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Lonco: El Ex-Callejero

Originally written June – July 2013
A departure from the ocean to tell the story of a land companion found during my three month research stay in Patagonia.

Lonco en ruta
Some days here feel like a combination of Homeward Bound and the Discovery Channel. As I walk along the beach, my newfound companion, a former street dog, and a pack of still independent street dogs race ahead. To my right I hear a powerful splash as a whale breaches near to shore. Closer to shore, a few whales linger in the shallows, their exhalations overpowering the gentle ocean waves.

It happened a few days ago. While I am often followed by a stray dog on my walks through town, none has ever stayed longer than a few blocks, soon off to find a free meal or to meet another stray. Yet one day, as I returned from CENPAT, I found a large, German shepherd mix crying in front of our apartments. Most street dogs are independent, street-savvy creatures. While they enjoy the company of humans, they are equally happy chasing compatriots along the beach and down the streets. Occasionally, a fight breaks out. This abandoned dog bore two fresh wounds on his head, a sign of a recent scrap with another dog. He was skinny, but overall healthy.  He didn’t have the independent cadence of a street dog; instead he seemed lost and confused. Likely dropped off here with well wishes from an owner whose house he outgrew, or perhaps strayed too far from home, unable to find the route back.

Lonco en la playa
At first, I thought he would leave, like the other dogs. Find some other street to call his own, or take to the beach. But the next morning, I found him sleeping in front of our small set of houses. He seemed at a loss of what to do and, in turn, began to follow the neighbor’s dog and me around town. I tried to discourage him, tell him to leave, but when he chased the car I was in down several blocks as we tried to go to an asado, I knew it was too late. The following day, as I left for a scuba diving trip, he chased the boat into the water, crying from the beach. When I returned four hours later, I found him resting in front of the scuba shop. Ya esta… he was my new dog.

For a few weeks he didn’t have a name and his collar was  a red lanyard lent to me by my neighbor. She recommended I adopt him and, when I asked how that was possible, she put the lanyard securely around his neck and told me he was now my dog. They say Argentina es un pais generoso, and I suppose it really is – never have I seen the acquirement of a dog happen so easily (or affordably). Even the veterinarian visits were affordable – U$S 20 for his vaccinations and U$S 50 to neuter him. This may explain why I am still in a state of shock after a $300 “routine checkup” and vaccine at the local veterinarian in New York…

One evening, as I was conducting interviews in the hostel down the street from my home and the dog was waiting outside, an elderly couple asked me if I had named him yet. They began to discuss Mapuche words as possible names and recommended Lonco, the name of the tribal chieftain. I let the name sit on my tongue for a few more days before finally deciding that it was perfect – a name from the region, a name evoking leadership and power, a name similar to lindo and loco, my two most frequently used adjectives for the calm-natured, but easily upset, Lonco.

Over the next few months, Lonco became my steadfast companion. We would run along the beach, eat empanadas by the rambla, and spend evenings drinking with my neighbor and her dog Isabella. When I left for Puerto Piramides, my neighbor would watch after him. Upon my return, Lonco was sure to tell me how upset he was at being left (although my neighbor assured me he enjoyed his afternoons with Isabella and meat scraps from the local butcher). Tourists would ask me for directions and I began to feel more integrated into my small house and community.

So when it came time to leave my newfound home and local family, I decided to bring a piece of home back to the states with me. A quick trip to the vet for a travel certificate, signed by the SENASA office in Puerto Madryn, and 12 pesos per kilo at the airport brought Lonco with me to Buenos Aires. From there, we obtained an international travel certificate from another local vet, certified by SENASA in San Isidro and the Ezeiza Airport, spent a few hours of photocopies and verification at the American Airlines check-in, paid $175, and arrived to JFK in New York City on August 22. Just in time for my 90-day visa to expire.

Lonco en Buenos Aires

It was a long journey, from the flat coast of Patagonia to the humid tropics of Buenos Aires to the mountainous terrain of upstate New York, but it fits the nomadic, street dog lifestyle Lonco and I have become accustomed to.  For now, we will take a break and pass the days in the forests and mountains of upstate New York, dreaming of the day we return to the beaches and desert landscape of Puerto Madryn, and to the sound of whales exhaling along the beach as we run with sand in between our toes. 

Lonco en Nueva York
Special thanks to:

My dad, for watching Lonco while I am at Yale and unable to keep him in my apartment.

