The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Science

New Efforts to Free a Captive Killer Whale

Should a captive killer whale be listed under the Endangered Species Act? That is the question NOAA is considering with regard to a wild-caught killer whale named Lolita who has been performing shows at Miami's Seaquarium for more than 40 years. Lolita was captured as a calf in Puget Sound in 1970, from a group of killer whales known as the Southern Residents. In 2005 the Southern Residents were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), with Lolita excluded from the listing. But last week the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Division—in response to a petition filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and PETA—proposed a rule that would add Lolita to her extended family's ESA listing.

"The government is now poised to reverse the unlawful and unexplained 2005 decison to deny Lolita protection under the Endangered Species Act. It's a huge first step, but it's only a first step," says Jared Goodman, Director of Animal Law at PETA, which is also suing the U.S. Departmernt Of Agriculture for renewing Miami Seaquarium's licence to display Lolita despite keeping her in conditions (especially her small pool) which PETA argues are in violation of the Animal Welfare Act.

NOAA is now seeking scientific and expert comment on the proposed rule, and a final decision could be a year away. But if Lolita is, in the end, granted endangered status, she would be the first captive killer whale to get that protection and Miami Seaquarium would have to apply for a special permit to keep her.

Andrew Hertz, Miami Seaquarium's General Manager, has been fighting efforts to free Lolita (the marine park's lone orca since her male companion, Hugo, died in 1980), for years. In a statement to local news, Hertz said: "This decision is not final. Based on NMFS' announcement, Lolita will continue to be an ambassador for her species from her home at Miami Seaquarium."

Animal welfare advocates hope that NOAA's proposed rule is the first step toward Lolita's journey back to her family. Plans have long existed to create a retirement seapen for Lolita in the waters frequented by her immediate family group (the killer whale believed to be her mother is still alive). But even if Miami Seaquarium in the end has to give Lolita up, NOAA expressed concern about returning her to her native waters, noting in its review of Lolita's case that "release of a captive animal into the wild has the potential to injure or kill not only the particular animal, but also the wild populations of that same species."

Naomi Rose, a killer-whale expert with the Animal Welfare Institute, says that absent a solid seapen plan, including funding, it is possible that Lolita could even end up at another marine park, with better facilities, such as SeaWorld. And she acknowledges the risks involved in transporting a killer whale that is estimated to be almost 50, and the mixed memories about the fate of Keiko—of Free Willy fame—who died after being returned to his native waters off Iceland. Still, Rose says: "The big difference is the proposed sea pen would be where Lolita's family is. It could flip her out completely, or she would cope like she has coped all these years. I don't think anyone knows. It's difficult to be playing God with her, but keeping her at Miami Seaquarium is playing God, too. If the law says she can't stay there, then the potential of a sea pen is far greater than in that pool."

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Ten Questions for Parker Liautaud

On December 24, 19-year-old Parker Liautaud arrived at the South Pole after skiing 563.3 kilometers in 18 days, four hours and 43 minutes. He set a new world record for the fastest unsupported trek from the coast to the Pole, and became the youngest man ever to ski to the South Pole.

Along the way, he endured a myriad of discomforts you'd expect from crossing the frozen continent, which despite the 24 hours of midsummer daylight, still thrashed him with flesh-freezing temperatures and blasting winds. Call it suffering in the name of science: Liautaud, a geology and geophysics major at Yale, partnered with veteran polar explorer Doug Stoup, 50, to research and raise awareness for climate change.

Before they set out on their speed attempt, the team spent eight days traveling 1,800 kilometers overland from the Pole to the Ross Ice Shelf in a custom-built ice truck/mobile laboratory, collecting snow samples to test for the effects of global warming. The data is still in New Zealand being analyzed, but Liautaud had no shortage of learning moments on his epic quest to the Pole. 

How does it feel to be home?
I feel good. I'm just trying to get back into my regular life. In the grand scheme of things, I escaped barely unscathed. A lot of people get frostbite, but I've recovered quickly. The feeling has come back in my fingers. 

Tell me about the toll it took on your body.
I could go on and on about it, but at base camp on the coast, I picked up a virus. I had a viral infection and a cough the whole way through. I had minor sprains in my ankle, tendinitis in both ankles, back and knee pain. These things sound so basic in day-to-day life, but on an expedition they're not as obvious. I kept worrying, Is it going to get a lot worse? Are these problems going to keep me from completing the expedition?

How did you get into doing polar expeditions?
When I was 13, I became interested in climate change. I'd been told that it was important, but I knew nothing about it. So, I set out to try to learn as much as I could. I met a British explorer named Robert Swan, the first person to walk to both the South and North Poles. He really developed the idea of using polar exploration to demonstrate climate change. I saw him lecture in California and basically harassed him for six months. When I was 14, I joined him on a small trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. I did my first North Pole ski expedition when I was 15, but we had to turn back because of open water. I went back when I was 16 and 17, and made it to the Pole both times. It really all started with climate change. I am the least athletic person. In high school, I was always the last one picked for a spot on a team. I've had to learn how to train like an athlete, and behave like an athlete.   

