SEE Turtles: Protecting Endangered Sea Turtles Through Conservation Travel

SEE Turtles: Protecting Endangered Sea Turtles Through Conservation Travel

Costa Rica
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$50,000 - $100,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

SEE Turtles is a conservation tourism project that connects people with community-based sea turtle projects. Our work supports conservation efforts at 10 sites across Latin America and the Caribbean, including promoting tours that generate income for conservation and local communities, recruiting volunteers, and educating people about turtle conservation efforts.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Six of seven species of sea turtles around the world are endangered due to poaching (meat, eggs, and shells), entanglement in fishing gear, coastal development, pollution, and other threats. Throughout Latin America and much of the developing world, many people depend on poaching of turtles and fishing to earn income in turtle hotspots where few alternatives exist. Conservation tourism has emerged as a key strategy to increase local involvement, though few small, local conservation groups have the resources to effectively market their sites to tour operators or the tourism market.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

SSEE Turtles is the first and only effort to build a replicable model to use tourism as a conservation strategy for endangered sea turtles around the world. This is the first systematic attempt to create a worldwide market for conservation tourism focused around a single charismatic animal which directly reduces the primary threats to its survival. Our unique network of community-based conservation groups, tour operators, volunteers, and travelers are working to benefit sea turtles and nearby communities. Income from tourism diversifies funding for projects, provides employment for local residents, and helps to create a culture supportive of conservation. Volunteer tourists provide a critical source of manpower to many projects and support efforts to monitor areas with high rates of poaching. While tourism has benefited conservation efforts and communities in many places, it remains a relatively untapped resource for turtle conservation. Though an estimated 10 million people spend more than $1.25 billion dollars annually to see whales and dolphins, a recent WWF study showed fewer than 200,000 tourists visit turtle sites worldwide, concentrated at a few locations. This study also showed that tourism can generate three times more income to communities than poaching. Most turtle groups hope to tap into tourism as a conservation tool though generally they have minimal resources to market their sites. SEE Turtles fills that critical niche by reaching the tourist market, providing promotional resources, and supporting efforts to build capacity for tourism development.
About You
SEE Turtles
Visit website
Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name



SEE Turtles


, OR, Washington County

Section 2: About Your Organization
Organization Name

SEE Turtles

Organization Phone


Organization Address

Beaverton OR

Organization Country

, OR, Washington County

Your idea
Country your work focuses on

, XX

Would you like to participate in the MIF Opportunity 2010?


Do you have a patent for this idea?

What impact have you had on your clients and the tourism sector?

SEE Turtles is helping to move tourism towards transparent and concrete benefits for local conservation programs. We were the first to pioneer “Conservation Pricing” where every tour price details the financial impact on conservation and nearby communities by adding up fees and donations towards conservation and money spent in locally-owned businesses near turtle sites. At least 30% of every tour cost goes to conservation and communities, far above industry standards.

SEE Turtles also bridges the gap between turtle programs and low-income volunteers by offering a free matching service. For-profit volunteer companies charge thousands of dollars to volunteer, putting the experience out of reach for many people. Our free matching program connects people with local organizations most of whom charge under $50 per day. So far, 1,200 people have inquired with 100 people completing more than 700 volunteer shifts.

We also encourage the travel industry to advocate for the destinations they visit. We organized operators to urge protection for a turtle beach in Costa Rica and encourage operators to reach out to their clients to become more active. We also use our social networks for wildlife and habitat advocacy; last year we generated more than 200,000 impressions for advocacy efforts, resulting in hundreds of actions taken.

Finally, our Turtle Watching Best Practices guide helps improve how communities and governments manage turtle tourism in several countries. We have had requests from governments and communities to help create regulations around turtle watching and require all of our operator partners to follow the guidelines on their tours. To put these guidelines together, we received input from 33 people from more than 20 organizations and agencies.


Marketing: To reach a broad audience, we work with key online and print media outlets, attend travel expo’s and festivals, build strong social networks, give public presentations, and create online advertising campaigns.

