“This is happening now” popped up on my phone, alongside a photo text of a beach covered in olive ridley turtles (or tortuga golfinas to Mexicans). I’d been in Puerto Escondido for a month and was yet to catch a glimpse of a sea turtle. It was the perfect opportunity.
Three times a year, 600,000 female turtles come to lay their eggs on Playa Escobilla, a 15km-long beach found 30km east of Puerto Escondido, Mexico.
This incredible natural event, known as arribada or arribazón takes place from May – January, with numbers of turtles peaking during a full moon.
It was sunset on the 25th November when three friends and I drove to Restaurante La Tortuga Feliz on the look out for the Centro Ecoturístico La Escobilla.
Playa Escobilla is protected by the community ecotourism cooperative, Santuario La Escobilla, and guarded by the Mexican military.
Prior to its safeguarding, the local people used to kill sea turtles for their meat, eggs and shell. But before long, the strip of pacific ocean was over run with jellyfish, pushing other vital marine life out of the ecosystem. This imbalance led to a decline in food sources and an inhospitable environment for swimming and bathing.
Over time, a few locals realised that turtles – who feed on jellyfish, help to preserve the ecosystem. They then set about educating the rest of the community, before gaining Playa Escobilla status as a national reserve for sea turtles in 1990.
Sea turtle ecotourism
There are many places in Mexico that offer sea turtle liberation – where you can release a baby turtle into the sea. For the most part I think these places have been engineered for tourists and it’s difficult to know whether the hatchery is a genuine conservation effort or a product of the sea turtle egg trade – where locals and fishermen harvest turtle eggs found on the beach in order to sell to restaurants or into the pet trade.
That’s why I always look for responsible conservation programs, such as the one at Centro Ecoturístico La Escobilla. Here, there’s no public access to the beach and you need a guide to enter the reserve. The cost of entry and hiring a guide costs M$130 (£5) per person. I was glad to contribute towards the proper protection and conservation of the olive ridley turtles and their young.
On the evening we chose to go, there was the most beautiful sunset.
While we waited for nightfall and the coolest time for a sea turtle to climb up the beach, our guide explained a little about the aims of the reserve. Before showing us the turtle hatchery, protected from predators by a mesh enclosure.
When the reserve began, there were approximately 250,000 sea turtles recorded annually. A figure that has increased year on year and now stands at around three times that, proving the efforts of the ecotourism cooperative, Santuario La Escobilla, have been worthwhile.
To improve the sea turtles’ chances even more; eggs are collected and looked after in the hatchery until the turtles are born. It was incredible to see a mass of tiny turtles, eager to get out of their plastic-tub pens and make their way towards the ocean.
Baby turtle release
Our guide took one of the turtle-filled tubs and we followed him down to the beach. Here, the baby turtles were released from the tub; allowing them to feel the sand between their claws for the first time.
A sea turtle’s birthing environment is incredibly important to their future. It takes approximately 30-40 minutes for a baby turtle to make it into the sea from the nest. Or, drop-off point in this case.
During that time they record where they are by; smelling, feeling the temperature and tasting the mineral content of the sand. This sensory map is their way to navigate back to the same place when they themselves are fertile and need to give birth to their young.
Excitedly, my friends and I cheered on the baby sea turtles as they scrambled this way and that while their senses acclimatised to their new environment. Slowly, slowly, they each regulated their inner compass and started to navigate their way to the ocean’s edge.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up like a proud mother at the sight of the tiny turtles, finally entering the water to start their journey into adulthood.
Sea turtle nesting
Soon, the moon and stars replaced the sun and our guide informed us that the mother turtles had begun their climb onto the beach. Following the light of the guide’s torch, we treaded carefully behind on sharp lookout for this endangered sea-creature.
Our first sighting was a sad one.
A female turtle lay marooned on the sandbank. An injury to her shell preventing her from making the necessary climb onto the beach to make her nest. It was heartbreaking to watch this huge animal struggle with exhaustion as she tried to fulfil her goal.
According to our guide, approximately 5,000 turtles can’t make it up the sandbank to lay their eggs. This is due to injury from boats or plastic waste in the ocean. Furthermore, of the eggs laid, only 1 in 100 baby turtles survive.
As we continued along the beach, we came across another turtle who had suffered an injury. This time to her back claws. It prevented her from pushing away the sand in order to create a hole for her nest.
In this case, contact with a motor powered boat was the likely cause of the injury. This felt incredibly cruel and unfair. Especially since the turtle had otherwise managed to survive all natural threats and would’ve been able to lay her eggs had it not been for humans. A stark reminder of the importance of treading lightly on the earth and leaving little trace.
Thankfully there were plenty more sea turtles that made it safely ashore.
One turtle we watched began making her nest and then decided to move. According to the guide,
“the sea turtle didn’t like the location and quality of the sand.”
I was in awe when we finally stopped next to a turtle who built her nest.
Turtles build a nest to protect their eggs from the elements and potential predators. They clear a hole in the sand using the powerful claws on their back legs. They can lay 100 eggs in one sitting; taking approximately 12-18 minutes to build the nest and then around 12 minutes to lay the 100 eggs.
The sea turtle enters into some kind of trance when laying her eggs. This sea turtle didn’t pay any attention when our guide cleared a little opening for us to watch the eggs drop into the protected chamber.
The sight of these perfectly round, white eggs, piling up in the chamber was mesmerising.
I was so overcome with emotion, I cried a few tears of joy. I felt this connection – woman to female turtle, as I recognised in myself the same innate drive to breathe life into this world, no matter what the cost to my own safety.
As the sea turtle completed her job; pushing the sand over her nest and patting it down with her large back legs, it was time for us to go. I looked over my shoulder and as I watched the turtle enter the ocean, I prayed that her journey back here next year would be a safe one.