As the only non-Mexican on this project, and also the blog writer, I have the scary prospect of describing the uniqueness of the primary field site we will be working at - Playa de Balandra. I hope I can do it justice.
Located on the southern side of the northern tip to the north of La Paz, it is close to Isla Espirito Santo, another well known natural wonder that harbors a huge array of marine life, both above and below the water. Balandra is a coastal bay that includes a spectacular and healthy mangrove forest and beautiful sandy beaches. It is located within one of the main hydrological basins of La Paz.
Both of these amazing places are protected from fishing and sites recognized of outstanding natural beauty and wonder. Frequently recognized as one of the worlds most beautiful beaches, Balandra is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, it has parking facilities, toilets, and snacks for sale. It even has an emergency health service, something I was extremely grateful for when I ignorantly got stung by a stingray. Dear God that hurt. With tourists so wonderfully catered for how is it so pristine? Why kind of future could it possibly have? How can you conduct field science there?
The answers to these questions come down to a simple but unbreakably strong will of the local people and a great example of the power of social collectivism.
I have just got back from spending two weeks in La Paz and it clear from the outset that people are deeply in love with nature and in particular marine life. Everywhere you go there are incredible murals that mix ancient culture with modern stories of struggle but all feature animals, and nearly always a whale shark, octopus, turtle or other charismatic marina fauna. From seeing this first hand the remarkable story of how the local people have saved, and now 'own' Balandra is not all that surprising.
For decades rumors of outside investment in the region brought warnings of mass development to the area - think mega hotels, golf courses and worse. In 2007 the Colectivo Balandra (see here) was formed to give a voice to local people, a voice of at least 18,000 citizens, of all ages and social groups, to request the authorities to protect Balandra. This social movement generated many great achievements, not least the publication of a state law that allows municipal governments to protect key terrestrial habitats within their territory; the creation of the first municipal protected natural area in this area that protects the hydrological basins that surround the wetland from urban development; the inclusion of Balandra in the Ramsar List of wetlands of international importance; and the beginning of the process to create a complementary natural area of federal protection in the waters surrounding the municipal protected area. What is really striking is not that the movement was formed, many people around the world would want to protect their natural beauty, but that they succeeded to such a high degree!
This has resulted not only in an area of outstanding beauty being protected from urban development AND fishing, but it has created an immensely powerful feedback loop. Despite the very busy day, I was there, there was little or no rubbish of any kind lying around, even though plastic wrapping was being sold everywhere. It was much cleaner than many areas of 'beauty' I have visited around the world. It seemed to me that once you establish something and work hard to own it, it gives you a reason to take care of it. I was so impressed, but that is the wrong word, patronising even: I am in awe of what has been achieved here. At a time when my own country (the UK) is in political disarray, it is rejuvenating to see the people put aside differences to unite against overdevelopment.
So that is why we are working there, to start with. Such ideal conditions, without fisheries interference, allows us to test behavioural ecology hypotheses on animals that are not unduly influenced by 'artificial' selection for those who can avoid being caught or disturbed by human fishing. Of the two shelling dwelling octopuses we know reside there, one seems to be a lot bolder (sassy even!). In 'equal' times perhaps they coexist by dividing the shell occupancy niche, who knows (yet!) but when we have a natural baseline we can then see how these species with different 'behavioural syndromes' (not individual personality, but species-wide temperament) manage within areas without the same level of protection. This knowledge may then be used all around the world where the 'sassy-ness', or otherwise, of a species might influence how animals may coexist with humans. Just another testable hypothesis brought about by this expedition.
Dr Gavan Cooke
Originally posted on National Geographic Open Explorer to shelldwellingoctopuses.