There are many types of sea turtles throughout the world, most living in tropical or sub-tropical climate zones.
The type most prevalent to the shores of Puerto Vallarta is the Olive Ridley sea turtle, also known as the Pacific Ridley sea turtle. They are the second smallest sea turtle, only 2-2 ½ feet across the shell and weighing 80-110 lbs, and the most abundant, though their numbers are declining and the species considered vulnerable. They can be found in the tropical waters of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans along the coastlines of over 80 countries.
Ridley turtles are most known for their mass nesting habit called arribada, where large numbers of female turtles come to the same nesting beach of which they were born to lay their eggs. The Bay of Banderas is one of those nesting areas. The turtles begin to gather about two months before nesting season, which is generally between September and December. Females come ashore and did a conical hole in the sand with their back flippers about 1 ½ feet deep to lay their eggs in. Clutches of eggs average about 100 eggs, and decreases throughout the life of the female with each nesting attempt. The eggs incubate for 45-50 days before hatching, which can be extended in poor weather conditions. Temperature during incubation determines sex, 28C or less produces all males, 31C or more produces females, and 29-30C allows a mix.
This mass nesting reproductive process is also their biggest reproductive downfall. Starting with the gathering ritual, though now outlawed in Mexico and many other countries, this mass grouping of a species has made them easy targets for fishing or harvesting. I can remember my grandmother using a turtle oil face cream, now no longer legally available. The turtles can also get caught up and drown in fishing nets or trash in the ocean, or be damaged or killed by boat props. Once ashore, the females can become vulnerable to predators such as feral dogs or even jaguars. Sea turtles are relatively defenseless on land as they cannot pull their heads into their shells like land turtles. The clutch of eggs it most at risk, being a delicious meal for sea birds, raccoons, opossoms, tejons, dogs, crabs, snakes, or other animals. Also the eggs can be squashed or dug up accidentally by other sea turtles.
Humans are their biggest threat. In unregulated areas people dig up the eggs for easy-to-come-by protein. And in populated areas people have taken over the beaches. Not only is their habitat infringed upon, but beachgoers can unwittingly trample eggs. I was once having dinner at a quiet restaurant on the beach during a powerful thunderstorm, when I noticed between lightning flashes that the texture of the beach was changing. I readied and with the next flash I focused, and realized there were dozens of turtles that had come ashore. My friend and I snatched up the tablecloth to protect the camera we had from the rain and ran out there to take pictures of a huge turtle digging her nest and then laying her eggs.
At the time I was just a happy-go-lucky tourist who felt fortunate to have witnessed such an event. I didn’t even think about what would happen the next day to all those turtles’ eggs when hundreds of tourists would be walking around on that beach. And consider this- every sandy beach around Banderas Bay would have been at one time a nesting area. How much of that beach is left to be free for them now? How many tropical sandy beaches around the world are left for them?
Additionally, hatchlings are programmed to emerge at night to reduce risk from predators. Their instinct is to look for reflection sparkles on the water to guide them to the sea. But beach development including hotels, homes, restaurants, and other businesses, also include lighting which confuses the little guys about which way to go. They end up going inland and dying from exhaustion, dehydration, predators, or by getting run over.
For these reasons us humans need to help out these beautiful majestic creatures. We took over their habitat, their numbers are dwindling, and we need to help them. There are several groups around the bay that were created just for this purpose, and several of the major resorts also have a turtle release program. Here is what they do: Nightwatch persons monitor their designated beach areas for laying turtles and mark the nests. When the turtles have gone the eggs are carefully collected and counted. They are then transported and placed into a manmade nest inside a fully fenced enclosure, including overhead to protect from birds, and labeled with the date. The handlers can then estimate their hatch date and closely monitor them at that time. When the hatchlings are born they are contained until sunset and then safely released into the ocean.
Yes, they still have a gauntlet of ocean predators to avoid in order to make it to adulthood, and many will not make it. But those that do will live long lives, about 50 years for Olive Ridley turtles. As adults, sea turtles have few natural ocean predators, and if they survive the dangers created by humans will come back to their beach of origin every year to lay more eggs. And if we love our sea turtles, we need to be there for them.
So please find it in your heart to make a donation of time or money to the turtle-saving group of your choice. What it really takes is manpower, as in time. We need people on the beach monitoring, collecting, and protecting the eggs. It is not an expensive endeavor, though the dedicated persons do need to be able to afford their existence.
There are many groups around the bay and beyond committed to saving baby turtles. We have been working with Campamento Tortuguera Boca de Tomate, and I would like to tell you about their turtle camp. For 1400 pesos per WEEK, that’s about $10USD per day, which covers food and lodging, you can be a real part of their rescue operation including night patrols, egg management, and educational environmental workshops in a beautiful, natural, oceanfront setting near turtles. Camp dates are available now through the week of Dec 14-20. What a great thing to do with a few days of your time!! Or if you just can’t spare the time, please make a donation to the group of your choice. There are a few links below for local groups or you can search the internet. On Friday nights you can meet the folks from Campamento Tortuguera Boca de Tomate in person at the Magic Market and Festival located in the Puerto Magico cruise ship terminal.