TURTLES, THEY COME AND GO
The uninterrupted cycle of nature observed.
The first turtle lands. I consider myself lucky. I am honoring my appointment with her.
But the truth is she barely sees me. She has a target, a purpose. After thousands of miles from who-knows-where, there she is, tired and panting. And she is focusing on just one thing.
Climb up that beach, dig a hole, hatch her eggs, cover the hole and go.
Turtles, they come and go.
Delivering babies can be pretty devoid of feelings for some species. Or maybe I am totally wrong.
She goes all the way up, I observe. And as she digs, another one comes along. And then another, followed by another. By the time I look up towards the horizon, a few dozens of them have landed already and are making their way up the beach.
Vultures seem to know, and as turtles multiply, so do they. They can’t do much to such a big giant rock of an animal, but they’re the first ones for diner when one of them dies of exhaustion. The spectacle and the smell of death are getting stronger by the minute. The scavengers are having a feast : fresh eggs and dying turtles. Enough to feed an entire regiment.
Such pain lies in nature though. Nature is beautiful, but nature is not always fair, nature isn’t always kind, and nature can be ugly too sometimes, for the most empathic ones.
It is hard not to intrude and rescue, help. But the reality is that there is enough work just trying to minimize our own impact on them. Fishing, littering, warming up the oceans, squashing in protected areas … Therefore, I try to stay still and put, and I watch.
The smell is close to unbearable and the spectacle, too, at times. But other times, I look up to these thousands of sea dinosaurs, and I feel so stoned. Thrilled by the circle of life.
After traveling thousands of miles, these mamas come lay their eggs on the same exact same beach they were born on. Why, or how, I’m not sure we’ll ever exactly know how their DNA works. What is innate, what is learnt. But that can only make one wonder, how many of these animals were ever born here ? That must be counted in millions.
Mexico isn’t really famous for its biodiversity. It’s unfair, because it’s known to the Mexicans, as well as to the scientific community, but most of us know Mexico for its drugs, its violence, its cartels, its corruption. And yet. Yet after over a year in this country, I can deplore only one extortion of money by a transit police. No one ever tried to bother me, take advantage of me, or just be the slightest mean to me.
Instead, I have made friends even in the middle of a pandemic, I have been offered lodging for free, I have been invited for lunch by strangers, and I have received smiles and good wishes every single day. If anything, I can say that Mexico’s reputation is rather undeserved. Yes it is a country that has its problems, like most of them. Yes it has a strong history of violence and drugs, and yes it has a present made of obesity and diabetes. But it gives birth to the kindest people I have ever met in 20 years of travels. And that makes up for anything else.
Back to biodiversity, the country alone is home to between 10 and 12% of the world’s biodiversity, just slightly less than Brazil. And alongside with 16 other “mega diverse” countries, it co-hosts 60 to 70% of it.
Mexico ranks first in global biodiversity in reptiles, second in mammals, fourth in amphibians and fourth in flora. It is also considered the world's second most diverse country in ecosystems and fourth in overall species. Yet, I had never heard about that before landing here.
It is a high migration destination for birds, whales, rays, butterflies, turtles, and Americans. But I had no idea about all that either. Fifteen percent of the Mexican population is indigenous, against below one percent in Brazil. They total up over 50 different languages. As for the state with the largest indigenous population, it is right where I live, the state of Oaxaca. Oaxaca, which capital of the same name was just elected best city of the world by Travel + Leisure's. With all that in mind, one would think Mexico would be in the top travel destinations of the world. But while it ranked seventh in the number of arrivals in 2019, a vast portion of this is for business and is coming from one source, its main neighbor, the United States. International tourism doesn't really venture out of its main tourist attraction, Cancun.
That sometimes saddens me, but in some ways, it also makes me happy. There is no mass tourism as such outside of Cancun, and you may well end-up visiting all the main attractions by yourself. Who can actually say today that they can sit in front of a smoking and boiling volcano, by themselves ? That they can go and see whales, by themselves ? That they can release baby turtles with just a small bunch of other people, that they don’t need to reserve before going to a gastronomic restaurant… ?
Unfortunately, the country, like most countries now, fights for its economic growth and tends not prioritize the environment. And while it is sad, as months pass by, I discover more and more little initiatives to preserve fauna and flora, monitor migrations of all sorts, preserve indigenous languages, lands and culture, or promote local cuisine.
Migrations of Olive Ridley turtles are a phenomenon observed worldwide. But there are only 3 or 4 places in the world where there are that many of them. Hundreds of thousands at a time. And it happens here on the Pacific coasts of the country, in different places.
There are a very large number of NGO specialized in the monitoring of it, and the safe release of their babies. indeed, pretty much every town along the coast has its own "tortuguero".
We recently visited a Sea Turtle Conservation Center on the coast of Oaxaca, and attended a baby turtle release. There, 10 people work as employees, and 10 more volunteer. They receive a little subvention from the government but that doesn’t suffice to do what they have to do. So, as an NGO, the center collects visitor's donations. Sometimes a few dollars, sometimes way more.
It depends on people, their possibilities, their level of engagement. But the truth is, carers usually work out of passion, and the Mexicans are generally so kind, that even if you couldn’t give a cent, you’d be received with a smile like in 99% of the places in Mexico, and you’d be explained why their 365-days-a-year job is so important. Then, you’d be given a baby turtle in a coconut shell, and asked to go and release it on the beach, give it a name, and send it all your best wishes so that it gets to the salt waters of the Pacific safe and sound. As to what happens later… there’s just nothing you can do about it. It’s called nature.
One thing I feel like after witnessing a massive "arribada", totally by chance, and after releasing two baby turtles, called "sin" and "nombre" because we didn't think of giving them a name until we got there, is that we'll never see the ocean in the same way, and I'll have even more respect for these swimmers that can travel thousands of miles just to lay their eggs on this beach, and nowhere else. This beach, so close to where I live.
This reportage is a four-handed one. Frederic Baron and I have lived in Mexico for over a year, have recently settled down in Huatulco, Oaxaca, are now being able to witness nature at its full potential every night and day, and of course, share it further.
Olive Ridley Sea Turtles
The olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), also known commonly as the Pacific ridley sea turtle, is a species of turtle in the family Cheloniidae. The species is the second smallest and most abundant of all sea turtles found in the world.
The olive ridley is found in warm and tropical waters, primarily in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but also in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
This turtle and the related Kemp's ridley turtle are best known for their unique mass nesting called arribada, where thousands of females come together on the same beach to lay eggs.