On a recent vacation in Cozumel, Mexico, I had the privilege of volunteering with the Ecology Department of Cozumel to help liberate baby turtles that may not have otherwise made it to the ocean without our intervention. These were baby Green Sea Turtles, an endangered species, so every last baby is important.
On the evening of a release, you meet with the Ecology Department workers at a trailer in San Martin (aka the “wild side of the island”), where they give a little seminar on what we’re expected to do, and the general rules of the release. The teachers point out that flashes and regular light bulbs (in a flashlight) are bad for the baby turtles, as it confuses them. As it turns out, the babies use the light from the moon to guide themselves towards the water, and flashlights look like many many moons to the little guys.
Once the lecture portion is over, the group leader walks us all down the beach, looking for nests that hatched out on the previous 2-3 nights. Remember, we’re supposed to be helping the struggling ones, not digging the entire nest. So we get assigned our first nest and begin digging.. Its not easy, as a female turtle digs down approximately 3-4 feet to lay her eggs. That’s a full arms length and then some, with your cheek laying on the sand (and eventually your head in the hole!). Well, it turns out that our first nest is a dud. Probably unfertilized eggs, as we didn’t find any babies, and only found blackened eggs at the bottom of the hole.
Off to the second nest! The volunteer who’s guiding us starts to dig, and we find our first hatchling only about 6 inches down. We got a live one here! That gives us all a surge of adrenaline, and we continue digging. Another little guy! And Another! Pretty soon we have a bucketful of the little turtles, and its obvious this nest only recently hatched, and some of the little ones probably would have made it without our assistance. That’s ok, we’re all too happy to help them make it to the surface just the same. All in all, I estimate we had well over 50 baby turtles in our bucket!! And they are strong for being so little, and just SO DAMN CUTE!
So off we go to join the crowd gathering up the beach. They setup a little runway for the babies, and we would release them from higher up on the beach and watch them race to the waters edge. It seems that the act of them scampering across the sands somehow imprints the GPS coordinates in the turtles heads so they can return to the same beach in order to lay their own eggs in 15-20 years, so its an important part of the release. The Ecology Department volunteers are careful to keep this “pathway” clear, even a human footprint is an obstacle to these little guys, and we want them to have as much energy as possible to make the 9 mile journey out to the sea grass beds in the ocean. So they release them in masses, and we stand on the sidelines and guide any wayward turtles in the right direction.
Such an AWESOME sight to see, all those little guys scampering towards the ocean! Definitely something that should be on everybody’s bucket list.. Watching (and helping) baby sea turtles hatch!
So, we did this on Friday night, and on Saturday night we ended up in Cancun at the Royal Caribbean, and they also do a small release there as some turtles lay eggs right on the hotels beaches. Ended up heading to the beach around 7pm, and noticed they were doing a release! Way cool, right? Not really.. Turns out they really weren’t enforcing the no flashlight / no flashes rule.. And little kids dropping turtles isn’t cool, so adults who drunkenly exclaim “look, he’s crawling up my arm” before dropping the poor turtle 4 feet to the ground really isn’t cool. We almost made it our duty to release as many little ones as we could so the kids who were tormenting them would have less to torment! Not to mention, the Ecology Department on Cozumel explained the importance of the beach crossing in terms of GPS imprinting on them for where to return to lay eggs, and they weren’t doing that here as the release was at the waters edge!
Sometime during the release, the guy who was assigned to watch over this madness shines a flashlight on my shirt and notices its from the Cozumel turtle release (just had to get a shirt to help the little guys), and he tells us to wait a little, let the crowds of kids disperse.. After the kids are gone, he takes us into the “protected zone” where they move the eggs to, and tells us to “come back tomorrow night, we can dig the nest for tomorrows release”.
Well, we had plans to go to Chichen Itza, and knew we wouldn’t be back in time, so we mentioned that, and he suggests “why not Monday then?”
Ok, well, we’ll be in Newark Airport by this time on Monday, so that’s kind of out too.
Now, this guy certainly didn’t have to do this, but he offered us up the chance to assist the next days nest a night early. On our own… Without all the brats terrorizing the poor little guys. And even better than that, we got to release them all without any of them being dropped or tormented!
So, we’re digging the nest, its around 8pm, and a woman comes up and starts asking questions.
“Why are you doing that now? They hatch in the morning, you’re going to hurt the turtles” she says.
Politely I respond with “M’am, they actually hatch in the early evening, and use the moon to navigate to the ocean, we did the release on Cozumel just last night, and we received quite the education on this from the Ecology Department themselves.”
“They’re idiots over there, they don’t know what they are doing” she replied “I’ve been here 15 years, and they hatch in the morning”
I can clearly see that this woman has no desire to learn anything new. She makes a few more comments, and I really don’t feel like replying to her, so I just begin to ignore her at this point. After all, her 15 years of time-share resort living MUST be more knowledge than the Ecology Department has. I’m sure in her 15 years there she’s hardly ever left the resort, much less learned anything at all about the local culture, flora and fauna or even the area.