Income Generation: Our trips generate income for turtle organizations and nearby communities through turtle watching fees, donations, merchandise sales, commissions paid by tour operators, and spending in local businesses.

Advocacy: We frequently use our social networks, blog, enewsletter, and public presentations to share ways for people to advocate for wildlife protection.

Education: We educate travelers, students, local residents, and the general public about the need to protect turtles and how to get involved in conservation. Our tours generate income for programs in Baja and we distribute Spanish materials to partners to use in local schools. We also give classroom presentations in the US and use our social networks to share important information.

Capacity Building: We have helped our partners build their ability to manage tourism through small grants, providing in-kind marketing resources, and connecting them with training resources.


Since our launch in 2008, we have accomplished the following:
• Generated more than $200,000 for conservation and local communities through donations, small grants, fees, indirect spending, and in-kind donations.
• More than 250 people have visited our partners, ranging from long-term volunteers to travelers visiting a nesting beach for an evening.
• Small grants have funded the removal of fishing gear and helped train guides in Baja California Sur, paid for beach patrols, and helping a women’s cooperative expand an innovative recycled plastic bag program in Costa Rica.
• We have reached more than 15 million people with the message of responsible turtle tourism through magazines, blogs, enewsletters, and speaking engagements.
• 100 volunteers recruited through our project have completed more than 700 shifts patrolling nesting beaches, guarding hatcheries, and other important activities.
• Our school presentations have reached more than 1,000 students around the country.

What will it take for your project to be successful over the next three years? Please address each year separately, if possible.

Over the next year (2011), the most important thing we need to be successful is for the economic recovery to continue. For things that are in our control, we need to expand our partner sites to more locations so that we can better spread the benefits of the project and meet the interests of a broader market. Over this next year, we are looking to expand to 2-3 turtle sites within Latin America. We also need to grow our social networks to reach more travelers and increase our advocacy efforts. Finally, we need to continue our growth in travelers to earn income that will move the project towards self-sustainability.

To be successful in 2012, we’ll need to continue expanding to new sites, grow the numbers of travelers, and increase the amount of income generated for our partners. We plan to expand to new sites outside of Latin America as the project becomes global. By this year, we are aiming for significant repeat business and to establish a strong reputation in the ecotourism market. Our goals are to generate at least a third of our budget through trips by this year and have a social network of more than 30,000 people.

By 2013, success would mean having a wide variety of tours to turtle sites around the world which generate more than two hundred thousand dollars for conservation and local residents per year. We plan to generate the majority of our income from tours and be approaching a total network of over 50,000, which will help to spread the message of turtle conservation, advocate for wildlife policies, and push the travel industry towards sustainability.

What would prevent your project from being a success?

The biggest obstacle to the project’s success is a continued economic slump. The economy not only affects the travel market, but the recession is also having a major impact on donations. SEE Turtles will continue to depend upon donations for at least the next couple of years as we strive for self-sustainability. In addition, our conservation partners have suffered from the recession and all of them may not survive the downturn, which would affect our success. As the economy has begun to recover, we have been able to double our growth in travelers from 2009 and we need renewed consumer confidence to improve to continue that growth in 2011.

Two other factors that will affect our success are political unrest in the sites that we promote and government support of the conservation projects we work with. In Mexico, violence from the drug conflicts (and the media attention it has drawn) has affected trips that we promote to Baja California Sur, thousands of miles away from the violence. In one of our destinations, government natural resource agency personnel have complicated efforts by communities to run conservation programs by refusing permits to well-established and well-run programs.

How many people will your project serve annually?


What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

$100 ‐ 1000

Does your project seek to have an impact on public policy or introduce models and tools that benefit the tourism sector in general?


What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

In what country?

, XX

Is your initiative connected to an established organization?


If yes, provide organization name.

The Ocean Foundation

How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

Does your organization have a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with businesses?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with government?


Please tell us more about how these partnerships are critical to the success of your innovation.

