Tiny flippers propelling them forward through loose sand, forty-four newly hatched Black Sea Turtles, raised their heads as if sniffing or listening to the waves, and scrambled down the steep dune into a daunting pounding surf. It was just before sunset, December 30, on a long stretch of undeveloped beach outside Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, (Mexico). More than 30 adults and children, local residents and visitors, kneeled at the top of the steep dune, whispering, laughing, and cheering as the newborns, they had just placed on the sand, determinedly made for the vast Pacific.
The tiny turtles, just over an inch across their backs, will cling to kelp and float into bays as they grow to maturity. They may swim several thousand miles and eventually reach up to 4 feet in length and nearly 300 pounds.
The question being asked is why are these the first Black Sea Turtles, to be born on this particular beach, as far as anyone can remember? The answer may be beach development or it may be that the mother turtle who laid these eggs was the sole survivor of Black Turtles born here 15 to 20 years ago. For generations throughout Central America, turtle meat and eggs have been considered delicacies, and turtle poaching continues despite Mexican turtle protection laws passed in 1990.
Todos Santos, some 50 miles north of Cabo San Lucas sits astride the Tropic of Cancer on the Pacific side of the nearly 1000 mile long Baja Peninsula. Miles of pristine beaches lie just outside this small but growing international art, and surfing colony, unlike nearby Cabo where condos, time shares, and all-inclusive resorts crowd a waterfront covered with ATV tracks and sunbathing northerners.
Along with Black Turtles, threatened Olive Ridley and endangered Leatherback Turtles, lay eggs on this stretch of beach, under the watch of local leaders and volunteers.
The story of these particular Black Sea Turtles, (Chelonia mydas agassizii), considered by some biologists a sub-species of the Atlantic Green Sea Turtle, but designated as a distinct and endangered species by groups such as Sea Turtle Inc., began as a surprise 55 days earlier, when volunteers with Tortugueros Las Playitas, discovered a female Black digging her nest. Fifteen days later the same turtle came ashore and laid another 50 eggs in a new nest. Each time the volunteers gathered the eggs and moved them into a temperature controlled “invernadero” (greenhouse) to incubate.
Enthusiasm for the protection programs has grown steadily, with public releases, and involvement of local ranchers, fishermen and students. Volunteers patrol 35 kilometers of beach every night during nesting season, not only to collect eggs but to ward off poachers. When eggs begin hatching emails circulate announcing the releases, again drawing from the local and ex-pat community.
As the sun dipped on the Pacific, local rancher and President of Grupo Tortugueros Las Playitas, Francisco Cota, drew a line in the sand at the top of the dune, while Fran Dvorak, one of the resident activists, exhorted the eager crowd to “wash” their hands with sand to remove any contaminants before holding a hatchling and then to release within a very few minutes.
Hands reached out, turtles squirmed, names were given, and the race began as children and adults emotionally cheered or quietly urged their turtle toward the sea. Even as waves picked them up, flipped them over, shoved them halfway back up the dune, the turtles scrambled onward. The last turtle was engulfed by the waves as the sun set.
The hope is that next year more Black Turtle females will scramble ashore to nest, here, and 15 to 20 years from now, mature females from this group will return to build nests where they were released.
For further information, please visit todostortugueros.org