What I, from my perspective and this is where Indigo comes into it, is that there has been very little research on the adult populations. So while you can say anecdotally this year we have seen more turtles released than we did last year, or we received more eggs, or whatever, it doesn’t really correlate to exactly to how those conservation efforts are being successful. You can’t really tell from the amount of eggs that you receive, how many females there are in the population. And the reason for that is because of the breeding cycle of these turtles. So we know that approximately, it’s roughly 100 eggs per nest. So you could divide your total amount of eggs by 100 and that would give you the amount of females. That seems logical. That would give you a huge overestimation of the number of adults in your population because females will lay, let’s talk about olive ridleys because they are the most common on this beach, they will lay two or three clutches a year, in different parts on the beach maybe a kilometre or so between each nest, they don’t come back to exactly the same place that they hatch.Just the same area. And having laid those three nests, they might not come back for three of four years. So understanding how the adult population is doing and what the numbers are there is a little bit more complicated. And of course they spend most of their time out at sea and just come back to land to lay their eggs and the males never come back to land again.
N: Will she, will they breed every single year or is it a three to four year thing where, when you say three to four is she laying elsewhere up and down the beach, or just coming back to your spot every three to four years?
R: It’s every three to four years. In between that time she is out at sea feeding, getting her body weight back up. So understanding that ecology, is really key to understanding how successful your conservation efforts are.
End Part 1.
Nick: So in terms of conservation, in terms of Indigo. Three years ago, you are walking along this beautiful volcanic ash beach on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala, you come across el Banco, how did that whole el Banco thing start for you guys? Because you’ve now developed it and if the listeners haven’t checked out this new building you’ve created, this mansion, it’s incredible. This shrine to turtles. How on earth have you gone from three years and when I visited el Banco it was very much not a ‘shrine to turtles’. It was, you had just started taking over it, and just started working on it. How did that whole relationship and story happen?
Rowland: When I first came to Guatemala in 2012 I found another research station up in the north of the country which I’ve been working at every year since, called Estacion Biologica Las Guacamayas. And I became very good friends with the people who are involved there, and who run a Guatemalan NGO called Fundaselva. And so that’s one part, we’ll just put that on the shelf for a second. They have a house down on the beach in the community of el Banco, and when I said to them ‘do you know what, I’d really like to see sea turtles. I’d never seen sea turtles before’. It would be really cool. This is back in 2014. They said come down and spend the weekend with us because we are involved with a sea turtle hatchery – the tortugario el Banco. And so I went down, and I saw this incredible spectacle of hundreds of these little turtles making their frantic way down into the Pacific coast and as you know Nick the surf on that beach is just …
R: Quite incredible, it’s brutal yeh.
N: You feel like you are entering a boxing ring when you go for a swim.
R: And just to see that and witness that, what it brought back to me was being a kid and collecting frog spawn, and watching it hatch and then watching the tadpoles metamorph into frogs. It had that same kind of feeling and I became really passionate about it.
So Indigo Expeditions is about bringing people from all over the world to Guatemala and sharing Guatemala’s amazing biodiversity, particularly with reptiles and amphibians. Training people how to survey for reptiles and amphibians, and getting them involved in much needed conservation work in this country.
And so this idea came to me that actually we could bring groups down to the Pacific coast and we could do conservation work to help the tortugario el Banco which is a community run project that’s doing fantastic work as we have discussed. It’s being doing it for 25 years on it’s own with very little support, and there are many questions from a conservation point of view and an ecology point of view that have not been addressed on that beach. I figured what an amazing way for us to support these conservation efforts.
So what happened in the time between 2014 and meeting you, is the house that was next door to the tortugario on the beach which was a very dilapidated thatched house that was falling down, it was in very poor condition, came up for sale. So Fundaselva bought the property and renovated the house into what you start to see now, which is the Estacion biologica el Banco, where Indigo Expeditions will hold it’s sea turtle initiative. So we’ll be able to take volunteers to this incredible building that’s right on the coast there, and not only help the guys at tortugario el Banco, but also start the conservation efforts and the research efforts looking at the adult populations.
N: So if volunteers go along, what would their average day look like?
R: It will be very changeable depending on the season. So in peak season you could have many turtles coming up onto the beach, there’ll be a lot of night work when most of the turtles come up to lay their eggs, it’s darker and there’s less predators and everything else, under normal circumstances. So we will be out on the beach, we’ll be walking on the beach, looking for turtles and be in contact with the guys who are out collecting eggs.
What we will hopefully be doing is when we go with them, with the turtles we will be able to measure them and get their sizes, look at what characteristics of the beach they are interested in, because they don’t all nest in the same place. They nest along a great long stretch of beach. It will be interesting to see what parts of the beach they are using, and why they are using them. That could help us encourage more turtles to come up.
