Betsy Butler's Diary
Mexican Mangroves and Wildlife

Monday, August 9, 2004

Friday, August 6, 2004

Monday, July 19, 2004
Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Friday, January 30, 2004

Related Sites

Monday, August 9, 2004

We were scheduled to go back out onto the lagoon this morning to conduct a bird survey. To ensure the integrity of the data, bird surveys must be done between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. However, this morning there was a storm rolling in from the north. As luck—even if it's bad—would have it, there was thunder and lightening that made it too dangerous to go out onto the lagoon. The delay did not reward us with much needed rain; we were all looking forward to some relief from the heat. There was no rain and no bird survey.

Some of us walked the beach instead. The sand on the beach sparkles with effervescence from the ocean. I have never seen anything like it. It looks as though someone purchased a jar of glitter from the craft store and sprinkled it all over the sand and stirred it into the water. There are very few seashells, though it is easy to find the little hermit crabs. The water is so clear you can clearly see your shadow on the ocean bottom in five feet (1.5 meters) of water. I only have to swim out 50 yards (46 meters) to find a small rock reef. There I can see little sea perch darting about in addition to small stingrays and puffer fish.

I have developed this unique method of snorkeling. Instead of swimming or diving, I walk along with the mask facing down in the water. The closeness of the reef and the clarity of the water allow me to do this. Also, the water is a beautiful shade of blue-green that is unlike anything I have seen on the Atlantic coast.

To make up for the lack of seashells, there is an abundance of rock worn smooth by the water. In some places, the rocks are a nuisance, but they are the most unusual colors. Many of the rocks are green and pink and striped—shades I have never seen before. One of our Earthwatch coordinators explained that the name of this bay, Tenactatita, means colored stones in an indigenous Mexican language. I guess I wasn't the first visitor to be impressed by the colors!

Tonight, another group will go out onto the lagoon to return the baby crocodiles we caught the night before last and to catch more. This will be a smaller group because there is concern about having too many people in the boat.

I am beginning to understand the importance of the data. Hatchlings are identified through a scale pattern unique to crocodiles, and an international team of crocodile experts developed the method to identify these unique patterns. The data we collect on the hatchlings will be used to determine the growth rate for the La Manzanilla crocodiles, including the number of deaths and birth survivals as well as the genetics—who's related to whom.

Yesterday, we helped Paulino de Campos, our project coordinator, catch a crocodile for the second day in a row. Saturday's croc was 13.6 feet (4.14 meters) long, and Sunday's was 12.2 feet (3.73 meters). It took eight Earthwatch volunteers with gloved hands to hold the ropes tied to the crocs. Another volunteer assisted in tying the croc's mouth shut, and another took its temperature anally. The latter made for a lot of fun jokes at the dinner table that evening.

The temperature is used to determine the sex, as males are colder than females. Even though both of these crocs have been captured and tagged previously, their temperatures are taken again to ensure there is no error. Their lengths are measured to determine how much they grew.

The capturing of these large crocs is a tourist attraction in La Manzanilla. Since the beaches are packed with tourists from Guadalajara on the weekend, we had a cheering crowd watching us. It is really quite an event.

This week there is a church fiesta in town, so there are fireworks, music, and dancing in the town square each night. Some of the locals have approached us to ask about the work. I also had the opportunity to meet some Americans and Canadians who have moved to La Manzanilla permanently. Of course, the many dogs in La Manzanilla were discussed in addition to the crocodiles.

The stray dog population here is horrendous—the worst I have ever seen anywhere, and there is much more to say than is possible now. But I love dogs immensely, and I can't help but be concerned. So, I was horrified to hear that the locals take stray dogs that are a nuisance and throw them into the lagoon for the crocodiles to eat. Today on the beach, I encountered an abandoned dog with a collar that obviously has been on him since he was a puppy. The dog was growing, and the collar was not. It was apparent this poor animal was slowly being strangled to death. Programs are being initiated for spaying and neutering, but I felt the need for more urgency.

