January 13, 2011

Turtle Release

 Some of our favourite cruising experiences are our encounters with wildlife. And last night’s olive ridley turtle release at the Marriott Casamagna was no exception.

The olive ridley is classified as Vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The reason is multi-faceted: The turtles have been used for food, bait, oil, leather, and fertilizer. And while the meat is not considered tasty, the eggs are highly prized and can fetch a good price. And then there are the problems with habitat destruction and the fact that the swimming turtles often end up as a shrimp fishery bycatch.
the turtle hatchery nursery
collecting newly hatched turtles
 The olive ridley nests between about June and November. Traditionally the female turtles arrived in mass numbers. Called an arribada, thousands of turtles would congregate on a beach and lay their eggs. Historically, there were several arribadas in Mexico, yet only the one at Playa Escobilla in Oaxaca is considered to come anywhere close to the historic events…
 The Marriott in Puerto Vallarta is one of the older resorts in the area and has one of the longer, lovelier stretched of beaches. About 15-years ago the hotel realized it could play a role in turtle conservation—so they hired a biologist who teaches guests to retrieve the nests and move them to a nursery (the resort has become so well known for their role that they now get nests from all over the bay). 45 days later the hatchlings emerge and are returned to the ocean.
lining up to release the turtles
 Every evening at 6pm from August-January locals, school children, guests and passing tourists congregate on the beach for a quick lesson in turtle conservation. Then, we are each given a turtle to release.

The newly hatched babies, with sand still clinging to their half-opened eyes, are about the size of a cookie. Which is how they must look to seagulls and hungry fish. So the idea is to place them on the sand just as the sun is dipping below the horizon and their predators are grounded for the night. Then the little hatchlings follow the setting sun into the ocean. As they make their way across the sand they imprint on the beach as home—and return when mature, 10-years later.
 I always imagined the little turtles tumbling down the beach, caught by the first wave and carried out to sea. Instead the process is marathon long, and heart-wrenching to watch.

The first time the little turtles hurried down the sand they were picked up by a wave and they began to swim their little hearts out. Moments later the wave dumped them back off, further up the beach than where they started, tumbled on their backs and disoriented.
 The second and third time this happened we sighed and smiled. By the fifth and sixth time we wondered how they would ever make it into the sea. Each wave seemed to take one or two of the little creatures, but as the ones that were left behind grew more tired and less enthusiastic in their stumble seaward—we wanted to help.
 But our role was done. All we could do was hope for the little turtles who ventured seaward and make sure we share their story to support their continued recovery. And eventually the sun set on a beach empty of little turtles. And the next part of their journey began. Now they will swim for 5-days, not stopping not eating, trying to get to safe open water.


Unknown said...

I just read about these guys in Latitude 38 (online). Their article is pretty fascinating and a bit shocking:
Michael s/v Del Viento

Diane, Evan, Maia and Charlie the cat said...

I read that too, Michael. I actually thought it was a potentially brilliant conservation move. I don't see it as much different than the way we manage the salmon fishery, for example. Where fisherman take a caertain number of fish and leave the rest to spawn. It becomes more complex when it's an us vs them perspective. And is about an animal people have worked hard to protect. But if the hatchings are hatching in appropriate numbers? It seems reasonable.

Behan said...

Another treasured memory of PV rushing back! I hadn't read that Lat38 article but just skimmed through. I can see the logic, and if the patroling works, it's worth a try... although in my heart of hearts, I would so much rather see a rational departure from idiotic markets like turtle eggs for virility. People, people, people!!

Diane, Evan, Maia and Charlie the cat said...

Behan--I think the eggs are also really tasty... But given we don't live in a perfect world and every culture has it's own needs--I aplaud any effort that takes into account the local perspective...