How did you train for Antarctica?
A lot of polar explorers train by dragging tires, but I go to university in the center of a city, so I didn't have the ability to drag tires. You need a big field or open area, and some place to store them. I live in a dorm. At the time, I didn't have a driver's license. I was a full-time student and I couldn't take a week off to go to the Rockies. This sort of freaked me out at the beginning, but then I realized that people train all the time in different ways, some of them using nothing but the floor. So I talked to a trainer I'd worked with before [Sham Cortazzi], and we created a training plan broken into three stages: developing strength, developing endurance, and mixing the two. I went from barely being able to do one pull-up to being able to do 12 five times. It's a workout called Death by Pull-up. You do one in the first minute, two in the second, three in the third, and so forth. I couldn't believe I was able to do it.

How did your parents support you?
They've been through this four times with me, so they're getting used to it by now. They didn't support me financially or with contacts, but they did give me a lot of moral support. They've always encouraged us [five kids] to be very independent and deeply involved in what we're interested in. To just go after it. During tough times of preparation, my mother knew to remind me why I was doing it, and to not let up on any of my goals, whether it was training or fundraising.

What was the low point of the speed record?
This was an expedition, so there was a low point every day. But the low point of the whole trip was days four through nine. All the little things that had started to bother me were at their most severe, but I hadn't figured out what to do about them. I was also very short of breath, and it was hard for me to deal with the high altitude. I knew this would be a challenge because I wasn't able to train in the high mountains. The pressure at that latitude makes 9,000 feet feel more like 12,000. At that point we were still carrying all our supplies, pulling probably 170-180 pounds, and I'd start to break down after about eight and a half hours. I was sitting in our tent, five or six days in, wondering if I was even going to be physically capable of doing this. That's a terrifying thought. That means I didn't train hard enough. And that's the thing that's most in your control. Everything else is out of your control. Over the next few days, I kept thinking about the crevasses in the glacier. What if I fell into one and broke my leg? And that started to seem like a legitimate way I could get out of this. I still had 250 miles to go. That was the low point.

How did you pull yourself out of it?
I worked with a mental trainer before I left, and we developed a strategy for those moments: breaking everything down into manageable chunks. In whiteout and 40 mph winds, I could handle ten steps before resting. In better days, maybe I could handle a one-and-a half-hour session, which is how Doug and I broke down our day. Maybe I could handle thinking about the bigger picture. I also brought good luck notes from people at home that helped me get back in the game. Down there, it was very easy to feel that no one was with me, not just in Antarctica but in the whole world.

What was the high point?
Beyond the obvious of reaching the Pole, it was when we started to maintain a steady, good daily distance. This was about day 12, when I realized I was beyond the low point, and I wasn't going to go back to that. I had defeated that mindset. If we could just get after it and keep doing eleven and a half hour days, we'd have a shot of getting there in record time. 

What were your impressions of climate change in Antarctica?
We did all our data sampling from the South Pole to the Coast, so that the science wouldn't interfere with the speed work and vice versa. We don't have any of the information yet; it's in New Zealand going through the scientific process. I don't know enough about Antarctica to draw conclusions from what I saw. It's not like I've been going there every year for 30 years. I'm impatient to get the data back, because when we do, it will give us a much clearer picture.

What was the coldest temperature you endured?
Negative 40 Celsius. It was a whiteout, with fast winds. I didn't get hypothermia, but I did get cold damage on my nose, cheeks, and several fingers. At the end of each day, my shell jacket would be covered in ice. All I'd want to do is take it off, but I would put my down jacket over top of it to melt the ice. Otherwise, there'd be permanent ice buildup. It would just be a giant chunk of ice. So I would sit there with ice melting over me. Short term pain for long term gain.

What's next for you?
I'm going to do another expedition, but I don't know what it is yet or if it's going to be polar. There are so many opportunities. Right now I get to kick back for a little while and brainstorm and day dream a bit. It's the most carefree part of an expedition. 

I've read that you want to get your PhD?
First I have to graduate! And then apply to programs. There are no guarantees.

Do you have any advice for aspiring young advocate-explorers?
All I would say is just do it. I was a really pathetic case. I had no athletic promise or connections for funding. If you have a good idea and a good reason for wanting to do it, eventually you will find people to support it. You'll have to go through a lot of boring cold calls and emails. But people want to help. They're positive and enthusiastic, especially with young people. And don't be discouraged if it takes longer than you planned to get ready. At least for the next few years, the mountains aren't going anywhere.

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How Bad is the California Drought?

Winters like this one, here in Northern California, really test the fortitude of any ski-resort marketing professional. As of January 17, snowfall this season has been generally pathetic, and 2013 was the driest year on record on California. Squaw Valley has a 21" base at last check, and a 5-foot season total. Five feet. There's only so many ways to spin sunshine and artificial snow as a lure for getting us to make that 4-hour drive. It's the same story at other resorts, and down south is no better. Mammoth is clocking in with a 25-inch base at its 11,000-foot summit.

One wouldn't want to jump to conclusions about what this arid winter means (since it follows a fairly dry winter last year). Just as a deep freeze in the Midwest last week does not disprove global warming. That said, the recent polar vortex appears linked to the loss of Arctic sea ice. And here in California, "the ensemble of climate models point to an increasing frequency of warm-dry winters," says Jeffrey Mount, a geology professor at the University of California, Davis, and the founding director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.