SEE Turtles would not exist without strong partnerships with turtle conservation groups and responsible tour operators. Our partner organizations direct the conservation programs that our tours visit and ensure that the visitors are managed correctly. They also help us track the impact of the tours and volunteers and they give feedback on our turtle watching guide, the itineraries that we develop, and the tour operators that we partner with. These groups have also helped us to promote the tours.

Equally, we would not be successful without the partnership of tour operators who want to increase the support they provide for conservation. In addition to running the trips and managing the logistics, these partners have been very open with determining the conservation impact of the trips, donating as much as possible (in some cases the full profits from the tour), and providing additional marketing for the trips.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization?

The first thing we need to grow the project is to grow our audience. We have established a strong social network but need to both increase its size and effectiveness to turn those fans into travelers, supporters, and activists. We also need to better reach out to the media to share our story and inspire people to participate.

Second, once our network is larger, we need to find new sites that fit our criteria, which include established turtle programs, a strong conservation need, and an area suited to moderate tourism. While there are hundreds of eligible turtle projects around the world, we need to be strategic with our limited funding and reach.

Third, we need to improve our ability to inspire travelers to further action once they return home. We are using social media and email to encourage increased activism of our travelers but need to develop an engaging way to go beyond the standard follow up. Keeping people engaged will allow us to have a larger impact on turtle programs as well as encouraging repeat customers and drawing new donors.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

Baja California Sur and Costa Rica are two top areas for sea turtles. Both are home to five sea turtle species and coastal communities who depend on activities that threaten them. Dr. Wallace "J." Nichols and Brad Nahill worked on turtle conservation efforts in these two places, witnessing both the toll that human activities were taking, as well as how communities responded when given alternatives. J. and Brad saw how well-managed tourism to turtle sites could benefit local conservation efforts and decided to work together to build a new model to grow the market for sea turtle-based conservation tourism.

Heavy poaching and entanglement in fishing gear has reduced Baja's sea turtle populations dramatically over the past few decades. While visiting the peninsula on a research project, J. fell in love with the region's beauty and ocean wildlife. He worked with other scientists and local leaders to start new projects in communities around the region, focusing on scientific research and education. Eventually these projects joined to form the Grupo Tortuguero, a network of communities, fishermen, scientists, and others that work together to protect the region's turtles.

J. and his colleagues spoke to fishermen who often inadvertently caught turtles in their nets about alternatives to fishing. Seeing the success of the region's whale watching market, the fishermen were open to tourism but unsure how to draw visitors. Several years ago, J. hosted an episode of Animal Planet's "Get Out There" that highlighted Baja's ocean wildlife and natural areas while traveling with the Ellis family of Long Island. The family’s change during the week showed him just how strong the effect that turtles can have on travelers.

Graduating college with a degree in Environmental Economics, Brad Nahill decided to volunteer on a sea turtle project in Costa Rica to gain experience in the conservation field. Falling in love with the turtles and the tropical pace of life, Brad returned several times over the next couple of years to volunteer on various projects around the country, spending a total of two years in the country. He witnessed both the widespread poaching of turtles for their eggs, shells, and meat by local residents, as well as communities that have dedicated themselves to protecting the turtles. After starting a new nesting beach conservation project with his wife, Brad decided to focus on bringing people to these projects as a way to generate resources for conservation.

Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols has been a leading ocean conservationist for 15 years. Focusing on sea turtles, he has published numerous studies on sea turtle biology and conservation. J. has co-founded several conservation groups including Ocean Revolution, WiLDCOAST, and the Grupo Tortuguero, an award-winning coalition of fishermen, local residents, and conservationists spanning Mexico’s Pacific coast. He is a Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences, former President of the International Sea Turtle Society, and Eastern Pacific co-chair for the IUCN’s Marine Turtle Specialists Group. Dr. Nichols was a Fulbright Fellow, a Bradley Fellow at Duke University, and is a member of numerous advisory boards including Oceana, Sea Turtle Restoration Project, and Save Our Shores. Dr. Nichols has a PhD. in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Arizona, a Master’s of Environmental Management from Duke University, and BS in Biology from DePauw University.