Tomorrow we will tag, measure, photo, and adore the baby hatchlings caught tonight. It will be our last day with the crocodiles before returning home. It has been a physically uncomfortable trip but every bit the adventure I was expecting.

Today, we met to discuss how we felt about our Earthwatch experience. Earthwatch Coordinator Alicia Eller asked each of us to stand up and convey what we learned. This was easy for me to answer, because I've been thinking about it at length. I gained a much better and broader understanding of the complex dynamics in managing a crocodile population so close to a developing area. The pressure the town has in controlling wastes and pollution with an influx of tourists and newcomers, the threat of development near and around the lagoon, and the impact of water usage on the lagoon water levels are just a few of the factors tied into the dynamics. Everything is important to everyone, and resources are slim. Fortunately for the crocodiles of La Manzanilla, they have Paulino de Campos and his assistants fighting on their side.

Friday, August 6, 2004

I had to walk to an Internet café in searing heat to send this, so I'm going to be unusually brief.

Mexico is hot—brutally hot! This is the hottest 90° Fahrenheit (32° Celsius) I have ever felt in my life. The humidity is so high you feel like you step through it.

We have all arrived safely. There are 10 Earthwatch volunteers on our research team from all over the U.S. By today, the sixth day, five of them are sick with stomach viruses. We have been told not to drink the tap water…to not even brush our teeth with it. Even the fruit is washed in a special microdyn wash. Most of the time, we eat at an outdoor café about four blocks up the street from our hotel and very close to the beach. There are flies everywhere, litter is scattered all over the streets, and the breeze occasionally picks up the aroma of raw sewage to blow through the café while we eat. I have never been anywhere that is so beautiful and so filthy at the same time.

At first, the young men on the team complained because the portions at mealtime were too small for their American stomachs. Now, they are happy to just have the energy to eat.

We are very tired from the heat, so it is difficult to do anything. But everyday we are in the mangrove lagoon being tormented by swarms of mosquitoes for at least two hours. We look for plants bearing fruit or flower and record all of the birds we see. Last night, just before midnight, six of us went out onto the crocodile-infested lagoon in a boat with a 500-pound (227-kilogram) limit and no flotation devices to catch baby crocodiles (hatchlings).* We caught 12—all by hand—to document their size and weight and clip little scales for DNA sampling. We will take them back out onto the lagoon tomorrow night to return them to their homes.

The day before, we tried to drive to the east side of the lagoon to search for crocodile nests, but the vegetation was so overgrown from the rains it was impossible to drive the roads. Even on foot we could see nothing but insects and vegetation. This was my first time in a jungle, and I can't help but wonder what Spanish explorers thought of it the first time they were here hundreds of years ago. At one point, I inhaled and choked down an insect—a mosquito, I guess. Now I have a sore throat and swollen glands that continue to get worse.

The weather is so extreme; we work only a few hours a day. The rest of the time we try to stay cool. It is even too hot to walk to the beach. I slept most of this afternoon after the midnight crocodile hunt.

Did I mention it's hot? This is supposed to be the rainy season, and we were told to bring raingear, but it has only rained once. It is very difficult to find relief, but I'm enjoying this immensely. The trip has certainly met my expectations.

*Candid reporting of any perceived concerns regarding safety helps support continuous improvement in safety. Alcoa refers any such reports to Earthwatch for investigation and, if required, corrective action.

Monday, July 19, 2004

While international news informed us of the plight of thousands in the Dominican Republic killed in their homes by torrents of water and mudslides during the night as they slept, Team 6 of the Mexican Mangrove and Wildlife Earthwatch project received notification from Sivarajan Vanita, our project coordinator, that we would not be staying in pup tents as planned during our expedition. "This is because your team will be going in the rainy season, and it is likely that the rain may wash away the tents," Sivarajan's email explained. My emotional response to the news was a mixture of relief--I wasn't thrilled with the idea of getting on all fours to crawl into a pup tent in a scorpion inhabited environment--and disappointment--I was actually looking forward to "roughing it" in a Survivor (referring to the reality television series) fantasy kind of way. The upside: my fears of not being able to wash my hair everyday have been eliminated, since we will now be staying in rented cottages with running water.

