This article first appeared in The State of the World's Sea Turtles (SWOT) Report, Vol. 9, published by Oceanic Society in April 2014.
I am not a very competitive person when it comes to sports. Neither are my daughters, which suggests the possibility of a genetic basis for such things. We prefer the personal enjoyment of athletic activities without the confines of “winners," “losers," speed records, or scoreboards. As spectators, we like a good game as much as we care about our team winning. That is not to say we do not strive to improve our skills and endeavor toward self-improvement. But process usually trumps outcome. We relish mistakes and learning for the sake of improving.
My philosophy is different when it comes to my chosen work—protecting oceans and restoring sea turtles: I like to win, and I know you do too. In the conservation game, losing means extinction. And although the phrase has become cliché, extinction is forever. Losing sea turtles is just not an option. We have devoted our lives to winning this game.
Some of our colleagues have been at this for over half a century. I have more than 20 years of work for sea turtles under my belt. Some among us are just getting started. What seems clear is that when you commit to fighting for sea turtles, you are in it for the long haul. This is a game of slow-motion chess, not downhill skiing or even four quarters of football.
A quick Web search for “sea turtle success stories" produces tens of thousands of results. But the query “Have we won?" has a more elusive response. For those engaging in sea turtle work, right off the mark things often get worse—sometimes much worse—before they get better. My sense is that the most interesting and useful information about winning comes from those low points, when our backs have been against the wall and the odds and the best science are against us. It is a fuzzy topic, winning, but here are five thoughts:
Sea turtle conservation is not a game, a campaign, or a battle. Sadly there are no starting guns, time clocks, or final whistles and no finish line, goalpost, or winner's circle. Having more live turtles is better than having fewer, we know, but what metrics truly define success? Across a playing field or a chessboard, those questions are well defined. Across the globe's coasts and oceans, they are less so.
One thing I know with certainty is that global sea turtle conservation has the best team: smart, innovative, tireless, and passionate. What we sometimes lack in funding resources we make up for in tenacity, grit, and camaraderie. Through relentless collaboration and sharing, world-class science, and creative communication, we are indeed driving down the field and keeping sea turtle extinctions at bay.
We are all part of a process that includes times for teamwork, times for fighting, times for loving, and no clear ending. And we have some remarkable stories and some deeply experienced conservationists among us to consult with as we proceed. The answers are elusive and, frankly, well beyond the scope of this essay, but the articles in this SWOT Report Special Feature offer a handful of ideas from different perspectives within our discipline—they mark a step toward defining how we know we have won.
Download a free copy of The State of the World's Sea Turtles—SWOT Report, Vol. IX, including this article by Wallace J. Nichols and many more, at www.seaturtlestatus.org.