So, what is the upshot? In the near term: skiing in the Golden State is likely going to suck for the rest of the season. The same may be true next winter, too. That's simply part of living in our Mediterranean climate, characterized by booms and busts in terms of precipitation. More concerning may be how Mount sums up the drought, calling it unprecedented. "The combination of a lack of rainfall and warm temperatures makes this the most epically dry period since the arrival of Europeans. And it has been happening for only three years so far. Other droughts have lasted six years. I can't paint a more bleak picture."

Back in the 1976-1977 winter season, a short-but-intense California drought left Mammoth, which has an average snowfall of 400 inches, with just season total of just 94 inches. That was a different era in the ski industry, the pre-snowmaking era. Today, most sizable resorts have the resources (namely, water and power) to make enough snow to give guests something to slide on.   

Governor Brown has just declared an official drought, which means water use is about to come under tight control. Things like landscaping, that do not have a "beneficial use," are the first to be rationed. Businesses tend to get a pass, until the situation is dire enough to threaten public safety and the need for adequate urban water supply.

That said, resorts that use groundwater for snowmaking, such as Squaw Valley, will not be legally bound to use less water. That's because groundwater in California, except for in a few specific basins, is not regulated. Some policy makers have tried, and failed, to change that. "People realize [groundwater and surface water] are connected to one resource," says Chuck Curtis, supervisor engineer on the quality control board of the Lahontan water region, in which Squaw Valley sits. "But there is not political will [to regulate it]."

From an environmental perspective, snowmaking is far from benign, but more because of the energy it consumes than the water it uses, nearly all of which stays in the hydrological system. With 80 percent of our water resources in California going to agriculture, ski resorts' consumption is barely a blip. Let's not forget our own sponginess, either. When factoring it all uses, consumption has been clocked at an average of 150 gallons per person, per day, in many California municipalities.

Even with snowmaking, whether resorts will continue to meet financial goals during droughts is another question—guests tend to stay away in the lowlands when the weather is warm, even if conditions are fair to midland in the mountains.

Once we are eventually drawn up from these lowlands, it might be for extreme weather in the opposite direction. "We [in California] are going to have amazing years in the future, where it just snows buckets," says Mount. "But you'll have these stinker droughts, too."

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Penguins Can't Fly, But Apparently They Can Climb

A new study shows that in recent years, some emperor penguin colonies swiftly adapted to a lack of Antarctic sea ice by moving their breeding grounds—to the tops of nearly 100-foot ice cliffs.

A group of researchers set out to determine why two colonies of emperor penguins are sometimes found on sea ice and other times are atop large ice shelves. Analyzing impressively vivid satellite images and aerial surveys, they saw that, in years when sea ice formed according to a normal pattern, the birds set up breeding grounds on the ice. When the ice was late, as it was in 2011 and 2012, the colonies appeared atop ice shelves, which are large chunks of glacial ice that have broken off the mainland.

Exactly how they got up there is still a mystery, but scientists do know that the Antarctic Peninsula, where these colonies live, is one of the fastest-warming parts of the continent and has lost a significant amount of sea ice over the past 50 years. This behavior seems to indicate that the penguins are quickly adapting to their changing environment.

{%{"quote":"Climbing up the sides of a floating ice shelf—which at this site can be up to 30 meters (100 feet) high—is a very difficult maneuver for emperor penguins."}%}

"These charismatic birds tend to breed on the sea ice because it gives them relatively easy access to waters where they hunt for food," says Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Society and lead author of the study, which was published in PLOS ONE. "What's particularly surprising is that climbing up the sides of a floating ice shelf—which at this site can be up to 30 meters (100 feet) high—is a very difficult maneuver for emperor penguins. Whilst they are very agile swimmers they have often been thought of as clumsy out of the water."

Researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and an Australian research group coauthored the study.

The researchers do not yet know how moving the colonies will impact the birds, or whether it could soften the blow of late sea-ice formation. But, they write, "Current climate models predict that future loss of sea-ice around the Antarctic coastline will negatively impact emperor numbers; recent estimates suggest a halving of the population by 2052."

While some of the icy cliffs have 100-foot faces, the researchers note that, "Ice creeks often indent the cliff face giving a potential route up onto the ice-shelf itself… King penguins climb up dry glaciers in warm weather to stay cool; perhaps the less-agile emperor is also able to climb slopes, particularly where ice shelves weather and ablate the steepness of the shelf face."

The environment on the ice shelves is not optimal for breeding, due to high winds, potential calving near the terminal edges, and exposure. Scientists also do not know what physical toll the act of climbing up on the shelves will take on the animals, or how breeding patterns might change. But they think this discovery is an important one. Their report concludes: "This previously unknown and surprising behavior recorded in such an iconic animal suggests that other species may also be capable of unpredicted or unknown behavioral adaptations that may also increase their survival in a future warming world."

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Blood in the Sand: Killing a Turtle Advocate

IT WAS ONLY eight o'clock on the evening of May 30, 2013, but the beach was completely dark. The moon hadn't yet risen above Playa Moín, a 15-mile-long strand of mangrove and palm on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. A two-door Suzuki 4x4 bumped along a rough track behind the beach. The port lights of Limón, the largest town on the coast, glowed six miles away on the horizon. There was no sound except the low roar of surf and the whine of the engine straining through drifts of sand.

