This is a story about a baby turtle and how we helped to set him free. It's also a tale of working together and conservation gone right.
“Blood is heavier than water. The surface of this beach used to be covered in blood, turtle blood,” explained our boat captain, a former fisherman, as he pointed to a sandy beach just down the coast from where we'd launched in Mazunte, Mexico.
He continued, pointing, “See the ramp? It was used to send the turtle meat up for processing. We would take all the meat from inside the shells. Everything was used. Sometimes we processed thousands of turtles a day. The meat was then sent inland. That’s where the money was.”
But that was then, and fortunately this is now.
For the sea turtles of Mexico’s Pacific Coast, as well as for its people, this sad backstory comes with a happy ending — in the form of a little turtle like the one above having a chance to survive to full term, hatch into the world, and with a little help, make its way into the wild as nature intended.
From Turtle Harvest to Turtle Preservation
In Mexico, turtles were big business. If the turtle eggs themselves weren’t harvested, grown turtles and every last bit of their physical being were.
In response to declining turtle populations, the Mexican government placed a ban on turtle eggs in 1971, but it was largely ignored. An official ban on the harvesting of turtle meat and eggs followed in 1990, this time with greater enforcement. And although it’s impossible to put a full stop to turtle fishing, the turtle slaughterhouse has shut down and there are steep penalties for people caught trading in turtle meat.
During the transition, however, the Mexican government took into consideration those whose livelihoods depended on turtle fishing. In addition to helping families set up guest houses for tourists, the government encouraged turtle fisherman to offer turtle tours – for travelers to witness turtles swimming freely in the ocean — as an alternative and more sustainable means to a living.
These days, that same coastline where the ground was covered in blood now plays host to local families and tourists enjoying a day at the beach.
One bay over from where the turtle slaughterhouse had been located, the Mexican National Turtle Center (Centro Mexicano de las Tortugas) in Mazunte now offers tours to school groups and educates them about sea turtles and the principles of ocean conservation.
From turtle harvesting to turtle conservation in a little over a decade. Where there's a will, there's a way.
The Egg: Protecting Turtles from the Beginning
The center also monitors where various species of sea turtles lay their eggs and moves the eggs to protected areas along the beach. When the eggs are ready to hatch, the center then organizes “turtle liberation” (liberation de las tortugas) events at various beaches nearby.
When a turtle liberation takes place, they post signs around town announcing the time and location of the event. Everyone is welcome to participate – to learn firsthand about sea turtles, support the center with a voluntary donation, take a brand new baby turtle in hand, and release it to run free into the ocean.
Our Turtle Liberation
Just far enough back from the pounding waves of the ocean at Playa de Ventanilla, our turtle liberation organizer drew a line in the sand for us all to stand behind. He explained the conservation work of the center that helps protect sea turtles, from the moments when the adults deposit their eggs on the beach to when the babies are set free into the water.
Our organizer held up a large turtle shell, with the skull attached. “We found this two months ago. All the meat had been taken. People still capture sea turtles for meat. Our work is not finished.”
Then he went around with the basket of baby turtles, perhaps a hundred or more, to be released. They were tiny little things, crawling on top of each other, squirming to be free.
We could each choose one.
It was an oddly emotional event. In seconds, we developed an attachment to the baby turtles we'd chosen. They were so small, but surprisingly strong. Their instincts clearly led them; they wanted freedom to make their own way.
When we looked out at the water, the waves were so big and rough. They were more than we could take on. As tiny as our turtles were, we worried about how they'd ever survive.
But once we set them on the ground, they scampered toward the water with all their might. We were giddy, like proud parents, as we watched them disappear into the waves and swim away.
This would be the swim of their lives.
Not all of their brothers and sisters found the same initial fortune, however. Some hit the waves at the wrong time, were tossed about and landed on their backs in the sand. We took turns turning the lost turtles right side up, perhaps a little closer to the water to give them a head start on their life in the wild. After twenty minutes or so, all the turtles were in the water, the sun had set and we found ourselves on a natural high.
Sure, we had seen beautiful turtles in the museum earlier that day, but taking part in the launch of a baby turtle’s life into the wild was an entirely different experience. From blood on the beach to turtle liberation, an opportunity had been seized amidst challenge.
The following day, during our boat tour, we saw dozens of giant turtles swimming about, catching a breath at the water’s surface. Up, gulp, and back down. Large and graceful, they'd seen a few years.
We can only hope that when you take your boat ride someday, you’ll get a chance to see our turtles.
Planning a visit to the Mexican National Turtle Center and a Turtle Liberation
If you are planning a trip to Oaxaca and the Pacific Coast, and especially if you have kids, consider paying a visit to the Turtle Center and timing your visit with a “turtle liberation.” Your kids will love you for it. And you will love it, too!
Because of the diversity of sea turtles in the area, you'll find different species laying eggs throughout the year. We were in Mazunte at the end of March/early April and there were liberation events almost every day. However, we’ve been told that May to July is the high season for turtle hatchlings.
Don’t pay attention to touts selling “turtle liberation” tours for 100+ pesos. This one is easy to do yourself. Check in with the Turtle Museum (preferably at the beginning of your stay in the area) and inquire about planned turtle liberations. The schedule and location will depend on the condition and quantity of the hatchling baby turtles.
Our event was at 6PM on Ventanilla beach, just around sunset (also a spectacular photo opportunity). A collectivo or taxi from Mazunte to the road that goes to Ventanilla (2 km) should cost 5 or 10 pesos ($0.40-$0.80). From there you have a pleasant walk for 1 km. For a ride that gets you down to the actual beach, plan to pay a little more (e.g., 40 pesos/$3.20).