A Flotilla of Sea Turtles

Wow! What a week to be a tortuga warrior! After cruiser friend Lisa on SV Bloom posted online about seeing dozens of mama turtles laying eggs early one morning, I decided I should get up early and venture out to see these mamas (from a distance of course). So Pat and I set the alarm for o-dark-thirty and ventured out. The first few days, we saw hundreds of tracks, and one mama turtle. I even had a hotel worker who was helping a lost baby turtle find the water,  hand him to me and I sent him on his way into the Sea of Cortez. 
Mama turtle tracks leading to nests.

Hundreds of mama tracks

But then came yesterday! I grabbed Jill, a cruiser friend from Namahana, and we headed out before the sun came out with flashlights in hand. We saw just a few mama tracks and thought the walk would be a bust (other than the fact that we were watching a very cool lightning event off the coast over a beautiful sea), until my flashlight caught a movement near her foot. "STOP!" Looking down, we found a tiny lost little turtle. As we fawned over it, we realized there were hundreds of tiny tracks, belonging to his siblings. We followed them away from the water. "There's one!" "Over there, another one" "Watch your step, there's one more" "Oh my gosh, there are dozens up here!".

Baby tracks - headed the wrong direction
Hundreds of baby tracks during the daylight

Under the light of a building, a huge group of baby turtles were flapping their way up to the Hard Rock Hotel restaurant. We realized we needed to get them to the water before sun up and the birds and other predators showed up. We started by hustling them (carefully, watching our step) 2 by 2 to the water line, letting them flap their way in. But this was taking too long. Soon we scooped them all up into our shirts and each hefted dozens of turtles to the sea. We didn't understand why, once we placed them at the waterline, many of them turned to walk back up the beach towards us. Multiple times we had to pick them up as they headed away from the sea and place them back near the water as waves were coming, so the water would take them out.

My turtle helping buddy, Jill

Working hard to get out of the nest

Heading to the sea!

One last little guy in a 2nd nest we saw

Later I was explaining to Hailey this weird phenomenon, and she told me that babies will walk toward a light, thinking it is the moon that will lead them to the water. This explains why they were under the light at the Hard Rock and why they kept heading toward our flashlights. Note to selves: always keep the flashlight near the water.

An empty nest, with flip flop for size comparison

Forward to this morning. Now, because Jill and I had been bragging about our adventure, we had a full turtle-helping-brigade prepared with buckets and flashlights from Jill and Curt on SV Namahana, Lisa and Carson from SV Bloom, and Karen from SV Avalon (we're lucky they let us hang out with them even though we are an MV - motor vessel). Within 5 minutes of being on the beach, under a palapa where hundreds of people have enjoyed the beach over the last 2 months, I spotted a movement. As I called the gang over, it was clear that these turtles had just opened up their nest. A softball sized hole was surrounded by about 20 flapping sea turtles. As we gathered around them, we kept the flashlights between the turtles and the water and they all aimed directly for the light. More and more turtles pulled themselves up and out of the hole. We estimate there were around 100 babies (nests average about 110 eggs). As they moved toward the sea, we moved the light closer to the water, Karen used the bucket to make a path of sea water, having heard that it can help guide the babies. These tiny creatures formed a conga line to the Sea of Cortez. If a light turned on to either side of them, they were like the needles on a compass, and pivoted toward the new light, confirming Hailey's information. I have since learned that this trait is called phototactic - being attracted to the brightest light.

We helped them get to the water, making sure there were no birds to stop their journey. Every single turtle from that nest made it to the water. If one needs to be redirected or moved more quickly to the water, we were told at a turtle sanctuary, to run your hands through the sand first and make sure you don't have lotions or oils on your hands. 

Once in the water, they float near the surface for about 45 minutes before being able to dive. These guys had at least that much darkness left, so I'd like to think they were all able to dive before any predators came their way. 

Looking at the pictures, I think this set were Ridley turtles. I think I counted 5 costal scutes, the panels on the sides of their shell, but it could have been 6, so I'm not sure if they were Olive or Kemp Ridleys  (if anyone can tell from my pictures, let me know!)

Most common sea turtle around this part of Mexico are Ridley and Green.

We also saw a mama turtle - we left her alone to do her thing!

I think there will be a few other early wake ups during this turtle hatching and egg laying season. In addition to helping the lost babies find the sea, we also reburied some eggs that had been dug up by predators and picked up trash. Based on the mama tracks, there are thousands and thousands of eggs on this small stretch of beach alone. And we learned that one female will come to the same beach 2-8 times in a season to lay eggs! 
Today's nest hatched right under one of these palapas.
During the day there are lounge chairs under these.

Another couple cool facts:

  • Sea turtle gender is determined by the temperature of the nest. Warmer temperatures produce more females. It's been pretty warm - I'm thinking there were a lot of girls in today's batch!
  • Their nests are very deep. When they break out of their eggs, they work together to climb on top of the egg shell pile and dig their way out, that can take days. The egg shells usually remain under ground. This is why we saw many shallow holes, but no egg shells.
  • As adults, turtles return to the beach where their nest was to lay their own eggs. How do they find the beach they came from? The most recent theory about how turtles navigate is that they can detect both the angle and the intensity of the earth's magnetic field. Using these two characteristics, a turtle may be able to determine its latitude and longitude, enabling it to navigate virtually anywhere. Early experiments seem to prove that sea turtles have the ability to detect magnetic fields. (conserveturtles.org)
  • A group of Sea Turtles is called a Flotilla
  • Our cruiser friend Lisa, on SV Bloom, has been calling local turtle rescues to see if there is any local support and asking what is being done to make sure as many turtles survive as possible. They said they are aware of all the nests in this highly trafficked area. They said to definitely move them in the right direction if they are in danger of not making it to the water and to remove them from the hot sand and near the water line during the day. Otherwise, they suggest to let them find their way. They probably didn't need quite as much guidance as we were giving them :) But not a single one was attacked by a predator on our watch! Now that we know, we won't interfere unless it's needed if we see some again.
    And then on the way back to the boat, we get to see beautiful sunrises

    *Note - if you're reading this in email format, you may not be able to see all of the photos and videos. You may want to check out the blog directly at http://www.mvnoeta.com/2019/09/a-flotilla-of-sea-turtles.html


  1. SO COOL!!! When exactly is turtle hatching season? Griffin and Jack Nordi found baby turtles making their way to the sea in Zihua in the first quarter of the year- March-ish?

    1. Hi Bethany! August - October is usually hatching time, but they can show up occasionally at other times too. So cool that Grif and Jack got to see it - it's so amazing!


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