On a late January afternoon the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge trails are quiet, aside from the curve-billed thrashers, Carolina wrens and black-crested titmice calling through a fresh north wind. I came here today for an hour of respite before boarding a plane back home to Washington DC. I have been here many times before, but today held a special significance. Today may be the last time I see this wild haven before it is destroyed.
Saturday, January 27, was the 75thanniversary of the creation of Santa Ana, and a thousand people came to celebrate the refuge and protest the border wall construction that would destroy it. The refuge was set aside in 1943 because agriculture and flood control measures were erasing the native habitat in South Texas. As the native landscape disappeared, so did the rich diversity of birds that had called the Lower Rio Grande Valley Home. This valley was historically a Mecca for birds, butterflies and all manner of insects, and tropical cats like the jaguar, ocelot and jaguarundi. Situated in the transition area between the tropical and temperate zones, this land is a melting pot of the north and south of the natural world.
But today, less than 5 percent of the native habitat remains. Jaguars are gone. Ocelots and jaguarundis are critically endangered. Many bird species disappeared, yet, more than 500 different species continue to cling to the remnant habitat that has been saved under the National Wildlife Refuge System and private preserves. Santa Ana is the largest and most important of those remnant islands of habitat in an ocean of human development. Its value defies measure, which is why it is often referred to asthe crown jewel of the wildlife refuge system.
But Santa Ana is also the first target for border wall construction if Congress approves funding. A border wall would bisect the refuge and scrape the vegetation from a large swath of land for anenforcement zone. The decision could be made in the next 10 days.
To try to help people see the immeasurable value of Santa Ana, I wrote a poem and worked with some talented filmmakers Jenny Nichols, Allison Otto, and Morgan Heim, to make a short film called Ay Santa Ana.
There are some places in this world where life and beauty effervesce from the ground itself, places we simply cannot lose.
There are some places in this world where life and beauty effervesce from the ground itself, places we simply cannot lose. There are landscapes where lines must be drawn in the proverbial sand and we must say, no, you will not take this from the world. Not on our watch. Many such places exist in the US-Mexico borderlands, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is one. Here is a place people will lay down their bodies to protect.
Some members of Congress and even editorials in the Washington Post have suggested that sacrificing the border landscape for the sake of political compromise is worth it. I think those politicians and political writers must never have seen Santa Ana or any of the wild places and beautiful people who call the borderlands home. People are often willing to sacrifice what they do not understand.
As I was leaving Santa Ana I chanced upon a common paraque perfectly camouflaged upon the forest floor. It had been sleeping, but when I arrived it roused and looked up at me. This beautiful bird, and thousands of other species who depend on Santa Ana, and on lands all across the borderlands, are looking to us to be a voice for them. To tell those in Washington DC who would sacrifice their very futures, that the borderlands is a home, not a bargaining chip.
Please help members of Congress understand by sharing this blog and film.
The number for the Congressional switchboard is: 202-224-3121
For more information about the peril currently posed to the US-Mexico Borderlands, visit my web story:Embattled Borderlands
Keith Ellenbogen was awarded a Hollings Ocean Awareness Award from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to capture dramatic and beautiful images that showcase the surprising diversity of marine wildlife within Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, just 25 nautical miles off the coast of Boston, between Cape Ann and Cape Cod. In August, Keith set sail from Scituate, Massachusetts to journey to the southeast corner of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary onboard theAuk, a 50 ft research vessel with a small rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) operated by NOAA and Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary in search of extraordinary oceanic marine animals to photograph, such as sea turtles, mola mola or ocean sunfish, sharks, seabirds and more.
On August 17th, onboard a RHIB with a team from NOAA/Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary a dorsal fin was observed breaking the surface moving extremely slowly. Unsure if this was a mola mola, blueshark, white shark, or basking shark, a few minutes was spent watching its behavior from the surface. It can be difficult to identify fish from the surface on small boats that are low to the water. Based on the fin shape and the animal’s movements, mola mola and then blue and white sharks were quickly ruled out. When the animal made a large circle – a behavior typically associated with basking sharks – it was agreed it was a large basking shark. I must admit I have never seen a basking shark, and this is one of those iconic animals I was excited to photograph. The ocean conditions were perfect – no wind with calm seas that were flat like glass.