Riding shotgun was Jairo Mora Sandoval, a 26-year-old Costa Rican conservationist. With a flop of black hair and a scraggly beard, he wore dark clothes and a headlamp, which he used to spot leatherback sea turtle nests on the beach. Mora's friend Almudena, a 26-year-old veterinarian from Spain, was behind the wheel. The other passengers were U.S. citizens: Rachel, Katherine, and Grace, college students who had come to work at the Costa Rica Wildlife Sanctuary, a nonprofit animal-rescue center. Almudena was the resident vet, and the Americans were volunteers. By day they cared for the sanctuary's menagerie of sloths, monkeys, and birds. Working with Mora, though, meant taking the graveyard shift. He ran the sanctuary's program rescuing endangered leatherbacks, which haul their 700-plus-pound bodies onto Playa Moín each spring to lay eggs at night.

The beach's isolation made it both ideal and perilous as a nesting spot. The same blackness that attracted the turtles, which are disoriented by artificial light, provided cover for less savory human activity. In recent years, the thinly populated Caribbean coast has become a haven for everything from petty theft to trafficking of Colombian cocaine and Jamaican marijuana. For decades, Playa Moín has been a destination for hueveros—literally, "egg men"—small-time poachers who plunder sea turtle nests and sell the eggs for a dollar each as an aphrodisiac. But as crime along the Caribbean coast has risen, so has organized egg poaching, which has helped decimate the leatherback population. By most estimates, fewer than 34,000 nesting females remain worldwide.

Since 2010, Mora had been living at the sanctuary and patrolling the beach for a nonprofit organization called the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, or Widecast. His strategy was to beat the hueveros to the punch by gathering eggs from freshly laid nests and spiriting them to a hatchery on the sanctuary grounds. This was dangerous work. Every poacher on Moín knew Mora, and confrontations were frequent—he once jumped out of a moving truck to tackle a huevero.

Rachel, Grace, and Almudena had accompanied Mora on foot patrols several times over the previous weeks. (Out of concern for their safety, all four women requested that their last names not be used.) They had encountered no trouble while moving slowly on foot, but they also hadn't found many unmolested nests. On this night, Mora had convinced Almudena to take her rental car. She was worried about the poachers, but she hadn't yet seen a leatherback, and Mora was persuasive. His passion was infectious, and a romance between the two had blossomed. Almudena was attracted by his boundless energy and commitment. Something about this beach gets in you, he told her.

The sand was too deep for the Suzuki, so Mora got out and walked toward the beach, disappearing in the night. Moín's primal darkness is essential to sea turtles. After hatching at night, the baby turtles navigate toward the brightest thing around: the whiteness of the breaking waves. Males spend their lives at sea, but females, guided by natal homing instincts, come ashore every two or three years to lay eggs, often to the same beaches where they hatched.

{%{"quote":"Masked faces crowded into Almudena's window. The men demanded money, jewelry, phones, car keys. They pulled Almudena out and frisked her, and the Americans stayed in the car as the men rifled through it, snatching everything of value, including the turtle eggs."}%}

Around 10:30, Almudena got a call—Mora had found a leatherback. The women rushed to the beach, where they saw a huge female baula backfilling a nesting hole with its hind flippers. Mora stood nearby alongside several hueveros. One was instantly recognizable, a 36-year-old man named Maximiliano Gutierrez. With his beard and long reddish-brown dreadlocks, "Guti" was a familiar presence on Moín.

Mora had forged a reluctant arrangement with Guti and a few other regular poachers: if they arrived at a nest simultaneously, they'd split the eggs. After measuring the turtle—it was nearly six feet long—Mora and Rachel took half the nest, about 40 cue-ball-size eggs, and put them into a plastic bag. Then Guti wandered off, and the turtle pulled itself back toward the surf.

When they returned to the road, a police patrol pulled up. The cops warned Mora that they had run into some rough characters earlier that night, then drove off as Mora and the women headed south, toward the sanctuary, just six miles away. Soon they came upon a palm trunk laid across the narrow track—a trick the hueveros often played to mess with police patrols. Mora hopped out, hefting the log out of the way as Almudena drove past. Just as Mora put the log back, five men stepped out of the darkness. Bandannas covered their faces. They shouted at everyone to put their hands up and their heads down. Then they grabbed Mora.

"Dude, I'm from Moín!" he protested, but the men threw him to the ground.

Masked faces crowded into Almudena's window. The men demanded money, jewelry, phones, car keys. They pulled Almudena out and frisked her, and the Americans stayed in the car as the men rifled through it, snatching everything of value, including the turtle eggs. Almudena saw two of the men stuffing a limp Mora into the tiny cargo area. The four women were jammed into the backseat with a masked man sprawled on top of them. As the driver turned the Suzuki around, Almudena reached behind the seat and felt Mora slip his palm into hers. He squeezed hard.