Sivarajan also sent, via parcel service, the team tags and stickers for our bags and luggage as well as a list of our fellow volunteer team members. Susan Parrish and I are the only ones from Alcoa in the group of 10, and we both couldn't help but notice the e-mail addresses of some our team members, including doctahfunk, darkviper, and volleychic! We aren't assuming (yet) that we'll be the two oldest in the group, but we feel pretty confident we'll be two of the most conservative.

Susan and I talked on the phone for more than 30 minutes yesterday. We updated each other on our packing progress before the conversation somehow turned to our families and growing up. The similarities were amazing! Both of our fathers loved to fish, we both grew up fishing for northern pike and muskie (Susan in Northern Wisconsin/Minnesota and me in Ontario, Canada), and we both have only sisters--no brothers. And these are just a few of many!

We both talked about how comfortable we are around water and on boats because of all the time we spent fishing with our fathers. But the conversation really heated up when Susan asked me about duct tape, which is an item on the "What to Bring" list in our Expedition Briefing. When I saw duct tape on the list, I immediately assumed it was a mistake. Susan told me to read the diaries of Greg Heavens and Michela Corradini, who have just returned from the jungles of Brazil where they were, surprisingly, collecting rat feces. Yes, that's right . . . rat feces! Well, Greg was surprised to receive a letter shortly before the trip asking him to bring along duct tape . . . you'll have to read his and Michela's diaries to learn why. I will tell you their tales of the jungle are most interesting (and harrowing, too!) and really served to perk Susan and me up. Now we add even more emotion to our excitement--fear, apprehension--it all builds and grows, and now I feel like a child waiting for Christmas morning.

Which brings me to another little tidbit I garnered from Greg Heavens' diary. I was trying to describe how I felt as my departure date neared. Greg summed it up quite well when he said that months ago "the trip seemed abstract; the feeling that the time between then and now would never pass." As I prepare for my trip, the anticipation builds, and that abstract distance withers away quickly as I am very busy making sure I have everything on my checklist, that my duffel bag is not too big or too heavy, that the sun hat I selected is not too hot, and that I find a long-sleeve shirt I can wear in 100º Fahrenheit weather to keep the mosquitoes off my arms. I have only one weekend before I leave very early in the morning on July 31 and still much to do.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

I received an e-mail today from Susan Parrish, the fellow Alcoan who will be participating in the Mexican Mangrove and Wildlife expedition with me. I was glad to hear from her. I had been thinking of her often, but never when I had the time or opportunity to call. Our correspondence via e-mail was short and quick, but we did decide we should try and meet in Chicago, then fly into Mexico City together. We also agreed we would linger in Mexico through the end of our second week. This would give us a couple of days to explore on our own. Lastly, we concurred on our anxiousness to finalize some details so we could begin scheduling our travel arrangements.

The previous weekend, I had spent several hours in a Borders bookstore reading travel guides for the central Pacific Coast of Mexico, also known as Costa Allegre ("Happy Coast"). The author of a smaller guide had obviously spent a lot of time in Manzanillo— the town we would be flying into that is 40 miles south of the expedition camp—and had many nice things to say about it. Good food, nice motels (some of which are very cheap), and lots to do. I think I'm going to go deep-sea fishing one day and scuba dive a shipwreck in 25 feet (7.6 meters) of water in Bahia de Manzanillo another. The guide also mentioned some interesting shopping, volcano tours, and an oceanographic institute, but I'll only have two days.

