Marvel of the Sea-Main

Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Summer/Fall 2007 issue.

Long before jet skis and condominiums, ATVs and fishing trawlers, female sea turtles crawled from the oceans and bays along the Pacific coast of Mexico to fling away loose sand and construct their nests. One of the oldest creatures in the world, this saltwater reptile appeared on earth about 200 million years ago, evolving over time to the eight species inhabiting today’s oceans, all of which are currently on the verge of extinction. Seven of these, including the Olive Ridley, the Hawksbill, and the gravely endangered Leatherback, nest on Mexican beaches. These ancient creatures are considered an evolutionary success. The sea turtle has survived the extinction of other species, including the dinosaurs, without modifying its anatomy and has witnessed the birth of the creatures that may prove its undoing: humans.

Along the coasts of Jalisco and Nayarit, from the azure waters south of Mismaloya to the rolling ocean of San “Pancho”, Olive Ridley sea turtles, the most common in the world, faithfully migrate hundreds – sometimes thousands – of miles from their feeding grounds to the beaches where they were born in order to nest. In contrast, the much larger Leatherback females often change beaches each nesting season.

Agile and graceful in the sea, turtles are slower and awkward on land. The female turtle works hard to dig a cavity for her eggs with her flippers. She lays from 45 to 120 eggs resembling ping-pong balls, and then fills and conceals the nest. Once the female has constructed the nest, usually at night and without any help from the male, she never returns to it. The turtle hatchlings must liberate themselves after about 60 days, generally in the dark or during a rainstorm when temperatures are cooler. The temperature of the sand affects the speed at which the embryos develop, however, so the hatching period can cover a broad range. When the hatchlings are ready to emerge, they
erupt from the nests as a group, orient themselves to moonbeams shining on the water, and dash across the sand to the sea en masse.

Interestingly, the females also nest in a crowd or arribada, the Spanish word for arrival used to describe the mass nesting of olive ridley turtles in particular, which mostly takes place from June through December. Scientists do not know exactly what brings thousands of the turtles ashore to deposit their eggs at the same time, but possibilities include moon or tide phases as well as climate and weather conditions.

Leaving and returning to the sea together may be a natural defense for the turtles against predators or a result of environmental factors, but grouping may also make the creatures more susceptible to massive harvests by man or natural disasters. The potential for turtle catastrophe is great: babies may die of dehydration in the sun making their short, but perilous, journey to the ocean or they are seized by natural predators like crabs or waiting herons. Once in the water, they may be caught in currents or eaten by sharks or circling birds or die after accidentally garbage. In fact, only about one in a 1,000 baby turtles survives to adulthood.

Adult turtles are at grave risk as well. In addition to the innate dangers of the sea such as sharks and tropical cyclones, turtles are seriously threatened by humans. The list is long: nets and lines of fishing operations; the ingestion of discarded plastic material such as plastic bags or balloons they mistake for jellyfish; water pollution; boats and jet skis; construction of buildings and seawalls which change the tides and beaches; ATVs on the beach that often crush nests; and lights from more and more hotels, homes and cars along beach that confuse the hatchlings. Poachers seek both the meat and eggs of the turtles to sell in Mexico and as far as Japan. For many years people along the coast of Mexico have traditionally consumed turtle as a part of their diet, partly because the eggs supposedly provided some aphrodisiac powers as well as protection against asthma and bronchitis. Leatherbacks are hunted as well for the oil they secrete, which is thought to contain medicinal qualities and is used for caulking boats or burning in lamps.

Well, if virility wouldn’t be threatened by the extinction of sea turtles, why bother to save them? Scientists can’t say with certainty, but enough is known about the diets of turtles to theorize. For example, turtles are one of very few animals to eat sea grass. Like a lawn, sea grass needs to be cut to thrive. As sea grass provides breeding and developmental grounds for some fish and seafood, a decline in these beds could affect the food we eat. Likewise, turtles feed on jellyfish. Without this natural predator, the jellyfish population could explode, keeping us all out of the ocean.