The driver pulled off next to a shack in the jungle, and the men, claiming to be looking for cell phones, told the girls to lift their shirts and drop their pants. Mosquitoes swarmed them. After being frisked, Almudena caught a glimpse of two of the men driving off in the Suzuki. Mora was still in the trunk.

The four young women sat on logs behind the hut with two of their captors. The guys seemed young, not more than 20, and were oddly talkative for criminals. They said they understood what the conservationists were trying to do, but they needed to feed their families. One said that Mora "didn't respect the rules of the beach."

The men announced that they were going to get some coconuts, walked away, and never came back. After an hour, the women decided to make a break for it. Huddled close together, they walked down to the beach and headed south toward the sanctuary. They were terrified and stunned, barely speaking and moving on autopilot. Two hours later they finally reached the gate but found no sign of Mora. Almudena started to sob. A caretaker called the police in Limón, and soon a line of vehicles raced north along the beach track. At 6:30 a.m. the police radio crackled. They had found Almudena's car, buried up to its axles in sand. There was a body beside it.

{%{"image":"","caption":"Jairo Mora Sandoval."}%}

MORA WAS FOUND naked and facedown on the beach, his hands bound behind him and a large gash on the back of his head. The official cause of death was asphyxiation—he'd aspirated sand deep into his lungs.

The news spread quickly. A chorus of tweets cast Mora as an environmental martyr akin to Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rain forest activist who was assassinated in 1988. The BBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post picked up the story. An online petition started by the nonprofit Sea Turtle Restoration Project called on Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla for justice and gathered 120,000 signatures. Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Society and the star of Whale Wars, offered $30,000 to anyone who could identify the killers. "Jairo is no longer simply a murder statistic," Watson wrote. "He is now an icon."

There was a sense, too, that this killing would be bad for business. Long the self-styled ecotourism capital of the world, Costa Rica relies on international travelers for 10 percent of its GDP. "What would have happened if the young female North American volunteers were murdered?" wrote one hotel owner in an open e-mail to the country's ecotourism community. "Costa Rica would have a huge, long-lasting P.R. problem." Not long after, President Chinchilla took to Twitter to vow that there would be "no impunity" and that the killers would be caught.

That task fell to detectives from the Office of Judicial Investigation (OIJ), Costa Rica's equivalent of the FBI, and Limón's police department. The OIJ attempted to trace the victims' stolen cell phones, but the devices appeared to have been switched off and their SIM cards removed. Almudena, Grace, Katherine, and Rachel gave depositions before leaving the country, but it was clear that finding other witnesses would be a challenge.

Moín is backed by a scattering of run-down houses behind high walls. It's the kind of place where neighbors know one another's business but don't talk about it, especially to cops. The hueveros met OIJ investigators with silence. When detectives interviewed Guti, he was so drunk he could barely speak.

Not everyone kept quiet, though. Following the murder, Vanessa Lizano, the founder of the Costa Rica Wildlife Sanctuary, dedicated herself to fighting for her fallen colleague's legacy. I e-mailed her and asked if I could come visit, and she welcomed me.

I flew to San José two weeks after the killing, arriving at the sanctuary after dusk. Lizano, 36, unlocked a high gate adorned with a brightly painted butterfly. "Welcome to Moín," she said in a theatrical voice, her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. The property covered about a dozen acres of rainforest and was dotted with animal pens. Paintings of Costa Rica's fauna adorned every surface. Lizano opened a pen and picked up a baby howler monkey, which wrapped its tail around her neck like a boa. "I keep expecting Jairo to just show up," she said. "I guess I haven't realized it yet."

Lizano had been running a modeling agency in San José in 2005 when she and her parents decided to open a butterfly farm near the beach. She leased a small piece of land and moved to Moín with her infant son, Federico, or "Fedé," her parents, and a three-toed sloth named Buda. They gradually transformed the farm into a sanctuary, acquiring rescued sloths and monkeys, a one-winged owl, and a pair of scarlet macaws seized from an imprisoned narcotrafficker. Fedé pulled baby armadillos around in his Tonka trucks and shared his bed with Buda.

{%{"quote":"Almudena saw two of the men stuffing a limp Mora into the tiny cargo area. The four women were jammed into the backseat with a masked man sprawled on top of them. As the driver turned the Suzuki around, Almudena reached behind the seat and felt Mora slip his palm into hers. He squeezed hard."}%}

Lizano operated the sanctuary with her mother, Marielos, and a rotation of international volunteers, who paid $100 a week for room and board—a common model for small-scale ecotourism in Costa Rica. The sanctuary was never a moneymaker, but Lizano loved working with the animals.

Then, one day in 2009, she discovered several dead leatherbacks on the beach that had been gutted for their egg sacs. "I went crazy," she says. She attended a sea turtle conservation training program in Gandoca, run by Widecast, a nonprofit that operates in 43 countries. There she met Mora, who'd been working with Widecast since he was 15. Lizano arranged for the organization to operate a turtle program out of her sanctuary, and in 2010 Mora moved to Moín to help run it.

They soon developed something like a sibling rivalry. They'd psych themselves up by watching Whale Wars, then compete to see who could gather more nests. Normally a goofball and unabashed flirt, Mora turned gravely serious when on patrol. He loved the turtles deeply, but he seemed to love the fight for them even more. Lizano worried that his stubbornness may have made things worse on the night he was killed.

