By Everett Potter
It seems like I run into Brad Nahill, co-founder of SEEtheWILD, every time I speak at the Adventure Travel World Summit (ATWS), a gathering of 600 or so like-minded tour operators, journalists and representatives of adventurous destinations around the world.
SEEtheWILD is an expansion of SEE Turtles, and was founded by Brad and by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols. SEE Turtles connects travelers and volunteers with community-based turtle conservation projects in Costa Rica, Mexico, Trinidad, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Since their launch in 2008, the project has generated roughly $300,000 in support for turtle conservation and nearby communities and educated millions about turtle conservation travel. Their activists have taken more than 3,000 actions for wildlife conservation, and their volunteers have filled more than 1,000 shifts at turtle nesting beaches.
The great work of SEEtheWILD inspired us to team up with them for this month’s incredible giveaway. It’s a chance to swim with whale sharks, the largest fish on the planet, off the Yucatan coast of Mexico, and you can enter daily for a chance to win.
This year’s ATWS is in Lucerne, Switzerland in October and I have no doubt I’ll be catching up with Brad there. But in the meantime, it seemed like it was time for Brad to speak to a wider audience about SEEtheWILD.
EP: Brad, tell us about the origins of SEEtheWILD.
BN: We started SEEtheWILD as a way to better connect ecotourism to wildlife conservation. It is the evolution of a non-profit project that I co-founded with conservationist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols called SEE Turtles. We founded SEE Turtles in 2008 as a way to connect travelers and volunteers with sea turtle conservation projects in Latin America. After connecting hundreds of people and generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for turtle conservation, we decided to expand to other animals which now include sharks, whales, big cats, and more, which is SEEtheWILD. People can now find nearly 50 different wildlife trips of all different types on our website and know that at least 5% of the trip cost will be donated to a local conservation group at no cost to them.
EP: What’s your background and how did you get into this aspect of adventure travel?
BN: I came into the adventure travel industry after working for more than a decade in wildlife conservation. I started out of college as a volunteer with a sea turtle conservation project in Costa Rica. I knew nothing about sea turtles or conservation at the time but was able to provide significant help with little training. I loved the volunteer experience so much that I kept returning and in total spent about two years in Costa Rica, primarily working with sea turtle conservation projects.
Coming back to the US, I realized the power of this type of travel to support wildlife and wanted to help small conservation projects around the world better connect to the ecotourism market to receive income and volunteer support. I went on to work with environmental organizations including Ocean Conservancy and Rare, where I developed the marketing and fundraising skills needed to launch SEE Turtles.
EP: How would you define “conservation tourism”?
BN: We define conservation tourism as travel that directly supports the protection of endangered animals. That generally means donations and volunteering but also includes encouraging travelers to become active in advocating for wildlife and educating others about the threats animals face.
EP: What’s makes a SEEtheWILD tour different from other tours that, say, promote some sort of observation or interaction with wildlife?
BN: There are many great wildlife tours out there, but very few have a direct impact on the animal that you’re seeing in its natural habitat. SEEtheWILD ensures that all of the trips we promote meet four criteria.
Direct support of wildlife conservation through donations and/or volunteer support.
Education of travelers about wildlife threats and how they can help.
Support of communities near wildlife hotspots through locally-owned businesses and local guides.
Reduced environmental impact on animals and communities through the use of environmentally friendly lodging, transportation, and other methods.
We partner with leading responsible tour operators that we carefully screen for their environmental and social practices and connect each tour that we promote with an organization in the destination that works to protect the animals featured on the trip.
EP: Tell us how you put a tour together – in terms of wildlife, location and logistics?
BN: Generally we don’t put the tours together ourselves, we seek out operators with strong reputations and hand pick the trips that best fit our criteria. Where possible, we encourage the operators to develop relationships with local wildlife groups and to incorporate activities that involve local residents into the trips. We prioritize animals that are more threatened in locations that have lower levels of tourism.
EP: Tell us about the swim with whale sharks program, which inspired our giveaway on Everett Potter’s Travel Report this month. I saw a whale shark once, while I was standing on a cliff on the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides. For a few moments, I thought I was looking at several fish. Then I realized with some astonishment that it was one enormous creature, maybe 30 feet long.
BN: The Snorkel with Whale Sharks trip is one of our most popular. Participants stay on Isla Mujeres off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the Caribbean and spend their days snorkeling with the world’s largest fish. For every person who goes on this trip, we and the operator who run the trip (Reefs to Rockies), make a donation to Ecocean, an international organization working to protect whale sharks. In addition, travelers can upload photos of the whale sharks they see to Ecocean’s website, where they can be identified, helping to participate in scientific research. (link: http://www.whaleshark.org/)
Many people get nervous just at the name “whale shark” though they are one of the most docile animals in the ocean. You’re correct that they can be more than 30 feet long and weigh up to 20 tons. The surprising thing is that they get to this size by eating microscopic animals in the ocean called plankton. Whale sharks are completely safe to swim with (as long as you stay out of the way of their tail!).
EP: What kind of travelers seek you out – their background?
BN: The common thread of our travelers has been a love of wildlife though we have had a very diverse group so far, ranging from families with small kids to retirees to college students. When we started the project, we wanted to make sure we had something to offer everyone that wants to know their vacation is helping to make a difference. That’s why we decided to expand beyond hands-on volunteer trips to includes adventure tours, small ship cruises, and cultural tours. Ideally though, everyone that comes on our trips returns home inspired to become a wildlife conservationist, in any way they can contribute.
EP: Given the changing world, in terms of conservation, tourism, and the pressure to visit places that saw few visitors a few decades ago, how do you see SEEtheWILD?
BN: While you are right that many important wildlife hotspots have seen a major increase in visitors (which can have a huge impact on animals), the vast majority of great places to see animals and support conservation have few visitors. I envision SEEtheWILD growing to the point where we can help put these places on the map and help guide their development to prevent some of the problems that have happened at other sites and ensure local communities benefit.
EP: As a company, you take travelers to many parts of the world. Name three places that See the Wild goes to where you would gladly drop everything and go this afternoon.
BN: Wow, that’s a tough one but the three places I find myself mentally visiting every time I look at their pages on our site are Mozambique, India, and British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. Mozambique for its combination of the African Big Five terrestrial animals with an astounding variety of ocean wildlife (whale sharks, mantas, humpbacks, and leatherbacks). India because tigers are my favorite animals (don’t tell my turtle conservation colleagues). And the Great Bear because of its unparalleled combination of animals (grizzlies, whales, wolves) with soaring mountains, coastal rainforests, and pristine waters.
EP: Where do you find your center of gravity when you’re not traveling?
BN: Every day at my home office outside of Portland, Oregon, I seek out little spots of green to escape the sound of traffic and humanity. I find that a half hour of quiet time in nature every day helps to clear my mind and keep me focused on our mission.