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Volunteer to Save Sea Turtles in Mexico

Volunteers help El Tortugario sanctuary release a batch of hatchlings into the sea. El Tortugario released more than 90,000 turtles in 2004, but on average only one in 1,000 survive to sexual maturity.

On a moonlit autumn night, if you look out the patio of your room at Hotel San Rafael in Cuyutlán, you might witness an ancient ritual being performed on the beach beyond the palm trees lining the shore.

For centuries, giant sea turtles have been returning home to lay their eggs in the sands of Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Through a mysterious chemical process called “imprinting,” they return to the exact spot where they entered the water as newborns. Many volunteer programs—both short- and long-term—are available for those who wish to help protect them.

One such program is offered through El Tortugario, a turtle sanctuary located in the village of Cuyutlán, near Manzanillo. Its primary purpose is the preservation of endangered sea turtles through observing them laying their eggs, rescuing eggs from poachers and releasing hatchlings into the sea.

“We have released about 70,000 baby sea turtles each season since 1993,” explained Rafael Robles, the center’s lead educator. “And we count on volunteers to help in peak seasons.”

“We have had success restoring the population of the Olive Ridley and Negra turtles,” he explained, “but the Leatherback is already 95 percent extinct.” Restoring the sea turtle population is a slow and labor intensive process.

“We patrol over 60 kilometers of shoreline, watching for turtles laying their eggs. Then we gather the eggs and incubate them until they hatch,” explained Robles, pointing to a small pool filled with glossy 2-day-old turtles. “After the turtles are born, they have enough food and energy for seven days. If we keep them longer than that, they start to eat each other.”

During my visit, a batch of 3-day-old hatchlings was ready to be released. We headed across the sand dunes to the shoreline to help. The staff educator reached into a bucket and placed an Olive Ridley turtle in each of our hands. Mine was cool to the touch and wriggling.

“Uno, dos, tres,” At the count of three we crouched in a line like Olympic sprinters, pointed our turtles toward the water, and released them.

My turtle headed out with purpose, but the woman beside me was worried. Her turtle had turned around and was headed back to the hatchery.

“Do not move your turtle, pick it up, or otherwise disrupt the process,” said Robles. “They are imprinting themselves on the sand so they can remember where they come from.”

Suddenly, my neighbor’s turtle turned and headed back toward the ocean.

Although it was the time of day when few birds were feeding, there were still plenty of dangers including natural predators such as crabs, sea gulls, fish, and sharks. We all hoped that our turtles would be one of the two out of 100 that survive to adulthood.

Just then, a huge wave washed up and carried them all out to sea. We watched the water’s cold grey surface for signs of the baby turtles. It was hard to imagine anything could survive in such a big ocean.

But I can still hope and imagine that if I return to Mexico someday, I might see my turtle struggling up the shore to lay her legacy in the sand. If not, at least she’s been imprinted on my memory.

For More Info

The nesting and hatching season for sea turtles is from approximately July to January. Hotel San Rafael offers short- and long-term accommodations in Cuyutlán.

El Tortugario welcomes visitors and volunteers.

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