"Jairo wouldn't have gone without a fight," she said. "He was a very, very tough guy."

Lizano told me that her mission was now to realize Mora's vision of preserving Playa Moín as a national park. She had been advocating for the preserve to anyone who would listen—law enforcement, the government, the media. It was a frustrating campaign. The turtle program had been shut down in the wake of the killing, and poaching had continued. Meanwhile, Lizano seemed certain that people around Moín knew who the killers were, but she had little faith in the police. On the night of the murder, when Erick Calderón, Limón's chief of police, called to inform her that Mora had been killed, she screamed at him. Since 2010, Calderón had intermittently provided police escorts for the sanctuary's patrollers, and by 2013 he'd suspended them because of limited resources. Prior to the killings, Lizano and Mora had asked repeatedly for protection, to no avail. The murder, Lizano said, was Calderón's fault.

But there was plenty of recrimination to go around. The ecotourism community blamed Lizano and Widecast for putting volunteers at risk. The family of one of the Americans, Grace, had demanded that Widecast reimburse her for her stolen camera, phone, and sneakers. Lizano told me the accusations were unfair. "The volunteers knew what they were getting into," she said. "We would say, 'It's up to you if you want to go out.' "

Still, she was overwhelmed with guilt. "I know Jairo was scared, because I used to tease him," she said. "We'd make fun of each other for being afraid. We'd always kidaround that we would die on the beach." She'd tell him that she wanted her ashes carried into the surf by a sea turtle. Mora was less sentimental. "He always said, 'You can do whatever, I really don't care. Just drink a lot. Throw a party.' "

We sat in the open-air kitchen, and Lizano held her head in her hands. "If you've got to blame somebody, blame me," she said. "I was the one who took Jairo and showed him the beach, and he fell in love."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Hueveros: The man on the right, Guti, saw Mora the night he was killed."}%}

MORA WAS BORN in Gandoca, a tiny Caribbean town near the Panama border. He caught the wildlife bug early, from his grandfather, Jerónimo Matute, an environmentalist who helped found the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, a sea turtle nesting area. Jairo began releasing hatchlings at age six. Once
he became a full-time Widecast employee, he sent much of his salary home every month to his mother, Fernanda, and completed high school through a correspondence program.

By 2010, Mora had moved to Moín, living in a tiny room over the sanctuary's kitchen. Some days, Mora and the volunteers—college students, mainly, from all over the world—counted poached nests or monitored the sanctuary's hatchery; some nights they'd go on patrol. Mora was clear about the risks involved, and some chose not to go, but others joined eagerly. It didn't seem that dangerous, especially in the early days, when the Limón police accompanied the patrols.

Still, there were tensions from the beginning. During nesting season, the hueveros squatted in shacks in the jungle. Most were desperately poor, many were addicts, and all considered Lizano and Mora competition. Lizano had no qualms about reporting poachers to the police.

A leatherback typically lays 80 fertilized eggs and covers them with about 30 yolkless ones. Poachers consider the yolkless eggs worthless and usually toss them aside. Lizano and Mora often placed those eggs on top of broken glass, causing a poacher to cut himself while digging for the good ones. Lizano even set volunteers to work smashing glass to carry in buckets to the beach. She sometimes found obscene notes scrawled in the sand. She'd write back: Fuck You.

Lizano got caught in shootouts between police and poachers at the beach four times, once having to duck for cover behind a leatherback. In April 2011, she was driving alone at night on Moín when she came across a tree blocking the road. Two men with machetes jumped out of the forest and ran toward her truck. She floored it in reverse down the dirt road, watching as the men with the machetes chased, their eyes full of hate.

{%{"quote":"A few weeks before his death, Mora told a newspaper reporter that threats were increasing and the police were ignoring Widecast's pleas for help. He called his mother, Fernanda, every night before he went on patrol, asking for her blessing."}%}

In the spring of 2012, Calderón suspended the police escorts. Limón had the highest crime rate in Costa Rica, and the police chief was spread too thin trying to protect the city's human population, never mind the turtles. Mora and Lizano shifted to more conciliatory tactics. They hired ten hueveros and paid each of them a salary of $300 per month, using money from the volunteers' fees. In return, the men would give up poaching and work on conservation. Guti was one of the first to sign on. The hueveros walked the beach with the volunteers, gathering nests and bringing them to the hatchery. It was a steep pay cut—an industrious huevero can make as much as $200 a night—so Lizano pushed the idea that the poachers could eventually work in the more viable long game of ecotourism, guiding tourists to nesting sites. But the money for the project quickly ran out, and Lizano wasn't surprised when poaching increased soon after.

Around the same time, a menacing poaching gang showed up on Playa Moín. They seemed far more organized than the typical booze-addled hueveros. The group dropped men along the beach by van, using cell phones to warn each other of approaching police. They were led by a Nicaraguan named Felipe "Renco" Arauz, now 38, who had a long criminal history, including drug trafficking and kidnapping.

