Oasis in a Sea of Humanity: Sea Turtles of The Yucatan
August 20, 2014
“We may have to walk a bit to see a turtle,” I told my 11-year-old daughter Karina as the huge supermoon rose over the Caribbean. My family was standing on X’cacel beach, one of Mexico’s most important nesting beaches for green turtles, located in a national park near Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
As it turned out, we only had to walk about 20 feet before a dark round shape appeared in the surf. The turtle emerged right in front of the research station run by local organization Flora, Fauna y Cultura de Mexico. To give the green turtle space to find a good spot to lay its eggs, we retreated back up the walkway, only to have the turtle follow us up the path. It eventually changed its mind, however, and made its way back to the water.
It wasn’t long before several other turtles came up on the beach. We waited until the closest turtle was laying its eggs before approaching to avoid disturbing it at a sensitive point in the process. This was also a green turtle, a female weighing probably over 200 pounds. Its multicolored shell appeared faintly white in the moonlight. Though I’ve worked with sea turtles for more than a decade, this was the first time Karina had seen one laying eggs, and she was entranced by the spectacle of the ancient ritual.
X’cacel is located on a nondescript road; no signs promote this incredible place, which in tourist-friendly Mexico may be a good thing. Turtles nest all along the stretch of beach from Cancun to Tulum known as the Riviera Maya, but this is one of the only spots where the beach is free of large resorts and hotels. Lights, beach furniture, and crowds all reduce the number of turtles that come up to nest, so undeveloped stretches like this are critical to keeping these ancient reptiles around.
Flora, Fauna y Cultura has spent the past 30 years protecting three turtle species that nest on more than 10 beaches in the region. These turtles face an array of threats including human consumption of their eggs and meat, and here – perhaps more than anywhere else in the world – coastal tourism development. Despite being a national park, known as Santuario de la Tortuga Marina Xcacel-Xcacelito, Xcacel still faces a threat of having its natural coastal area developed into big resorts.
The next morning, we headed over to Akumal (Mayan for “Place of the Turtles”), which has a bay well known for the green turtles who feed on the seagrass. We got there early to beat the crowds and put on our snorkels and headed out in search of the ancient reptiles. Before long, my wife found a turtle calmly grazing on the grass and we quietly watched it at a distance. Its beautifully patterned orange, brown, and gold shell was much more clear than the one we’d seen the night before on the beach.
We had the young green turtle to ourselves for about 15 minutes before other snorkelers moved in. The reptile moved slowly along the seagrass, occasionally rising gently to the surface to fill its lungs before sinking back to the bottom. Most of the observers gave the turtle enough space, though one overzealous snorkeler eventually drove the turtle away by getting too close and trying to follow it with a video camera. Exhilarated by the experience, my daughter said later that watching that turtle go about its business gave her hope for the future of this species.
By the time we were done, dozens more people were getting into the water. After we got out, we had a chance to chat with Paul Sanchez-Navarro, the tall scholarly director of Centro Ecologico Akumal, an organization that works to protect turtles both in the water and while nesting in this area. He explained that the large numbers of people swimming in the bay have a real impact on the turtles that feed on the seagrass, causing them to eat less and increasing stress. The good news is that a new management plan should be in place soon to enforce how visitors and tour guides act while around the turtles.
That evening, we headed south to Tulum. Everything slowed down as we turned off the main highway and drove our rental car over the frequent speed bumps along the road towards Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. At Hotel Nueva Vida de Ramiro, a local hotel that works to minimize its ecological footprint while creating an inviting setting, most of the grounds are planted with native trees. The small resort hosts rangers from Flora, Fauna y Cultura and a hatchery to protect the eggs laid by turtles that come up this stretch of beach.
After settling into the hotel, I met up with Lluvia Soto, the young and friendly Country Director for SEEtheWILD partner Global Vision International (GVI). We hopped into her SUV, a requirement for traversing the rough road into Sian Ka’an, the only major protected area along the coast south of Cancun. GVI is partnering with Flora, Fauna y Cultura to monitor a formerly unprotected stretch of nesting beach (used by loggerhead and green turtles) inside the park.
SIAN KA’AN BIOSPHERE RESERVE
After more than an hour of navigating the flat dirt road through coastal forest and mangrove, we emerged onto a thin peninsula of land, barely wider than the beach and the road, sandwiched between turquoise ocean and a dark blue lagoon. This beach would be one of the more beautiful I’ve ever seen if it weren’t for the stunning amount of trash, washed up here from around the world. Learn how trash affects sea turtles here.
Even in this oasis of nature, the turtles need to crawl through trash to find a place to lay their eggs, and the emerging hatchlings are smaller than the plastic bottles and flip flops. Part of GVI’s work in the area is to reduce this waste; their staff and volunteers do weekly clean-ups in the reserve, which can result in up to a ton of trash collected in a day. They have also set up a recycling center in the nearby town of Punta Allen, located within the refuge.
That evening, back at Nueva Vida, the rangers knocked on our door to let us know that a turtle was nesting right in front of the hotel, one of the few to turn off its lights that face the water during nesting season and remove furniture from the beach at night. Such common-sense measures are a necessity when sharing a beach with sea turtles, but unfortunately, many resorts here do not make the effort.
This turtle, a green, headed towards the resort’s hatchery but changed its mind and returned to the water without nesting. Fortunately, another green turtle emerged just a short walk down the beach, so we were able to see the whole nesting process, from digging the nest and laying the eggs to camouflaging the nest to hide it from predators. My wife, also a turtle conservationist, helped the ranger collect data on the turtle while I explained the fascinating process to a couple of tourists who happened upon the scene.
On the way back, we saw a fresh set of tracks that led to a lounge chair in front of a brightly lit resort. It was clear from the tracks that the turtle had turned around without nesting once it met the chair– further evidence that resorts like this one have replaced poaching on this beach as the biggest threat. Learn more about how coastal development affects sea turtles.
FLORA, FAUNA Y CULTURA STAFF ON TULUM BEACH
Our tour of the area’s turtle beaches finished up with a meeting with our friends at Flora, Fauna y Cultura and a group of Mayan youth who patrol a beach in nearby Tulum National Park, near the town’s famous ruins. This beach, with its location near the town, is a hotspot for egg poaching.
Our Billion Baby Turtles program is helping to fund this program, which provides employment for these young men while helping to protect an important nesting beach for green turtles and hawksbills.
During our visit, we walked with the turtle protectors over to the beach. While my daughter buried her feet in the water, the young mean told us about their hard work. Each night, they spend the entire night on the beach, walking up and down the sand in search of emerging turtles. At dawn, they are picked up and return home to rest and recover. It’s this kind of dedication that is needed to keep the turtle returning to these beaches year after year.