On a long, wide, sandy beach north of Todos Santos, on the west coast of Baja, Mexico, sea turtles are hatching by the hundreds. Almost every evening in the winter months, another bunch crawls over the sand toward the vast Pacific, as turtles have done for more centuries than you can imagine. These days it’s a little different. They need human help, and they’re getting it from a unique conservation organization. Just past sunset, here at Turtle Camp on Las Playitas, we get to watch it happen.
For 55 days the turtles have been in an incubation greenhouse, curled in eggs in warm sand. Those that hatched today are now swarming and wiggling in blue plastic bins, some on their backs waving tiny flippers, others climbing over each other. Where are we? What happened to that cozy, quiet, soft place? What is this booming sound, calling me into thunder and foam and danger? It’s irresistible! Let’s go! Or so I imagine their reactions to be.
Volunteers who’ve been watching over the eggs kneel by the bins and explain to visitors that this is the only place in the world where turtle eggs are collected from their nests and kept safe in a greenhouse until they hatch. When they stagger out, they’re held in the bins until sunset and then released onto the beach to find their way into the waves. These little guys and gals are incredibly vulnerable, and darkness shields them from eager predators like the gulls now circling above us. Even so, most will become snacks for birds and sharks or be trapped in nets and drown.
Some evenings as many as 100 turtles are released. Tonight there are about 25, all of them Olive Ridleys. Leatherbacks, the largest sea turtles, hatch here too. They’re found in every ocean and are the most endangered, 90% gone. Amazing fact: when these Olive Ridleys, those who survive, reach sexual maturity ten years after wandering the world, the females with eggs will return to this exact beach to nest. Even more amazing: Leatherbacks come back sixteen years later. I’m hoping enough of them live that long.
The mothers drop the eggs, cover them up, and waddle back into the ocean, and the eggs wait, prey to the dangers of ATVs, construction, and any creature interested in dining on turtle eggs—lizards, dogs, birds, humans. The temperature has to be just right, too. So the volunteers and biologists at Todos Tortugueros give them a hand, collecting the eggs and sheltering them.
Now it’s past sunset and the gulls have wheeled away, thwarted this time. Those of us who’ve come to watch stand behind the sharp slope that falls to the surf, where waves rise high, roll, and crash. Once the 3-inch-long turtles are on the slope, they scramble down, pulling themselves forward until they reach the water and are pulled out by the next wave. All except one, who seems confused. He, or maybe she, keeps going the wrong way, or stops as if to get his bearings. He’ll get there, the biologist says. But he doesn’t, and who could resist giving him a boost? Someone finally lifts him and puts him close enough to catch the wave. And off he goes, into a wild new world that is home.