In April 2012, a group of men armed with AK-47's broke into the hatchery, tied up five volunteers, and beat a cousin of Mora's with their rifle butts. Then they stole all 1,500 of the eggs that had been collected that season. Mora, out patrolling the beach, returned to find the volunteers tied up. He went ballistic, punching the walls. Then he exacted vengeance, going on a frenzy of egg gathering, accompanied once again by armed police protection. Mora collected 19 nests in three nights, completely replacing the eggs that had been stolen. But a few weeks later, Calderón once again suspended escorts, and no arrests were made.

A month after the hatchery raid, in May 2012, the dangers became too much even for Lizano. She was at a restaurant in downtown Limón when she spotted a man taking Fedé's photo with his cell phone. She recognized him as a huevero and confronted him angrily: "It's me you want. Leave the kid out of it." The man laughed at her. That was the final straw. She moved with Fedé back to San José, returning to Moín alone on weekends.

Mora remained, however, and when the 2013 season began in March, he returned to his patrols—mostly alone, but occasionally with volunteers. By this point, the volunteer program was entirely Mora's operation. The Americans, who arrived in April, knew there were risks. But according to Rachel, Mora never told her about the raid on the hatchery the year before. She entrusted her safety to him completely. "I had gone out numerous times with Jairo and never really felt in danger," she told me. "I knew he was there and wouldn't let anything happen to me."

But just a few weeks before his death, Mora told a newspaper reporter that threats were increasing and the police were ignoring Widecast's pleas for help. He called his mother, Fernanda, every night before he went on patrol, asking for her blessing. When Lizano saw Fernanda at Mora's funeral, she asked for her forgiveness.

"Sweetie," Fernanda replied, "Jairo wanted to be there. It was his thing."


The cop next to me, young and jumpy in the darkness, pulled his M4's slide back, racking a cartridge. As I crouched down, I saw two green dots floating—the glow-in-the-dark sights of a drawn 9mm. About 100 yards off, the police had spotted a couple of shadowy figures. Hueveros.

I was on patrol. Following Mora's killing, the sea turtle volunteer program had been suspended, but two of Mora's young protégés, Roger Sanchez and his girlfriend, Marjorie Balfodano, still walked the beach every night with police at their side. Sanchez, 18, and Balfodano, 20, were both diminutive students, standing in bare feet with headlamps on. They weren't much to intimidate a poacher, but Sanchez was fearless. Before we set out, he told me with earnest bravado that he planned to patrol Moín for the rest of his life. When we saw the hueveros, we'd been walking for three hours alongside an escort of five officers from Limón's Fuerza Pública, kitted out with bulletproof vests, sidearms, and M4 carbines. Perhaps it was just a publicity stunt by Calderón, but it was a comforting one. We had encountered a dozen plundered nests, each one a shallow pit littered with broken shells. The hueveros, it had seemed, were just steps ahead of us.

Then the cop on my right noticed two figures and pulled his gun. Three of the police told us to wait and confronted the two men. After several minutes we approached. The cops shone their flashlights on the poachers and made them turn out their pockets. One wore a knit cap, and the other had long reddish dreadlocks—Guti. They were both slurry with drink, and the cops seemed to be making a show of frisking them. The men had no contraband, so the cops let them stumble off along the beach.

After a while the radio crackled. Another police truck had found two nesting leatherbacks. We rushed to the spot. In the darkness, a hump the size of an overturned kiddie pool slowly shifted in the sand. The baula's great watery eyes looked sidelong toward the sea as it excavated a nest in the beach with back flippers as dexterous as socked hands. With each labored effort, it delicately lifted a tiny scoop of sand and cupped it to the edge of the hole. Sanchez held a plastic bag in anticipation, ready for her to drop her clutch.

Then Guti's drunken companion stumbled up to us, knelt beside Sanchez, and offered a boozy disquisition on sea turtle biology. The cops ignored him, and the spooked animal heaved forward, dragging her bulk away without laying any eggs. A few more heaves and the foaming waves broke over the turtle's ridged carapace.

The night wasn't a complete loss, though. A short distance away, the second leatherback had laid its nest. Soon a second patrol truck pulled up and handed Sanchez a bag of 60 eggs. We hitched a ride back to the sanctuary and a wooden shed packed with styrofoam coolers. Sanchez opened one, sifted beach sand into the bottom, then began placing the eggs inside. I noticed that a pen had been stuck into one of the coolers. Next to it, a set of stylized initials was scratched into the styrofoam: JMS. Altogether, there were perhaps 1,000 eggs in the coolers. Almost all of them had been gathered by Mora.

{%{"image":"","caption":"Mora's protoge Roger Sanchez (left) waits for a turtle to lay eggs."}%}

A COUPLE OF DAYS later, I went to see Erick Calderón at the police headquarters in Limón. With his small build and boyish face, he seemed an unlikely enforcer, and he'd clearly been affected by the pressure the killing had brought on his department. Since the murder, Calderón said, the police had patrolled Moín every night. "I want to make the beach a safer place, control poaching of eggs, and educate the population so the demand isn't there," he said. But it was unclear how long he could sustain the effort. He said that only a dedicated ecological police force would make a lasting impact. They'd need a permanent outpost on Moín, a dozen officers supplied with 4x4s and night-vision goggles.

