“Meeting Nicky Parazzi was an inspiring experience for me. She is a woman with great determination and vision. Her team are just as dedicated and we are so impressed with the positive impact they are making on protecting this very special marine environment at Watamu.” — WildArk Founder Sophie Hutchinson

Sea turtles face enormous threats in the ocean and on our beaches. To many this seems like an insurmountable problem but the work that Nicky Parazzi and her team at the Local Ocean Conservation are doing in Watamu, Kenya gives hope that a “drop in the ocean”, can indeed grow into something much more.

The project started in 2000, in beautiful Watamu on the north coast of Kenya but much of LOC’s core work takes place in the Malindi-Watamu Marine Protected Areas, with outreach programmes in Diani on the South Coast and further North of Malindi.

Sea turtle poaching along the Kenya coast is a dire problem. It is estimated that the majority of sea turtles caught as by-catch are killed, as well as facing the threat of targeted poaching.

Local Ocean Conservation first worked to ensure their closest nesting beach was secure and then in 2000 started a sea turtle by-catch release programme. This programme works with local fishermen on a daily basis. Over the years the program has built up a core group of over 400 local fishermen who actively engage in and support this programme. Fishermen notify the flagship programme Watamu Turtle Watch when sea turtles are accidentally caught in nets or on line. The team meets the fishermen at a landing site, where the turtle’s health is assessed and data taken. The turtle is then tagged and if healthy, released. A small stipend is given to the fishermen, towards their time, effort and expenses. To date the program has implemented over 15,000 releases, with an average of 1,200 releases in recent years. The data collected has helped the Kenya Wildlife Service to confirm the importance of Mida Creek as a juvenile sea turtle foraging ground and inshore waters for adult foraging, mating and nesting. As the data builds the team are able to see trends, which alert them to particular areas of need for better management and protection.

Whilst this programme without a doubt has and continues to save the lives of thousands of sea turtles, there are numerous other positive benefits. The rescue crew average 5–8 releases a day. This keeps them in regular contact with local communities, feeding into their integrated education and awareness programmes. These programmes try to address the relevant concerns and issues of their local communities, especially the fisher folk. It also helps to improve anti-poaching and sustainable fisheries work. Through the by-catch network, sick and injured sea turtles are brought to the LOC rehabilitation centre. Many of these turtles, especially critically endangered Hawksbill Turtles, suffer from plastic ingestion — one of the main problems dealt with at the centre.

Local Ocean Conservation implements regular beach clean ups mostly of ocean trash. In order to dispose of the trash responsibly, they work with a local recycling centre Regeneration Environmental Services Ltd based nearby in Malindi, to try and make this a reality. This is part of a push to get people to understand that the need for sustainable and correct coastal management, especially within MPA beaches is imperative. The aim is to ensure that the authorities, coastal communities and especially tourism, understand the impacts that human interference can have on the oceans. With the very real threats of global warming affecting our coastline, there is an urgent need to ensure vastly improved protection and sustainable management of our marine environment.

Though this is a huge uphill struggle, Nicky and her team are working hard to get information and possible solutions out to the public.

“One of our goals is to make people understand that what sea turtles need for their very survival, is relevant to what humans need to address right now, for their own future,” says Nicky. “This awesome species is not just unique in the ocean, it is the canary of the ocean and if we are smart, we will respect their existence sooner rather than later.”

How did you come to live in this magical part of the world?

Apart from a few years in Nairobi, I have never lived in a city. When my husband sold his business in 1987 — as well as mine- and said we were off to Watamu, it didn’t take much to persuade me to go! We have always loved Watamu. It has literally everything you could want in a natural coastal paradise. It is part of a Marine Protected Area, with open water drop offs, lagoons, reefs, beautiful beaches, natural foreshore areas and a creek. Unsurprisingly it is a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Area. Adjoining the Mida Creek Reserve is the incredible Arabuko Sokoke Forest, one of the most beautiful and diverse forests I have ever seen. As our family love water sports, the ocean and the bush it ticked every box.

What was it like raising a family here?

Our children have lived in Watamu all their lives. Watamu is relatively unspoilt, but before tourism really took off our little piece of paradise was still wild. The kids learned to swim in a large rock pool on our beach at low tide. They were so engrossed at looking at the fish they learnt very quickly. In those days, at low spring tides especially at night, the sea was alive. On full moon evenings we would often go down to see the action, in fact sometimes the splashing would wake us up. There were lots of octopus and moray eels in the shallows, as well as many other species. Pre-school was available nearby in Malindi for our children — but the best education they got was from living near the ocean. Counting a hidden cowrie colony, drawing dolphin dorsal fins to ID our local dolphin pods, fishing and snorkelling gave them the opportunity to have an affinity for the ocean that has never left them.

When and how did you get involved in Local Ocean?

