Summer is an exciting time in Cancun & the Riviera Maya. In addition to the usual tourists (of the human variety, that is), that visit from around the world, whale sharks and sea turtles also spend a few months in the area, during the Summer. Sea turtle nesting season is from May to October.
Sadly, all species of sea turtles, believed to have been around for over 100 million years, are listed as “threatened”, or are on the endangered species list. In Cancun, Isla Mujeres, and Riviera Maya, there are several organizations that are working hard to protect Green Sea Turtles and Loggerhead Sea Turtles, the 2 species that are commonly found in the region.
Sea turtles mate at sea and rarely go ashore, except for when the females go onto the shore to lay their eggs. The female often returns to the beach where she was hatched, or in the same area, to lay her eggs. They dig holes in the sand, approximately 16-20 inches in diameter, and then lay their eggs in the nest. Depending on the species, the turtles can lay from 50-200 eggs at one time. The loggerhead species averages about 110 eggs per nest.
The process of digging the hole and laying the eggs can take up to about 1-2 hours. During the process, people are instructed to NOT disturb the turtle, or to shine bright lights on her. The bright light can disrupt the reproductive process. During the nesting season, many hotels turn out their lights on the beach, or have dimmer lights than normal, so as not to disturb the turtles.
The eggs incubate for about 60 days and then they hatch. The baby turtles then dig their way to the surface and instinctively head for the water. Even though adult sea turtles grow to be around 300 pounds, they are small enough to fit into the palm of your hand, when they are hatched. The trip from the nest to the water is one of the most dangerous times in a sea turtle’s life, because crabs and seagulls often grab them before they can make it to the water.
Hotels throughout the entire region protect nests that are built on their beaches. Nesting usually occurs between 11pm and 5am. As if you needed another reason to take a moonlit stroll along the beaches of Cancun & Riviera Maya, now you can go in search of sea turtles.
Hotels can’t possibly predict when a sea turtle will come onto the shore to lay her eggs, but they can roughly predict when the babies will hatch and make their way to the water. In the past, Dreams Cancun Resort & Spa and Hotel Ritz-Carlton Cancun have had turtle release programs in which hotel guests could participate. Be sure to ask your hotel staff about such a program, if you are planning to vacation in the area during the Summer months. Akumal seems to have much more turtle activity than other areas in the region so, if seeing sea turtles nesting, or helping baby sea turtles get to the water, are on your “bucket list”, you might want to consider staying in the Akumal area, during your next vacation.
If you aren’t lucky enough to encounter sea turtles on the beach of your hotel, or if you’d like to find out more about sea turtle protection and conservation programs, check out these organizations:
Xcaret, a wildly popular eco-park near Playa del Carmen, is one of several places in the region where green turtles & loggerhead turtles are protected. The volunteers at Xcaret protect the turtle eggs until they hatch and then they help the babies make their way to the water. Some turtles are kept at the Xcaret aquarium and marked so they can be identified when they return to nest on the same beaches, in approximately 25 years. Xcaret sends about 300,000 baby turtles back into the sea each year.
The Centro Ecologico Akumal is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to ecologically sustainable development of the Cancun-Tulum corridor. At their site, they have created a restricted area where they can protect some nests of sea turtle eggs. They offer slide presentations on sea turtles each week, and have printed material that tourists can pick up, in order to learn more about sea turtles and how we can help protect the species. The sanctuary has Turtle Walks, during nesting season. Up to 10 people are allowed on the walk, each night, and no reservations are required. The sanctuary relies on donations to continue it’s efforts to protect sea turtles. People planning to take the turtle walk must be prepared to walk up to 3 miles, in dark or dimly lit conditions, on the beach in Akumal. If you are unable to visit the Centro Ecologio Akumal, you can adopt a sea turtle by going to their website and making a tax-deductible donation.
The tiny island of Isla Mujeres has it’s very own turtle farm, called The Tortugranja. The turtle farm is a small place, located on the west coast of Isla Mujeres. The facility is devoted to conservation of sea turtles and it is funded almost entirely by private donations. In addition to tanks filled with sea turtles of various ages, there is also a small aquarium that contains local sea life. Sometimes you can see newborn sea turtles in the tanks, or maybe even participate in the turtle release program! The place can be seen in it’s entirety in about 1 hour, but it’s a “must-see”, when visiting Isla Mujeres. Admission to the turtle farm is $30 pesos (approximately $2.35 USD), per person, and a portion of the fee goes to sea turtle conservation efforts.
The Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an is a small ecotourism & education center, located near the town of Tulum, that offers fishing & other on-site activities, tours, and hotel accommodations. The monies earned from the tours, etc., are used to fund conservation and educational programs within the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. During the sea turtle nesting season, Sian Ka’an also has a turtle protection program. At a size of approximately 1.3 million acres, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean, and is definitely worth a visit at any time of year…not just during the sea turtle nesting season.