Today, as their numbers dwindle toward extinction, it is more important than ever to preserve their shrinking habits. Two of the world’s seven species of sea turtle, green turtles and loggerheads, nest on the beaches of Quintana Roo. Both have been impacted by the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, as well as the chemical oil dispersant sprayed afterward. Because of pressure from environmental groups, special precautions were taken during the spill to protect sea turtles, and some rehabilitated individuals are being tracked to collect follow-up data about the spill’s effects.
Scientists observing the Yucatán Peninsula’s 2011 turtle nesting season will hopefully be able to glean more insight into the Gulf of Mexico’s sea turtle population, and perhaps lobby for more protection. You can help by participating in one of the many “turtle tours” available in Cancún and along the Riviera Maya.
The most popular spot, among both sea turtles and the humans who love them, is Akumal, “Place of the Turtles.” The beautiful beaches are well known as one of the world’s best spots for spotting sea turtles.
The laid-back resort town is also home to the Centro Ecológico Akumal (CEA), the Yucatán’s premier sea turtle research facility. They have a recommended volunteer program, but the two-month commitment and long nights of hard work might be bit more than you’re willing to take on, despite the turtles’ desperate plights.
There are dozens of other ways to see and save sea turtles, however. A handful of luxury resorts have sea turtle conservation programs; sign up for a tour, and let the hotel know that you appreciate their commitment to the environment. Turtles nest along the entire Mayan Coast, and can be seen in conjunction with archaeological sites such as Tulúm. If you’re not here during the nesting or hatching period, which runs between May and December, several operators offer snorkel tours where you can swim with foraging turtles.
If you’re hoping to witness the lovely ladies nesting, note that they usually arrive under cover of darkness; most tours begin well after sunset. Services vary, but in general you’ll wait in a shelter, perhaps into the wee hours, while outfitters look for new arrivals; there’s no guarantee they’ll find a turtle.
If you are lucky enough to see one, please give her the respect you’d expect if the circumstances were reversed. Sea turtles live some 70 years, communicate with one another, and form complex social bonds; they are probably much more sensitive and intelligent than we give them credit for. Do not use flashlights or take flash photos, even if your guide hints that he’ll let you for an extra tip. Do not surround the turtle, stand directly in front of her, or touch her. Also be aware that the sale and consumption sea turtle eggs have been illegal in Mexico since 1990. While you’ll still see them on some menus, Viagra is available over the counter and is much more effective.
Baby sea turtles nose their way up through the sand 50 to 60 days after laying, and some operators offer tours that let you watch, or even help release, the adorable creatures into the sea. Remember that they must walk on the sand at least ten meters (33 feet), so the little girls remember which beach to return to in 25 years or so, when it comes time to lay their own first fragile clutches of eggs.
Photo by Damien du Toit from Flickr