25 November 2009

Tortuga Liberación

Yesterday I went on my very first eco-tour to help hatchling turtles make their way safely to into the sea.

I met up with my group at the Ecotours office that is just a few blocks from my hotel. Our group consisted of a father and 5 year-old daughter, a retired couple, a couple with 2 school aged kids, and me. Our guide was Fernando, a marine biologist. We piled into the van at 4:30 and headed off towards the north end of Baia de Banderas.

We turned off the highway onto a narrow dirt road and soon were driving past mango orchards and then into the mangroves, stopping whenever Fernando spotted birds like a hawk or a stork. The first stop was at a little reserve that is also a restaurant. It was closed for the day, but open for us.

Fernando walked us past the first crocodile pit. One lone guy, I think his name was Albert, only had his nose out to breathe. He had been found in a populated area and placed at the reserve where he would be safe. He apparently is very docile and the guy who runs the place gets inside the enclosure with him. He has to be kept separated from the other aggressive male who’d been found living in a garbage dumb, terrorizing what ever happened by. There were also two females in a big pond that sometimes came over to talk to Albert.

We then saw the coatis. (if I spelled that correctly) I immediately thought of a raccoon when I saw them walk, although they have a very long snout and don’t really look like coons. Turns out they are related. There were two adults in a good sized cage, and a baby in a small cage. The bigger ones might tear the baby apart so he will be separated until he’s larger. All three had been rescued from people who had thought that they would be nice pets. Since they were not raised with their own kind, they would not survive were they to be released into the wild.

We walked on and then out onto a pretty dilapidated little pier through the mangroves, and right up to the edge of the estuary. Out across the water we saw flocks of egrets, a blue heron resting on a log, and several other birds. There are crocs in there, but we didn’t see any. Apparently the two dudes fishing out in the water weren’t worried about the crocs. Fernando told us that the ones in that area where rather small.

Back in the outdoor restaurant area, we watched a video on sea turtles. There are 8 different types in the world, and 7 of them are found in Mexico. Some types only lay eggs every three years, but in that one year period, they may come up to the beach to deposit eggs as many as eleven times. Others lay every year, and maybe three times during the season. (perhaps I should have taken notes)

Fernando had answers to all our wildlife questions. I had always thought that turtles laid eggs only once a year and was asking about this. He said that the females, after mating, are able to guard some sperm in reserve, and then fertilize the next set of eggs. That still doesn’t sound right to me. We also found out that they can live to 100, and cannot be sexed until they reach maturity at about 10 years old.

By this time, it was dark and we were on our way to the beach. The area we went to is covered by a massive resort that looks to be the size of a small, gated kingdom. Even with all this going on, the turtle population is growing.

The Baderas Bay Marine Turtle Conservation project has been going on for some twenty years. The first project started over 30 years ago in Oaxaca, which had been the biggest turtle marketing spot in the world. When the Mexican government outlawed the killing of turtles, displaced workers got creative and decided to turn turtle egg laying and hatching into a tourist industry.
In Puerto Vallarta, there are numerous “Turtle Camps”. Some are in areas that are accessible to tourists, others are not. I think Fernando said they it was a year-round job for the turtle caretakers, because different groups of turtles lay at different times of the year.

At least for now, the guys patrol the beach several times a day looking for mama turtle tracks. They then follow those to the nest and carefully remove the eggs, bringing them back to an enclosed area and re-burying them. 45 days later, (again, my facts may be a bit off), the little babies hatch. We didn’t actually get to see them come out of their shells, but that had emerged that day.

We walked a short ways down the beach to where there were hundreds of nests and a covered tub of 100 bambinos. Fernando gave instructions on how to hold the babies. After we held one, and flashed its baby eyes out with our cameras, we had to put it in a bucket. He said one flash was ok, but no more.

It was wonderful! They are as cute as can be. We were all thrilled, but it was especially fun to watch the kids with the turtles. I found that I was not the only adult baby-talking to the turtles.

Fernando made sure that he used each person’s camera to get a picture of them and a turtle. The parents will have enough pictures and videos to make documentaries. And then it was time to take the babies, now all carefully placed in a bucket, to the waiting sea. Each kid got a chance to carry the bucket a few feet and they were all took their job quite seriously.

When we got far enough away from the hotel lights, Fernando put his camp light down and drew a line in the sand about four feet from the waterline. He said he was going to give us each 2 babies, and we were not to move from our spot. When he gave the go-ahead, we were to put them down and not touch them again. He counted down, we wished our little ones good luck, and they were off.

As we cheered them on, Fernando deposited most of the remaining guys on the sand. Then he stood in front of them with a giant flashlight to entice them into the sea. One by one, he led us around so that we faced the oncoming turtles and started taking pictures which also helped them to run towards the water. He warned us that once we were standing in front of the turtles, we were going to get wet but that we could not move. Too easy to stomp on a baby.

Before anyone could move, he checked to make sure all the turtles were out to sea. Then he had all the kids lined up at the water’s edge to release the final few. The water came up, he counted to three and told the kids to let them go.

I was walking back next to Fernando when we spotted a baby that had been washed back in. I was upset but he told me that happens and he picked it up, handed it to me and told me when to put it back in the water. I probably scared the crap out of the little guy by yelling “swim baby, swim!”

It was an extraordinary experience; one of those events you see on the nature channels but never imagine you will have a chance to be part of it.

We released about 100 turtle babies and I remembered the statistics from the movie that only 1 in 100 survive. With all the good wishes that went out with our little group of newborns, I’m sure their survival rate will be higher.

This is a picture of the turtles heading out.....use your imagination.