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January 13, 2012

Sea Turtles in the WiLD!

By Diane Castaneda.
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Image by Diane Castaneda. Barra de la Cruz, Oaxaca, México.

“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” Baba Dioum. 

There is no better way to learn something, than to experience it. When I do my “Turtle Talks” presentations to kindergartens and elementary students, I always get kids talking about their experiences with sea turtles. They say they love turtles because they saw them in Hawaii, Mexico or in an aquarium. They tell me they love them because they saw them being born, or they helped them make their way to the ocean, or even just because they had a chance to touch their shell and feel them. 

During my last trip to the coast of Oaxaca, I took part in releasing 24 baby black sea turtles and two 10 month-old black sea turtles into the wild. This was the first time that I took part in releasing baby sea turtles, and it was also the first time for the lucky tourists that were around the main beach in Mazunte, Oaxaca at the time of the releasing. The tourists were in awed, asking questions about the little turtles, taking pictures to show them to their love ones back home, and asking how they can help conserve them.  

The Mexican Turtle Center and other eco-tourism sites like La Ventanilla, give tourists a chance to interact with nature. They believe the more you know, the more you will love and conserve. At the entrance and all over the aquarium, you will see signs saying “Conocer, para conserver,” which translate to “know, to conserve.” 

As part of our partnership with Mexico’s National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) and the Mexican Turtle Center (Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga), I did my third trip to Oaxaca this year to participate in sea turtle conservation efforts.  In my last two trips I had amazing experiences, and this one was no exception. 

I took a trip to a turtle camp in Barra de la Cruz, Oaxaca with the hope to see some leatherback sea turtles. Leatherback sea turtles are not only the most endangered species of sea turtle, but are also one of the most endangered animals in the world. A little over 2,000 female leatherback sea turtles remain in the pacific coast. The dwindling population is mainly due to human activity.  Leatherback, like other sea turtles, have been threaten by unsustainable fishing practices, destruction of nesting sites, ocean pollution, and the illegal take of their eggs.

When I arrived at the sea turtle camp, which is a natural protected area and has limited public access, the camp’s volunteers and coordinators where about to start their monitoring activities. They had told me that they hadn’t seen a leatherback for two straight nights, but I had a feeling that tonight was going to be the night.  One hour later, we finally spotted a huge leatherback sea turtle! She was a little over 5 feet long, black with a leathery shell (which is why she gets h er name) with little white and yellow spots shaped like stars. She was beautiful and bigger than I expected.  It took her about an hour to find a spot, dig a hole, layover 80 eggs, cover the hole and make her way back into the ocean. As part of conservation efforts, camp coordinators register the activities, tag the turtle (if she isn’t already tagged) and collects the eggs to relocate them to a nursery that is located in front of the turtle camp. The reason they relocate the eggs is to make sure people don’t illegally take the eggs from the beach.  

The next morning about 25 baby leatherback sea turtles were born in the nursery (from a previous sea turtle that laid her eggs about 60 days before).  Again, I took part in releasing these baby sea turtles into the ocean. Hopefully these sea turtles will one day make their way back to Barra de la Cruz to lay their eggs. 

I encourage everybody to get a chance to experience sea turtles in their natural habitat; it is an experience you will never forget. It is moments like these that keep inspiring me to continue my work in conserving this amazing species. Unfortunately, if we don’t act now, our grandchildren might only learn about these animals through textbooks.

Please donate today to help us continue our efforts to save these very unique and important species that are in grave danger of extinction. 

To learn more about volunteer opportunities at Mexican Turtle Center or sea turtle camps located in Oaxaca, Mexico, please go to their website at centromexicanodelatortuga.org. You can be part of this experiece too! 

Also, we encourage you to visit the aquarium to learn more about this amazing marine animal or to visit places like La Ventanilla to take part in sea turtle conservation efforts and to support eco-tourism businesses.