Attempts in Mexico to protect sea turtles are a combination of official and unofficial endeavors and responsibility seems to shift among agencies. Since 2000, responsibility for the protection of sea turtles has shifted from the department for fish and game (PESCA) and the National Fisheries Institute (INP) to SEMARNAT (Environmental Protection) to the National Commission for the Protection of Natural Areas (CONANP).

Since 1990, sea turtle eggs and meat have been banned from sale in Mexico. Mexican law also prohibits the killing of sea turtles or even the disturbance of their nests. Violations can result in up to nine years in prison. Shrimp boats are required to pull “Turtle Excluder Devices” which allow turtles to escape from the nets if they are caught. Mexican environmental authorities also work to promote the importance of sea turtles to the country’s tourism business, as well as educate local fisherman on how to protect the animals. Furthermore, a public education campaign has been developed to curb the demand for turtle meat and eggs. However, the burden of patrolling Mexican beaches and enforcing the country’s wildlife laws falls mostly to the Federal Attorney General’s Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) which employs a mere 300 agents to protect all of Mexico’s wildlife and enforce its laws. With its limited resources, PROFEPA must rely on backup from the army, navy, and police and even local residents. There are also 27 government-funded sea turtle protection camps, which work to protect the animals and safeguard sea turtle nests and eggs.

Today, neighborhood conservation organizations, the local population and the tourist industry, have become an integral part of the conservation program. Universities are involved in several programs and most are administered by veterinarians or biologists and several recruit international volunteers or use local students to carry out daily conservation activities. Many of these groups retrieve sea turtle eggs from nests, and rebury them in protected pens where they will safely incubate until hatching. Once sea turtle hatchlings emerge, they are securely released into the ocean, sparing them the perilous journey from nest to ocean waters. An objective of most programs is to educate and create awareness of the importance of these fascinating creatures as well as all species. Anyone who cradles a baby turtle just a moment and then sends it across soft sand into the vast ocean will experience a miracle of nature.

Anyone who’s had the chance to help a newborn turtle to the sea has come away touched by the wonder of nature, with a new awareness of the vulnerability of these ancient creatures. Most turtle release events are free of charge and take place from May through December. There are also commercial tours, which include transportation. Below are just a few of many places to engage with turtles. In all cases, check for times and programs and be sure to bring natural, non-chemical insect repellent along if it’s not provided.

AMA Méxicowww.amamexico.org • Nuevo Vallarta
Group runs a Sea Turtle Information Center providing a visual, interactive approach and works in collaboration with other Mexican organizations and local universities. Contact for free programs.

Grupo Ecológico de la Costa Verde, A.C. (311) 258-4100
www.project-tortuga.org • San Francisco, Nayarit
Non-profit group founded in 1992. Summer and fall visits to marine turtle nursery. Hatchlings released just after sundown with slide show first. Conducts workshops and field projects for young people under the guidance of university students.

Open Air Expeditions (322) 222 3310 • openair@vivamexico.com.
Organizes excursions that involve nighttime beach patrols to find females laying eggs. Supports conservation efforts with portion of funds it collects.

Hotel Sea Turtle Release Programs
The Puerto Vallarta Sea Turtle Protection Project is a joint effort of the Puerto Vallarta Hotel Association, city government, federal authorities and the University of Guadalajara. Protected nurseries and a community-wide preservation program. Turtle liberation ceremonies held daily during the season at participating hotel beaches: Fiesta Americana, Presidente InterContinental, CasaMagna Marriott, Westin Resort, Velas Vallarta and Dreams, among many others. Check with hotels for times and dates.

Vallarta Adventures (322) 297-1212 • www.vallarta-adventures.com
Turtle camp offers a four-hour experience, Mondays - Saturdays from July through November. Approximately $50 USD.

Ecotours de México (322) 222-6606 • www.ecotoursvallarta.com
Turtle camp offers lecture and video, visit to turtle nursery and release of hatchlings. $48 USD, includes donation to turtle research.

Wildlife Connection (322) 225-3621 • www.wildlifeconnection.com
Search for turtles on the beach and participate in release with a biologist and wildlife photographer.