Tia fell behind her siblings, her struggles were evident. He looked confused and tired from his efforts. Suddenly a wandering wave hit him. He fell head over heels and was pushed away in the opposite direction of his destination. There is no question that he needed help.
Tia was less than 12 hours old at the start of her adventure as a 4-inch Olive Ridley sea turtle, known as “Golfina” in Spanish. He tried to cross the litter-strewn beach to the Pacific Ocean, his future home. If he wanted to achieve his goal, a helping hand was needed.
My wife, Kathy, grabbed a handful of beach sand to mask her smell and help imprint the beach’s unique qualities on Tia. Then he lifted it gently with his thumb and forefinger, feeling his heart beat faster and faster. He put her near the water and saw her running into the sea after her brothers and sisters.
FOUR STRIKES AND RED TORTGUERA AC
Kathy and I had just met (and called her) Tia about 30 minutes earlier. This took place in a small conference room at the Four Seasons Resort in Punta Mita, Mexico, 18 miles northwest of Puerto Vallarta. Here Enrique Alejos, Cultural Concierge, introduced us and 13 other enthusiastic participants to the local world of sea turtles.
Enrique is working with the Four Seasons and local conservation group Red Tortuguera AC to raise awareness of the plight of sea turtles around the world.
Gregarious Alejos has been teaching, protecting and conserving turtles for nearly 26 years. His passion started when he came across volunteers on a local beach collecting eggs from a nest to transfer to a nearby hatchery.
In her own words, “Getting hold of those little bundles of life has changed me.”
A lesson about sea turtles and their struggles
Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles arrive in Mexico each June and December to nest and lay eggs. All are endangered and most are on the endangered species list.
The surviving hatchlings can reach 3 feet and 100 pounds and return to the same beach 15 years later to lay their own eggs. Each year, thousands of adult Olive Ridley sea turtles return to the beaches where they were born. They then build nests and lay their eggs and continue their life cycle.
A sea turtle nest can contain up to 100 eggs. Small turtles are threatened by predators such as birds, skunks and raccoons during their short but dangerous journey to the sea.
However, the biggest challenge for baby turtles comes from humans. On the “black market” turtle eggs can cost $5-$8 each. That’s a huge amount of money in an area where the minimum wage is just over $5.00 a day. Only one in 1,000 young sea turtles survives to adulthood.
TURTLES OF THE RIVIERA NAYARITI
The Riviera Nayarit, the area including Punta de Mita, is a sanctuary for sea turtles. Several hundred thousand are released during the breeding season.
There are more than a dozen turtle camps along the 300 kilometers of coastline. These camps are run by biologists and volunteers who work to protect and conserve the different species of sea turtles that frequent the shores of Nayarit.
This includes Olive Ridley, Hawksbill, Black and Lute. The Careyeros-Litibú Hatchery provided the turtles we released. This turtle camp is located in Punta de Mita and serves two nearly 3 miles of beach.
Volunteers guard the beaches during the spawning season. When the females go ashore to lay their eggs, the eggs are collected and taken to a nearby hatchery to hatch. This increases their chance of hatching.
Sand temperatures above 85 degrees Fahrenheit will result in female turtles. Eggs hatch in 45-70 days, and as with sea turtle sex, sand temperature also plays an important role. When it is warmer, the eggs hatch faster.
A FIRST LOOK AT SMALL TORTOISES
As Alejos ushered us into the world of tortugas (turtles in Spanish), an enchanting sound surrounded the conference room. It took me a while to realize the sound was coming from 15 little boxes on the table in front of us.
Slightly larger than the Chinese take-away boxes, which contained 7 newborn sweaters. The sound came from their tiny claws as they scratched the cardboard.
Enrique handed us each a box and encouraged us to peek inside the boxes. Oohs and aahs flew around the room. A woman with an olfactory disorder exclaimed that her tortoise smelled like dark chocolate. Enrique, very patient, said in a low voice: “To me they smell like turtles”.
RELEASE OF SEA TURTLES
Thoroughly indoctrinated, we followed our leader into the twilight and followed him to a deserted beach. When we arrived Enrique drew a line in the sand a few feet from the water line. We squatted behind it and gently released our babies into the sand, verbally encouraging them to explore their new world.
Some, like Tia, needed more encouragement than others. But they all eventually made it to the surf with their overprotective parents wishing them well as the last remnants of the day faded in the sun.
AN UNEXPECTED RESCUE
Incredibly, two days later, as we walked a few hundred yards from the beach drop area, a swimmer’s scream of dismay was heard. Apparently the boy had stuck his head out of the sand at the foot of his deck chair.
Unbeknownst to all, the mother had landed some 45 days earlier and taken her clutches. Now, with the intense heat of the late afternoon sun beckoning them, several dozen newborn turtles tried to crawl forward.
In no time, a dozen sun-soaked vacationers, including us, were in for the action. The hatchlings clambered awkwardly over the trampled beach, strewn with various wrecks and jetties, towards the waves about 100 feet away. Some of us closely followed the circling seagulls.
Others tried to clear the way to the sea using driftwood pieces as a sorter.
With words of encouragement we pushed our troops towards the waters of the Pacific. Victorious smiles spread across our faces as the last of the first party took off. By then volunteers had arrived to take care of the balance of the eggs, which can take another 24 hours to hatch.
It is extremely rewarding to be involved, even in such a small way, in helping one of the world’s endangered species. We are already planning a return trip in 15 years, hoping to welcome Tia again.
WATCH THIS TRIP
The Four Seasons Turtle release usually runs from March to December. There is a small fee that goes entirely towards sea turtle conservation.
Punta de Mita, Mexico and the Riviera area of Nayarit can be accessed via the Puerto Vallarta International Airport. Find the best exclusive deals on Puerto Vallarta flights and car rental options through CheapOair.