Our kids helped 67 olive ridley sea turtle hatchlings reach the ocean.
The soft white sand shustled between our feet and our sandals as we stepped onto one of the most important sea turtle nesting grounds not only in Oaxaca, Mexico, but the world. Our baby sea turtle release tour with OscarTours had brought us to an area known as Escobilla. Typically between July and March, every year thousands of sea turtles come ashore here to lay their eggs.
While fully grown olive ridley sea turtles can live up to around 50 years, the odds are against them even reaching their first birthday.”
Tonight, an hour and a half west of Huatulco’s La Crucecita, we and the kids were going to help 67 olive sea turtle hatchlings vie for their own one-in-a-thousand chance to grow up to become adult sea turtles who would then return here and lay eggs of their own. Our baby sea turtle release tour was going to be an amazing chance to connect with nature, deepen our understanding of the importance of conservation, and see incredible creatures up close.
But first we had to get the wriggly little buggers to the ocean.
We want to thank Oscar Tours for sponsoring our visit. However, this article reflects our own personal opinions and experiences.
It’s hard to be a baby sea turtle
While fully grown olive ridley sea turtles (named for their olive color) can live up to around 50 years, the odds are against them even reaching their first birthday. A sea turtle hatchling has to dig itself out of its deep, safe sandy nest, then charge down a wide-open, exposed beach, to the relative protection of the waves. Along the way, they might face various predators, such as ghost crabs. These predators can grow large enough to kill an olive ridley hatchling with one crunch of its claws.
In the water, the danger lessens, but only slightly. Sea birds often look out for turtle hatchlings. Once the turtles start swimming through shallow water, fowl such as pelicans might scoop them out of the surf like a human plucking a half-shell oyster off a platter. (Fortunately for the turtles, sometimes they slip out of the bird beaks and take a high dive back into the surf.)
Despite their strong shells and unbroken lineage stretching back over 110 million years, today’s grown sea turtles are not immune from other threats to their populations. And, unfortunately, many of those threats have been caused or exacerbated by humans, such as warming air and water temperatures, habitat land being developed, and people who long considered turtles a tasty treat.
From today’s catch to a conservation treasure
Over the past few decades though, the Mexican government has worked to prioritize helping turtles. Along with banning the eating of turtles, laws and programs have been enacted to encourage conservation, eco-tourism, and the protection of turtles and their habitats.
In protected spaces such as Escobilla, and Bahias de Huatulco National Park, turtles, not the human public, take priority. On the beach we were approaching, nobody was romping on the sand or surfing in the waves. Access to turtle nesting grounds is restricted—and those restrictions are enforced by the police and even the military.
The efforts are paying off. After decades of conservation efforts for the three turtle species that nest in this area, the olive ridley is the only one that’s not endangered. Olive ridleys still face population threats, and scientists want to see numbers reach higher levels. However, there are encouraging signs that the global population of 800,000 is adapting and stabilizing.
Do turtle mothers cry?
For turtle mothers, their work of returning to their own hatching grounds begins around 10–15 years old. Olive ridleys have been found around the Oregon Coast and Sri Lanka, but many make their way back to their Oaxacan sands to lay their eggs. The solitary turtles return in groups, sometimes dozens at a time, in a migration called the arribada (from the Spanish word for “arrival”). They use their flippers to slowly scrape their 100-pound bodies up the sand, dig out a deep hole, and lay on average around 110 eggs.
Once the nest is covered with sand, the mamas head back to the ocean. Hatchlings don’t know their parents. Yet scientists have observed behaviors in nesting mothers that have been likened to crying. The cause, purpose, or function? We don’t know. It could be that the mothers feel a sort of sadness, that they are giving a chance for life to new creatures they will never know. Or it could be that they are simply exhausted from the labor of beaching, digging, nesting, and returning.
How our traveling family got to see baby sea turtles
After a 45–60 day incubation, the olive ridley turtles hatch, and must quickly get into the water. That imprints the place memory they will use year laters so they too can return, following a sort of built-in magnetic field-sensing GPS. Their mothers are long gone, in distant currents in other parts of the world. The babies are on their own, but they have the instincts, drive, and movement to get them to the water. And, in places like Escobilla, the baby sea turtles are not totally alone. A baby sea turtle release tour is a way for the public to be part of this important work.
The human work in this turtle conservation, though, begins behind green chain-link fencing and under a black netting roof.
We stared through the fencing at dozens of sticks poking up from the sand. Each marked the site of a nest. While turtles might lay eggs throughout the year, the months with the most hatchlings tend to be between July and March. For visitors like us, being able to take the tour with Oscar gave us a chance to do a small good deed for wildlife, and to better understand this part of Oaxaca.
During the five hours of our tour, our lead guide, Oscar Velásquez, talked with us about the area, the way society’s view of turtles had changed over the years, and the ins and outs of turtle conservation. A lifelong Huatulco resident with over 20 years experience in tourism, Oscar could convey vast knowledge and experience. Yet he was also approachable, accessible, and patient with us travelers, especially as he talked with us in English, then could shift between Spanish or Zapotec while making arrangements with turtle conservation volunteers.
