Where Have All the Turtles Gone?

by Mari Pintkowski  (November 2011)
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The sea turtle nesting and hatching season has ended for another year and the baby Green and Loggerhead sea turtles made their trek to the sea just in time before Rina, the first hurricane of the 2011 season to threaten our area, moved up the Caribbean shoreline.
Everyone knows that Akumal, the place of the turtle, has a wonderful educational program which has been located in the CEA facility, Centro Ecológico Akumal, since 1993. There is a pictorial story of the life cycle of the sea turtles, which make there home on the beach just outside the facility. They offer an evening slide show presentation as well, during turtle season.
A few months ago Lou, my husband, and I decided to leave the peaceful oasis at La Selva Mariposa and venture to the coast and check out X'cacel beach where another sea turtle sanctuary is located.
On the beach side of Highway # 307, there is a large sign indicating that we had arrived at X'cacel and X'cacelito. We drove along the unpaved road about 100 meters to a check point. There an attendant handed us a brochure with rules about the area, and asked for a donation that goes toward maintaining the site. We glanced over the brochure and took note of some of the rules of this ecological preserve:
No fishing
No sunscreen in the cenote
No camping
No animals are permitted

There are two different parking areas that are on either side of a fairly large, weathered structure. When we visited this sanctuary over 15 years ago, the building housed concrete tubs filled with sea water and recently hatched turtles that the biologists were studying. The structure now, a bit dilapidated, seems to be sleeping quarters for caretakers who told us that one day soon there would be a museum here. We met a biologist outside the building who was visiting the site. He told us that he used to be stationed here more than 10 years ago, but this facility is no longer being funded.

On our first visit, we observed rescued turtles that were kept in pens on the beach and were being cared for by a weathered-looking Gringa, Pat Quattlebaum. She donated her time, and perhaps her life, to caring for the small collection of rescued and injured sea turtles which could not survive on their own. We will never forget the pair of albino turtles and the amazing two-headed reptile she held in her hands. Today, this little menagerie is gone and the large half-moon-shaped beach was dotted with turtle nests and nesting pens for relocated nests that were marked with sticks, tape and small, white signs with the date the nest was discovered. From May 1 to October 31, the nesting season, the camp biologists patrol the beaches along the coast every night beginning at 9 p.m. Their job is to protect and monitor the nesting females, nests and hatchlings.

The Green sea turtle usually lays her eggs a month or two before the Loggerheads on one of the many beaches along the Caribbean coast. After mating, these huge, 100-pound-or-more female reptiles swim to the shore of the beach where they were born years before, and often only a hundred yards from their original nest. She finds a dry patch of sand, uses her flippers to dig, and makes a large bowl shape where she deposits as many as 120 eggs. She then covers them up and tosses sand in every direction so that in the end it is difficult to see exactly where she has made her nest. After this exhausting task, she crawls back to the sea and in about 60 days the baby turtles will hatch.

Besides the reef-protected beach, this 362-hectare area has several different ecosystems. We explored and found jungle mangroves, coastal dunes, coral reefs, and a large, open cenote. The preserve is home to other threatened or endangered species in the region, including: skunk, rattlesnake, and Black Hawk, as well as plant species: chit palm, kuba, and red, white and button mangroves. We passed a small nursery where some of the tiny shoots of palms were coming up in plastic bags lined up at the edge of the jungle.

We walked south along the jungle path that ran parallel to the coast until we got to the cenote. There were about eight to ten other people enjoying the fresh water, surrounded by mangroves and jungle plants. The surf was rough the day we visited and there was no protection from the blistering sun, so the option of the jungle cenote as a place to swim and cool off was a delight. I had heard that the cooler sand of the turtle nests would produce more male turtles, and the warmer, more females. I was quite sure that on the day the turtles hatched here at X'cacel there would be many more females than males racing to the sea.

In early September we were invited to spend the night at a friend's timeshare, The Royal Islander, in the Cancún Hotel Zone before we flew out on our annual trip to the U.S. Our friend greeted us with much enthusiasm upon arrival at her hotel, and let us know that we could join her that night to release baby turtles into the sea. I was elated! This was something I had always wanted to do, but seemed to always be away from the Riviera Maya during the release time.

That night at 8 p.m. we met the hotel staff out on the beach and they gave us each a baby turtle that had hatched earlier that day to release at the shoreline. As more and more people arrived to participate, the staff lined us up in an orderly fashion, and we continued to take turns until every last baby swam away. I named my first hatchling after my grandsons and whispered words of luck before I set him gently on the sand. He kept turning around and coming back towards me until finally he was ready and was on his way. The next time I was a little less personal with my charge and he took right off as soon as I opened my hand and placed him on the sand. I knew that with luck, the baby turtles would swim several miles off shore and eventually get caught in the currents of the Gulf Stream that would take them miles away from this beach that we were standing on.

Early the next morning, we looked out from our balcony and saw the hotel biologists at work in the turtle nesting area. We ran down to the beach as quickly as we could to see what was going on. They invited us in to watch as they dug up the nest of 103 turtle eggs that had been relocated 60 days before. These eggs that lie buried in the sand held the hatchlings that would be released that night. To my surprise, the shells were soft, like plastic. The turtles were using their temporary egg tooth to break open the shells and wiggle out. What a thrill it was to hold these tiny creatures in my hand and, when I set them on the sand, they did not hesitate to crawl away. We helped gather all of the hatchlings and placed them into a basket where they would stay in a dark, cool room until 8 p.m. tonight when another launch would take place.

I stood in the early morning sun glancing toward the turquoise water feeling a sense of awe and pride that we had helped increase the survival rate of these sea turtles by helping with the release process. Only one in a thousand survives to adulthood, and among them are the female turtles that will return to this very beach to one day to lay their eggs and begin the cycle over again.

If you are visiting the Riviera Maya in September and October, be sure to inquire at your hotel about the nearest turtle release program in the area.

If you want to read more of Mari's stories about life in the Riviera Maya, go to Sac-Be's archives or to their Web site www.laselvamariposa.com.

Additional photos:

Xcacel Beach by Mari Pintkowski

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