When I returned home, I jumped online and quickly found two interesting websites created for the area. One is, which was built by Daniel Hallas, a man from California (USA) who had moved to La Manzanilla, Mexico, a village of 1,000 just off Highway 200 and close to the expedition camp. His quirky little website includes many photos of La Manzanilla, a list of real estate for sale, and a buy-sell page that lists numerous items, from a Jeep Wagoneer to rolls of aluminum. It was obvious from his website he truly loved this little village. As I navigated his site, I made mental notes of the details: no pavement—all sand roads, an outdoor barbecue, hand-made signs, no crowds, and huge, wide smiles on everyone! This was my kind of place! The other sight,, was geared more toward tourists with hotel information and vacation rentals—not nearly as interesting, though it does have a good description of the village as well as earthquake and volcano updates.

Better informed, I began my shopping list:
  1. Waterproof digital camera
  2. Sketchbooks
  3. Watercolor pencils

Okay, I know I'll need bug spray and a sun hat, too, but the more practical items I'll grab at the last minute. These are the important things I'll want to get early.

Friday, January 30, 2004

When news I had been selected for the Earthwatch program reached my Outlook inbox, I was working from home—home with a severe cold I know my coworkers would not have appreciated my bringing into the office.

It was the end of one of the most brutally cold weeks I had yet to experience since moving to Pittsburgh from Vero Beach, Florida, 10 years ago. Earlier in the week, Pittsburgh was hit with multiple snow and ice storms accompanied by single-digit temperatures that plummeted to well below zero degrees Fahrenheit (minus 18° Celsius) with the wind chill factor. My 11-year-old son, Aiden, did not have school on Monday because of the snow, and he had two-hour delays on Tuesday and Thursday for the same reason. Twice my car had been stuck in the snow; the second time I was saved by a couple of angel truck drivers who stopped to give me a push. The first time I had dug myself out with a small garden shovel I happened to have in the trunk...and gloveless hands.

This is probably why I was bedridden this day with a stuffy head and achy body. The day, my psyche, and my attitude in general were saved by a simple e-mail message from Patrick Atkins. Subject: "Earthwatch"...(I clicked to open)..."Dear Betsy," it read..."Congratulations! You will be going to Mexico!" WOW! News to lift me out of my winter doldrums. Mexico! Hot sandy beaches, full blazing sun, and lots and lots of water (as opposed to ice). My project, I read on, will be Mexican Mangroves and Wildlife on the Central Pacific Coast of Mexico. I wouldn't be going until July 31, which is still six months away, but just thinking about it was warming me up already.

The following day, Saturday, I took my mother to dinner for her 75th birthday. I withheld my new and exciting news until after we ordered. I had half expected her to be concerned and half expected her to think I was crazy. She surprised me by being jealous. A response I should have expected in light of the fact it was my mother who nurtured my interest in water and wildlife.

"Can I come?" she asked. "I don't know," I told her. I continued to explain that I knew you could bring a child over 16, but there was no mention of parents.

She asked questions, I answered...gently, with prudence. I really wanted to tell Mom it may be too rough a trip for her, but since it was her 75th birthday, I was trying to be sensitive. "It will be very hot," I explained, "and really, this is a working trip, you know, with crocodiles." The crocodiles didn't faze her a bit, but then she asked where I would stay. I explained we would be staying in tents, and that I would need to bring my own sleeping bag.

"Oh, forget it!" she said. "Then you have to worry about snakes, you know."

I was off the hook, but I bit my tongue. I'll let her worry about the snakes and keep my real concern—the scorpions—to myself.

Related Sites

Mangroves of Mexico's Atlantic and Pacific Coasts
A description of Mexico's mangroves—how they were formed and how they benefit the environment.

Mexico's Mangrove Action Project
A report on the La Manzanilla mangrove forest by the director of the Mangrove Action Project.

Mexico's Tallest Mangroves
Facts about the ecology and human threats to the Tehuantepec—El Manchón mangroves, the tallest in the region and located along the border between Mexico and Guatemala.

Sustainable Management of Central America's Mangroves
Research scientists from Mexico and the United States describe the value, status, and ecosystem approach to sustainable development that will protect Central America's threatened mangroves.

Photo Gallery

View the images from Betsy Butler's diary.

Earthwatch Institute

Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.

Mexican Mangroves and Wildlife

Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.