Sea Turtle Conservation in the Riviera Maya
We sit on the sand under a sky blanketed in stars, listening to the sound of crashing waves and the rhythmic “thump......thump.....thump....” in the dark. We can barely make out her shape and we know not to turn on a flashlight; it could send her turning back to the sea before she completes the yearly ritual. We are in Tulum, at the edge of the Sian Kaan biosphere, and we are witnessing a magical moment. A gigantic sea turtle has come to shore and is digging a nest to lay her eggs, her large flippers methodically “thumping” into the sand and sending it flying as the hole gets bigger and bigger. We sit in silence, barely daring to breathe. We see a red light approaching on the beach and two “turtle patrol” volunteers join us quietly to measure the turtle (she was over 1 meter long), check her health, tag her for research purposes and mark her nest. The volunteers slip away into the night to carry on their patrol, and we allow mama turtle to complete her task and watch as she slowly makes her way back to the sea. When we awake in the morning, we see she was not the only visitor that night: there are four more nests in one small stretch of beach, with the tell-tale trail of turtle tracks leading from and returning to the water.
Long before the luxurious resorts arose that attract millions of visitors each year, the Riviera Maya was home to the now endangered sea turtle. Green turtles (Chelonia Mydas) and loggerhead turtles (Caretta Caretta) annually return to these shores to lay their eggs as they have for thousands of years. Travelers visiting the region between May and October may have the good fortune to witness a mother laying her eggs or even participating in a release of baby turtles once the nests have hatched. Unfortunately, as we have made room for humans to enjoy the beauty of the Riviera Maya, it has become harder for the turtles to claim their space. Bright lights of hotels will scare them off, while loud noises, dogs on the beach and human interference can influence the number of nests each year. As these turtles are endangered, it is of great importance to protect them and their environments to ensure the continuation of the species. Thus the need for organizations, both government and private working together, that protect, conserve and educate visitors about sea turtles and their preservation.
There are many such organizations in the Riviera Maya, working together in research programs, sustainability projects and educational outreach to protect the sea turtle. In the town of Akumal (“Akumal” means “place of the turtle” in the Maya language), the CEA or “Centro Ecologico de Akumal,” founded in 1993, works tirelessly on their mission “To create a model for sustainable tourism development in the Mexican Caribbean through research, education andoutreach.” They monitor all turtle activity on the bay and on the beach while working with hotels, condo organizations and tour companies to practice good environmental procedures and reach out to the community with educational programs in schools. Their labors are paying off; each year sees more and more cooperation from hotels and condos, and travelers are more aware of their impact on the nesting grounds and the wildlife. The 2012 season has proven to be exceptional, to the date of this writing. On Akumal beaches alone, 442 nests have been counted, beating the 2010 record of 406, with two months left in the season! This is magnificent news for the species, and this success is owed to the dedication of all organizations like CEA.
If you are visiting the region during nesting season, there are some strict rules you need to follow. No bright lights! This means no flashlights, no porch lights on condos or hotel villas and definitely no flashes on your cameras. If you must walk the beach at night, cover your flashlight to dull the shine, such as a red filter. Refrain from making loud noises, having beach parties or allowing dogs to run on the beach at night. Do NOT touch the animals, ever, in the water or on the beach. Turtles can become frightened, confused and disoriented and will turn back to the sea without laying their eggs. Never walk on or disturb a nest, and do not touch the eggs. If you see a mother laying eggs (or a nest with hatching babies), stay well back or better yet, seek out turtle patrol or security at your hotel and report what you have found. With the cooperation of everyone, you, me, the government and great organizations like CEA, it may one day be possible to remove the “endangered” label from these magnificent creatures. Long live the sea turtle in Mexico, viva!
For more information, please see the CEA website and consider making a donation or becoming a member. They rely on private funding and grants to continue on with their good work!