An old friend Babara Simpson, a well-known local naturalist wanted help with a small initiative she had started, checking and protecting sea turtle nests on our marine park beach. She was getting old and could no longer easily check on what was happening herself. With a few other interested people we started a volunteer group called Watamu Turtle Watch. A few of us realised that just looking after turtle nests was not going to solve the bigger problem sea turtles were facing in our area. Eventually two of us took on this task. We soon realised we had to formalise our work into a project and get someone to manage it. Our husbands had told us ‘its us or the turtles’. Our first manger did an incredible job, with very little funding. He believed in our holistic approach. Though sea turtles were and still are our flagship species, their environment and all it consists of is our main focus. To better reflect this, we adopted the name Local Ocean in 2004. Our goal is to encourage local communities to look after their own local ocean, eventually creating a linked chain of sustainable community marine management and conservation. Watamu Turtle Watch remains our flagship programme. A dear friend and one of the first Honorary Marine Wardens in Kenya, Lallie Didham, had an enormous influence on what we believed we could achieve. When she sadly died, her family and her great friend left us a legacy. This enabled us to buy a plot of land and build up our marine centre. Her spirit watches over us, I am sure.

What is at stake here for turtles and marine life?

Our oceans and coastlines are facing enormous challenges. Though this has received more publicity recently, few people really understand how important the ocean is for life on earth and how everyone impacts it — even those who do not live near the ocean. People are slow to react to abuse on land where it is seen. The ocean however, to the majority of people on earth is a foreign environment. Its abuse is largely unknown and unseen. There is still very little understanding or respect for the ocean or coastlines, worldwide. This has to change fast, for our own good as well as the ocean and its inhabitants. Sea Turtles along with many other marine species, travel enormous distances and inhabit in-shore areas. Sea turtles need pristine beaches and foreshore areas to nest on. All these areas are impacted by unsustainable developments, pollution and the effects of global warming. Foreshore areas are developed and destroyed, beaches are corralled with sea walls, stopping the natural movement of water and sand. Coral reefs, the most diverse and productive ecosystems on earth which take millennia to grow, are seriously threatened. The oceans and their inhabitants have a lot to contend with.

Watamu has the opportunity to become a perfect example of how people and the marine environment can exist for mutual benefit, if it is managed correctly. The Malindi-Watamu Marine Protected Areas were one of the first to be established worldwide. This showed Kenya had incredible foresight at that time. As coastal areas become some of the most heavily populated places on earth, the need to understand the concept of putting the environment first, rather than the unsustainable wants of people is more urgent than ever. Sea turtles are among some of the unique marine animals that need both the land, for nesting and the ocean to exist. Sea turtle nesting sites are located above the highest high water mark in the foreshore area. Female sea turtles return to the beach of their birth to nest. In spite of Watamu’s beaches being highly protected as part of a Marine Protected Area, there are pockets where commercial ventures have destroyed key nesting beaches. Overfishing has impacted sea grass beds and reef areas. Global warming is a game changer and even more reason why we need specialised marine expertise to implement proper management and conservation. This is a common problem world wide, but one Local Ocean believes we can tackle locally with the correct management and will to achieve.

Can you tell me about the different initiatives you and the team are working on here?

A holistic, integrated approach is core to our operation. We believe that local people must buy into an idea, rather than be forced into it. Sometimes this takes longer than we would like, but in the end it is more sustainable. We largely work in a cost effective, low tech, low key way at the grass roots level. We believe that the support intrusted to us to make a difference should be used to maximum effect and be totally accountable. Our project planning has always involved carefully analysis of how we can best make a difference on the ground and consideration for the possible knock on effects — both good and bad. We try never to embark on anything that might prove unsustainable. We try not to promise things we might not achieve or deliver. There has to be a measurable end result. This approach has ensured that local communities trust us and therefore collaborate with us.

As we are a marine project, most of our work involves local communities and especially fisher communities. Unsustainable fishing activities are becoming more of a problem as our coastal populations explode and marine fisheries management falls behind. Our education and awareness programmes involve constant interaction with local communities and schools. We prefer to create long-term relationships with people, rather than just one off events, which might just tick a box on paper. Our community liaison officers spend every day in the field, monitoring, mentoring and working with groups. Our school education programme brings children to our centre and we have an outreach initiative too. Fun days, mangrove planting, beach cleaning and discussion events bring our communities together. Every year we plant thousands of mangroves with the help of our local communities. These activities help improve bonds to work towards a common goal.