Ideally and ultimately we would want to put identification marks on those turtles so we can see how frequently they are coming back and where they are coming back to on those beaches. And that will be the start of efforts to work out what kind of size the adult population is.
In addition to that we will be helping the tortugario, looking after the eggs that they have, and releasing the turtles which obviously is an incredible thing to do.
N: For those people who’ve never seen this sight Rowland touched upon earlier, like I remember heading down to the beach and it really wasn’t on my list of things to do, it hadn’t come across as anything I wanted to do, but someone said I should look and do some research down there considering what we were trying to do with Impact Marathon. So I popped down and that first time when you snd the turtles off and you say god speed to them and away they go, it’s actually a very emotional moment because you are really seeing nature in quite a raw form and you are seeing this knowing the figures you gave earlier about one percent, knowing that these guys they are living and breathing and they are amazing creations that have been around since before humans, am I right in saying?
R: Yes hundreds of millions of years
N: They really are like a pretty resilient species and just seeing them head off, and seeing nature just start to work, and then seeing the one turtle that gets distracted by the moon and goes running off in the wrong direction rather than heading down to the sea. There’s something about it and I’m getting goosebumps now just remembering how it feels. Or just walking along the beach doing patrols looking for turtles that are coming to lay, and the excitement you have just there hoping that you might actually get to sea a turtle come up and that whole experience.
I’m sure if people are listening to this podcast they probably are the kind of people who would be excited by that, and if you’re like sitting there and you’re not, well you’re just gotta do it because you will be! But its a very emotional thing to see and it’s a very strange thing, it hits you and you don’t expect it to I think.
R: I agree. For me I grew up with reptiles, but turtles were never really my thing, especially sea turtles we never really my thing. It wasn’t until I experienced it in myself and like you say felt it, felt that experience that things started turning and this is incredible. This is an incredible thing to be involved in, and like you say the patrols and finding your first turtle out on the beach, and we should say, these things are huge. Olive ridleys are the smallest of the sea turtles but they are still nearly a metre carapace length. You know 60, 70 centimetres. They are huge great bit almost monolithic creatures, it’s very primordial watching them come out of the surf. And then when you start talking about leatherbacks, the leatherback population on the coast of Guatemala, they’re two, two and a half metres long. They are absolutely ginormous beasts. And wonderful and to be a part of that to help them and to be close to these animals for me is a really special experience.
End Part 2.
Nick: I mean it’s great to have met, it’s great to be here, talking about this two years on. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to come down and check out what’s changed at el Banco in March post race, and hopefully we’ll be able to see more and more people get out to Guatemala. It’s a great place to see, you can do sea turtle conservation at a lot of different destinations. What is it that attracted you to Guatemala itself?
Rowland: That’s a very interesting question. The reptiles and amphibians is the obvious one. For me the diversity…
N: Just for the record Rowland, for some of us that isn’t obvious for those of us who aren’t driven by a reptile obsession.
R: For me, being a British guy I grew up in a country where there are 13 species of reptiles and amphibians.
N: A lot in my opinion.
R: In Guatemala you are talking 346.
R: Thereabouts. And it’s growing all the time we keep finding species that either haven’t been found in the country before, or have never been found by science before. That will continue to increase in my opinion. The diversity is just incredible and there’s some very special species that are found particularly in the highlands of Guatemala that are found nowhere else in the world.
They are endemic to even just to one mountain range in some cases.
So that aspect was always a big draw to me. But I’d always been interested in the ancient indigenous cultures of central and south America, so Guatemala is home to the Mayan civilisation. So that was also a really big draw. And so in 2012 that’s why I came. I came to explore the forests and to learn more about the ancient Mayan cultures, and what I found when I got here was within days I fell in love with the country, I fell in love with the people. It’s an incredibly big hearted country. It gets a bad rep, but I’m absolutely in love with Guatemala, have been since I arrived. And so I have been coming back ever since and that love and fascination has just continued to grow each time I come back. I am guessing you felt something similar when you came here?
N: Yeh. Similar to the turtles. I didn’t really have a clue what was happening. I was researching a race down in Columbia and decided that, I’d met some cool people at the World Travel Market, from Guatemala and they had said come on up and we’ll see what we can do around putting the race together in Guatemala. And so I was flying up from Bogata and as I was flying in I think we went across a volcano with a beautiful crater lake that was nesting above the clouds as we were coming into land at Aurora airport, and I think from then on I was completely in love.
And then again I had no idea, I just got picked up at the airport, taken to Antigua, Iiterally didn’t have a clue about Antigua it wasn’t on my radar at all, and I walk out into these incredible cobbled streets, colonial buildings and I go ‘right I need to do some work’ so I go into Sky cafe, Cafe Sky, and headed up to the rooftop there, started working… felt a rumble… looked up and there was a two mile plume of ash in the sky because Fuego had decided to pump out some ash and I just went ‘I have no idea what is happening in my life right now, but I really love it’.
