By Jennifer Bonniwell, SEE Turtles Traveler
This weeklong visit to Oaxaca and its famous turtle nesting beaches was our first trip to the area and I think was a resounding success. The days were filled with beaches and waterfalls, while every night we walked the beaches releasing turtle hatchlings and finding nesting mother turtles. Each day had a different highlight — from finding a leatherback nest and releasing turtle hatchlings to visiting a rainforest waterfall and seeing a rare endemic bird during a walk near Escobilla beach. As I look back, it is hard to find a single theme for the trip—although we did see turtle hatchlings nearly everyday. So, maybe the theme can be coastal Oaxaca’s greatest hits, since we saw much of the best that Oaxaca’s beaches have to offer.
First, a little background on why this area of Oaxaca is so great for turtle visits. The heart is Escobilla beach, which is one of the largest turtle nesting in the world. Indeed, Escobilla has the world’s largest arribada, which means “arrival by sea” in Spanish. We don’t know why it happens or how the turtles decide on the timing, but thousands of mother turtles come ashore at the same time and lay eggs along the same stretch beach where they were born. In Escobilla, more than 300,000 mother turtles can lay eggs in nests during a single arribada. Arribadas happen about once per month beginning in June. This means there also is a steady stream of turtle hatchlings along this beach for much of the nesting season.
Second, a note about how SEE Turtles trips try to leave as little impact on wildlife while putting as much as possible into supporting communities that are helping protect sea turtles. SEE Turtles trips help support turtles in two ways: first with direct funding to local partners to protect nesting beaches and conduct in-water research. For this trip, an estimated $700 pp goes to conservation efforts. Second, these trips prioritize spending money in local communities because residents are more likely to support protecting sea turtles if they see a tangible commercial benefit from ecotourism. On this trip, $9,500 was spent on tour costs in local accommodations, eating in local restaurants, and paying local staff including local guides for tourist activities.
Barra de la Cruz — Turtles and Surfing
We started our trip at Barra de La Cruz, which is an 8 km stretch of beach about 80 miles from Escobilla. Though this beach doesn’t have arribada, it is a very important beach for nesting leatherbacks; they also study and protect three kinds of turtles: leatherbacks, olive ridleys, and black turtles. Due to the steady stream of nesting turtles, we were able to see nests each night as well as release hatchlings two of the three nights.
The Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga research station at Barra de aa Cruz patrols the beach every night during the nesting season to find and protect nests before human poachers. Researchers collect eggs from every nest that is laid and move them to a hatchery at the top of the beach enclosed by fences. When the eggs hatch — 45-70 days later (depending on the species) — the biologists then release the hatchlings outside the fences to crawl into the ocean. The benefit of moving the nests into a hatchery is to protect them from illegal egg collecting and also that biologists can monitor the health and temperature of the nests. At Barra de la Cruz, the protected hatchery also has shade to keep the nests from getting too hot (a more recent obstacle to successful nests caused by rising global temperatures). In 2021, the station protected more than 330 nests, with a 67% rate of hatching.
On the first night, our team visited the hatchery first. We arrive to find two nests filled with wiggling hatchlings (kept in place with a circular pen) that we help release into the ocean. Our group gets to pick up, count and carry the hatchlings in a tray to the beach. It’s important for turtles to imprint on the beach by walking on their own to the water. There is no moon, so we use red-light headlamps to place the hatchlings a few feet from the surf and watch them crawl into the water. A few times the hatchlings were walking away from the water, so we picked them up to turn them the right way. We released more than 150 hatchlings the first night and another 30 the second night.
After the excitement of the hatchling release, we walk the beach to look for nesting mother turtles. We all wear red head lamps, which don’t bother turtles as much as white lights. We walk and work closely with the biologists from the local station. Teresa Luna is the lead biologist and she accompanies our group on evening walks as well as our daytime trips. She has worked at Barra de la Cruz for about a year, and with marine turtles for more than 15 years, but is still just as excited as all of us when we find a nesting turtle or when we release hatchlings. When we find a leatherback nest — just the 6th nest by a leatherback this season (this was a down year for this beach)— she is smiling from ear to ear.
During one of the first nights, Teresa gives a presentation at the station to our group about the turtles that nest in Barra de la Cruz and the station’s work. The station has reported promising increases in nesting turtles in the past few years. However, Teresa emphasizes that turtles have an extremely long life span; hatchlings that are born today will not return to build nests for 15 to 20 years. This means that good results today are likely due to protections put in place in the 1990s and that hard work today will not show up until 2037 or later.
Our group had the option to walk the beach all three nights. Most nights we walk 1-3 hours, depending on what we find and how tired everyone is. The first night we found a nesting green turtle crawling up the beach. She started digging a few times, but after 20 minutes or so decided to abandon the nesting and go back into the water. This happens occasionally, especially because the sand is too dry or something else about conditions doesn’t feel right to her.
