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Miracle of the Mantas - A six minute video.
While exploring the Sea of Cortez, Hardy Jones encountered a giant manta ray entangled in 100 feet of fishing line. After cutting off the monofilament line, Hardy was rewarded with a rare and thrilling adventure - - a ride through undersea canyons on the back of the manta. Don't miss this awe-inspiring video!

Rasa Island supports the heroic work of Dra. Enriqueta Velarde on Rasa Island. - Located in the midriff of the Sea of Cortez, Rasa Island is essential to the survival of royal and elegant terns. A single woman has fought for twenty years to protect this tiny island and surrounding waters.

Story by Caitlyn Toropova

On an uninhabited island in the middle of the Sea of Cortez, Enriqueta Velarde contemplates why she has continued to return to this one-mile strip of rock for 23 years. Just then, one of the million Elegant Terns nearby stands to reveal a newborn chick and she remembers why. This woman has single-handedly saved this magnificent island and the birds that inhabit it. With virtually no funding, and few resources, Enriqueta has fought for over 20 years to bring Isla Rasa to the attention of the world. And she is succeeding.

Once destined to become decimated by overfishing and exploitation, Isla Rasa is now part of a reserve system in large part thanks to her. Dra. Velarde realizes that saving one rock amongst an entire living ecosystem is not enough. Her determination that saved an island and it's bird populations has now turned to protecting and preserving the living sea surrounding her island sanctuary. What does it mean to dedicate your life to something you believe in? Dra. Velarde, a unique combination of great scientist and someone totally in tune with the natural world, knows - and this is her dramatic and inspiring story.

Isla Rasa: Where it Began

The Sea of Cortez lies between the Baja peninsula and mainland Mexico. Within this magnificent and once-teeming sea, lie small volcanic islands. One island in particular, Isla Rasa, became a place of fascination and dedication for a young and determined student, Enriqueta Velarde. Rasa is one square mile of pristine bird habitat.

Nearly one million Royal Terns, Elegant Terns and Hermann's gulls live, feed and breed on this small strip of island, some traveling all the way from northern California. Enriqueta Velarde first fell in love with Rasa and it's one-mile strip of bird haven in the late 1970's under the guidance of Dr. Bernardo Villa at his laboratory at the Institute of Biology in Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM). Isla Rasa had achieved some mainstream popularity due a series of articles in National Geographic in the 1950's and from early visits of various eager biologists. This popularity helped to prepare the way for the first Federal Decree protecting certain ecosystems around Rasa in the northern Gulf of the Sea of Cortez. In 1964 the official governmental register (Diario Oficial de la Federación) published a decree declaring Isla Rasa a nature reserve and a refuge of migratory birds.

The politics of Rasa and its surrounding islands was not what initially drew Enriqueta here, but would have a profound affect on her actions later. What distinguishes Enriqueta is her pure passion for the beauty and rarity of all the life teeming throughout the Sea of Cortez. She spent long field seasons alone on Isla Rasa filling her days with the companionship of terns and gulls. Soon, Rasa became her home and this single young woman would fight well over 20 years for the protection of Rasa, it's birds and the wealth of life surrounding her.

From Those First Days

Since her first days as a student in the 1970's Enriqueta has become a conservationist, biologist and world expert on the birds of Mexico. On Rasa Enriqueta began a long period of research to find out how well the bird populations were faring. Over the years fishing operations expanded and Enriqueta began to see an alarming change in the catch being brought back to the island by the terns in particular. As the populations of sardine were over exploited by fishing, the birds were bringing back more and more anchovy - a fish with less nutritional value.

Over the years, she discovered that her once pristine Sea was becoming alarmingly overfished and the handful of islands that gave protection and shelter to her family of seabirds were being poached and polluted. Enriqueta knew that in order to protect these birds that had become such integral parts of her life she had to protect a vast area of the neighboring Sea including the nearby islands of San Lorenzo, Las Animas, Sal si Puedes, Partida and Cardonosa. Not only were the islands and Sea of Cortez needing protection but all the creatures above and below the waterline were under attack as well. Thanks in large part to Enriqueta's lifetime of work on Rasa and the surrounding islands, most of the bird populations that so heavily rely on them have come under the protection of the Mexican government. The Royal Tern, Elegant Tern and Hermann's Gull, basis of Enriqueta's life work and once nearly annihilated by egg poachers, have rebounded.