Brad started SEE Turtles with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols in 2007 while working with Ocean Conservancy. He has worked in sea turtle conservation, ecotourism, and environmental education for 10 years with organizations including Rare, Asociacion ANAI (Costa Rica), and the Academy of Natural Sciences (Philadelphia). He has also consulted for several ecotourism companies and non-profits, including EcoTeach, Costa Rican Adventures, and the National Wildlife Federation. As Director, he leads project implementation, including strategic planning, working with tour operators and conservation partners, fundraising, and marketing. In addition, he has co-authored several abstracts on turtle conservation in Costa Rica and turtle watching best practices and has presented at major travel conferences. Brad has a BS in Environmental Economics from Pennsylvania State University.

Brad and J. will be expanding the SEE Turtles model to new species in 2011 with an innovative new project called SEEtheWILD. This new project will dramatically expand our reach and support of wildlife conservation efforts around the world, focusing on turtles, whales, sharks, birds, big cats, and bears.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

Through another organization or company

If through another, please provide the name of the organization or company

National Geographic

MIF Opportunity 2010
Has your organization been legally constituted or registered in your country or one of your target countries for at least three years?


Does the applicant organization have sufficient financial resources to guarantee the co-financing required by MIF during the execution period of the project? (This amounts to at least 50% of the project’s total budget with 25% in cash and 25% in-kind.)


Does the applicant organization have experience managing projects co-financed by international organizations? Please describe below

Solimar International has a wide range of experience managing projects co-financed by international organizations including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and the Organization of American States. Solimar has also managed a number of USAID-funded programs with a cost share requirement where we have generated up to a 1:1 match in funding and other in-kind support from non-government sources.

RED has successfully managed funds from U.S., Mexican, and international entities including the International Community Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the UN Foundation, and the Fondo Mexicano para la Conservación de la Naturaleza. SEE Turtles has managed funding from the US Fish & Wildlife Service International Affairs Division (through the Multinational Species Conservation Fund), as well as grants from private foundations and companies based in the US including the Marisla Foundation, Sandler Foundation, Endangered Species Chocolate, and others.

Please classify the applicant organization according to the options below

Training and Academic Institution

What problem-area does your project address?

Access to knowledge and training, Access to markets, Access to financing.

How will your project address this problem?

Mexico and Central America are home to key habitats of six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, all of which are listed either as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered by the IUCN. The primary threats to their survival are consumption of their eggs, meat, and shells and entanglement in fishing gear, though unsustainable coastal development, pollution, and other threats also contribute to their decline. Throughout this region, residents of the coastal communities near turtle nesting beaches and foraging areas are often severely economically disadvantaged and in many cases have few economic alternatives to fishing and poaching.

Biologists have determined that providing sustainable economic alternatives to fishing and turtle poaching for nearby communities is a critical and under-utilized tool for conservation of these species and their habitat. Tourism has been advocated as a conservation tool in most if not all major international sea turtle conservation strategies over the past two decades including the following:

• A Global Strategy for the Conservation of Marine Turtles (IUCN/MTSG, 1995): Identify and promote economic alternatives to exploitation and economic incentives to conserve marine turtles (e.g., ecotourism, handicrafts).

• Marine Turtle Conservation in the Wider Caribbean Region: A Dialogue for Effective Regional Management (WIDECAST, IUCN/MTSG, 2001): Work with stakeholders to develop and encourage economic alternatives to eliminate illegal poaching of eggs and nesting females.

• Manual for the Best Practices of Conservation of Marine Turtles in Central America (Asociacion ANAI, 2000): (Ecotourism) based in community participation is an excellent way to alter the direct exploitation of turtles and their eggs.

Our project, “Protecting Marine & Coastal Ecosystems Through Community-Based Conservation Tourism” (a partnership of Solimar International, SEE Turtles, and RED Sustainable Tourism) uses a market-based model to link jobs and revenue generated by tourism to support locally-based small and medium enterprises and turtle conservation efforts across Mexico and Central America. Conservation tourism has the potential to not only mitigate the potentially harmful impacts of visitation to a natural area, but also support conservation of the wildlife and ecosystems upon which it and local communities depend.