Up to two people also could ride on an ATV along the beach instead of walking. The second night, the ATV finds a leatherback nest shortly after the mother has left. Leatherbacks are the largest turtle that nests at Barra de La Cruz and the nest is huge comparably—almost 10 feet across. While it’s very clear a nest is here, the exact location is hard to find because the mother turtle has tried to cover it by disrupting the sand. The nest will be about 3 feet below the surface, so the research team uses a 3-foot wooden pole to poke into the sand to find the nest pocket. The nest has 86 eggs, all of which are immediately removed to the hatchery to give the eggs a better chance at hatching. In 2021 they were able to protect 97% of the total nests.
On the final night in Barra de la Cruz, the ATV found the tracks of another nesting leatherback—the 7th of the season. This site was nearly at the end of the 8 km beach—much farther than the rest of the group to have walked that night. But two members of our group were on the ATV with the researcher and got to see the nest.
During the days in Barra de La Cruz we visit some of the tourist sites. Barra de la Cruz is known for its strong surf — which is why turtles like it as well — which means that we cross paths with surfers almost as often as turtles. We see several places to rent or repair surfboards, and there is a bit more of a beach bum chic nightlife than we will get later in the trip. One day we visit and have lunch at an organic coconut farm, where the enterprising young owner makes her own soaps, lotion, and crafts from coconut. We even get to make our own soap from coconut oil and glycerin using the same method she does.
Another day we drive to a waterfall in the mountains near where our local tour guide lives. It’s much cooler and in a rainforest zone, which is a nice change from the arid beach where we are staying. We also visit a coop near the waterfall where local farmers have banded together to sell organic and local products such as mezcal (a local specialty), honey, horchata, and tablecloths.
Escobilla—The Famous Arribada Beach
The middle of our trip is in Escobilla, which is one of the most important and plentiful turtle nesting beaches in the world. In 2021, more than 1.7 million turtles nested along the 16 km beach. The beach is protected from commercial development, and the absence of a surfer community means the local community is extremely small. There is no cell service or Wifi and we see only a single other tour van of outsiders during our three days in Escobilla.
We arrive Dec. 1. It is not during an arribada, which happens about once per month from July to February. However, there are still nesting turtles every night and thousands of hatchlings on the beach. Our first night, we walk the beach at sunset with buckets to help bring hatchlings that are far up the beach down closer to the water. Often the beach gets so crowded during an arribada that mother turtles will lay eggs far from the water along the scrub brush. Each of us gets buckets and it takes only a few minutes to collect 20-30 hatchlings each. Then we pour them into a line about 30 feet from the waves and watch them crawl into the surf. A few times, we scare away a Turkey vulture or a crab that tries to grab the new babies. But we can’t do anything about the pelicans that scoop another hatchling that had already made it to the water before getting eaten. It is estimated that only one in 1,000 hatchlings will live to adulthood.
On our first night in Escobilla, we visit with the leaders of the research center to learn about their work and the obstacles that face turtles in the area. As we did in Barra de la Cruz, each night we walk the beach to look for nesting mothers. After sunset, the beach is so covered with hatchlings that we can hardly walk a few feet without seeing one cross in front of us. We witness two nesting on each of our two nightly walks. Because there are so many nests in Escobilla, it’s not possible for researchers to move eggs to a hatchery. Indeed, many nests are destroyed by other mother turtles who dig their new nest on top of a previous nest. At Escobilla, it’s estimated that just 17% of eggs successfully hatch. New hatchlings then face natural predators — shorebirds and crabs — that are plentiful along the shoreline.
Our 12-person tour group gets along really well, in part because we have such varied talents and interests. This is on full display during a morning birdwatching walk while we are staying at Escobilla. One of our tour members is an avid birder (with an excellent telescoping lens camera) and is able to help identify local birds and help translate our Spanish-speaking guide. About halfway through the walk, we stop in a shady dried-up riverbed for a light breakfast of papaya, “sopes” (small tortillas with tomato sauce and cheese), hibiscus juice, and sweetened coffee.
Our final two nights we leave the turtle nesting beaches to stay in the more popular and populated beach village of Mazunte. This is a popular seaside town with many restaurants, seaside beach resorts and touristy shops. Many Europeans, Canadians, and some expats fill the streets and sidewalk cafes. After a fruitful week at turtle nesting beaches, our group is happy to return to our relatively luxurious hotel that boasts WiFi, hot water, hammocks, and a pool.
For our final days, we visit a local turtle aquarium and rehabilitation center, the Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga. This is a great way to see the grassroots efforts by community members to help study and support turtles. We also take a boat ride from a nearby beach and see dolphins, several olive ridley turtles (each swimming alone), and a humpback whale. We finish with a celebratory dinner at a local Moroccan restaurant.
As you can see, this was truly a greatest hits of Oaxaca’s coast and turtle nesting beaches. But it also helped support these important beaches and communities.