Our plan was to position the RHIB up current from the basking shark and then I would swim towards it. Once the RHIB was in position, I slid into the water in my wetsuit, snorkel and 360˚VR camera mounted on a 3-foot handle. Mentally I was breathing shallow, as I was prepared to freedive to capture images of the basking shark with its mouth open, feeding on plankton. Once in the water with a sense of excitement and my 360˚VR multi-camera system, I slowly started kicking towards the basking shark. I alternated between looking above the water to track the shark’s fin on the surface while waiting for a glimpse of the animal to reveal itself through the water. The water visibility in New England is about 20ft on a good day – like it was that day. The coastal waters off Massachusetts are turbid with limited visibility and that makes photographing large animals a technical challenge.
On the surface, I was breathing shallow and getting ready to dive. After about 10 seconds of uninterrupted emerald green sea with dancing waves of sunlight and a feeling of excitement, I arrived within 25ft of the shark and got my first glimpse of the outline of the animal. I immediately realized this was not a basking shark but rather an enormous Great White Shark swimming straight towards me, and I was swimming straight towards it! We later estimated the size at 16ft long, 6ft wide and about 2,000 lbs – about the same size as the NOAA RHIB. I found myself swimming in close proximity to a very big and dangerous fish!
Photo by Keith Ellenbogen
I immediately stopped swimming forward. At that moment, time moved slowly. I was not sure what to expect from the shark and just put myself into a trance and said to myself, “enjoy the moment.” During this 10-second encounter, I kept my heartbeat slow and steady, my body language predictable and firm and the camera stable to get the shot. My trajectory was such that I was headed straight towards the mouth of the shark and I could not change direction. This was perfect placement for a basking shark but not ideal for a great white shark. As we approached each other, I could hardly believe how big this shark was. I was approaching so close that I pulled the pole of the 360VR camera closer to myself to avoid bumping into the animal. In the video you can see the micro movements I was making with my hand to slow down my speed and avert bumping into the shark.
As I approached its giant face and teeth, what I remember most was its strong and direct eye contact. Fortunately, the shark did not change its behavior or trajectory. I think it was in a catatonic sleep-like state. I wonder if it’s ever been approached by another living animal before and what was it thinking? I’m fortunate, in that I have lots of experience filming other sharks such as blue, makos, and bull sharks in the wild and am comfortable in extreme situations. Panic is never a solution. I knew I was committed and that all I could do was enjoy this experience and get the shot.
From the surface, the team realized that I was swimming with a Great White Shark probably a few seconds before I did. They all said I was so close to the shark that its fin and my snorkel were almost touching. Everyone was so nervous but there was nothing they could do other than watch the entire event unfold. From the boat people expressed a sense of fear of a shark that was the size of the RHIB. Fortunately, they did not accelerate the engine or do anything that might have startled the shark. I was lucky that we drifted by each other, and once past the shark, I immediately raised my hands and called the RHIB over. I threw my camera onboard and pulled myself onboard in record time.
Photo by Keith Ellenbogen
Wildlife photography, especially underwater, requires hours of patience, even tedium, followed by seconds of excitement when the critical elements of movement, behavior, light, and composition all come together into a single frame that creates an emotional connection to the animal and its habitat. I am embracing 360˚VR camera technology to give viewers an opportunity to become immersed within a visual experience that virtually echoes my experience holding the camera underwater. It was such a beautiful, majestic animal; I’m glad I had this once-in-a-lifetime encounter. As a conservation photographer I hope this video demonstrates that Great White Sharks are not mindless man eaters but rather large apex predators that provide insight into a healthy ocean ecosystem.
