It’s midnight. Just two days after the full moon. Visibility should be good. I’m at Campamento Tortuguero Ayotlcalli. Ayotlcalli is a Nahuatal word which translates to temple of the turtle. A Honda four-wheeler pulls up next to me with my guide for the night, Felipe Campos Crispin. We are setting off in search of turtle nests in order to rescue them from poachers and natural scavengers and bring them back to the sanctuary where they will be buried in the sand again and watched over until they hatch and are released into the Pacific ocean off Mexico’s west coast. The Ayotlcalli sanctuary is located just outside of Zihuatanejo, Mexico on a 15 kilometer stretch of beach composed of three beaches, Playa Larga, Playa Blanca, and Barra de Potosi.
Damaris Marin Esquivel and her husband Gene Smith began the turtle sanctuary nearly ten years ago. In that time, they have rescued and released almost one million turtles. The Campamento Tortuguero Ayotlcalli is a non-profit organization devoted to the rescue and conservation of the sea turtles. A secondary emphasis includes environmental education, training opportunities, and data collection.
Of the seven sea turtle species worldwide, three come to this stretch of beach to spawn. The Olive Ridley is the most prevalent and the one we expect to find tonight. The next most frequent visitor is the Green turtle, which nests between November and February at this location. The largest of the sea turtles in the world is the Leatherback. Leatherbacks arrive here to nest between September and March. These turtles can weigh up to one ton and be about the size of a VW Beattle. Sightings of Leatherbacks here are infrequent. My guide, Felipe, says he has only seen two or three in all his time at Ayotlcalli.
Perched just to the right of Felipe on the Honda, my body lurches as we take off into the night in search of turtle nests. I peer intently into the small arc of light from the four-wheeler searching for the tracks of a turtle struggling up the beach to spawn. To my novice eyes, everything looks like it might be turtle tracks. We pass by an inlet that presumably marks the limit between Playa Blanca and Playa Larga. Felipe points a flashlight into the darkness and unveils six sets of orange eyes looking back. Crocodiles, he points out. We continue towards the cliffs that mark one end of Playa Larga. Suddenly, Felipe stops the Honda and I see my first true turtle tracks. Two sets, one leading to the nest, the other heading back to the sea. The turtle has completed her chore for the night and struggled back to safety.
Felipe takes a long stick from the Honda and pokes the ground around the nest, looking for the soft spot where the eggs will be. There is little danger of breaking the eggs buried some eighteen inches or more below the surface. He gives me the stick with instructions on how to find the right spot. As I gingerly plunge the stick into the sand, I suddenly hit a place where it sinks effortlessly. I have found the nest! On hands and knees in the sand, I dig with one hand in a surgical glove. The glove is to protect the eggs from direct human contact. About the time I’m up to my shoulder in the sand, I touch the first egg. Carefully I remove the eggs and place them on the sand where Felipe counts them and puts them in a bag. Eighty-eight eggs later, the nest is empty. Felipe removes a cell phone equipped with an ap to register the location of the find, the date, and other relevant information for the statistics the sanctuary keeps.
I am elated! I decided then and there to adopt this, my first turtle nest, in the name of my granddaughter, Lorien. Lorien is such an environmentalist; I know she would have loved to be here. Excited over our find, we return to the four-wheeler. We go back to the sanctuary to rebury them as soon as possible. Felipe explains to me that sea turtles’ sex is determined by the incubation temperature they experience as embryos. Warmer temperatures produce females, while cooler temperatures produce males. After depositing the eggs back in the safety of the sanctuary, we continue our night’s work. It is now after 2:00 am. I’m glad I was able to take a short nap from about 10:30 pm to midnight in the cabin they keep for volunteers. The night temperature is pleasant, and we create a cooling breeze as we plunge along into the darkness on the four-wheeler. I reflect that this is an excellent way to spend an evening. I’m sure I will return to volunteer again. Perhaps in the fall or winter when there is more nesting activity. We reach the other end of the 15-kilometer beach at Barra de Potosi without spotting any more tracks or nests. As we return to the sanctuary where I will get a couple of hours more of sleep, I think of questions I will have for Damaris about the importance of the work they do and what we can all do to help.
“Why do we need groups like Campamento Tortuguero Ayotlcalli?” I ask. Damaris refers me to an article in SWOT (The State of the world’s Sea Turtles) volume xv by Brian Wallace. Studies of historical harvesting and fishing records from 500 years ago estimated that as many as 90 million, adult green turtles existed in the Caribbean before Columbus. Wallace recounts, “There were so many green turtles in the Caribbean that the sounds of turtles breathing and the bonking of their carapaces against the ships’ wooden hulls were cues used by sailors to navigate around islands when visibility was poor. For Europeans invading the Caribbean, sea turtles were free, they were relatively easy to catch, and they could be kept alive for weeks, thus serving as a seemingly endless source of fresh meat and eggs.” This consumption, together with other human activities, quickly decimated the sea turtle population. As a result, by 2011, a maximum of all sea turtle species globally is estimated to be fewer than10 million adult sea turtles.
In the last decade, we have seen an increase in the ingesting of plastics by sea turtles everywhere. Plastics floating in the water look like jellyfish, a favorite food of sea turtles. Plastics together with outdated fishing methods, drastic weather, warming seas and increased development of beach-side property has combined to reduce the population of these creatures that have existed since the time of dinosaurs. The question becomes ,What can I do to better this situation?
Campamento Tortuguero Ayotlcalli has an annual budget of around 250,000 pesos (about $12,000US). They need to increase this by about 40% to hire 3-4 full-time employees. To raise funds to cover their budget, they hold concerts and other fundraising activities, primarily, in the summer. They sell t-shirts and other souvenir type items. People can also adopt a nest for 500 pesos ($25US). Volunteers are welcome and sorely needed (currently, they operate with ten volunteers). The sanctuary has applied for a 501c designation in the USA to provide donors with a tax-deductible receipt. Readers wishing to help can donate funds through PayPal at email@example.com or call Damaris at 52-755-121-1021 in Mexico or 1-281-235-8974 in Texas to volunteer or for more information.
BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT!