The Gulf of California / Sea of Cortez attracts visitors from across the globe that come to experience the uniqueness of this bountiful sea. Divers, snorkelers, kayakers, boaters, campers, and beach-lovers, to name but a few, share a common attraction to the inviting waters that are home to a wide range of charismatic marine animals such as various species of baleen whales, sea lions, dolphins, orcas, sea turtles, mantas and several species of sharks including the largest of them all, the whale shark.
This diversity facilitates a wildlife tourism industry that generates substantial revenue for the city of La Paz, the benefits of which extend throughout the community into other businesses such as hotels, bars and restaurants, souvenir shops, taco stands, markets, taxis and numerous other services, resulting in the creation of jobs in the sectors impacted.
In addition to the financial benefits, responsibly conducted ecotourism activities play a substantial role in raising awareness about the beauty and fragility of our marine environment and the threats that some of its inhabitants are facing.
Behind the scenes, communities exist that view this natural treasure from the distant foothills of La Paz’s mountainous backdrop. One such community is called Vista Hermosa (Beautiful View), a poverty-stricken neighbourhood that overlooks the bay and much of city of La Paz from its elevated position in the base of the mountains. Many homes are without running water, sanitation and electricity and simply getting a small family to the nearest beach by public transportation may be financially off-limits to many of the residents of this impoverished community.
The Mexican minimum daily wage right now stands at $102.68 Mexican pesos, a little over $5 United States Dollars. So if both parents work a six day week, they would collectively earn just $1,232.16 Mexican Pesos ($68 USD) before taxes. It’s hardly surprising that a family living in this reality would be hard pushed to go visit the islands just offshore of their city.
This prompted me to seek a way to take some of the youngsters within these families out on boat trips with our paying guests. I approached a local kid’s charity, Care for Kids La Paz, who serve the community of Vista Hermosa with the aim of bringing dignity and independence to its families. Through sponsorships and donations, they raise money to help keep kids in school, catering to their basic needs in terms of books and uniforms and even securing university scholarships for some of them where possible. Having worked with Care for Kids La Paz in the past on a similar project, I contacted the charity’s founder, Barbara Spencer, to ask if any of the youngsters of Vista Hermosa might be interested in joining us on excursions to swim with whale sharks or visit the islands. Of course Barbara didn’t have look too far before finding interest. The next step was to find the funding to pay for their spaces on the boats. I decided to look to our ecotourism participants as the possible source of these funds.
Once a guest reserves one of our wildlife excursions, they are sent a trip guide by email, giving them a little more information about the tour such as where to meet and tips on what they should bring. This trip guide became the perfect method for introducing our idea to potential sponsors and it wasn’t before long that we began to receive support for the project. Several of our pending ecotourism participants were more than happy to sponsor under-privileged kids interested in experiencing a trip that they could otherwise not afford. Where possible, the sponsored individual(s) would join the same trip as the sponsors themselves, giving the youngsters the opportunity to meet the people that made the excursion possible for them and offer them their thanks in person. Similarly, the sponsors would have the opportunity to get to know something about the kids involved, sharing a natural experience with them that was more often than not for their first time too. Our team is bilingual so were on-hand when required to assist the interaction. The exchange was a fantastic experience for all. We also took the initiative to subsidize the project by selling merchandise in the form of t-shirts and keychains to our guests, friends and the wider community, applying 100% of the proceeds to the cause.
During the trips the children would receive the same briefing as any regular guest, learning about the animals and habitat that they were visiting and the codes of conduct concerning interacting with the natural environment. It was encouraging to see them absorbing the information in their somewhat nervous excitement. I recall looking on as one kid was slipping into his lifejacket; a grin spanning his face that resembled the grin of the Cheshire cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Until this day, Espiritu Santo was nothing more than a distant blob on the horizon to this boy and it was at this moment that I realized that we were doing a good thing for these youngsters. But how did the project impact them? Barbara spoke to them after their experiences to find out.
“I was sponsored to join a family on a whale shark trip. At first I was scared but then I gained confidence. I saw these big animals eating plankton and I saw them from very close. They looked so big! I really liked the experience since it was also my first ever time in a boat.”Enrique is 17 years old and lives with his mother, father, and 3 siblings. He receives a scholarship from Care for Kids La Paz.
“It was one of my most incredible, most exciting experiences, because it was the first time I have seen a whale shark face to face. When I saw the big fish it was such an amazing feeling. It was a very happy day and that is why I am very grateful to the people who made it possible for me to join this trip. The experience has also helped me to overcome the fear of swimming in the ocean.”Alan is 17 years old and lives with his mother, father, and 2 siblings in a house with no running water or electricity. He receives a scholarship from Care for Kids La Paz.
“Well it was very nice the experience I attended, I got to experience Isla Espiritu Santo and I even got to snorkel and see how wonderful it is under the water, to see the turtles, and to swim with the sea lions. It was a very nice experience that I will never forget.”Brayan is 16 years old and lives with his mother, father, and 5 siblings. He later wants to become an architect.
“It was very amazing to be able to meet the whale sharks for the first time. I really liked the coexistence between the sharks and people and especially liked the great team they used to take my brother and I on an incredible journey.”Gaby is just 15 years old and lives with her mother, father, and 2 siblings. She scored a perfect 10 for the entire school year. Gaby receives a scholarship from Care for Kids La Paz.
“I now know that whale sharks are very beautiful animals. Swimming with them for the first time was an amazing experience to live.”Manuel 18 years old and lives with his mother, father, and 2 siblings. He wants to study software design or gastronomy. Manuel receives a scholarship from Care for Kids La Paz.
Being deprived of enjoying ones’ natural heritage is a sad fact of life for the less fortunate. We commit to continuing with the development of this project so that we can positively impact the lives of more children in the hope we can open their eyes to a much larger, more beautiful world.
On behalf of myself, Care for Kids La Paz, and the youngsters that we have worked with so far, I would like to thank the direct sponsors and buyers of our merchandise that made this project possible.
For more information about the work of Care for Kids La Paz you can visit their website.
For information about sponsoring a local youngster to join one of our future wildlife excursions you can contact me directly:
Cel: +52 1 612 197 5824