Leaving Ecuador on the red-eye through Miami last Thursday to my home in Dallas, I have to admit I was quite tired. My trip to Puerto Lopez, Ecuador in order to dive Isla de la Plata (the Poor Man’s Galapagos) for the Marine Megafauna Foundation, to photograph Giant Manta Rays, was both challenging and inspiring at the same time. There were inevitable low points…after all, we were in the developing world, and one always has to brace to see harsh reality.
I stepped into volunteer tourism 2 years ago. I did a month of volunteering (diving) in Tofo, Mozambique for All Out Africa. Tofo is also the headquarters of the Marine Megafauna Foundation, directed by lead scientists Dr Andrea Marshall and Dr Simon Pierce. The Marine Megafauna Foundation has several expeditions each year, calling upon supporters and volunteers to perform “citizen science”. I planned the trip to Ecuador about a year ago, anticipating the excitement of diving with the largest aggregation of Manta Rays on the planet! I was not disappointed! I cannot even describe the numbers of Mantas at Isla de la Plata….swarms and swarms of them! It was Manta heaven! The bonuses included Humpback Whales and Mola Molas….along with a huge population of sea turtles.
Volunteering is not all fun and games. The volunteers are asked to take ID photographs of the Mantas, as they are identified by the markings on their bellies. The other volunteers had been coming for 5 years to do this, but this was my first year. It took some adjustment to the diving itself…cold water, lots of current, often with surge…conditions which are not easy. For my comfort, it takes a couple of days to get used to new conditions. Then, it took a while longer for my camera and I to adjust! The boat ride from Puerto Lopez to Isla de la Plata is at least an hour, often over choppy water. A bit of challenge for my spine, which is held together by 8 Pedicle Screws and 4 rods. As I said, this was a challenging trip, not a restful vacation.
Home base was Puerto Lopez, a small fishing village in Ecuador. Puerto Lopez is very backward, as I discovered. The hotel was nice and clean (Hotel Pacifico), but the sidewalks were crumbling, the roads bumpy and potholed, and least attractive, the town’s sewer system seemed to be a river that emptied out into the ocean on either side of the town. I skipped hanging out on the beach due to this “waste” procedure. The fishing market was also located on the beach, lots of dead fish and sharks laying around, not very attractive, or fragrant.
Oddly enough, there is an incredible Italian restaurant in this town. I cannot remember the name of it now….Bella..something. Excellent, amazing food. The Whale Cafe was also a favorite. The food in town is, for the most part, starch and fat. And don’t ask too many questions about the food’s origin. I avoided beef while there, mostly eating fish. I did not become ill, so it seemed to be a good strategy. I cannot express how tired of rice I am….and plantains. Not sweet plantains with sugar and cinnamon, these are served as we serve potatoes. Often, they felt like rubber. No thanks.
The dogs of Puerto Lopez are enough to break anyone’s heart. I heard that the people love puppies, but when the puppies grow up, they get thrown out on the street. There are so many dogs…some healthy, some not. I had a pack of 3 I fed on a regular basis, and I would have loved to bring them home. It was hard to see, day in and day out, all of these animals with no one to care for them. While in Puerto Lopez, we saw a Humpback Whale adult mired in fishing net, a turtle in a net (we were able to free it), a dead turtle which had fishing line around its neck, a dead hammerhead in a net, and a Manta Ray with a steel hook about 2 cm from its brain (also saved). The developing world is not especially caring about animals…the poverty is so deep that its citizens are mainly concerned with feeding themselves. The Machalilla National Park of Ecuador is not supposed to be fished for 2 miles out from the island, but the fishing boats were a menace on a daily basis. I worried about getting hooked, the boats were zipping over our heads constantly, making for potentially dangerous conditions. Hopefully Ecuador will start enforcing the park’s protection….Whales, Mantas, Turtles are worth large dollars in tourism. But not if fishing boats are putting divers at risk.
Volunteer Tourism is not about “vacation”, it is more about serving a cause, regardless of what that cause is. It is a working trip…the diving off Isla de la Plata is hardly relaxing! The diving in Tofo, Mozambique is not relaxing either. One must be very careful…if there is an accident, help is a very long distance away. So why do it? I do it for two reasons, one, because I care about these animals and want to participate in their conservation, and because I enjoy the challenge (even when I doubt myself). We are destroying our earth, plain and simple. I have chosen the ocean and its creatures as my number one philanthropic focus. I support other causes as well, but my main focus is on the ocean.
So! Where to next? Well, I have decided to join Marine Megafauna’s January 2016 volunteer expedition to Komodo, Indonesia! For now? I plan to continue adventuring far and wide, and diving as much as possible! My motto is “do it while you can, don’t wait!” What are you waiting for?