Then Calderón insisted that Mora's murder was an anomaly and that Costa Rica was "not a violent society"—an assertion belied by the fact that the previous afternoon, a shootout between rival gangs had happened just a few blocks from the station. He seemed ashamed that the murder had happened on his watch, that Lizano had screamed at him. "I know Jairo was a good guy," he told me.

That afternoon I met up with Lizano's father, Bernie. His means of processing his sorrow had been to turn himself into a pro bono private investigator. A former tuna fisherman, Bernie was 65, with a full head of white hair and a pronounced limp from an old boating accident. As we drove around Limón, he seemed to know everyone's racket, from the drug kingpins behind razor-wire-topped fences to a guy on a corner selling drinks from a cooler. "He keeps the turtle eggs in his truck," Bernie whispered conspiratorially. At one house he stopped to chat with a shirtless, heavily tattooed man. The guy offered his condolences, then said, "Let me know if you need any maintenance work done." As Bernie pulled away he chuckled: "Maintenance. That guy's a hit man."

We drove to a squat concrete building with dark-tinted windows on the edge of town—the office of the OIJ. After Bernie and I passed through a metal detector, one of the case's detectives, tall and athletic, with a 9mm holstered in his jeans, agreed to speak with me anonymously. He said that OIJ investigators in Limón were the busiest in the country due to drug-related crime. I asked whether he thought the killers were traffickers, and he shook his head wearily. "If they were narcos, it would have been a disaster," he said. "Every one of them would have been killed."

Like Calderón, he promised that Mora would not be a mere statistic. He insisted that they were closing in on serious leads. Walking out, Bernie told me he had spoken in private with the detective, to whom he'd been feeding every scrap of information he'd gotten. "He told me, 'We are very close to getting them, but we don't want them to know because they'll get away.' "

Bernie's PI trail led back to Moín, where he had tracked down a potential witness—a man who lived near the beach. The man had been the first to find Mora early on the morning of May 31. He walked Bernie to the spot where he'd found the body. As he described it, there were signs of a struggle from the footprints around the car. It looked to him like Mora had escaped his captors and dashed down the beach. Another set of tracks seemed to show a body being dragged back to the vehicle.

Bernie had begged the man for some clue, mentioning Paul Watson's reward, which had now swelled to $56,000. "He said, 'No, no, I don't need the money. It's not that I don't need it, it's just that they did something very bad.' " If he talked, he was sure that he and his family would be killed.

{%{"image":"","caption":"A poachers hut near Playa Moin."}%}

ON JULY 31, the OIJ conducted a predawn raid, called Operation Baula, at several houses around Limón. Dozens of armed agents arrested six men, including Felipe Arauz, the 38-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant suspected of being the ringleader of the violent hueveros. A seventh man was caught ten days later. The suspects were Darwin and Donald Salmón Meléndez, William Delgado Loaiza, Héctor Cash Lopez, Enrique Centeno Rivas, and Bryan Quesada Cubillo. While Lizano knew of the alleged killers, she was relieved that she hadn't worked with them. "Thank God none were my poachers," she said.

Detectives from the OIJ had been talking to informants and quietly tracking Mora's stolen cell phone. According to court documents, one of the suspects, Quesada, 20, had continued to use it, sending incriminating texts. One read: "We dragged him on the beach behind Felipe's car and you know it."

{%{"quote":"The cop next to me, young and jumpy in the darkness, pulled his M4's slide back, racking a cartridge. As I crouched down, I saw two green dots floating—the glow-in-the-dark sights of a drawn 9mm. About 100 yards off, the police had spotted a couple of shadowy figures. Hueveros."}%}

To Lizano, the motive was clearly revenge, but the authorities cast the crime as "a simple robbery and assault." They also laid blame on Mora and Lizano's failed attempt to hire poachers for conservation. An OIJ spokesman claimed that the program had bred resentment among hueveros. The accusation infuriated Lizano. "They're just looking for a scapegoat," she said.

Lizano thought that the authorities were deflecting blame. It turned out that on the night of the murder, a police patrol had encountered several of the suspects—they were the same men the cops had warned Mora about. A few hours later the gang lay in wait. Whether or not they intended to kill Mora will be argued at the trial later this spring.

Even so, the arrests haven't brought much closure to those closest to Mora. Almudena, back in Madrid, was deeply depressed when I reached her. "Jairo is dead," she said. "For me there is no justice." The only positive outcome, as she saw it, would be for a preserved beach. "In ten years, there have to be turtles at Moín," she said. "If not, this has happened for nothing."

Lizano, meanwhile, redoubled her efforts to protect Moín. Any legislative change to preserve the beach is far off, and the turtles now face an additional threat—a massive container-port development project that a Dutch conglomerate hopes to build nearby. Still, Lizano told me, "I really believe it has to continue. I can't stop and let the poachers win. For me it's not an option."

In July, Lizano brought Fedé back to Moín. She woke him up one morning before sunrise, and together with a group of volunteers they walked to the beach. The night before, at the sanctuary, the first turtle hatchlings had broken up through the sand in their styrofoam-cooler nests. Lizano showed Fedé how to lift the tiny flapping things out and set them gently on the sand. The people stood back and watched as the turtles inched down the beach, making their way toward the breaking waves and an uncertain future.

Matthew Power wrote about Australia's northern territory in February 2012.

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