September is the month of Mexican Independence, an event which is celebrated widely and boisterously throughout the country. On Mexican beaches along the Pacific Coast, however, there is another kind of independence ritual going on from June until January – the independence or “liberation” of thousands of baby sea turtles.
Our beaches are prime nesting grounds for several species of sea turtles. One is the Leatherback sea turtle, sometimes called the lute turtle or leathery turtle. It is the largest of all modern-day turtles. Another visitor is the Eastern Pacific Green Turtle. But, by far, the most common sea turtle to visit our shores is the Olive Ridley.
These magnificent creatures never cease to amaze us as they glide so gracefully through our warm, clear Pacific waters. They seem to be imbued with a sense of ancient wisdom and shrouded in watery mystery. They are, however, not quite so elegant and ethereal on dry land.
Sandy, Riviera Nayarit Beaches – Perfect Sea Turtle Nesting Grounds
The mothers, laden with eggs, generally pick the period from dusk to dawn to come ashore looking for the perfect nesting place. You’ll be assured of quite the meticulous performance as the big ‘ol mamas haul themselves up the beaches. They work tirelessly to bury their eggs in a nest that can take many hours to dig and then cover up.
On average, a female sea turtle will lay about a hundred eggs per clutch. Remarkably, most species can lay up to three times in one nesting season and some even more! However, they don’t lay every year and may go two or three years between nesting periods.
Each batch of eggs from each mama hatches at more or less the same time. Hatchlings break free from their shell stimulating other hatchlings in the nest to emerge from their eggs, too. They dig their way to the surface ready to make their way to the ocean. They are attracted to light so the reflection of the sun or moon on the water’s surface guides them to the sea.
Race to the Sea
Once these little bundles of joy reach the ocean, they have to battle the oncoming waves. They take their first few strokes and make their first little dives – often to be hit by a wave and rolled back up to the top of the surface again. As a bystander, you cannot help but hold your breath and will them on to a new life of worldwide travel, safety and strength.
Their odds are slim – only about 1% will survive to return and lay their own nests. Sadly, sea turtle eggs and the hatchlings themselves are perfect pickings for sea birds, crabs, tejones and dogs – not to mention, even more sadly, some human beings. Fishing, plastics, stray nets and curiosity are among the daily dangers facing turtles of every age.
Respecting the marriage between species survival, tourism and environmental protection
To help counter the many threats to these little darlings, various protection programmes have been established along the Pacific seaboard. When possible, the mothers are carefully monitored and protected whilst they are laying. After the mother has finished laying and has covered her nest, local officials and volunteers collect the newly-laid eggs. They are then are taken to hatcheries where they are monitored, protected and cared for until they hatch and the little ones are released. Without these conservation programmes, these amazing creatures would be at risk of extinction.
The sea turtle conservation programme enjoys strong support among government agencies, tourism promoters and the private sector all over Mexico. Punta Mita Rentals is proud to sponsor programmes which offer wonderful opportunities for locals and tourists alike to help release newly-hatched baby turtles.
Campamento Careyeros, located on Careyeros Beach along the Punta de Mita peninsula, is working to protect what may be the only nesting beach of the “tortuga carey” (Hawksbill turtle) in the area. This species of sea turtle was believed to be extinct in the Eastern Pacific until nesting mothers were spotted here in 2011. The camp is part of the Red Tortuguero (Turtle Network), a non-profit organization formed so that sea turtle camps and researchers in Jalisco and Nayarit can work together to protect the sea turtles. Campamento Tortuguero Sayulita and Grupo Ecologico de la Costa Verde offer turtle release programmes in Sayulita and San Pancho as well.
As you stand on the shore waving “hasta la proxima” to these little brave hearts, you hope that your paths will cross again in the future as you witness their return to lay their own eggs on the same beach.
This is a different kind of independence. Nevertheless, it’s a similar struggle which deserves a similar “grito” –
Viva La Vida!
Lisa Bruno is a long-term Punta Mita resident. She is a frustrated golfer, party princess and proud owner of Tank and Tonica,