By Jill Smith
While we were in Cancun this July for our annual whale shark swim, we experienced something new, wonderful, and unexpected! We did not realize that the eastern facing beach in Cancun where our resort (the Golden Parnassus) was located, had a sea turtle conservation program working in full swing due to the high volume of mama tortugas (turtles) coming onto the beach at night to lay their precious eggs.
Nearly all species of sea turtles are labelled as endangered; without the help of the resorts who gladly participate in sea turtle conservation program (the Mexican people love their ocean, and are so happy to help their marine wildlife), these nests might otherwise be destroyed. While unintentional, tourist life on the beach is a hazard to the survival of these nests (think about beach volleyball, tractors raking and grooming the beaches every day, etc), not to mention the natural hazards of land and sea-bird predators. We did wake up one morning to find that a sea turtle had nested in the middle of the volleyball court during the night, leaving a fairly deep 3 foot in diametre hole. Adorable!
Many resorts along this strip, including our own, had fenced nurseries, where they re-bury the eggs after mama has laid them. They are protected from foot traffic and predators, and each nest is labelled with the date the eggs were laid, the species of turtle, and number of eggs. We saw nests posted of eggs from Caguama tortugas (loggerhead), Blanca (white sea-turtle), and Chelonia mydas (green sea-turtle). It’s wonderful to see this effort on the turtles’ behalf.
Jody and I had lots of questions for the lifeguard, who participates in the program. He was very patient to answer them all, and actually, I think they are just as interested and happy to share. A little later, he approached me, and asked, “Would you like to see a nest of white baby sea-turtles hatching?”
“Ummmmmm let me think… DOES A WHALE SHIT IN THE OCEAN??? HELL YES!!!”
He advised us to meet him by the nursery in 20 minutes. I wasn’t letting him out of my sight though, so I stalked him back to the nesting area. We were SOOOOOOO excited, I can’t even tell you! WOW! OH BOY OH BOY OH BOY!
Reading the plaque, I could see that the eggs were laid on June 1st. It was now July 21st - 50 days have passed. The lifeguard starts digging down, very gently, and soon, we catch the first glimpse of a turtle fin! I asked why they don’t allow them to dig out on their own when they are ready, but he says, they want to collect them, keep them safe, and release them when the pelicans and sea-birds aren’t a threat (just after dark). And soon the hole is erupting with all of these wiggly, beautiful, perfect little sea-turtles! Even the markings on their faces are already there. Collected in a sandy basket, we had to wait a couple of hours for the sun to go down, and then we took them to the ocean to let them go. Part of me didn’t want to release them, because I know most of them are facing certain death out there (maybe only 10% will survive), but that is the nature of things…
Hopefully they have been given their best chance!
But that’s not all.
After dinner, around 10:30, Jody and I go for a walk on the beach, and don’t we come across a mama loggerhead sea-turtle making her way up the beach to find a place to lay her eggs. Seriously, how amazingly crazy is that? I thought my head would pop off from the shear excitement of it all. We stayed well back, and sat on a beach chair to observe quietly from a distance. The conservation guy (Fernando) was also there, standing back to observe, so we got to whisper our questions to him. We couldn’t take pictures, because flashes and lights will scare a mama back into the ocean before she has laid her eggs, so we could only squint and watch in the dark.
It took her a little while to decide where she wanted to nest, but she finally decided that under the lifeguard station was a good spot. Her powerful front fins can really throw sand! We saw sand flying several feet into the air as she dug a bed for herself. Soon, she was so deep in the hole that she was just below the sand surface. That is when she starts scooping out a hole with her back fins. Fernando says that her back fins can scoop much like our hands can (cupped). After the sand was no longer flying, and she was still and quiet, he said, “Come with me, we are going to check her now. Quietly.” OHMYGOSH!!! He and his colleague used red lights to see, as this is the least disturbing to mama turtle. Fernando handed Jody a pair of gloves to wear to help collect the eggs, while I took pictures the best I could in the darkness. I got to stroke her shell; Oh my gosh I love her. A mama sea-turtle can lay 50-200 eggs at a time, though we were carefully collecting them and placing them in a bucket for re-burying, and did not count them at that time. Presumably they are counted as they are placed in the new nest.
We thanked Fernando and started walking back to our resort, and we came across several large holes in the sand, and there was even another mama turtle in one of them! Jody ran back to tell Fernando, and he came with a flag to mark the spot so they could retrieve them later. There were still more sea turtles coming up onto the beach to lay…so many!
What an experience!
Best day ever!
Bravo to the Mexican Conservation Authority and the Resorts that are invested in this program! Let's hope that the efforts made today make the sea turtle populations and oceans healthier tomorrow.