Now, as Dra. Velarde, her work continues, but it does not advance as quickly as she would like due to substantial lack of funding. Her battle to save the Sea of Cortez as a whole and pristine ecosystem has distinguished itself by the fact that it has been lone individuals, like Enriqueta, with small resources but huge dedication and initiative who have made a difference. Enriqueta Velarde's individual effort continues to motivate students and local people to protect one of Mexico's greatest treasures. The enormous support from the local people and from the Mexican navy has allowed her to continue despite the funding problems.

Enriqueta reports that "Twenty five years ago the navy captains whose boats we use would say 'Why should this woman want to tell me what to do.' But now it has changed. Now they're very interested in what we're doing and they're glad to see that women are involved in these activities. And they really believe in what we're doing and what they're supporting us to do is important so they get involved and do what we ask them to do."

Thankfully, the local support and dedication of her students has propelled her work to new levels. In the 1980's, as she realized the drastic change in the catch being brought back to the island by the terns, she set up experiments that could prove what she was seeing year after year to any doubting fisherman and governmental body. She went about her work in new and innovative ways and, as she studied fluctuations in the fish and bird populations over the years, Enriqueta found that she could predict the success of fishermen by watching the success of birds bringing catch back to Rasa. This type of prediction was never before conceived of, let alone heeded. She now believes information on seabird feeding success is an early warning of how a fishing season will be.

As she continues to accumulate data and the fishermen come to believe her predictions it could save millions of dollars of wasted effort on the part of fishermen. In addition, knowing in advance the status of a fishery by monitoring the birds which feed upon it, could help save the fishery from overexploitation during years when populations are low. Enriqueta's revolutionary work could also have application in fisheries worldwide -- wherever seabirds feed on fish such as anchovy, sardine or capelin. Fishermen are not yet ready to accept her thesis but they are listening and Enriqueta believes that if the data remains accurate for a few more years they will begin to regulate their fishing based on her findings.

She is convinced both the fish stocks and the fishermen would be beneficiaries. Dr. Velarda explains her goals for the future of the fishing industry in the area she calls her home, "I would like to see that the resources are better managed, that the fisheries are still going on because we have been able to do it in a rational and sustainable way and that people can still rely on fisheries to make a livelihood."

Her Fight for Rasa Continues

Enriqueta Velarda is now a well-loved and respected educator; both of her students at University of Mexico and of the tourists who help support her research by visiting the small oasis in the middle of the Sea. Dr. Velarde is currently a researcher at the Universidad Veracruzana in Jalapa, Veracruz and has worked for more than 20 years studying on behavior and ecology of seabirds with application to conservation and management of the commercially important fish on which they feed. She has taught at the University of Mexico for 23 years and her passion still brings her to Rasa each year, but her need to communicate about the protection of the Sea of Cortez has expanded from her earlier days. After years of work on Isla Rasa and teaching at the National University, Enriqueta was invited into the Department of Environmental Protection in Mexico City. She negotiated the corridors of power with success, eventually having much of the Midriff Island area of the Sea of Cortez declared a sanctuary.

In addition to her political successes, the fisherman have realized what a gifted predictor of fish abundance the birds of Isla Rasa can be and are slowly coming to accept her predictions. It is these difficult and time consuming successes that has kept Enriqueta inspired. She is also driven by the numerous wild creatures that live within the bright blue depths of the Sea of Cortez. "They give me energy to keep on working. They give me a lot of things to think about. About us as human beings and what we have as organisms that still belong to the environment and that are intertwined to the whole ecosystem".

Although Enriqueta considers the birds of Rasa to be her life's work, she has been involved in other conservation work throughout the Sea of Cortez, including the effort to end the highly destructive slaughter of hammerhead sharks. Once passing through in massive swarming schools these often misunderstood creatures have been fished extensively for their fins -- considered an Oriental delicacy in shark fin soup. "These animals breed very slowly. They will recover very slowly if they are protected at all. So it's very, very dangerous to overexploit the fishery of these animals. And also they are top predators so they are very important in the food chain and in the whole ecosystem."

Her enthusiasm and dedication to all of the life that inhabits the Sea of Cortez continues, unwavering. " I'm fascinated by the area. It's so full of energy and so full of life and so pristine, even now after 23 years". This amazing woman who has dared to take on government and business has saved the birds of Rasa as well as many other parts of the Sea of Cortez and will no doubt be fighting for these rare jewels for another twenty years.

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