When I returned to land, I immediately spoke with Dr. Greg Skomal, the leading Great White Shark researcher with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. Greg said this female shark was first identified by him in July 27, 2012 and named Large Marge. She was tagged with a short-term transponder and tracked with an autonomous underwater vehicle. She was one of the first white sharks ever tracked with this technology and was featured in a Discovery film called “Return of Jaws”. During that summer, she was also photographed off Nauset Beach following a kayaker – this photo was featured on the cover of the Cape Cod Times. Greg estimated her size back then at roughly 16 feet. In 2014, a collaborative research vessel saw her again off the coast of Provincetown, Cape Cod, but she was not tagged. Greg added that this is the first footage captured of Large Marge since 2014.
About Keith: Keith is a renowned underwater conservation photographer. He is an Assistant Professor of Photography at SUNY/The Fashion Institute of Technology, a Visiting Artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sea Grant Program, a Senior Fellow at The International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and 2018 TED Resident. Keith was a U.S. Fulbright Fellow and holds an MFA from Parsons School for Design.
Jaguar (Panthera onca) yearling female cub approaching predated Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) at night, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
Along the borders of Tortuguero beach in Costa Rica, sturdy tree trunks guard the entrance to the rainforest like a gate, and palm fronds bend down from the canopy and sweep across the ground, drawing a line in the sand. In the categorized recesses of our minds, as far as biomes are concerned, we tend to keep rainforest and ocean life separate.Jellyfish and chameleons may share eccentric colors, but have no ecological business between them. Three-toed sloths and shrimp may both be underdogs in speed and size respectively, but would never compete in the race for resources. But on the shore of Tortuguero National Park, the nautical-jungle boundary is constantly crossed by an unusual pair: jaguars (Panthera onca) and sea turtles.
On any ordinary evening on Tortuguero beach, through the lens of a carefully placed camera trap, this interesting interaction begins as the phantom predator of the rainforest, one of the toughest to track, steps out through the forest bush and onto the beach. Like shadows on the shore, jaguars stalk across the sand in search of sea turtles. While cultural legends and myths attribute supernatural characteristics to jaguars, building off of their cryptic nature, the jaguars are not there to haunt, but to hunt.
Jaguar (Panthera onca) tracks on beach, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
Jaguars are “opportunistic predators” with diets depending on the availability of prey. On Tortuguero beach, sea turtles arrive each nesting season in impressive numbers to lay their eggs. It is the largest rookery in the western hemisphere for the endangered green turtle (Chelonia mydas), and also serves as a nesting ground for three other sea turtle species: leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate) and loggerhead (Caretta caretta). As the sea turtles roll in with the waves, the natural instincts of the jaguars draw them out from their hidden lives in the rainforest and towards the tide.
Paw prints in the sand
In the rainforest, jaguars’ tawny golden coats marked with smudged dark spots camouflage with the earthy scenery of tangled vines, rugged bark and dense vegetation. However, on their nightly prowls on the beach, the only veil is the dim light of the evening sky, and their large paw prints left behind in the sand serve as clues to their activities. Following the path of the prints leads to abandoned sea turtle carcasses that vultures and other scavengers now claim for their clean-up role in nature. Provision for scavenger species is one way predator-prey relationships prove vital to ecosystems.
Jaguar (Panthera onca) biologists, Jizel Miles and Ian Thomson, looking at camera trap images, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
These tracks also prove helpful for scientists Ian Thomson and Stephanny Arroyo-Arce on their research investigating this predator-prey relationship through their ongoing Coastal Jaguar Conservation project with the collaboration of Global Vision International (GVI). Little was known about the impact jaguars have on sea turtle populations on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica before the work of Thomson and Arroyo-Arce. Through weekly surveys along a 14 1/2-mile stretch of the coast from 2005 to the present, researchers have collected data by counting identifiable jaguar tracks and marine turtle carcasses containing evidence of jaguar predation. Their research found that within 18 miles of coastline, jaguar predation accounts for less than three percent of the nesting green turtle population on the beach. Based on the researchers’ current findings these jaguar predation rates are not considered a significant threat to the green sea turtle populations.For the other marine turtle species, it is too difficult to measure the effects of jaguar predation based on available evidence because cases only occur sporadically. However, for all marine turtles, the impact of jaguar predation on the populations is minimal compared to the losses caused by human activities such as illegal poaching, commercial exploitation and incidental captures in fishing gear.
