This article is from the April 2002 The Mexico File newsletter.
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The Release of the Baby Turtles

by Yvonne Moran 

Yvonne Moran is a freelance writer and a former general assignment daily reporter. Her stories have been published in The New York Times, Connecticut Post, The Advocate, Greenwich Time, Irish America Magazine and Fairfield County magazines, amongst others. She contributes travel stories to several websites and also writes for national Irish newspapers and magazines. She has been writing about travel for more than a decade. Yvonne contributed an article on Chiapas for the July 2001 issue of Mexico File, as well as an article on Talavera pottery for the August/September 2001 issue. Yvonne can be reached through email at ymmoran@aol.com for comments and questions

From afar, they looked like hundreds of tiny black dots moving on the sand; closer, the “dots” changed into tiny baby turtles. Smaller than a woman’s outstretched palm, these perfectly formed endangered Leatherback hatchlings were making their first treacherous journey in what would hopefully be an 80 year lifespan. The smaller Olive Ridley babies, the only sea turtle not on the endangered list, were simultaneously released.  

The turtles scampered towards the ocean like a small wild army on the move.   With a little assistance from four foreign journalists, hundreds of reptiles floated on the waves as the sun set on Mazunte beach, in Mexico’s southwestern state of Oaxaca. So far, they’d succeeded, thanks to their sanctuary at the National Mexican Turtle Center, in avoiding their natural predators – dogs, donkeys, skunks, and crabs. They’re also a favorite food for sea birds, sharks and large fish.  

But humans are their lethal enemy. Turtles are killed for their eggs, meat, skin used for shoe and purse making, and shells for hair decorations. The Hawksbill, with its bird-like face, is the most threatened of the sea turtles, hunted almost to extinction for its beautiful brown shell used in the making of jewelry and eyeglass frames. The three to four foot long turtle, which weighs from 30 to 100 pounds, inhabits the waters off Mexico, Costa Rica and India.  

Up to 1,000 turtles were being killed daily in Mazunte, one of the principal villages traditionally dependent on the reptile. The large scale killings resulted in a disastrous population slump, prompting the Mexican government to ban all turtle exploitation in 1990.  

One year later, the National Mexican Turtle Center was established in Mazunte, and in 1994 it was opened to the public. Seventy five thousand people visited the research center and museum in 2000, and about one-tenth were students, said Javier Vasconcelos Perez, the center’s director and biologist. “We organize hatching events with school children, which helps with their environmental education” and other activities throughout the year, said Vasconcelos Perez. The ten-acre center has a permanent exhibit of pictures and objects detailing turtle research and protection measures, a coffee shop, handicraft, souvenir shop, technical unit, hatching and observation tanks for young and adult turtles. (In one tank, an attached barnacle was spring cleaning a very aloof, cohabiting turtle as it nonchalantly swam around their watery home.) Staff also take part in academic events, fairs and exhibitions.  

The research institute, which is under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Cattle, Rural Development, Fisheries and Feeding, exhibits six of Mexico’s seven marine turtles (there are a total of eight world-wide and three subspecies), six species of fresh water and two land turtles. Ten types of sea turtle live off Mexico’s coastline, and all but one returns to lay their eggs on the same beach strip where they hatched so many years before. 

The “arribada,” Spanish for arrival, of the egg-laying turtles is a spectacular event. Scientists, technical staff, students and volunteers protect the females from stressful crowds, take their eggs to protected areas so they won’t be destroyed or stolen, and gather information; meanwhile, the military also monitors beach activities. From May to December, between sunset and sunrise, hundreds of adult females converge on the same beach, where the awkward-out-of-water creatures spend about an hour digging a deep hole. With tears streaming and periodic moaning, they lay up 100 soft shelled, ping-pong sized eggs; then with slowly moving fins they cover their nests with sand before being transformed into the graceful sea creatures they naturally are in their ocean abode.  

