Andreja Brulc's Blog

MEXICO Project: World Turtle Day & La Ventanilla on the Oaxaca Coast

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 24/05/2014

Today is World Turtle Day (23 May). The purpose of this fun day, sponsored yearly since 2000 by American Tortoise Rescue, is, on the one hand, to bring attention to, and increase knowledge of and respect for, turtles and tortoises worldwide, while, on the other hand, to encourage human action to help them survive and thrive in the natural habitat. The international event brought back my fond memories of the sea turtles in La Ventanilla on the Oaxaca Coast in Mexico – one of the two breeding grounds of a species of this article, Olive Ridley turtle (la tortuga golfina). So I thought I would share some photographs, while taking the opportunity to recommend a visit if travelling nearby, as the experience of the place is unforgettable. If you have seen the animated film A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures (2010) – an enchanting story of a sea turtle called Sammy who, hatched on the Oaxaca Coast, falls for his childhood sweetheart called Shelly – then you know what I am talking about: you unconditionally fall in love with them! This article is dedicated to the community of La Ventanilla for its passion in preserving the sea turtles in their natural eco-system and to my niece and nephew (‘my turtle’ on my hand was released with their names in the photo below) with whom I saw the animated film in a cinema and we absolutely loved it!

Hand

La Playa Ventanilla

La Ventanilla [‘little window’ named after a high rocky peak with a small opening] is a small village, located on the unspoiled and laid-back Costa Chica in the State of Oaxaca, some 2.5km west of Mazunte or 12.5km west of Puerto Ángel. The village consists of a long, unbroken stretch of undeveloped white sand beach and a lagoon (the estuary of the Tonameca River) wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre del Sur. Up until the mid 1990s, the area was a mere coconut plantation with three Zapotec families living there – the electricity arrived only in 1999, when, after the Hurricane Pauline in Oct 1997, more families began to move into the area to build a small close-knit community. Now, the whole protected biosphere area covers around 230 000 sq meters.

La Ventanilla

Past & Present: The story of Olive Ridley turtle

Like Mazunte, which was the centre of sea turtle hunting (with a slaughterhouse) in Mexico by the 1970s and is now the country’s premier turtle research centre (Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga), La Ventanilla had to shift its focus on the environment, reforestation and ecotourism due to a loss of main source of income after an absolute ban on turtle meat and eggs had been enforced in 1990 as the number of sea turtle nests had drastically dropped since 1970s. With the new perception of the turtles seen as the species to be protected, the community was encouraged to create a mini-ecological reserve and tourist attraction. The village is, therefore, best known for a successful conservation, particularly of the Olive Ridley turtle, and for an ecotourism co-operative – Servicios Ecoturísticos La Ventanilla – run by about 25 Zapotec families, who are extremely dedicated to preserving the ecology of both the beach and the lagoon. Unfortunately, when I visited the village in Nov 2012, the area was in a fairly bad state due to another devastating hurricane in June 2012, Hurricane Carlotta, but the community, who owns the land and runs the eco-preservation program, was, according to my biologist guide, in a good spirit as the inhabitants were convinced that their village, with its wild-life surroundings, can soon thrive just like it did before the hurricane.

Releasing of a Olive Ridley turtle: The story of ‘my turtle’

The village is most popular for canoe trips on a mangrove-fringed lagoon, where one can admire diverse flora and fauna: among others two varieties of mangroves (red and white), many species of birds and most notably endangered river crocodiles (around 1000 in the area).

But the most memorable experience, in my opinion, is the releasing of the sea turtle hatchlings into the Ocean at sunset, as portrayed through the photos in this post. According to the guide, one can also take part in night patrols, led by the community’s volunteer workers, in order to see adult female turtles laying their eggs in nests [i.e. the mass nesting phenomenon that occurs only with this species known as arribadas] and helping them to collect the eggs. The nesting season usually begins in May and lasts for several months – during the peak of this activity, thousands of sea turtles come ashore to lay eggs along here. They come in large numbers during the nighttime for 2–3 evenings after a full moon. They scoop out holes in the sand circa 1.2 m deep, deposit their eggs and cover them up. The volunteers protect these turtles from natural predators as well as human poachers. After the eggs are laid and mother turtles return to sea, the volunteers gather the eggs in order to rebury them in a safe nest (a gated-off strip of sand), which is closely monitored with the date and guarded until the turtles are hatched. After 45 days, the nests are dug up and hatchling turtles pop out, which are then collected in a bucket. Visitors who happen to be around on a hatching day, like I was, bring the baby turtles, weighing barely between 12 and 23.3 g, to the high tide line and release them onto the sand, so that the baby turtles slowly find their way back into the strong and tough wave of the Ocean. The whole village is involved in this project – the adults’ passion for preservation of the Olive Ridley turtle is passed on to their children, who also join in the fun. Considering that, according to the guide, only 1%–3% of all hatchlings will reach reproductive age (around 15 years of age), the great dedication and empowerment displayed by the community to protect the eggs is a fabulous way to remember La Ventanilla on the World Turtle Day.

Turtle_1Turtle_2Turtle_3Turtle_4Turtle_5Turtle_6Turtle_7

La Playa Escobilla

The second and main breeding ground (3–4 km long) for the Olive Ridley turtle in Mexico is La Playa Escobilla, located very close to La Ventanilla. In order to protect the turtles, the beach is guarded by the national army carrying M-16’s, scientists and enthusiastic volunteers during the nesting season to prevent looters and poachers from stealing eggs and is off-limits to tourists. However, during this season (July to September) visitors can join overnight trips to observe the turtles while they heave themselves on shore to lay their eggs. The trips also help the local community and must be arranged through the Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga in Mazunte.

Historically, there were several arribadas in Mexico, but only the two mentioned above now remain, as the species is constantly decreasing – according to Beaubien’s article, the species is considered ‘endangered’ by the US National Marine Fisheries Service, while Mexican sources say that the turtles’ population has rebounded significantly. Turtle poaching by humans (not locals) is still going on despite the government’s total ban. While back in Oaxaca after the trip, much to my horror I was offered 6 turtle eggs for the price of $40 Mexican pesos (circa £2 sterlling). The eggs are not only valued for food, but many Mexicans still believe that the eggs are a powerful aphrodisiac.

To get an idea of the breeding ground on La Playa Escobilla, see the video below.

Sources

Beaubien, Jason, ‘Endangered Sea Turtles Return To Mexico’s Beaches’. 16 Oct 2009. NPR. Link

Map of the Oaxaca Beaches and how to get to La Ventanilla, see ‘Playa Ventanilla’. Link.

‘Olive Ridley Turtle’. 2013. NOAA. Link.

Quintero, Melinda, ‘Puerto Escondido’s Experiment in Sustainable Tourism’, 2007, Frommer’s. Link.

Turtles of the Oaxaca Coast, see ‘Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga’ in Mazunte. Link.

‘Turtles in Mazunte’. Exploring Oaxaca. Link.

The largest sanctuary of Olive Ridley turtles is Playa La Escobilla, very close to La Ventanilla, see Wikipedia and Oaxaca Mio.

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