Big rustling in a small blue tub
Before nearing the nest enclosure, we had washed our hands with water only. Soap or chemicals might harm the hatchlings. Oscar and his assistant, Fabian, showed us how to correctly, gently, and safely pick up a baby sea turtle so we could set it on the sand for the hatchling’s race to the sea. As part of handling the turtles, though, we had to be sure not to touch their bellies. Turtle hatchlings have an umbilical-type area there that they use for nourishment until they can find food in the wild.
Inside the enclosure, a ring of wire fencing, about a foot in diameter, had been set up around one of the sticks. Inside this inner enclosure, little dark shapes rustled and writhed. Yet there was another rustling sound, much closer. Turning, we realized that the volunteers had brought out a small blue tub, full of hatchlings. Each turtle was about the size of Connor’s hand. Their shells, flippers, and bodies were a matte, blackish gray. Yet their round, dark eyes reminded us of the eyes of youth anywhere: wide, bright, and excited.
From the small dark of their eggs buried in the sand, now these turtles had come up into the big wide world. And they were ready for what was next.
Olive ridley fact sheet: 7 reasons these sea turtles are amazing—and need protection
These incredible sea turtles inspired us. Each hatchling’s wide-eyed excitement reminded us of the excitement and wonder we have seen in our own children’s eyes. Here are a few quick things that stood out to us above olive ridley sea turtles:
- While charcoal gray or black in color as hatchlings, as the turtles mature their shells turn olive green.
- They’re omnivores, like humans, and especially enjoy shrimp, crabs, mollusks, and fish.
- Once olive ridleys hit the water as hatchlings, we know very little about what they do and where they go.
- Olive ridley populations remain vulnerable and could become endangered, but hopefully conservation and adaptation efforts will continue to pay off.
- Scientists estimate there are about 800,000 nesting female olive ridley sea turtles worldwide, comprising the most abundant sea turtle population of all sea turtle species.
- Mama turtles typically nest 1–3 times per season.
- Typically one hatchling in 1,000 survives to adulthood.
Baby sea turtles race to the sea
With our tub of turtles between the four of us, our guide drew a line in the sand, parallel to the surfline. Oscar instructed us to stay on the back side of the line. Untouched sand makes it easier for the turtles to reach the water. We were also coached in how to properly hold a hatchling for release. Hatchlings have a dark area on their bellies, where they draw in nutrients until they start eating in the wild. If we touched their bellies, we might hurt them. We learned to be careful about only holding them by their sides.
A baby olive ridley sea turtle might be small, but it is mighty. Each turtle surprised us with how strong it felt as it moved its flippers. One by one, we gently set each turtle on the beach. The kids treated the line as a starting line, setting down turtle by turtle and cheering them on.
“To the water!” called Aster. “To the water!”
The turtles knew what was going on. The moment their flippers touched sand, they scrabbled along the surface, feeling the damp sand get wetter as waves rolled in and rolled out. One by one, sooner or later each turtle tumbled into a wave. Then they started swimming as quickly as it could toward deeper water.
Unfortunately, the seabirds knew what was going on too. Sleek white shapes circled over the blue shallows. Now and again one swept down to snap up a turtle treat. Some turtles managed to get loose and fall back into the water, but it was a stark reminder that only a few of these baby turtles might make it to open water.
Even harder? There was nothing we could do. Armed marines might patrol the beach. Laws might give the turtles legal protection. Volunteers can help get the turtles to the water. But that’s it. Once we release the turtles, we are literally, legally, and metaphorically hands off. We’ve given each turtle a hopeful start, but from here on out, nature is in charge.
Still, we pick up each turtle, marvel at these little lives, and set them on the sand. Nature will do what nature does. So will each turtle. Hopefully some of the turtles we release will be among those that help these olive ridley populations improve, stabilize, and grow.
A cuteness of turtles
On the way back from Escobilla to La Crucecita at the end of our baby sea turtle release tour, night set in. We passed little villages. One had lots of people in chairs around an open space. Music wove through the dark night, lit by a banana moon and lights strung up over the the gathering place.
Our traveling family has done cool things. But holding baby sea turtles, looking them in their newborn eyes, and helping them toward the sea? It’s one of the most amazing things the four of us have ever done.
I turned to the kids. “What did you think of the turtles?”
“I had no idea they were so dark in color,” said Connor. “Or so strong.”
But Aster just grinned, as she had all evening, from the moment she first saw the baby sea turtles. “What about you?” I asked her. “What did you think of the turtles?”
As she looked at me, her eyes shone brighter than the moon.
They were both right. But the parenting experience for us adults brought home something else. These baby turtles were, in their determination and excitement, like our own human kiddos. They wanted a chance to live, to grow up, to make their way in a world full of challenges. As we finished our baby sea turtle release tour, we thought of those 67 hatchlings, how they might be doing, where they might now be. We hugged our own kids closer. And we hoped that we had done a good deed. Maybe we helped a few more turtles brighten the waters of the world.
Good luck, baby sea turtles.