TURTLES IN MEXICO
Lending a Hand In Playa Las Tortugas
Sunday, March 5, 2006
Hundreds of white coolers line floor-to-ceiling shelves inside a hot, dimly lighted shed. The silence is broken only by what sounds like dozens of fingernails scraping against Styrofoam.
Veterinarian Miguel Flores Peregrina listens carefully to discern which coolers are emitting the scraping sound, identifies three and opens the lids.
Inside, dozens of squirming newborn turtles, each smaller than the palm of my hand, are clawing their way to the top of the sand-filled coolers and trying to bash through the sides of the Styrofoam to freedom. Like all sea turtles, these are born with a natural burst of energy and an ancient instinct telling them to rush headlong into the sea.
Flores Peregrina and I sift through the sand and lift the babies into a box, then carry them by the light of the moon to the wide, white beach of Playa Las Tortugas, about 100 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, on Mexico's western coast. By releasing them at night, we're improving their chances of avoiding land predators. We gently lift them from the box and deposit them about 30 feet from the surf.
And they're off. Two hundred and sixteen tiny Olive Ridley babies born that afternoon, guided by nature toward the shimmering rays of moonlight and into the vast ocean. They are completely on their own, as they are from the moment their mothers pack sand around the eggs and head out to sea for another year. The babies that manage to avoid predators, pollution, the nets of fishermen and other perils will travel thousands of miles; the males will never return to land.
I watch with awe, and a small burst of pride that I've played a tiny role in saving this endangered species.
Various turtle rescue projects welcome volunteers who patrol beaches in a number of countries during turtle nesting seasons. Some are luxury trips; others involve roughing it.
At Playa Las Tortugas -- the name of both the beach and an upscale villa complex that fronts it -- volunteers willing to work long hours can bunk in a spare, cement-block, palm-thatched turtle camp and research station. Or visitors can rent one of the lovely villas near the camp and volunteer for as many hours at the reserve as their mood dictates.
Unfortunately, the bunkhouse wasn't quite ready when I visited in late August, so I was forced to stay in a lovely two-bedroom villa surrounded by a tropical garden with a view of the beach.
Each day, I would ride a boogie board in the perfect surf, kayak the pristine river and estuary that borders the property, do a little birding or horseback riding, and tour by car and foot the scenic Sierra Vallejo mountains. Then, at about 9 p.m. each of the three nights I was there, I'd walk a few hundred yards from my villa to the research station. There, I worked alongside trained staff, spotting nesting turtles, then digging up the eggs for incubation before poachers and four-legged animals could rob the nests.
I call it saving a tiny bit of our world and having your vacation, too.
Almost Too Late
Sea turtles have lived in the oceans of the Earth for 100 million years, biologists say. But in the past 100 years, humans have managed to nearly wipe them out.