Since then it’s been great, and I spent Christmas that year down at Lake Atitlán, again another place I didn’t have a clue about until… there I am stood in the private dock, looking out over this 85,000 year old crater lake, and with three volcanoes and even Fuego you can see it from a distance on a good day in Atitlán. And it’s just such a stunning country and I’ve not even been up to the Mayan ruins and Tikal and all those things yet.
I can’t wait to get back and to actually make things move and happen in Guatemala and find more excuses to head out there more.
R: Fantastic. So I guess at this stage we should explain to people a bit more about Impact Marathon. So tell me about what’s going on in Guatemala Nick!
N: So Impact Marathon basically is about three years old now. Originally I had been living in a world, I’d been living in the finance world in London. I came out of Uni, got involved in that, before when I was at Uni I’d been doing Kilimanjaro expeditions, taking people out to climb Kili and then see the projects they’d been fundraising for. And I really liked that way you can get inside people’s head when they actually get to see the outcome of the work they have done, or the fundraising they have done, or the challenge they are about to undertake. And you see a change in their mindsets. You see a change in their energy levels. You see a change in the way they look at the world.
And you see a change in their mindsets. You see a change in their energy levels. You see a change in the way they look at the world.
So obviously having seen all these incredible things I went into an office job in finance for four years, that no-one can really explain. But I kind of enjoyed it, and I learnt lots, and along the way I found out about social business, impact investments, and that type of thing, and really got into that.
And during that time I started to set up trips, similar to the Indigo stuff, taking people, apart from the fact it wasn’t about conservation, taking people out to Uganda, and I had a project I really wanted to get off the ground there. So I decided I’d try and do a fundraiser but rather than just go out there and ask for money I wanted to try and find a way to actually get people connected with what we were doing. Rather than saying ‘I’m running Iron Man Wales and you should sponsor me’. I wanted to say “I’m running Iron Man Wales but that’s not the reason you’re sponsoring me, you’re sponsoring me because it’s a really really great project and when you do sponsor me I want you to put the credit card away, and for that to be the start of the journey not the end of the journey. And then I want you to come out, I want you to visit it’.
When you do sponsor me I want you to put the credit card away, and for that to be the start of the journey not the end of the journey
And I was doing this speech in front of about 200 people, and I just said ‘and then when you come out we are going to run a marathon’. And then I carried on and forgotten I had even said that word. That word was not in, like it just in the moment of just a joke, everyone laughed, it was no problem. And then at the end people came up and said ‘I really like that idea’. And six weeks later at the Ugandan Embassy launching the first Ugandan International Marathon. Six months after that we’d had 67 people out, we’d raised £80,000 for local charities, we’d had 800 people run the race. And that’s how Impact Marathon was born there, basically split with the Uganda team to look at how can we do this and touch more communities.
Uganda is there, and it’s an amazing country and a great community. But how can we touch more communities. How can we see running impact people’s lives? Because when people come out, they come out, they stay in an Athlete’s Village, we call it the Athlete’s Village. It’s a big camp ground where we do this pop up camp site, we always try and do it somewhere really stunning, so in Nepal which is our first race we have the Himalayas right in front of you, and you live there, and people stay in this village. It could be 40 people it could be 100 people. You know it doesn’t matter to us. We try and keep it quite personal so everyone can know each other’s name by the end of the week.
We try and keep it quite personal so everyone can know each other’s name by the end of the week.
They then go and visit and get stuck into and volunteer at the projects that they’ve been supporting. So when they are doing their fundraising it’s not just ‘sponsor me to run the race so I get a free place’ because they don’t… we are set up so 100% of fundraising goes to the project. So they come along, they go visit these projects, in Nepal and Inawa we have a five kilometre water pipeline which was a mental experience. When you turn up and there’s 80 Nepali villagers who’ve brought along pick axes, and shovels…
So we had this whole group out, 100 people out on the pipeline, digging away, putting the pipes down, and we brought water to the village that comes all year round now. And then on the final day we ran a marathon.
So we had this whole group out, 100 people out on the pipeline, digging away, putting the pipes down, and we brought water to the village that comes all year round now. And then on the final day we ran a marathon.
10km, 21km and 42km distances. Really challenging trail, out in nature, and I’m sure you see it with conservation stuff, you get people out in nature and their mindsets open up to a whole different world. Very different people as soon as you get them into the natural surrounds.
R: For me it’s one of the most amazing things about Indigo Expeditions is seeing people go through those kinds of experiences, you are absolutely right Nick. For us, we are out between 10 and 13 days, at the same location, so people get to know the forest as well. You can really see it in people, their perception of their understanding of the world changes in that time. And that’s a wonderful thing to be able to witness and to facilitate as well. I think there’s a very similar, underlying experience with Impact and Indigo.
You can really see it in people, their perception of their understanding of the world changes in that time. And that’s a wonderful thing to be able to witness and to facilitate as well.