Morning Miracle

Olive Ridley sea turtle hatchlings await their release to the Sea of CortezYesterday as I walked back from my morning ritual on the beach, I was treated to a bit of a miracle. There, in a small depression on the sand, sat two pint-sized, grey-skinned turtle hatchlings.

I’d been expecting this miraculous event because late in April, I’d witnessed a large Olive Ridley sea turtle laying her eggs in a nest she’d dug right in front of the property. I watched as she finished laying and began the arduous task of covering up the clutch of eggs, leathery flippers flapping, throwing sand to and fro. I marked the calendar and wondered if the nest would hatch out successfully.

Sea turtle nests face so many challenges to realize the goal of 100 or so odd hatchlings emerging and scrambling to the ocean. The first night is critical, during which the scent of the liquid surrounding the eggs is still present and detectable by keen-nosed predators – coyotes, foxes and dogs to name a few. From my observations, once the nest is exposed to high daytime temperatures, the threat of discovery appears to drop significantly. However, often the nest is laid too close to the ocean and is inundated by a high tide, which drowns the developing turtle fetuses in their eggs. All it takes is for one of the eggs to begin rotting and the nest becomes detectable. Sand crabs dig into the nest and have a feast and by morning are joined by seagulls, vultures and feral dogs. If the nest makes it the 45 to 60 days it takes for the eggs to develop, once the eggs begin to hatch, a strong odor is released making the nest detectable once again, even before its diminutive inhabitants emerge.

I knew that there was a good chance that if I didn’t intervene, the nest would be discovered by local dogs, sand crabs and sea birds, so I set to work gently digging down into the sand to see if there were any more hatchlings making their way to the surface. As I dug down I first encountered the empty shells of eggs that had been vacated earlier. I looked up and saw hundreds of tiny flipper prints in the sand leading towards the water’s edge. Most of the hatchlings appeared to have left the nest overnight. Several inches below surface though I felt something hard with a tiny point on the end. As I scooped the sand out of the hole a wee black head was revealed. I carefully removed the sand from around his (or her) miniscule body. His mini flippers flapped about as I lifted and placed him next to his two clutch mates. Gradually I uncovered more and more of the little guys.

Near the bottom of the nest I uncovered what always makes my stomach lurch – dead, but fully developed, hatchlings being eaten by maggots. Now a smell emanated from the nest that made my nose try to squeeze shut and I did my best not to breath it in. Felipe, my caretaker, dug a hole where I could dispose of the writhing miniature corpses. Even though most of the eggs I encountered at that depth contained dead turtles, I continued to find the odd hatchling that was alive and thriving. One little guy’s shell was deformed on the bottom, folded as though it hadn’t had room enough to grow, leaving me to wonder if he’d survive out there in the expansive ocean.

We counted 19 in all, as they scooted around knocking with their sharp little beaks the sides of the plastic bucket I placed them in – beaks perfectly designed to let them scrape open their eggshells when the time was right. We walked them closer to the water’s edge and I began to place them, one at a time, on the damp sand. As though prompted by a starting gun, they began to scramble towards the water immediately, their flippers flapping in a mad frenzy, their bodies rocking to and fro. We stood vigil over them as they made their way to the sea, keeping an eye on a lone seagull standing just down the beach, watching for sand crabs that might in a flash pull one down their hole. We lifted and righted them as they were caught in deep foot prints or flipped over by uneven terrain. And we felt their bodies pulsing with the energy of new life.

One by one they were swept out to sea by the shorebreak, one by one the cool life-giving water embraced them.  Watching their tiny black heads poke up to gasp for air between the crashing of waves, I prayed the fish and pelicans would not find them, that they would make it out into the deep sea to drift, surviving on algae and zooplankton, until one day,  their long journey may bring them back here to my home on this isolated beach.

Easter Feast

The cars just keep coming. Most of them are trucks actually. And they are loaded to the gunnels with chairs, tents, barbecuing equipment and people. People and more people. Men and women. Children. Dogs. And they are all coming to the beach.

It is Semana Santa, Holy Week, and everyone in Mexico is on their way to the beach.

Any other day of the year, we see very few cars pass in front of our property each day. There are more every year, but since October things have fallen off to 2004 levels again. We might see six vehicles per day. During the summer, when all the snow birds have returned to their respective countries, the numbers ebb to a trickle.

There must have been 200 cars passing today. Easily.

The beaches are filling with bodies and tents and cars, trucks and ATVs. City folk are running around like they’ve been released from a prison, jumping up and down and running into the sea with all their clothes on.

Seriously.

They are that excited. Well, it may have to do with some of the mores of dressing here, but I think it is a combination of unfettered excitement and the fact that many women don’t wear bathing suits. They are too revealing in this conservative Catholic country.

They play soccer and jog on the beach. They get sunburns and eat lots of barbecued meat.

Those who have them ride their ATVs ferociously up and down the beach, spinning donuts and figure eights. Some even stop to photograph their “impressive” tracks in the sand. Ah, memories.

The men fish with hand lines. And catch bait with nets.

A group of men are seen with a section of drift net out in the water – using cheap plastic inner tubes to take it out to greater depths where presumably they think they’ll catch a big one. There are red snapper, rooster fish, sierra, skip jack and, if they are lucky, sea bass. There are also sea turtles.

Photo credit: Thierry Lannoy

Unfortunately, Easter is the time of year in Mexico when many sea turtles will meet their end at the hands of one of these fervent revelers. It is TRADITION! A turtle will be caught, suffer inhumane treatment for possibly many days and then be decapitated and its meat cooked in a soup.

In Mexico, sea turtle “meat” is considered fish by tradition, but this is based in ignorance. It is not. Sea turtles are reptiles, just like a snake, a crocodile or a lizard. During the catholic period of Lent, it is custom that red meat is not eaten. Meat is given up “for Lent”. Fish is acceptable however. Hence, historically, turtles were eaten during Lent as a religious observance.

At other times of year sea turtle meat, blood and eggs are eaten to increase virility. It is a deep seated belief. Not even ubiquitous Viagra has toppled sea turtle products as the male enhancement product of choice.

The practice of eating sea turtle meat originated at a time when turtles were plentiful. And people were isolated and hungry. There were so many turtles in the Sea of Cortez, in fact, that it was reported one could walk on their backs for miles during mating season when they would form huge aggregations – males on top of males on top of females, clamoring for reproductive success.

Over-harvesting of sea turtles for meat and “tortoiseshell” (a misnomer) in the 50s and 60s reduced sea turtle numbers drastically to the point that all seven species of sea turtle are now endangered, several critically. Still more are drown by industrial fishing nets, particularly shrimp nets.

Despite the fact that the capture or killing of sea turtles is illegal in Mexico, 35,000 sea turtles are estimated to be murdered every year in the state of Baja California alone. Of those as many as 10,000 are killed during Semana Santa. How many must therefore die in the rest of Mexico and Latin America!!! In 2002, San Diego-based conservation organization WildCoast approached Pope John Paul II with the request that he declare turtle to be “meat.”

We’re still waiting.

Photo credit: Thierry Lannoy

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For more information on sea turtle conservation click here!

To donate to Wildcoast’s campaign to eradicate the consumption of sea turtle meat click HERE!
(Note: WildCoast received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for the last three years running)