When Sara Maxwell journeyed to Africa and the Republic of Congo, it was to conduct research aimed at protecting an endangered sea turtle there — the olive ridley. The work, part of her doctorate dissertation at University of California Santa Cruz, turned out to be the greatest challenge in her life to date.
“I couldn’t have done it without the support of my friends and family as I encountered challenges of all kinds,” she said.
Maxwell, a 1997 graduate of St. John Neumann High School, was born and raised in Naples and completed her undergraduate work at the University of Florida. Local Collier County businesses — Kitchen Gardens Inc. and Square’s Landscaping — and leaders in the community like Martha Cole provided support to her imperative research in the most intact environmental area of western Africa.
Through her combined efforts with other researchers, Maxwell’s study and its recommendations, Gabon, Africa and the Republic of Congo are in the process of creating the first international marine park in the region. The Gabonese government had created a marine park to protect the turtles from fishing nets in the area, but found the turtles were still dying despite that effort.
“They created the park without really knowing where the turtles go,” she explained.
Her group attached trackers to the shells of the enormous sea turtles as they crawled ashore in masses along one of the largest nesting sites for sea turtles. With dozens of lifeless turtles washing up on the beach each year when fishing is at its high, there needed to be a better understanding of where the olive ridley and leatherback turtles were congregating.
The information gleaned from the satellite tracking devices revealed the turtles were spending large portions of time outside the parks, explaining their continued decline. This research showed the national park boundaries were ineffective and work must be done to change the dimensions of the park leading to the merge. It also informed park rangers of the best areas to patrol.
“Illegal fishing does occur because it’s a difficult area to patrol with the limited resources available,” Maxwell said. “It’s key to learn where these turtles are going, making it critical research.”
There are plans to continue efforts in Africa, but Maxwell saw immediate results from her studies — something she didn’t expect. There were many unexpected twists to her journey, which included an extended four-week stay her second visit.
“The turtles were late,” she explained.
Plans were continually falling apart: Flights would stop running, an all-terrain vehicle would break down and sometimes even the truck would stop running, leaving the looming possibility of taking a bush taxi several miles on rugged terrain to the field site.
“I had no idea of what to expect,” Maxwell said.
The best advice she received was to accept the lateness and laid back lifestyle. It was probably the one thing, next to the support of her Naples community, that helped her survive the adventure. Maxwell described her trip best with the following pseudo-summary in numbers on her blog at Tagging of Pacific Predators, www.topp.org:
Days in Gabon: 74
Times she changed her plane ticket home: 3
Days without seeing a sea turtle: 65
Weddings of close friends she missed: 1
Fungal infections in her foot: 2
Days without talking to an English speaker: 25
Miles walked: 304
Pounds lost: 12
Miles covered by bush taxi: 180
Horrible blisters: 1
Blank stares from her field assistance due to her French: 1,264
Amazing friendships made: 12
Times she was thankful for the support of her friends and family: 9,356
Days she wishes she had never gone: 0
“It was absolutely all worth the turtles,” she admitted. “I even named a turtle after my 5-year-old niece.”
Maxwell currently works for the nonprofit Marine Conservation Institute in Santa Cruz, Calif., where she is studying large birds and fish in protected areas – mainly the remote Pacific Islands. Maxwell, who almost became a veterinarian, graduated last year from UC Santa Cruz and still resides in Santa Cruz.