Volunteering with Sea Turtles in Mexico
Just an hour’s drive from the Mexican resort of Cancun is a picturesque beach of white sands tinted with pink from the red coral eroded in the reef. Mangrove forests encroach onto the sand and palm trees bow towards the blue water of the Caribbean. Next to this beachfront paradise there are no hotels or resorts and no tourists sunning themselves, only a few wooden frames of long deserted huts that once overlooked the sea.
The reason for such solitude can be found away from the water’s edge, in the form of several numbered sticks, which indicate recently laid turtle eggs.
One warm summer night we joined local “turtle team” volunteers, Sylvia and Jose, who offered to give us an insight into the lives of an amazing and ancient creature. Of the eight species of sea turtle, seven can be found in the Gulf of Mexico and two of these nest on this particular beach. The increase in tourism to the beaches around this area has meant that few females come ashore to lay their eggs.
Furthermore, illegal demand for turtle shell jewelry, accidental capture in fishing nets, and pollution have contributed to the rapid decline of turtle numbers in the last 50 years.
The aim of local turtle teams is to study the female turtles and help to ensure that a maximum number of young not only hatch but also make their way to the sea.Fences protect the nests of eggs that are about to hatch, and as the young emerge from the sand they are placed in containers to be carried close to the water.
I am handed a large bucket with dozens of turtles, hatched only minutes before. I pick one up, noting with surprise the hardness of its shell. When I place the turtle on the beach, its flippers move constantly to imprint the chemicals and texture of the sand on the beach where it is born. This action will enable the turtles to return to this beach when they reach sexual maturity, in as many as 50 years. For this reason, although we give them a helping hand, they must journey the last few meters into the sea on their own.
The best estimates expect only one in 1,000 turtles to survive to sexual maturity. Out of all the turtles hatching on this beach over the summer, perhaps only one or two will return. Other turtle team volunteers recapture newly hatched turtles after they have entered the water, and they are kept in captivity for up to a year to allow them to grow big enough to deter most predators when released into the ocean. Fighting the growing number of hotel chains that want to build resorts on this beach has exhausted all the funds of environmental groups in this area. A team of volunteers is all that these groups have to rely on.
With Sylvia and Jose we wait for dusk to spot the large shell of a female logger head turtle as she emerges from the white surf. She begins her long crawl up the beach to find a suitable place to nest as we watch. She stops perhaps 10 meters from the water and begins to dig. After her shell has disappeared below the mound of sand, she emerges and advances another few meters before digging again. The position of a nest is crucial to its survival—too wet and the eggs will rot, too dry and they will desiccate.
Once a turtle begins to lay her eggs she is not distracted by visitors, and we are allowed to approach. Every few seconds an egg drops into a small hole beneath her. It is difficult to picture how the palm-sized hatchling I had released earlier that night could grow to over a meter long, the size of this female.
After about 20 minutes she lets out a puff of breath before the final egg drops into a full nest. Her flippers push sand over the eggs, patting it down. The nest must be covered with an exact amount of sand and pressure so the hatchlings can break their way through. The mother crawls partly out of the hole and uses her front flippers to push sand behind her. Sand flies into the air and after several pauses the hole is filled.
As the group looks on Jose reaches over to take measurements. He tells us that this 80-year-old female has been ashore three times this season, laying almost 500 eggs.
Three other turtles—one greenback and two other loggerheads—have made their way onto the beach during this time. Sylvia and Jose leave to perform the same checks on these new arrivals and to tag those that have not been seen before. The data they collect helps to establish the turtles’ habits, their numbers, distribution, and age. Radio tags on some turtles have tracked them swimming from Mexico to South Africa and Australia before returning to the same beach in two or three years to lay again.
Like us, turtles, it seems, also have wanderlust.