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August 31, 2011

More than 30,000 Olive Ridley Sea Turtles Arrived Last Week in Escobilla, Oaxaca.

By Diane Castaneda.
Image by Diane Castaneda. Escobilla Sea Turtle Sanctuary, Oaxaca, Mexico.

More than 30,000 olive ridley sea turtles gathered at the Natural Protected Area of Escobilla, Oaxaca, Mexico to lay their eggs last week. 

Tens of thousands of sea turtles travel thousands of miles in the ocean to come back to the same beach they were born every year to lay their eggs.  Although there are many sea turtles that do the journey on their own, a few times during the season thousands migrate together and gather in places like Escobilla.  This phenomenon is called “arribada” or “arribazon” and although it happens every year during the olive ridley’s nesting season, only few people are lucky enough to experience it.   

I was one of the lucky people that not only got a chance to see it, but also fully experience it. As part of WiLDCOAST’s partnership with CONANP and the Mexican Sea Turtle Center (Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga), I took part in monitoring sea turtle activities before and during the “arribada.”  Other volunteers came from the community of Escobilla and neighboring towns, universities, and the Mexican Sea Turtle Center located in the town of Mazunte. 

A special group of six music students from the town of Escobilla came during the nights to do monitoring as part of their school volunteer work. As part of an agreement they have with the Mexican government, they take part in beach cleanups and sea turtle monitoring and in exchange the government pays for the music school and instruments.  Cristobal, one of the volunteers, said he was so amazed by the “arribada,” he was encouraged to not only study music but also become a biologist and help conserve this amazing creature that has been in his backyard for decades.   The government has been working hard to create a community that once made a living selling sea turtle meat and eggs into a community that conserves them.

Monitoring activities included counting a percentage of sea turtles, how many were laying eggs and how many eggs they were laid.  This data is very important and will help us estimate how many sea turtles come back every year to the beach to lay eggs and how many eggs we can expect to hatch in approximately 45 days.  Scientist and volunteers at the Escobilla Sanctuary have been recording activities since 1973, and during the 70’s and 80’s less than 200,000 sea turtles would come back to the Escobilla to lay eggs. After the government banned the hunting of sea turtles in the 90’s the number of olive ridleys returning each year started to increase, even a few times reaching a million in a season.   

Escobilla has the largest concentration of olive ridley’s sea turtles nestings in the world. Three times more sea turtles arrive in the beach of Escobilla than in Ostional Beach in Costa Rica and 30 times more than in Gahirmatha Beach in India. That is why protecting this natural area is very important for conserving this species.  

The community that once was hunting sea turtles for their meat and taking their eggs to sell them as aphrodisiacs has now turned from consumption into conservation.  A group of 12 people from the community of Escobilla that once made their living selling sea turtle eggs are now making their living through eco-tourism.  Since the Escobilla Sanctuary is a protected area, for years public access was restricted. But now the Mexican government has given the Escobilla Cooperative authorization to take people on eco-tours to experience this phenomenon as well.  Pedro Juan Ramirez, a member of the Escobilla Cooperative, has seen the changes since the government banned the hunting of sea turtles and turned this beach into a natural protected area. “You can tell the difference. You can see more sea turtles every year, and now we are still making a living out of the sea turtles and protecting them,” Ramirez said. Even though their eco-tourism business has been slowing developing, they are convinced the conservation of this creature will benefit them in the long run, as Pablo puts it, “it is a win-win situation.”

I would like to thanks the Escobilla Sea Turtle Sanctuary for their warm hospitality and for partnering with WiLDCOAST to conserve sea turtles in Mexico.