“Be careful. They are strong,” our guide warned as we each sea turtle release participant was handed a squirmy baby hatched just hours prior. Our thumb and index finger gently held the sea turtle’s shell on each side, carefully avoiding their bellies. Touching that soft white flesh might disrupt the flow of energy there provided by absorbing yolk through their umbilical cord. They swim on average for seven days straight before resting and need all of the energy they can muster.
Knowing that only 1 out of 1000 sea turtles survive stirs up some pretty intense emotion. Of the 150 sea turtles we witnessed hobble into the sea, it’s likely that none of them will survive. None. Evolution has done these adorable creatures a major disservice.
Between May and December, sea turtles crawl on to Mexico’s stunning beaches to lay eggs in the sand. As you might imagine, with the weight of an enormous shell, belly full of eggs and lack of land coordination all make this an extremely difficult task. Nests are awkwardly dug by back flippers. Hundreds of eggs are depositing into the holes and covered for protection before hobbling back to the sea, never to return. Eggs require about 45 days of incubation in the sand before hatching.
A lot can happen in 45 days.
First, there’s wildlife. Not only do raccoons, birds and then some hunt the beaches for food—including buried eggs—but poachers of the human variety eat the eggs as form of sustenance or sell them on the black market as an aphrodisiac. Then, there’s risk of being trampled by beach-goers. There is also danger of the nesting turtles themselves becoming prey or victims of poaching.
In partnership with local governments and biologists, beach resorts across Mexico have implemented special sea turtle rescue programs to both help increase the population and promote eco-tourism. Palace Resorts, of which Moon Palace Cancun is a member, maintains a non-profit foundation to support this initiative as well as other causes in the Mexican states of Quintana Roo, Jalisco and Nayarit.
The estimated 800 native leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles that nest on beaches in front of the resorts are guarded throughout the night by biologists and volunteers. Eggs at risk are removed and taken to a dedicated nearby facility to be cared for by scientists and specialists until the baby turtles are ready to be released.
I had to be at Moon Palace Cancun for a conference and was delighted to learn that sea turtle releases were happening nightly throughout my stay. The reason they wait until the evening is that birds and other threats are less likely to spy the vulnerable baby turtles under the cover of darkness, but just enough light is available for humans to make sure they all reach the ocean.
Some get turned around, flipped over or stuck in banks of seaweed and require a little help. Guests stood behind a roped off section of beach to give the sea turtles space to reach their final destination… the ocean.
My turtle was so young (I assume) that his or her eyes weren’t even open yet. I accidentally grabbed him or her (one can’t determine the sex of a turtle at this age) with my left hand so was unable to take a photograph. Mine was one of the ones who needed a bit of help getting to the ocean which—truth be told—was a bit stressful, but he or she made it.
Turtles aren’t dropped directly into the ocean because they have a GPS that is probably more reliable than Google Maps. Females return approximately 20 years later to lay eggs on the same beach they were released on. Amazing, right? Scientists have determined that turtles imprint location during their initial run to the ocean which is critical to perpetuating their cycle of life.
After receiving my baby sea turtle as told, we were told to name them. I chose Ella. Something like Elvis or Adam Levine would have been more festive though. But, all of them were ready to go with their arms constantly swimming as we held them. They could smell the beach and that it was time to move on.
We placed them in the roped-off area and wished them luck as they ran off into the ocean to, hopefully, survive. A sea turtle can live naturally up to 70 years old, but the odds these days are certainly not in their favor.
I’ve had to research these resort programs for other assignments and the numbers don’t lie. Palace Resorts has released over 140,000 sea turtles since launching their program a few years ago. Most of these eggs would likely have been stolen or destroyed during incubation if left on the beaches. Similar results have been enjoyed by other resort properties around Mexico. Sure, there’s an eco-tourism component, but I watched jaws drop as our guide explained the dismal odds of sea turtle survival. I should mention that I heard people who attended the same turtle release during prior evenings were not permitted to touch the turtles. I would recommend attending either way.
And, watching a baby sea turtle run into the sea is forever imprinted on my brain. It’s sometimes hard to motivate to save a species unless you have a personal connection to it and though I think we held the sea turtles for a minute or so too long, a human was going to have to set them free anyway. I think everyone in attendance learned something and I hope the babies are all still swimming.
*I was partially hosted by Moon Palace Cancun.