July 1, 2009
For hundreds of years in Mexico, turtles, their shells and eggs were used by the indigenous coastal tribes for food, traditional ceremony and decoration. But today, Olive Ridley, leatherback and black shell turtles are considered threatened species. Eating meat and being in possession of products made from turtle shells and skin are strictly prohibited and punishable under the Mexican penal code. Still, the underground market is rife with poachers who ransack nests and sell the golf-ball sized turtle eggs for $1 US a pop as a natural 'aphrodisiac.'
Each year miles of sandy stretches around Mexico become the nesting site for thousands of these threatened sea turtles who return to the beaches of their birth to dig nests and lay their eggs. In and around Puerto Vallarta, the turtle nesting season lasts from July to November, coinciding with the tropical rains.
In recent years, the federal environmental agency (PROFEPA) and marine biologists across the country join forces to protect turtles from predators both natural and man and give them a fighting chance at replenishing populations.
Female sea turtles reach sexual maturity around 15 years of age. Equipped with a natural GPS system triggered by imprinting, a way of "memorizing" the chemical composition of the sand moments after birth, they return to the beaches where they were born and under the light of the moon, dig deep nests where they lay up to 150 eggs. A female sea turtle can lay up to three nests in one season. The eggs are incubated in the humid, warm sand for approximately 45 days before newborns hatch and make their way into the ocean. Once in the safety of the ocean, the tiny hatchlings rely upon a week's worth of reserve energy to swim frantically for nutrient-rich feeding grounds where they spend a mysterious "lost year" off the radar screens of mystified biologists. However, survival chances are slim only 1 out of 100 sea turtles will live to maturity. The majority end up bite-sized snacks for larger predator fish and sea birds.
At several Puerto Vallarta-area turtle camps focused on conservation and preservation, visitors can participate in liberating newborn hatchlings. Biologists patrol beaches at night often on ATVs and relocate nests to the monitored confines of the turtle camp, where careful watch ensures hatchlings the best chance at survival.
Tours allow visitors to take part in unforgettable moments of releasing newborn turtles into the sand and send them on their way with a wish and a prayer that they will become one of the lucky survivors. For others seeking in-depth immersion in the conservation of the marine species, many turtle camps offer "working vacations" or internships where visitors work along side biologists to patrol the beaches, relocate and monitor nests, and help retrieve and release hatchlings.