Turtle adventure! Posted on April 3rd, 2011 by

Our last outing in Petatlán was to the San Valentin sea turtle sanctuary.  Three of the six species of sea turtles that are found at the shores of Mexico lay their eggs on this beach.  Alberto, an ecologist and veterinarian, works with former sea turtle poachers to protect the turtles from those who would steal sea turtle eggs by any means they can, from digging up the ones mother turtles have buried to slicing open the bellies of turtles about to lay their eggs, leaving them to die on the beach.  Alberto and his colleagues patrol the beach in jeeps and ATVs, deterring poachers, helping mother turtles prepare their nests and return to the ocean, and moving the eggs to a fenced-in portion of the beach at their home base, the camp where we stayed Friday night.


The poachers are nonviolent and need only to be observed to abandon their goals, but there are about twenty kilometers of shore to patrol.  Their all-too-frequent success is evident in the many turtle skeletons that litter the beach.  We saw them as we approached the camp and on a tour Alberto gave us, a tour where we also discovered two recently dug sea turtle nests from which eggs had already been stolen.  The contrast of the beauty of the nature around us and the tragedy of its exploitation was striking.


On Friday evening Señora Leticia, her sister, Claudia, the DIF soup kitchen staff, and others graciously prepared for us what was easily the best meal that we have had in a very long time.  (Given the meals that we have had at the soup kitchen, that is saying something.)  Then we went to sleep on the sand next to the sea turtle “nursery.”  At about 2 a.m., Alberto woke Jeffrey so that he could announce to us that a turtle was about to lay her eggs!  (Jeffrey claims to not remember this; it has been a tiring week.)  Those of us alert enough to pile into the jeep or ride along on the ATV quickly went to the site.  We probably were not traveling as fast as it felt, but it felt like we were flying.  The turtle was a 40- to 50-year-old prieta.  Alberto and his colleagues wetted the sand in the nest so that it wouldn’t slide back into the hole that the turtle was digging, and at about 4 a.m. the hole was deep enough to satisfy her and she started laying her eggs.  Alberto dug a side tunnel to the hole so that we could reach in and retrieve the eggs.  The turtle couldn’t tell we were doing this and continued to lay – sometimes the soft eggs, coated with turtle goo, fell on our hands as we pulled others out!  She laid about sixty eggs in total.


When the sea turtle was done laying her eggs, she covered up her nest with sand.  Seeming very tired, she made no move towards the ocean, though, and sat in the nest, breathing heavily.  After Alberto scraped barnacles off her shell and head, he and the rest of us carried her over the driftwood to get her closer to the water, and with occasional assistance she made her way to the ocean.  We buried the eggs in the sand of the turtle nursery and settled in to rest at about a quarter after five.


At about 5:30 a.m., Alberto returned to the camp with news that another turtle, a golfina about 15 years old, was about to lay her eggs.  Another group of students and staff collected nearly a hundred eggs from her and returned at about 6:30 a.m.  Unfortunately, none of the eggs in the nursery hatched while we were there, but the ones we rescued will hatch in about six weeks.  The whole evening was a truly amazing experience.


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