In Mexico’s Playa Viva, Visitors Help Protect Sea Turtles

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Those who agree to help the resort protect the turtle eggs were paid in food from the resort’s small farm.

If there was a soundtrack to my family’s trip to Playa Viva on the Pacific coast of Mexico, it would be little more than the pound of surf on the shore. Without doors or windows in our “treehouse” accommodations, we fell asleep to the waves, we woke up to the waves, and we talked over the waves. So when we heard about Playa Viva’s turtle sanctuary and learned that we could participate in the collection and transfer of turtle eggs, we hardly believed that anything could safely emerge from those waves. Nonetheless, under the blue light of a full moon, we tagged along with a couple of locals on ATVs who’d been recruited as egg scouts to search the beach for turtles laying their eggs. 

The resort had been working with locals, many of whom relied on the eggs for food. Staff at Playa Viva began by acknowledging the need that drove many to collect and sell or eat the turtle eggs. And then they offered an option: Those who agreed to help the resort protect the turtle eggs were paid in food from the resort’s small farm. The farm’s offerings more than made up for the lost protein source of the eggs.

At first, our prospects of seeing a turtle in the act of laying her eggs didn’t seem great. Back and forth we drove — we were visiting in March, outside of peak egg-laying season. And then, one of our guides lifted his arm and pointed. There she was: A massive leatherback dazedly digging the hole to lay her eggs. We watched from a respectful distance as she deposited the eggs into the hole, covered it up with her massive flippers, then made her way back into the surf.

We quickly dug up the eggs, put them into a container, and took them to the sanctuary where we reburied them. The spot was surrounded with chicken wire, then marked with a stick with the evening’s date and time on it. While at the sanctuary, we discovered that two nests had hatched and, within the chicken wire, many dozens of tiny turtles scurried in the sand. 

The next morning, the resort’s resident sanctuary worker had collected the baby turtles — these were olive ridleys — and it was time to release them back onto the beach so that they could make their way to the ocean. She explained that female turtles return to where they were born to lay their own eggs, often traveling years to do so. Biologists have learned that sea turtles rely on the Earth’s magnetic field to find their way home and that each part of a coastline has what they call a “magnetic signature” from the sand.

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It’s hard to describe the feelings evoked when watching the release of these babies. There is a reverence seeing something so primal. Perhaps my always-chatty family’s reaction sums it up: We said not a word, simply watching in awe. 

Why are so many sea turtles in trouble?

There are a number of threats to sea turtles, not simply the collection and eating of their eggs by humans, birds, and other predators. According to The State of the World’s Turtles (SWOT), there are five main threats:

Fisheries bycatch: 

This is considered the primary threat. In the past roughly 30 years, it is estimated that  millions of sea turtles have been caught accidentally in nets.

Plastic, oil spills, chemical runoff: 

Plastic in particular threatens the lives of turtles. They ingest the plastic, thinking it’s food. One study found that, since 1968, plastic has been found in the stomachs of more than one-third of leatherback turtles.

Development of coasts: 

Light pollution, boat collisions, and nest disturbance — thanks to the increased presence of humans — all contribute to fewer turtles safely nesting.

Eggs as food/shells as materials: 

Legally and illegally, eggs and shells are collected for food or to be used in handicrafts.

Climate change: 

Rising seas, increased temperatures, and more frequent storms contribute to the loss of nesting habitats and distort the balance of sex ratios of turtles, which are determined by the incubation temperature of the nest.

Read more dispatches from around our pale blue dot:

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Leslie Garrett
Leslie Garrett
Leslie Garrett is a journalist and the Editorial Director of Bluedot, Inc. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, and more. She is the author of more than 15 books, including The Virtuous Consumer, a book on living more sustainably. Leslie lives most of the year in Canada with her husband, three children, three dogs and three cats. She is building a home on Martha's Vineyard.
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