To achieve meaningful, long-term conservation in these communities, sea turtle organizations need to create local stewards who have a stake in their survival. This project combines 1) Solimar’s proven methodology for developing sustainable tourism enterprises and tourism clusters that link communities and conservation; 2) SEE Turtles’ innovative model of niche marketing to drive sea turtle enthusiasts to conservation tourism sites; and 3) RED’s experience and success working with communities, protected areas, as well as public and private sector partners in Northwest Mexico.

To date, this partnership has produced exciting results. In Northwestern Mexico, RED has spent the past two years incubating community-owned tourism enterprises, training guides and small business managers, and is working with Solimar to lay a foundation for destination management in communities near key turtle habitat, based on principles of sustainability. In Central America, Solimar is expanding the partnership through the USAID Management of Aquatic Resources and Economic Alternatives (MAREA) project. Within MAREA, Solimar is documenting its approach to developing and linking community-based sea turtle tourism to direct conservation support through a number of innovative strategies. SEE Turtles’ marketing efforts have generated more than $200,000 in support for turtle conservation projects in Latin America & the Caribbean, including fees and donation to conservation organizations, money spent in locally owned businesses, and in-kind marketing support.

The success or failure of small businesses depends directly on their ability to reach their target markets. Funds will be used to create sales and marketing capacity to serve the needs of community businesses and their customers. This partnership will also expand access to markets through a two-pronged strategy of connecting local enterprises with international and regional tour operators and institutions, as well as building on SEE Turtles’ expertise in marketing to specific niches of the international travel market.

Public sector partners are critical to the success of the network, both in Mexico and Central America. In Mexico RED has cultivated relationships with institutional partners in the Mexican government, including the Natural Protected Areas Commission (CONANP) and the Secretary of Tourism (SECTUR), to foster nationwide support for sustainable tourism development and promotion as the model for tourism in Mexico. In Central America, Solimar and the MAREA project are working with the Central American Commission for Environment and Development (CCAD) to help ensure government support for the sea turtle tourism network.

MIF funding would allow the partners to scale-up these tools and initial success by bringing additional communities and sea turtle conservation sites into the expanding network across Mexico and Central America. The primary activities supported through MIF funding would include capacity-building (business planning, tourism operations and management, staff training), marketing of the network members, and specialized consultants to mentor the development of successful conservation tourism enterprises.

Who is benefited by the initiative? (Please highlight the type and number of beneficiaries, and their role in the tourism value-chain.)

In both Mexico and Central America, the partner’s sea turtle conservation tourism model focuses explicitly on how establishing community-based tourism enterprises that not only generate local employment and support poverty alleviation, but that also contribute directly to sea turtle conservation efforts of both local NGOs and protected areas.

Under this approach, the primary beneficiaries of the sea turtle tourism network will be residents of small coastal communities in Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and El Salvador. Traditionally, the tourism products and services they provide include guided tours, lodging, dining services, transportation services, and locally produced arts & crafts. Based on these products and services, the sea turtle tourism network will increase income for both new and existing community-owned businesses in and around protected areas and sea turtle hotspots.

The sea turtle tourism network, if funded through MIF, would support ten community tourism enterprises in Mexico and fifteen community tourism enterprises in Central America. On average, each community tourism enterprise supports approximately 20-25 direct beneficiaries and upwards of 150-200 indirect beneficiaries. Based on these figures, the training and capacity building portion of this project would result in 400-500 direct beneficiaries and 3,000-4,000 indirect beneficiaries (primarily family members). We believe that is an underestimate of total beneficiaries as our marketing efforts will also support the growth of existing small and medium businesses in these communities and regions outside of the community-based businesses. In addition to rural communities, the other primary beneficiaries of the sea turtle tourism network are local NGOs and protected areas whose conservation efforts are support by the community enterprises and their members.

