News of the BP disaster’s lethal effect on sea turtles made me recall a trip to Mexico some years ago to help with turtle conservation. This story is quite a bit longer than my usual posts, but I hope you’ll find it worth the time.
Today we learn the names of animals. Zorro, says Luis: fox. Zorro, we repeat, but it doesn’t sound the same. The starting sound isn’t quite a Z, nor quite an S—it’s as if a T has snuck in there too, hiding at the very edge of vision. And of course there’s the rolled R, so toilsome and foreign to our gringo tongues. He offers it again: zorro. We do a little better this time, and he moves on. Mapache: raccoon. Vibora: snake (poisonous; others are just serpiente). Gaviota: seagull. Tiburon: shark. Lagarto: lizard. Coyote: well, that’s obvious enough. Alacran: scorpion. And finally, tortuga: turtle—the reason all of us are gathered on this windy stretch of open sand for an impromptu Spanish lesson. More specifically, sea turtles—in this case olive ridleys, which come to this still-wild fragment of Mexico’s Pacific coast to lay their eggs. Elsewhere, they are stymied by development, bright lights, noise, and hordes of humans confusing them or spooking them away from the places of their birth. Here there are no lights, no resort hotels or nightclubs (that is, not yet), and few people to disrupt the cycle they’ve enacted for millennia: sea turtles have existed, scientists say, for over 200 million years.
There are, however, the hueveros, poachers who prowl the sands at night alert for signs of turtles or their nests. They dig up the fresh-laid eggs, load them into sacks, and sell them in the bars for a few pesos each. Their customers are men who want to feel more virile, more alive, mas macho, and believe eating raw sea turtle eggs will take them there. Sometimes the hueveros come upon a turtle, and they slaughter her for meat as well as eggs: one afternoon, beside a dirt road a few hundred yards from the beach, Luis shows us a clutch of empty carapaces piled one atop the other like so many worn-out shoes, mere garbage. The soil beneath them has a greasy, darkish tinge we’d much prefer not to notice. Meanwhile, he says, the hueveros often carry guns, and we are not to confront them. Our task is to patrol the beach, watching for the furrowed tracks of out-and-back, or the distinctive patterns in the sand that indicate a hidden nest a few feet down. Based on past experience, Luis says, our presence (in pairs, armed with strong flashlights, walking up and down the beach all night) generally provokes the poachers to hunt elsewhere. They desire obscurity and anonymity, and are no more eager to meet up with us than we with them. This suits us fine, for we are eco-warriors in only the loosest sense—vacationing Americans who’ve tired of mindless, sybaritic holidays and want to make atonement, however meager, for our affluence and our profligate way with the world’s resources.
So here we are, volunteering to help save the olive ridley. Like all sea turtles, the olive is imperiled—though much less so than its cousin, the Kemp’s ridley, currently the most endangered of the seven species. The leatherback and hawksbill are also critically endangered. Sea turtles are long-lived, but mature slowly, and a ridiculously tiny fraction of their offspring makes it to adulthood. Many eggs are infertile or deformed, and never hatch. Many are eaten by coyotes, foxes, or raccoons–or by humans. Some hatchlings are devoured by gulls, or by crabs. Some fail to find their way to the water, and succumb to dehydration and exhaustion. Those that do reach the ocean face predatory fish, uncertain food supplies, plastic trash that masquerades as food, pesticides and other toxic waste, and fishing lines and nets waiting to entangle them. It’s a wonder, really, that any do survive to make this pilgrimage.
