HomeStoriesGetting to know the sea turtle: a workcamp story from Mexico

Getting to know the sea turtle: a workcamp story from Mexico

By Jade Herriman

“For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings, they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth” – Henry Beston

In October 2003 I was lucky to go to Mexico, camp on the beach and help with a sea turtle conservation program.

There are 8 species of marine turtle worldwide. We were working with the Olive Ridley sea turtle, Lepidochelys olivacea, (known as Tortue olivâtre in French and Tortuga golfina in Spanish). The program was run by local conservation group Nuestra Tierra and the work we did was part of a larger education / research / protection program to help save this species from extinction.

The workcamp was on a beach, ‘Bocca de Tomates’, north of the popular resort town of Puerta Vallarta, on Mexico’s West Coast. The beach was beautiful, and the camp was a scattering of tents under lofty thatched shelter. The camp was a mix of volunteers with two leaders. I was the only Australian, with other participants hailing from Switzerland, France, Germany, Denmark and the UK.

Daily life in turtle camp consisted of breakfast and clean-up around the camp in the mornings, lunch and showers in the staff facilities at a neighbouring hotel, back to camp for dinner and then the real work began. We were divided into two teams, with the first team ‘patrolling’ the beach from 10 to 12pm, the second group patrolling between 4 and 6 am.

Patrolling the beach was walking the full length of the beach between estuary and the resort and then back to camp – looking for adult sea turtles who may be laying, or looking for evidence that they’d been there to lay recently (tracks in the sand). The work was more challenging than it sounds, mainly due to having to patrol at night, and that the days were so hot that often you were ready for bed by the time the sun went down.

On my patrols I saw two adult turtles! Huge, determined, slow-walking females returning to the ocean. We dug out their nests and found their leathery eggs that were slightly warm, counted the eggs and then carefully transferred them to a nest that we had dug within the confines of a fenced-off corral.

This is done to protect the eggs from poachers, as many thousands of eggs are taken from beaches and sold as food each year despite laws forbidding this. Adult turtles are also killed, and sold on the black-market for food and leather. Recent headlines state:
“Mexican Sea Turtles Massacred by Armed Poachers” February 3, 2004.
“SAN VALENTIN BEACH, Mexico – Carcasses of hundreds of endangered sea turtles, bludgeoned and carved open by poachers, litter the virgin beach of San Valentin on Mexico’s Pacific coast in Guerrero state”.

Another key part of the work was checking these nests regularly for hatched turtles, which we then released at night into the ocean (referred to as ‘the liberation’). This was definitely a highlight as watching them make their way into the water was totally captivating. Needless to say the baby turtles were very cute.

Another satisfying part of the camp was interacting with guests from the nearby hotel who would wander by our camp and then come over to ask questions. A local resident brought her whole family down for the liberation one night, which was great, especially when the objective is to encourage local ownership of the program.

A downside was that the camp was not particularly well organised, an observation shared by all the volunteers in our group, so there were many little frustrations about the way things ran and the communication between leaders and volunteers. That said, a highlight was meeting some wonderful people during the camp and I have stayed in contact with them since returning to Australia.

Tips for people considering this workcamp:

– Don’t bother with a sleeping bag – it’s too hot! A silk or cotton sleeping bag liner would have been enough. A hammock would also be great for sleeping in.
– Consider taking some games or a battery-powered radio.
– Not for the squeamish – emptying the nests of dead turtles, unhatched eggs and shell remains (complete with maggots) was unpleasant but a vital task in helping to gather statistics about hatching rates and mortality.
– The heat can be quite extreme and a reasonable level of fitness is needed
– Make sure you have some Spanish. Even though leaders spoke English, instructions were given in Spanish.