Jaguar (Panthera onca) male in rainforest at night, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
Human pressures push jaguars to the coast
Anthropogenic pressures may also be influencing the jaguars’ shift towards coastal habitats.One human factor comes into play in the form of habitat degradation in the buffer zones around the park. In the early 1990’s, an expansion of large-scale banana and pineapple plantations outside of the park coincided with an increase in jaguar predation of marine turtles.
Jaguar (Panthera onca) female approaching predated Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) at night, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
Another factor may be illegal hunting of other prey species inside the park. Jaguars have over 85 prey species throughout their ranges, and within Tortuguero National Park specifically, common prey includes the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), the green iguana (Iguana iguana), and both species of sloth found in the area, the three-toed (Bradypus variegatus) and the two-toed (Choloepus hoffmanni). Illegal hunting of these species can decrease the populations and potentially encourage jaguars towards more readily available prey like the sea turtles.
A not so antisocial big cat
This abundance of marine prey has also led researchers to believe that they are documenting a reduction in competition between the jaguars. Thomson and Arroyo-Arce have recorded over 36 jaguars on a meager 18-mile strip of coastline since 2010. Anywhere else jaguars are described as being typically solitary with vast territories and sparse overlap. With jaguars in closer proximity to each other on Tortuguero beach, the scientists are observing rare and unusual social behaviors in the big cats, such as facultative scavenging and smaller territories with increased interactions between individuals. Some of these activities have never before been documented in the wild.
Jaguar (Panthera onca) yearling male cubs on beach at night, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
For example, as part of the long-term monitoring program by Thomson and Arroyo-Arce, one camera trap video lasting seven minutes captured two male jaguar cubs nursing from their mother at an atypically advanced age, giving new insight to maternal and cub behavior.
The role of conservation science
This opportunity to study jaguar behavior up close is remarkable, yet the link to sea turtle predation may be challenging for some. The poetic drama of natural predation, where one species experiences loss at the benefit of another, is heightened by the fact that conservationists champion both the declining jaguar populations and the endangered sea turtles. But nature is not sentimental, nor does it favor one species over another based on emotion. Rather it is detached from humanity in this way—wild, free, and sometimes hauntingly so. The role of scientists is not to judge the fairness of what takes place, but to study and observe. It’s a position of humility, as they stoop to the ground to observe a print, take notes on a fallen prey, or ask questions that reveal there is still much to learn. The objective freedom of science allows the facts to speak louder so that we can make truly informed decisions when it comes to managing wildlife populations and ecosystems.
The unusual jaguar and sea turtle relationship on Tortuguero Beach unites our marine and forest worlds, reminding us that nature is a vibrant, breathing, interwoven network. As the beach continues to boast a stable population of sea turtles, jaguar connectivity will grow and gene flow will increase between populations, strengthening them in Tortuguero and beyond. Humanity’s actions and choices are a force in between the strands of nature’s web, and the goal is to address where these actions may impair that balance.Thomson and Arroyo-Arce are working with the local communities, the local government and other conservation organizations to protect this unique place, which will be essential for the long-term survival of both jaguars and marine turtles.
Jaguar (Panthera onca) biologists, Stephanny Arroyo-Arce and Ian Thomson, digging out female Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) that is stuck in the sand, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
Bibliography Stephanny Arroyo-Arce and Roberto Salom-Pérez. 2015. Impact of jaguar Panthera onca (Carnivora: Ferlidae) predation on marine turtle populations in Tortuguero, Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Rev. Biol. Trop. 63: 815-825. Arroyo-Arce et al. 2014. Habitat features influencing jaguar Panthera onca (Carnivora: Felidae) occupancy in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica. Rev. Biol. Trop. 62: 1449-1458. Arroyo-Arce et al. 2017. First record of jaguar (Panthera onca) predation on a loggerheard sea turtle (Caretta caretta) in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica. Herptology Notes 10:17-18. Thomson et al. 2014. Record of two jaguar cubs suckling from their mother in the wild. Cat News 61:8.