The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks in Mexico
Night in Mexico
Scott on why turtles are disappearing from Mexico's beaches
Just an hours
drive from the Mexican resort of Cancun, there is a beach so picturesque
its image could grace any postcard from the area. The white sands are
tinted with pink from the red coral that has eroded in the reef and
beyond this lies crystal blue Caribbean water. Mangrove forests, dotted
with fresh water cenotes, approach onto the sand and palm trees bow
towards the open water. Hundreds of baby hermit crabs walk across the
wet rocks, retreating into their tiny shells as they are disturbed by
a crashing wave, baby angelfish dart in and out of the small crevices
in rocks pools as frigate birds and pelicans dive into the sea to catch
Next to this beachfront paradise there are no hotels or resorts and
no tourists are sunning themselves. There are a few wooden frames of
long deserted huts that once overlooked the sea, but this is the only
sign on human intervention. Armed guards patrol at night in an attempt
to combat the drug smuggling rings that operate in this area, but this
is not why the beach remains untouched.
The reason for such solitude can be found away from the waters edge
- just before the sand disappears into the mangroves- in the form of
several numbered sticks; indicating recently laid turtle eggs.
It is a warm night in the middle of summer as we Sylvia and Jose, from
the Turtle Team, who have 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 nests on this
beach; it is believed that the loggerhead and green turtles that have
come to this beach in the past, have returned to the very place they
were born. The increase in tourism to the beaches around this area has
meant that few females come ashore to lay, and of those that do few
eggs survive to hatch.
In addition to this the illegal demand for turtle shell jewellery or
ashtrays, the accidental capture in fishing nets, pollution and other
human activities has seen turtle numbers declined rapidly in the last
The aim of the Turtle Team is to study the female turtles that come
onto this beach and help to ensure that a maximum number of young not
only hatch, but make their way to the sea.
Fences protect the nests 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. Sylvia explains that its believed that young turtles first
find their way to the water by the reflection of the moon Away from
deserted beaches like this; many are distracted by the lights of civilisation
and never make it to the sea.
I am handed a large bucket, in which are dozens of turtles, which hatched
only minutes ago; their flippers all bang against the side of the bucket
in an attempt to escape. I reach in and pick one up; it stops moving
and sits motionless in my hand. My face contorts briefly as I believe
I have harmed it, only for it to start moving again within seconds.
Holding onto its, surprisingly hard, shell the movement of its flippers
The group Im with, and two local families that have come to the
beach, walk down towards a line in the sand, marked out by Sylvia. Turtles
imprint the chemicals and texture of the sand on the beach where they
were born, enabling them to return when they reach sexual maturity,
in as many as 50 years. As such, while they can be given a helping hand,
they must make the last few meters of the journey into the sea on their
Make sure you swim away from anything with big teeth I say
to the turtle before I put it down on the sand; it rapidly crawls towards
the water; the full moon reflecting brightly on the waves. Dozens of
tiny shells and flippers, released by the others, crawl towards the
breaking surf; there are screams of delight from a few children close
by as their turtle makes it to the water. The last few tiny shells disappear
into the white surf as a wave crashes over them.
© Matt Scott
best estimates expect only one in 1, 000 turtles to survive to sexual
maturity, some place their chances at as little as one in 10,000.
Out of all the
turtles that hatch on this beach over the summer, perhaps one or two
will return. Other Turtle Teams 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 to a size that will deter most predators.
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 and a strong team of volunteers is all that these groups have
to call on.
The two families that helped to release the turtles thank Sylvia and
Jose as they make their way off the beach. One of the children tugs
on his mothers dress as they leave; I imagine hes asking
her if he can take one home as a pet. The remaining group heads over
to one of the old huts and erect our hammocks, in the darkness, to wait
until a female comes ashore.
It is easy to spot the large shell of a logger head turtle as she emerges
from the white surf an hour or so later. She begins her long crawl up
the beach to find a suitable place to nest as we wait close by. She
stops perhaps ten meters form the water and begins to dig. After her
shell has disappeared below the mound of sand, she emerges and advanced
forward another few meters before digging again; sand flies up behind
her as she digs, but moves on yet again. She digs close to where some
small dunes begin, and disappears into the sand once more; her presence
only visible by the sand that flies into the wind. The position of a
nest is crucial to its survival; too wet and the eggs will rot, too
dry and they will desiccate. It appears she has found a suitable place.
Once a turtle begins to lay she is not distracted by visitors and we
are allowed to approach. The turtle has is almost motionless as she
begins to lay; tears are on her face as she pauses to take deep breaths
before continuing her labour. 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, as this female was and I begin to wonder what drives these creatures
to take so much care for their young; that they will never see and will
most probably not survive past the first year.
After about twenty minutes she lets out a final puff of breath before
the final egg drops into a full nest; she pauses a while before moving
position. Her flippers begin to push sand over the eggs, patting it
down as she does so. The nest must be covered with an exact amount of
sand and at a pressure so the hatch may break their way through and
not be entombed below. She 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; only the loose sand indicating
that anything has happened.
As the group looks on, touched by such an event, Jose reaches over to
take measurements of her shell and read the tag on her flipper. She
appears not to notice this intrusion and I reach over to touch her shell,
running my hand over her huge back, while the 80 year old skin on her
flippers is rough and covered in sand, where it joins her shell it is
as soft as a babys. Jose tells us that this 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 habits of these creatures, their numbers, distribution and a guess
at their 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.
Turtles, it seems, also have wanderlust.
We are left alone to watch the turtle crawl back down the beach and
disappear into the water, just as I had at the beginning of the evening.
Unlike earlier though, it is likely that this turtle will return.
© Matt Scott, Jan 2005
See also SriLanka Turtles
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