To help or not to help: sea turtles in Michoacan.

The sun beat down relentlessly on the coast of Michoacan in western Mexico. The humidity chocked the air and upon first glance, the shimmering ocean at Playa Ixtapilla looked enormously inviting. The current looked less inviting.

The visitors and volunteers took refuge from the midday heat under the palapa before selecting a site for their tents and arranging their accommodation for the evening. The first families to arrive had erected their Taj Mahal on the rocky, unforgiving ground underneath one of the palapas, thankful that the palm leaves allowed them to leave the fly off their tent and invite the soothing evening breeze into their temporary home.

It was pointed out the families that their tent pegs were not reaching far into the earth, to which the parents replied,

“No pasa nada”

This was a decision they would later regret.

Other volunteers moved away from the communal area and sought softer ground in which to force our tent pegs. Whether out of habit or foreboding, we hammered and stretched our tents until taut and affixed the fly, despite the afternoon heat.

We then gathered to hear instructions from the local community leaders on the rescue of baby turtles. This is why we were here. We had volunteered to help ensure that baby sea turtles survived the journey from their nests into the ocean. Once in the waves, they would have to fend for themselves.

At this time of year, the Tortuga Golfina arrive in large numbers to lay their eggs on the beach. After incubating, the eggs then hatch and the babies make a mad dash for the ocean. Turtle numbers have been declining in recent years in this region of Mexico, and local communities welcome volunteers from across Mexico, and the world, to assist in helping the turtles into the water.

Upon dusk we attached our headlamps and set out across the sands to locate the nests. We’d been instructed to follow a specific path along the beach to minimise traffic across the sand. With so many turtles hatching, you never know what is under your feet.

We followed the mother turtles and watched them shovel sand with their strong fins to make a nest. Then we waited. As the turtles started laying their eggs, we carefully removed them and placed them in buckets.

What did it feel like?

A slimy ping pong ball.

Other nests had already been occupied with baby turtles, and at those we dug slowly and carefully to remove the tiny turtles.

We’d been instructed to cautiously remove both eggs and baby turtles and place them in buckets. These buckets were then transferred to a number of shelters where the eggs were monitored and allowed to hatch in safety. Predators exist in every natural environment, and baby sea turtles are a popular meal for many sea birds. Due to dwindling numbers of turtles, efforts were made to protect the turtles from predators and ensure they reached the ocean.

Once the eggs released the hatchlings, the shelters were swarming with baby turtles.

We dug and collected for a few hours that night and carried a huge number of eggs and babies to the shelters. We would continue this work the next day when many more volunteers descended on the small beach. Tired but satisfied, we returned to our accommodation for a good night’s sleep and another day of turtle rescue.

In the middle of the night, shrieks were heard. Children and women’s voices echoed across the waves and could be heard over the roaring winds. We crept bleary eyed out of our tents to see parents dashing around madly in the driving rain trying to stop their tents and their children from being carried into the ocean. The sudden tropical storm had lifted the Taj Mahal off the ground with the children inside and it was now being carried towards the beach.

Enough frantic helpers were able to throw themselves onto the tent in order to stop it from blowing away and the children were eventually freed from a tangle of mosquito netting and tent poles.

Hastily assembled shelters were somehow erected in the midst of the storm and the shell shocked children were able to eventually catch up on some sleep. Sodden and sleep deprived the next morning, they were at least able to laugh off their misadventure.

The glimmering ocean beckoned during the heat of the second day, but the local community and the volunteer lifeguards advised us that the water was strictly off limits in order to respect the beach and the baby turtles, who we were after all trying to save.

To help or not to help

A young scientist from the local university had been studying the turtles at the site for many months, and raised doubts over the effectiveness of the human intervention. He suggested that the assistance may be counterproductive because even though it helped more of the hatchlings to reach the water, it accelerated the process and disrupted the natural process.

It may be better, he proposed, to let nature take its course. Yes, some baby turtles may be lost, but the mother’s lay so many eggs to pre-empt this loss, and enough of the tiny creatures survive the journey to the ocean for the species to survive. The species was willing to sacrifice some babies on the sand, and others in the shallows, in order for some to survive and eventually make it to adulthood.

That is, of course, before massive changes to the ocean and the beaches which have sustained the turtle populations for so long. Human activity at the nesting beaches, at nearby beaches and in the local waterways have reduced total turtle numbers in recent years. Global problems such as rising sea levels, changes in water temperature and ocean pollution have also caused the decimation of local populations.

Our discussions with the young scientist did not produce a definitive answer to the question of whether to help or not to help. What is clear is that human actions, near Playa Colola and the rest of the world, were to blame for the dwindling numbers of baby turtles emerging from nests at the beach.

If humans have caused the problem, do humans have to fix it?

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