Our path to this isolated beach started in Vallarta, where we were met by Luis, the team’s biologist. We drove down the highway, marveling at how closely jungle rimmed the modern city, and then along a deeply rutted red-dirt road with rocks so sharp we punctured two tires before reaching camp. There we joined the rest of the team. Tents were set up on the beach, well above the tide line, and there was a firepit, a latrine, and an outdoor kitchen with enormous pots, beat-up tin plates and a few utensils, and massive carboys filled with drinking water. A ways down the strand there were rectangular fenced-off patches, one with rows of upside-down blue buckets on the sand. This was the sanctuary, where eggs we found at night would be reburied, safe from the hueveros. With our help, Luis would record data on each nest—time and location found (with weather and moon conditions), date and number of eggs laid, number reburied (in rare cases, an egg broke before it could be safely ensconced in its new home), depth of burial, date hatched, number of live hatchlings, number of infertile or deformed eggs, and so on. We’d keep watch on the nests whenever we weren’t sleeping or patrolling. Every morning, Luis would tell us whether any nests might start to hatch that day, and which ones to keep a special eye on. And we would shepherd the tiny hatchlings as they struggled against sun, wind, and would-be predators on their slow crawl to the sea. Fighting off the impulse to intervene too much was always tough—why not just pick them up and put them in the water, give the little guys a break? It’s so far, the sand is so hot, they are so impossibly weak and small. But Luis says no, you can shoo a gull away, or turn a hatchling around if it starts heading in the wrong direction, but no more than that. To do more would not be in their interest; the weakest ones would never make it anyway. This seems unnecessarily hard-hearted, though I know he is right: we interfere too much with nature, to its great detriment, and even when we mean well, unintended consequences can arise that make things worse. So this too becomes data, the number of hatchlings from each nest that never reach the water.
The first night we find neither turtles nor nesting signs, and are disappointed. The excitement of being up all night, something most of us haven’t done since college days (longer ago than we’d care to admit, at least in my case), has worn off and now we are just grumpy. Sleeping in the daytime is hard, the cold Pacific is nothing like our comfy showers back at home, and the night’s strong winds have blown sand into every crevice of our underwear. We sleep anyway, and wake mid-afternoon to the smell of coffee. It’s a perfect sunny day, and after breakfast we dunk ourselves in the ocean, not really caring how clean we get. Tonight, we tell each other, we will get lucky!
That night again we don’t see any turtles, but we do find a fresh nest, undisturbed by poachers. After laying her eggs, the turtle smooths the sand atop the nest with her shell and legs to camouflage it, but it’s not that hard to recognize once you know what to look for. We excavate cautiously with bare fingers, digging up the eggs and handing each precious, leathery orb to Luis. They look like yellowed ping-pong balls, heavy with their priceless cargo. One of us records the data, and Luis counts the eggs. When we have them all, we fill in the hole with sand and brush away the traces of our intervention. It’s all we can do not to run at top speed down the beach to the sanctuary, but we get in the truck and navigate the rough road back to camp. I cradle the sack of eggs in my lap, hardly daring to breathe whenever Luis hits a rut or an unexpected rock—there are no streetlights, and not much of a moon, so the going is slow and painstaking. When we finally arrive, we pour out of the truck and shout with glee to the others that we’ve got eggs! Everyone comes to see, and to help us bury them in our protected space. We write them in the data book, proud and satisfied.
The next day we have incredible fortune. Late in the afternoon, we’re driving back to camp from a water run, more than a little tired and cranky. A burst of sand erupts from the strand to our right, and Luis squeals the truck to a sudden halt. “Tortuga,” he says.
She’s just getting started, digging patiently through the hot dry sand. He cautions us to stay back till she begins to lay, at which point she will be implacable and we can approach without fear of causing her to abort. Soon the sand she tosses to each side is heavier and darker, indicating that she’s nearly reached the proper depth. Time drags and flies at once, as we are torn between desire to retrieve the precious eggs and amazement at our proximity to this creature. Finally, the sand stops flying, she positions herself atop the hole, and eggs begin to drop. Now we can tag and measure her, which we do at Luis’ precise instruction. When the nest’s about half full, she stops laying and sweeps sand across in broad, half-circle strokes. It seems a little crazy to make her go to all the effort when we’re going to dig the nest up immediately, but Luis is firm, insisting that this is the way. Only after she begins the trek back to the water are we allowed our turn to dig. Pros now, after last night, we unearth each globe tenderly and with respect. We record and count, fill in the nest, and head back to camp. Again, the bag of eggs rests in my lap, heavy as dreams and light as hope. I close my eyes and whisper to the turtle, deep somewhere in dark ocean and lost to her future babies. Thank you for these gifts, I tell her. Thank you for your perseverance despite our disregard and cruelty. May we now prove worthy to receive what you have given.
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