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The International Writers Magazine
: Hacktreks in Mexico

One Night in Mexico
Matt Scott on why turtles are disappearing from Mexico's beaches

Sea Turtles

Matt Scott

Just an hour’s 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 fish.
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 50 years.

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 it’s 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 never stops.
The group I’m 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 own.
‘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
The 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 mother’s dress as they leave; I imagine he’s 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 baby’s. 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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