Milagros, my wonderful neighbor, for keeping a watchful eye on Lonco during my overnight stays in Puerto Piramides

Jackie, for offering her home to Lonco and me and helping me get Lonco fully certified and ready to internationally travel during my three days in Buenos Aires.

Miguel, for helping with transportation of Lonco and his extra large kennel in Puerto Madryn.


Ocean Impacts: Protecting Our Marine Environment

On June 21, I gave a lecture at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on behalf of Cousteau Divers. The presentation focused on the positive impacts humans can have on the marine environment through the study and protection of marine habitats and species.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) is distinct from other aquariums and institutes with captive marine mammals in that it functions entirely as a hospital for the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of sick or injured marine animals. Any marine animal that is unable to return to the wild remains at the CMA in order to educate visitors on the threats marine animals face in the wild, such as abandoned nets and crab traps, boating collisions, and pollution.

As a marine economist, my main research focus is the socio-economic benefits of marine protected areas, specifically looking at different types of management strategies and how those strategies are reflected in short and long term outcomes.

According to the IUCN, a marine protected area (MPA) is

“Any area of the intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment.”

Worldwide, only 1.1% of ocean habitats are protected by MPAs, whereas 12% of terrestrial habitats are protected.

In the United States, marine sanctuary is the common term for marine protected areas designed to “to conserve, protect, and enhance their biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy”. Currently, there are thirteen marine sanctuaries in the United States and one marine national monument. Of these, only two are in the Gulf of Mexico. These two sanctuaries protect approximately 3,390 square miles of sea grass beds, coral reefs, coral-sponge communities, and deep water habitats.

One of these marine sanctuaries is perhaps the most renown – the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. However, my personal favorite is the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. 

Designated in 1992, this sanctuary protects the northernmost coral reefs in the United States from the adverse impacts of fishing, anchoring, and oil exploration and drilling. The sanctuary is home to an incredible array of tropical fish, huge manta rays, sea turtles, the occasional whale shark, and an annual migratory group of Great Hammerheads.

The very thought of pristine coral reefs just 120 miles out of Galveston is surprising and almost unbelievable – a testament to the incredible benefits of the marine sanctuary designation.


Despite its protected status, the sanctuary is surrounded by oil rigs and platforms and evidence of illegal fishing gear sometimes appears on the site. There is actually an operational platform within the sanctuary, a relic from the days before it was protected. Just like in West Palm Beach, Lionfish are becoming a growing threat in the Flower Garden Banks Sanctuary. During my visit last October, our crew caught three in the sanctuary. There is an ongoing effort and a proposal to expand the sanctuary borders, uniting the three individual banks and incorporating nearby banks with a similar wealth of biodiversity,  and to provide additional protection against anthropogenic threats.

If you are interested in diving the Flower Garden Banks Sanctuary, I highly recommend booking a trip with the M/V Fling. Their professional crew and well equipped vessel will ensure a great weekend trip.

Beyond the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary exists an entire network of “islands” of life, connected along the Gulf Stream. Although some of these habitats are deepwater reefs beyond recreational diving limits, they provide important nutrients and plankton that supplement shallower water reefs. The hope is to one day protect all of these banks and create a “network” of marine protected areas throughout the Gulf. This would enhance each habitat’s resilience to adverse events, such as oil spills, and potentially increase biodiversity and abundance of species. In total, these protected areas would only protect 1/5 of 1% of the Gulf of Mexico. Such a small, but significant, area of protection would still allow other human activities to continue while protecting important habitats and ensuring a healthy Gulf.

The proliferation of oil exploration and drilling along the Gulf continental shelf and the socio-economic importance of commercial and recreational fisheries pose the biggest challenge to designating additional marine protected areas in the Gulf of Mexico. However, given that only two sanctuaries exist in our nation’s largest marine ecosystem, whereas five sanctuaries exist along the Pacific coast and three on the Atlantic coast, it is clear that these two sanctuaries are simply not enough for our Gulf coast.

How you can get involved:

The best way to promote the designation of additional marine sanctuaries is through research and public support. Public comment periods provide an opportunity for non-profit organizations, research institutions, industries, and concerned citizens to voice their opinions on management plans for existing or potential marine sanctuaries.

You can also volunteer to help monitor and research existing marine sanctuaries. The concept of marine protected areas is relatively new, compared to that of national parks, and only through research can we better understand the short and long term costs and benefits of such conservation programs.