Perhaps the greatest power of sustainable tourism as a tool for conservation is its potential ability to align the world’s largest industry, tourism, with the direct financial support of biodiversity conservation initiatives. The partners have embraced this approach by identifying ways in which tourism can generate revenue to support conservation through year-end profits, visitor donations and “travel philanthropy”, and conservation taxes and fees, and in-kind volunteer support. In addition to financing conservation, the partner’s approach to sustainable tourism development also produces a resource even more powerful than money: the time and involvement of local communities in conservation.

Specific examples of how the partner’s are currently exploring linkages between community tourism enterprises and sea turtle conservation include:

Increase Conservation Financing:
Utilize enterprise profits to support conservation activities.
• Funding for community-based conservation activities such as sea turtle beach patrols, subsidies to encourage selective gear modifications (TEDs, circle hooks, propeller guards)

Income Diversification:
Target poachers with direct employment in sustainable tourism
• Poachers working as naturalist guides, boat drivers, and working in conservation (e.g. data collection)

Improve Tourism Operations & Guidelines:
Improve & disseminate visitor codes of conduct and tourism operations guidelines
• Photography guidelines, wildlife watching guidelines

Increase Environmental Awareness and Conservation Constituencies
Increase awareness and conservation support of both local residents and visitors
• Environmental education programs/awareness campaigns, sea turtle interpretive centers/info, interpretation training for local guides

Increase Monitoring & Research
• Increase the role of local residents and visitors in monitoring and research
• Community beach patrols, data collection, local guides, volunteer programs, visitor data collection, night tours

How will the project's results assist the region’s tourism sector and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises?

This two-pronged project will help to create new locally-owned tourism companies in Northwestern Mexico as well as providing marketing services to new and existing small businesses across Mexico and Central America. RED and Solimar will focus on the following activities Northwestern Mexico, including:

• Operations Manager Training - a 4 week course that teaches the nuts and bolts of operating a small tourism enterprise, from pre and post-trip preparation, to payment systems, customer service, and financial planning and projection.
• Guide Training – a proven interpretive naturalist guide training approach that has been replicated more than 30 times, this 2-month module provides a vital component for community tourism businesses.
• Tourism Operations Services - from Customer Service to First Aid, Hygiene and Cooking, this module covers the remaining aspects of tourism on an as-needed basis.
• Tourism Mentor - Community enterprises are accompanied by a Tourism Mentor from the region with experience in tourism to serve as a resource throughout the first year of operations. For example, RED Mentors focus on transparency, communications, negotiations and decision-making, and small business management, as well as raising start-up capital.
• Marketing and Sales - Throughout the process, RED will develop demand-driven products, identify markets, and provide centralized marketing, sales, and customer service systems to the community enterprises as needed.
• Strengthening Local Business Clusters - RED and Solimar will work with community businesses to define shared strategies for increasing sustainability, expand access to markets, improve products and services, and increase external rather than internal competitiveness. RED's efforts focus on the creation of community tourism business councils to create shared space amongst local operators.

In addition, while SEE Turtles and Solimar will help connect new and existing small and medium enterprises that benefit turtle conservation to the international tourism market, RED will continue to build markets within Mexico. RED has established relationships with dozens of international and regional tour operators and work to connect these operators with conservation organizations and small businesses in these communities.

SEE Turtles provides a growing online marketing platform for these local enterprises and tour operators, including a website, social media network, and blog. Their marketing efforts reach various niche markets including volunteer tourism, adventure travel, ecotourism, affinity travel, and student travel through travel and environmental expo’s, travel conferences, volunteer websites, and school outreach. RED has already begun to reach out to tour operators in Mexico City, Mazatlán, La Paz and Loreto, as well as schools across the region.

A. Total Budget (100%)


B. MIF Contribution (up to 50% of total budget and US$. 500.000 max)


C. Cash co-financing (at least 25% of total budget)


D. In kind co-financing (at least 25% of total budget)