Tale of Two Beaches

Mexico is one of just a handful of countries that is home to six of the seven sea turtle species, not to mention the staggering diversity of other types of animals, plants, ecosystems, indigenous cultures, cuisines, music involving cowboy hats and tubas, ways to drink beer, and funny slang. Obviously, I love Mexico. But back to turtles…

Mexico’s Pacific coastline is nearly continuous sand and surf, punctuated only sporadically by a river mouth or headland. These undaunted expanses welcome sea turtle nesting from Baja California in the north all the way to Chiapas in the south.

Along the way, you’ll find world-renowned nesting beaches for particular species, such as La Escobilla in Oaxaca, which hosts more than a MILLION nests per year belonging to synchronously mass nesting olive ridley turtles.

I was able to visit two of these famous sea turtle beaches: Playon Mexiquillo (leatherbacks) and Playa Colola (black turtles. Both sandy beaches, both in the state of Michoacan, both patrolled consistently for the past 20+ years. But the current situations couldn’t be more different….

In the 1980s, more than a thousand leatherbacks emerged each year to lay their eggs along Mexiquillo’s 18 kilometers of sand, and more than 4,000 leatherbacks nested along the entire Pacific coastline. Last year, fewer than 40 females nested. This pattern has also been observed at other sites in the region, which makes leatherbacks in the eastern Pacific perhaps the most urgent conservation priority for sea turtles in the world.

I’d heard the stories about how biologists and Mexican Marines patrolling Mexiquillo had run-ins over the years with drug traffickers, usually including being relieved of equipment (such as ATVs), and sometimes worse…The night I patrolled with the team, a caravan of FOUR ATVs left camp, each carrying at least one fully armed Marine, and all heading in the same direction. Each of us -biologist, visitor, Marine- was equipped with a massive bulletproof vest for our protection. Usually, the only protection I need while patrolling turtle beaches might be some bug spray…Not in Kansas (or Costa Rica) any more, I guess…

We rolled along the length of the beach, spooking yellow-crowned night herons every dozen or so meters, chatting along the way about turtle biology, the merits of ‘futbol’ versus ‘football,’ American food versus Mexican food -typical ways to pass the time during a patrol. The only thing missing: turltes. No leatherbacks (but a handful of olive ridley nests) nested that night. At the time of writing, only 4 leatherback nests had been counted. How far the mighty leatherback has fallen…

Coincidentally, an important milestone (with associated celebration) was reached that same night. Laura Sarti, the godmother of Mexican sea turtles, especially leatherbacks, was hosting the dedication of the new ‘campamento’ at Mexiquillo on the 25th anniversary of her taking over the conservation work there. Old friends of hers from those pioneering days joined in the festivities, having long since left sea turtles for other pursuits. Singing, dancing, campfire games, and a few speeches marked this momentous occasion in the history of Mexican sea turtle conservation.

But the irony was too much for me to ignore. Here we were, recognizing 25 years of work to protect leatherbacks on this beach, which has culminated in a wonderful field station, collaboration with Mexican Marines,…..and (almost) no turtles. What would things look like in another 25 years? Another TEN years? I couldn’t help but think about how sad a scene in the not-too-distant future might look where guests arrived at the campamento that once served home to biologists studying a now-extinct population of turtles…

What scares me about that scenario was that it wasn’t too far from what I actually experienced…

As I drove the curvy coastal highway up to Playa Colola, I imagined what Mexiquillo must have looked like 20 years ago, a vast stretch of sand pocked by leatherback nests, the hulking black turtles invading the beach from the sea in great numbers. Lost in this thought, I almost blew right past my destination. Colola is a tiny pueblo; I got estimates of between 300-1000, the variation due to uncertainty about just how many children each family had…Despite its modest human population, Colola is the self-proclaimed ‘global capital of the black turtle,’ hosting over a thousand females per year.

The beach itself is only about 5 km, and is blindingly bright, whitish-beige sand, bookended by a rocky headland and the pueblo itself. Despite having been depleted historically, the nesting black turtle population at Colola has increased in recent years to its currently robust numbers. A small community organization coordinates the patrolling effort on Colola, with advice and support from Mexican sea turtle biologists.

I spent the waning afternoon hours next to a small convenience store slurping chilled beers  with several of the tortugueros, listening as they talked about the work that they do, what the pueblo is like, and how they’d love to be able to support themselves and their families with the turtle work. This is a common theme: in spite of enthusiasm for and dedication to turtle conservation, many folks have to carry other jobs to put food on the table, limiting the time that they can devote to turtles.

After nightfall, Panchito took me to the campamento, a small cluster of thatched-roof buildings, including a ‘presentation hall,’ sleeping quarters, and the ‘cafeteria.’ All were essentially roof structures atop tree trunks driven directly into the beach sand, which happened to also be the floor in all the buildings. One of the tortugueros, Morty, took me along on patrol of the section at the western extreme of the beach. As we plodded through the loose sand, we passed dozens of turtle tracks and body pits, some with busily nesting turtles in them. The high and dry area of the beach was cratered throughout, signs of turtle nesting activities. The density of these turtle-craters was such that I couldn’t walk a straight line parallel to the shore for more than a few meters without having to change course or risk plunging downward into a body pit…

At the end of the night, all teams returned with more than a dozen black turtle egg clutches, which were bound for the hatchery to ensure safe development of the turtle embryos inside the eggs. I tucked myself into my sleeping bag, exhausted from a long day’s drive, good conversation, and non-stop turtle action. The last thing I remember before sleep hit me was visions of black turtles, black turtles everywhere….

In the morning, the brilliant sun blasting light over the beach and campamento, I observed the mutlitude of turtle crawls connecting the shoreline to nests on the high dunes. The hatchery was corralling more than a thousand nests, some yielding rambunctious hatchlings, others only recently interred, still needing nearly two months of incubation before reaching the same joyous climax.

If Mexiquillo is a stark reminder of the looming specter of extinction hovering over many sea turtle populations, Colola might be a glimpse into what such places once looked like. But I visited these sites on consecutive nights…Clearly, leatherbacks and black turtles are different species; they eat different things, migrate to and nest in different places, grow differently, reproduce differently…and are surviving differently. The two beaches are separated by less than a couple hundred kilometers, but represent opposite ends of today’s conservation spectrum for sea turtles. For me, Mexiquillo evoked tension, apprehension, concern, worry, and nostalgia, while Colola was energy, vitality, abundance, and hope.  Both represent conservation realities.

I know which one felt better to me.

(originally posted 25 Nov 2009)

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