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Local Stories: Turtle Conservation on Cozumel, Mexico

On the island of Cozumel, locals and volunteers join forces to protect the endangered turtles that nest on the island’s shores.

One of the most positive developments in conservation over the past few years is the increasing number of locals actively and passionately protecting the wildlife and land that makes up their home environment. I saw the results of such an effort on the Mexican island of Cozumel, just off the coast of Playa del Carmen.

After a day of diving, we were heading back to the ferry terminal via a quick detour around the island.

Cozumel, one of Mexico's most popular diving destinations.
Cozumel, one of Mexico’s most popular diving destinations.

As the sun began to dip close to the horizon, our guide spotted a familiar face and pulled up by the side of the road. After a brief exchange, the man pointed us down the coast.

‘Pantera’ – as he is known – used to work as a taxi driver before he started working full-time on turtle conservation. He now spearheads the efforts of the Cozumel Turtle Salvation Programme, finding the turtle eggs, marking and recording the location of each nest and coordinating the volunteers.

We’d arrived just in time for a hatchling release and Pantera allowed us access to the beach to watch.

Rescued hatchlings.
The rescued hatchlings.

This stretch of the beach is closed to the public in order to prevent people stealing the turtle eggs, disturbing the turtles, or animals digging the eggs up and eating them. Turtle meat was a mainstay of the Mayan diet and it used to be believed that raw turtle eggs would increase the virility of a man; nowadays, the number of turtles around Cozumel is not enough to feed these traditional habits. Teaching the younger generations about the risk to local species is a major part of the turtle salvation programme.

Marked turtle nests along the eastern beaches.
Marked turtle nests along the eastern beaches.

Loggerhead and green turtles lay their eggs on the east coast of Cozumel between mid-May and November. 60 days after the eggs are laid, the hatchlings emerge. They wait until after dark, digging through the sand and crawling down the beach to the sea, guided by the light reflecting off the water’s surface.

Most hatchlings die before they make it to the open water, buried under the sand, picked off by birds or dogs on the beach, or snapped up once they reach the sea.

Comite Municipal de Proteccion a la Tortuga Marina: a video of the turtles laying their eggs and, later, the hatchlings emerging with the help of the volunteers.

The Cozumel Turtle Salvation Programme aims to protect the tiny turtles on this critical journey. The beaches are protected. Nests are marked with a red stick and monitored around hatching time. Hatchlings that didn’t make it to the water on their first attempt are collected by the volunteers and team leaders, such as Pantera, and released as the sun sets on the following night – which is about the time we showed up.

The sky was streaked peach and bruise-purple clouds hovering above the horizon as we stood on the seaweed-strewn beach watching the team mark out a ‘runway’ in the fading light.

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The crate of tiny hatchlings was passed down the slope from the road to the beach.

When everyone was in their positions, ready to make sure the turtles stayed within the boundaries of the marked-out path to the sea, the crate was carefully upended and the turtles toppled over each other onto the sand.

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After a few minutes during which the hatchlings fumbled about, clambering over each other and getting their bearings, their natural impulse to follow the glimmer of the sea kicked in and they began to clumsily flip-flop their way down the beach towards the gentle surf.

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The frontrunners reach the water.
The frontrunners reach the water.

It’s not difficult to see why the majority of hatchlings don’t make it to adulthood. Their progress down the beach was slow and laborious, as they heaved themselves from one flipper to the other, ungainly and awkward.

A human hand print left by one of the volunteers was enough to scupper the progress of one of the hatchlings, which clawed at the sand, fruitlessly trying to continue its journey.

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Life is tough for the tiny hatchlings.
Life is tough for the tiny hatchlings.

Many other hatchlings found themselves flailing around on their backs, their oversized flippers waving uselessly. Some of the hatchlings suddenly became confused and swerved off on a completely different course, determinedly marching away from the sea.

Confusion reigns as the turtles try to navigate their way to the water.
Confusion reigns as the turtles try to navigate their way to the water.
A hatchling, upended by a wave, is set the right way up.
A hatchling, upended by a wave, is set the right way up.

Fortunately for the little critters, the volunteers were at hand to put them back on the right track and eventually every last hatchling was in the water, swept away by the tide.

At this point, there’s nothing more that we can do for them. I caught a glimpse of their flippers working furiously as they got their first taste of the sea, their natural habitat; the undertow whisked a cluster of hatchlings away from the beach; a tiny head poked out of the surf.

And then, they were gone.

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