The average Leatherback, the world’s largest reptile, can measure up to eight feet, weighs almost one ton, and may daily eat the equivalent of twice its own bodyweight in jellyfish. It’s immune to their prey’s stinging cells, and Leatherback stomachs have contained some of the deadliest types of jellyfish, including the Portuguese Man-O-War and the Lion’s Mane. The massive reptile diverged evolutionally from seven other turtle species 20 million years ago and is so unique that it has its own family, or scientific category, called the Dermochelyidae family. (All other sea turtles belong to the Cheloniidae family.) It is also distinguished from its distant relatives by its shell’s rubbery texture, as all other sea turtles have bony plated coverings.  

The same turtle may return to lay eggs several times on the same beach during the arribadas, of which there are approximately twelve, and a single stretch of beach may hold up to 100,000 nests. A location may already contain so many “clutches,” or groups of eggs, that later arriving females sometimes inadvertently destroy eggs previously laid while preparing their own nest. Last year, more than one million endangered Olive Ridley turtles arrived at Escobilla Beach in Oaxaca, Mexico’s most important nesting site for the smallest (approximately two feet long), and most abundant of sea turtles. However, it’s estimated that up to one million eggs were stolen and many females killed there in 1996 after the army abandoned protecting the turtles to search for rebels who’d attacked the nearby town of Huatulco.  

Assistants collect turtles that appear sick, and some eggs are removed from beach nests, brought to the center and incubated in sand-filled Styrofoam boxes for about 45 days, after which the new arrivals are fed on pellets and small pieces of fish. The staff also breed and carry out scientific and technological research on turtle management, development and protection. Some of the hatchling’s pools are used for “developing research projects about behavior and for special diet testing,” said the biologist, and others are sent to scientific facilities around the world.   A turtle’s sex is determined by the ambient temperature between days 12 to 20 of incubation, said Martha Harfush, the center’s nutritionist. “A cool temperature means all hatchings will be male, a hotter one means females, and in between, the hatchings will be both,” she explained. The tiny black creatures are equipped with belly sacks for their initial nourishment, and when they emerge from their sandy beach nests they usually pause to dry out before heading toward their new ocean home.  

The center releases their 14-day-old hatchlings at sunset, when the waves are not so high that it prevents them from swimming out to sea, Harfush explained, before putting her journalists to work. First we caught the babies in nets from the water-filled tanks, put them on large trays and carried the little black creatures to the nearby beach, where they were placed on sandy hillocks facing the ocean. The babies hesitated for just a few seconds, then the great race to the sea began. Birds, particularly hawks, pluck the minute creatures from the water’s surface, but our late evening “launch” successfully protected our releases. Helping hands reached out to the little laggards, but some still refused to budge, so Harfush brought them back to the institute, along with those who’d insisted on wandering in the wrong direction. Despite the prohibition, turtle eggs are still being sold in regional markets, as they’re considered a great delicacy and/or an aphrodisiac. Fishermen kill the pregnant females before they arrive on the beach, believing that the eggs taste better blood-free, a change that occurs naturally within 24 hours of being laid, and eggs are also stolen from females as she lays them. However, since the 1990 prohibition, “the activity has diminished remarkably,” Vasconcelos Perez said.  

Shrinking beach habitat, entanglement in high sea fishing nets, and a tendency for the turtles to suffocate on plastic bags they mistake for jellyfish are the main reasons why the Leatherback still faces the threat of extinction.  

The center’s mission is to distribute conservation information and work toward legislation for turtle protection, conduct scientific and technological research for turtle management, development and conservation, to promote regional ecological tourism and support community growth and development away from their former environmentally destructive source of income. The institute started an agriforestry project and chicken farm to help provide locals with alternatives to turtle harvesting, and boat trips are available almost year-round to go turtle and dolphin watching.  

It’s hoped that by learning more about how to protect and conserve the turtle, generations to come will be able to enjoy these ancient, majestic creatures of the deep.  

The National Mexican Turtle Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. English, Spanish, German and Italian guides are available.  The address is: Kilometre 7, Carretera San Antonio-Peurto Angel, Apdo. Postal 16, Puerto Angel, Oaxaca. It’s approximately one hour from Huatulco, a major coastal tourist resort.  Admission: Adults: 20 pesos; children, students, and seniors: 10 pesos.