Our Watamu Turtle Watch flagship programme involves hands on conservation. We implement day and night monitoring of the main Watamu nesting beach and turtle nests. We have treated over 400 patients in our Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. Our highly successful sea turtle By-catch programme has attracted international attention. In this initiative, sea turtles accidentally caught in nets or on hook by fishermen are brought to us. We have implemented over 15,000 releases since 2000. In recent years we have averaged 1,200 releases a year and over 400 fishermen regularly work with the programme. This has had a noticeable effect on increasing the amount of sea turtles seen in the Watamu area. Apart from the conservation of sea turtles that would almost definitely been illegally killed were it not for this programme, the other spin off benefits are multiple. Data collected has helped us understand that the Watamu area and especially Mida Creek Reserve is an extremely important foraging and resting habitat for juvenile turtles as well as an important nesting area. We are able to recognise trends and indicators including sea turtle migration timings, their health (and therefore possible ocean health), growth rates, foraging and mating areas and much more. The key to this programme is our relationship with the local community and their will to cooperate. We are very aware that the success of all our programme goals depends on our local people. Many of these people have very little, but can be bothered to do the right thing. This should send a very poignant message to those who have more and could do more. It also shows what can happen when good people work together for the common good.

© Stuart Price 2015

Can you tell us about your team?

Most of our crew first came to the project as volunteers. We employ 19 local people. Most have learned on the job as it were! All have a passion for the work they do. I feel energised every time I walk into the project. So many people have noticed the positive vibe amongst the staff and how they work as a team. We make sure that every member, from the cook and gardener to the Askari take part in and understand our marine and sea turtle conservation work and our mandate. All of them visit the Rehab centre when we have patients and know them by name. Our project work is based on an integrated system, so all our staff members have to ensure they work together. Our Project Manager is an experienced Marine Biologist and this has helped immensely with both in house and local capacity building and a greater understanding of our marine environment. I think this is one of Local Ocean’s major contributions to Kenya’s sustainable marine management and conservation and especially for Watamu. I am extremely proud of our crew. They have been through highs and lows over the years, but almost all have remained loyal and true to our cause.

Can you tell us about your education program for local children?

In the last decade there has been an enormous increase of schools in our area, to cater for the explosion in the population. Our education programme now works with 30 local schools, consisting of between 400–700 children in each school. We work through the schools curriculum of Wildlife Clubs. We ensure we have close, regular contact with the relevant teachers in each school. This ensures that apart from our direct contact with the Wildlife Clubs, there is a trickle down effect to the whole school. We host two schools a week during term time and there are outreach visits as well. We have key days through the year, when we try and get groups from as many schools together as we can.

Our Marine Scout programme has been going for nearly 8 years. A group of 8–10 local primary school children join our Marine Scout group yearly. They spend time at our marine centre every Saturday. Our main objective is for them to have fun whilst they learn to appreciate and love our marine environment. They work closely with our crew, including taking part in sea turtle rescues, helping in our Rehabilitation Centre, working in our Marine Green Garden and lots more. They have lunch with our crew and are made to feel part of the team. We have plans to extend this to secondary school children. This would involve more of a course-based approach, which would enable them to obtain an award adding to their qualifications and giving them a better chance of getting a job — hopefully in marine conservation and sustainable marine management.

Whilst the education of children is an extremely important component to our goals, the adherence to the laws and good practices is paramount. We try to instil this in our children and we have already seen the benefits. One school in Mida Creek Reserve found out that there was illegal mangrove cutting near their village. They and their teacher marched to their local Chief’s office and demanded that the perpetrator was stopped and this happened. We know of children who have stopped their family from eating sea turtle meat and fishing with undersized nets, because of our education programme.

We know there is so much more that needs to be done and we strive to improve our reach all the time.

How can people get involved?

We welcome visitors to our marine centre and in this way people can see first hand, how they can make a difference, both in Watamu and in other places. By understanding our ideas and the threats the ocean faces people can help by spreading the word. We have an Adopt a Sea Turtle initiative which helps us raise much needed funds to keep our programmes going. We also run an Eco Visitor programme which enables visitors to see first hand what our day to day work involves. To take part in this programme, guests are asked to make a donation or raise funds for our work.

What is your long-term vision for Local Ocean Conservation both here and as a model for other marine environments?

Promoting the concept of local communities sustainably managing their own local ocean and supporting them in this endeavour, is a major goal. The key to this is information, awareness, constant contact, capacity building and a commitment to long-term collaboration. This is the only way to make a measurable difference on the ground. Understanding and respecting each group or each area’s challenges and strengths, before embarking on an initiative is of paramount importance to Local Ocean. We try to ensure we come up with solutions that are sustainable. At the same time, as the implementing project we too must try to become as self-sustaining as possible. This is a tremendous challenge and one we continually strive to achieve. We have so much more to achieve in Watamu and along the Kenya coast. Sharing and working with genuine partners is of paramount importance to ensure our oceans are urgently given the respect and protection they deserve.

We have many other plans but my one wish is that people start to recognise that what sea turtles need from our marine environment for their survival, almost perfectly mirrors what humans need for our future. This incredibly special animal has so much to teach us.

Local Ocean Conservation provides people the opportunity to witness their sea turtle conservation work up close through their EcoVisitor programme. Find out more here http://wildarkorg.wpengine.com/travels/watamu-bay-local-ocean-conservation-ecovisit-turtle-watch-experience/. Or visit their webiste http://www.watamuturtles.com.