Tia was lagging behind her sisters, her struggles apparent as she appeared disoriented and drained by her efforts. Suddenly, an errant wave slammed into her, tumbling her end-over-end, further pushing her away from her destination and in the opposite direction. There was no doubt she was in need of assistance.
Tia was less than 12 hours old at the start of her adventure, a 4-inch-long Olive Ridley sea turtle, known as “Golfina” in Spanish, attempting to cross a debris-strewn beach to the Pacific Ocean, her eventual home. If she was to make her goal, a helping hand was required.
Kathy grabbed a handful of beach sand to mask her scent and assist in imprinting the beach’s unique characteristics upon Tia. She then gently picked her up by thumb and forefinger, feeling the tiny heart beat ever faster, placing her at the edge of the water and watched her scamper after her sisters into the ocean.
Kathy and I had just met Tia (and named her) some 30 minutes earlier in a small conference room at the Four Seasons Resort in Punta Mita, Mexico, located 28 miles northwest of Puerto Vallarta, where Enrique Alejos, the cultural concierge, introduced us and 13 other eager participants, to the local world of sea turtles. With the support of the Four Seasons and working through Red Tortuguera AC, a local preservation group, Alejos raises awareness of the plight of the world’s sea turtles.
Alejos has been working to educate, conserve and protect turtles for about 26 years after stumbling across volunteers on a local beach as they were collecting eggs from a recent nest to transplant to the nearby hatchery. In his own words, “Placing my hands on those small bundles of life changed me.”
Out of the seven species of sea turtles in the world, six of them arrive in Mexico each year between June and December to nest and lay their eggs. All are threatened; most of them are on the endangered species list.
Surviving hatchlings can grow up to 3 feet and 100 pounds and will return to the same beach in 15 years to lay their own eggs. Thousands of adult female Olive Ridley sea turtles return every year to the beaches they were born on to build nests and lay their own eggs, perpetuating their circle of life.
A single sea turtle nest might contain as many as 100 eggs. Aside from the threat of predatory animals such as birds, skunks, raccoons and others during the short but dangerous journey they must take to the sea, the major challenge for turtle hatchlings is from man and the “black market,” where turtle eggs can fetch between $5 to $8 each. That is an enormous amount of money for an area where the minimum wage is a little more than $5 per day. Only one in 1,000 baby sea turtles survive to adulthood.
Riviera Nayarit, the region that encompasses Punta de Mita, is a sanctuary for sea turtles, where several hundred thousands are liberated during the nesting season.
Along its 190-mile coastline, there are more than a dozen turtle camps managed by biologists and volunteers working to conserve and protect the different species of sea turtles that visit the beaches of Nayarit: the Olive Ridley, the hawksbill, the black and the leatherback. Careyeros-Litibú hatchery provided the turtles we released. This turtle camp is in Punta de Mita and serves two beaches of about 3 miles.
The beaches are monitored by the volunteers during the laying season. As the females come ashore to lay their clutches, the eggs are gathered and taken to the nearby hatchery to incubate, increasing their odds of hatching. Sand temperatures above 85 degrees result in female turtles. Eggs hatch in 45 to 70 days and, like the sex of sea turtles, the sand’s temperature plays another important role. If it’s hotter, the eggs hatch faster.
As Alejos educated and entertained us in the world of tortugas (Spanish for turtles), a mesmerizing sound enveloped the room. It took a few moments to recognize the fact the sound was emanating from 15 small boxes on the table in front of us. A little larger than Chinese take-out boxes, each one contained seven recently hatched golfinas. The sound was their tiny claws as they scraped against the cardboard.
Alejos passed a carton to each one of us, encouraging us to peak into our boxes. “Oohs” and “ahhs” swept through the room, with one olfactory challenged woman exclaiming her turtles smelled like dark chocolate. The very patient Alejos dead-panned, “They smell like turtles to me.”
Fully indoctrinated, we traipsed after our leader into the evening’s dusk, following him down to the empty beach. Once we arrived, Alejos traced a line in the sand a few feet from the waterline. Crouching behind it, we gently released our babies onto the sand, verbally encouraging them to seek out their new world.
Some, such as Tia, needed more encouragement than others, but all eventually made it into the surf with their overly protective parents wishing them well as the last remnants of the day’s sun faded away
Poignantly, two days later as we were ambling off a beach several hundred yards from the release area, a cry of consternation went up from a sun-worshipper as a young hatchling poked its head out of the sand at the base of her beach chair. Unbeknownst and undiscovered by anyone, a mother had come ashore some 45 days earlier and laid her clutch.
Now, with the intense heat of a late afternoon sun beckoning them, several dozen newly minted turtles were attempting to crawl forth.
In moments, a dozen recently sun-drenched, somnolent vacationers including ourselves, sprang into action as the wee-ones clumsily scrambled over a foot-imprinted beach filled with various flotsam and jetsam toward the waves about 30 feet away, lapping against beach. As some of us kept a wary eye on the circling gulls, others attempted to smooth a path to the ocean using bits of driftwood as graders.
With words of encouragement, we urged our charges toward the waters of the Pacific. Triumphant smiles plastered our faces as the last of the initial batch entered into the waves. By this time, volunteers had arrived to address the balance of the eggs, which could take up to another 24 hours to hatch.
There is an immense satisfaction to be involved, even in so little of a way, in lending a helping hand to one of the earth’s threatened species.
We already are planning a return trip in 15 years in hopes of welcoming back Tia.