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Reflections on the water: Juan Manuel Ordoqui


by Silvina Perez, Biblioteca de la Facultad de Veterinaria, Universidad de la República, Uruguay

Juan Manuel Ordoqui, is 24 years old and was born in the Rivera Department, in the northern region of Uruguay. He is an advanced student of Biological Sciences at the Faculty of Sciences-University of the Republic. Since he was a child he has felt a special affinity towards animals and nature. Juan Manuel is an activist in the Karumbé NGO, which rescues sea turtles, and in the Socobioma NGO which is dedicated to conserving biodiversity. Last year he submitted a project to National Geographic for the “Young Explorers 2021” program.

His project "Exploratory study of a potential coastal marine protected area" was selected along with 25 participants among thousands around the world. The objective of his project is to record the biodiversity of Playa Verde in Maldonado, Uruguay and to ensure that this area enters the National System of Protected Areas.

First contact: “It is incredible to be able to look at something that has no limits”

Juan Manuel’s first contact with the sea was when he was little, on his walks along the coast. His mother tells him that when he saw the sea, he was silent, lost in thought, open-mouthed, fascinated…“It is incredible to be able to look at something that has no limits”... Living in the Rivera Department, his contact with the sea was only on vacation, when he traveled with his family to the coast. He tells us that even today, he is impressed by the immensity of the ocean.

Since childhood, Juan Manuel had a special love for nature and animals. He looked for spaces to explore natural environments and was always rescuing and helping an injured or hungry animal. Inspired by the nature documentaries he watched as a child, Juan Manuel would dream of a future where his love for nature and animals could become a full time vocation. 

Moving to Montevideo at the age of 18 meant a great change in his life.

That gave him the opportunity to join Karumbé: “it was the best year of my life for me. It was the place where I could grow up, where I felt part of a family, of a group that worked on problems that I love and that conservation always motivated me.” In the free time he had, he took advantage by taking care of turtles.

Juan Manuel is currently an active member of Karumbé and Socobioma, organizations dedicated to animal conservation, ecology and biodiversity.

Since 2019 he has collaborated with PCMU, Program for the Conservation of Bats in Uruguay. He also works in a company that works in ecotourism: “I am really lucky because in 2020 I managed to get a job linked to tourism, working in ecotourism and sustainable tourism in an agency. I was able to start work and travel around the country. I think it contributed to my training.”

National Geographic and a great opportunity

Juan Manuel’s mom told him about the call for Young Explorers from National Geographic and said: "look, in the future it could be you."

The project was presented through Karumbé, with the advice of the scientific coordinator of the NGO, Gabriela Vélez-Rubio, and the environmental education coordinator Ayelén Pacheco.

In December 2021, Juan Manuel received an email from National Geographic with the great news: he was one of the chosen "young explorers 2021", the only representative from Uruguay and one of only 8 selected from Latin America.

 “The call came 4 years ago. It is a program for young explorers, it is like a seed program, a public call open to all young people between 16 and 25 years old, who have a project related to conservation, the environment, working with the community and everything that is environmental education.”

The objective of the project is to carry out an exploratory study of a marine coastal area in Playa Verde and generate a database of all the biodiversity present in Playa Verde.

“We chose Playa Verde because it is one of the last places in the interior of the Río de la Plata that has the presence of macroalgae, the Río de la Plata receives a lot of influence from the Atlantic, which means that there is a great variety of health, temperature and it has a wide variety of nutrients. Another reason is that we have fresh water on the one hand and salt water on the other.”

This area is known in particular for its rocky bottoms, for its high presence of macroalgae towards the interior of the Río de la Plata estuary and for its high frequency of green turtles (Chelonia mydas).

Several experts will work on this project: biologists, veterinarians and volunteers from the Karumbé organization as well as artisanal fishermen from the area, who play a fundamental role since they have lived there all their lives and their experience is unmatched.

Diving equipment will be used to take underwater filming and photography to complete a survey of the living beings that inhabit this ecosystem.

Once the data is obtained, it will be submitted to the National System of Protected Areas of the Ministry of Environment, and thus achieve the incorporation of Playa Verde to the list of protected landscapes in the country.

“In addition to doing all the survey of this biodiversity, we want to study behavioral aspects of the green turtle, if they are seasonal, if they are at the bottom, if they only go up to feed. We will achieve this by filming and without being in contact with the animals, that is, without physically touching the animals, but taking photos, making films. We also want to focus the entire project on environmental education, we are going to work with educational centers, through filming and photos, showing children how fantastic everything that can be seen under water is.”

The future: conservation and hope

“What I see for the future is that there is a secure future...there is a lot of youth mobilizing and making themselves heard...making a difference...and also with this National Geographic selection it makes you have hope because I was one of the 25 young people from the world who were selected and all these young people are between 16 and 25 years old, that is, they are the people who shape the future. I know that in terms of conservation we are at a critical point, but I think we still have time to collectively charge our batteries and perhaps stop the destruction and be able to do something before it is too late. We have to keep our ears open to listen to the problems that encompass everything, because sooner or later everything, everything ends in the same place.”

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