WHAT STRIKES ME FIRST isn’t the size of the reptile, though it is large and oddly bovine, ripping at the swaying sea grass with sideways tugs and chewing it slowly into a green pulp. No, not the size of the turtle, but the symmetry.
The sloping carapace, the head, the fins, every part of the animal that hovers above the sea floor is mottled in a wondrous symmetry of scales (called scutes) and shell. Down the center of the shell are five hexagonal scutes that are flanked by coastal and marginal scutes, giving the shell a jigsaw appearance. On these, the light plays a warbling game of hide and seek, making the marbled carapace a shifting landscape that mimics the undulating sand below.
The guardians of this turtle, the bay it glides in, and the whole eco-system that supports this confluence of marine life is the Centro Ecological Akumal.
CEA staff and volunteers work towards models of sustainable tourism on this heavily trod coastline, educating locals on environmental stewardship, protecting the waters above the fragile reef, and interacting with the tourists who place a heavy toll on the paradise they seek.
Mega resorts, massive golf courses, and multi-million dollar housing development have spread from Cancun South, laying waste to untouched beaches and wetlands, threatening green and loggerhead sea turtles who have nested on these shores for eons.
And whether the turtle that grazes beneath me knows it or not, after years of being driven to the edge, his species is making a gradual but undeniable comeback in Akumal.
At this year’s National Sea Turtle Conservation meeting in Cozumel, led by CEA’s Sea Turtle Conservation Program Coordinator, Armando Lorences, researchers showed that the work that has been done along Mexican coasts over the last 30 years has been successful. Sea turtle numbers are increasing.
The animal flaps its reptilian water-wings gently and rises to the surface. I follow, sure to keep my distance, as it opens its mouth and takes in a breath. The turtles seem ambivalent to their human gawkers but it is a crime to touch, feed, or generally bother the turtles. I don’t want to leave this creature yet; I want to hold my breath and continue to be a silent voyeur to its lazy lunch, but a group of snorkelers have spotted him and have started splashing my way with an underwater camera.
That evening, I join Armando and a group of volunteers gathering in the CEA’s lobby to lead a group of tourists on the nightly nesting turtle walk. After dark volunteers venture out onto the moonlit beaches to scan the shore for nesting females and a few lucky travelers can tag along in groups up to 10 people.
Thunderheads rumble and hide the moon in their mountainous shoulders. We apply mosquito cream and peer into the dim arch of the bay.
Armando says memorize the position of the rocks and debris on the beach so you can discern the slow progression of the gleaming shell. We sit for an hour, watching the dark shift under the roll of thunder.
I don’t see her at first, it’s so dark. Then, Armando tells everyone to freeze as an old green turtle makes her dimly lit phantasmal emergence from the surf.
She is gargantuan. It is too dark to film so I just stand there and watch the dome of her body shine in the moon that shines between thunderheads momentarily.
Before the CEA staff and volunteers measure her shell, count eggs, corral the crowd of onlookers, and check her tag, everyone stands hushed as her front flippers sweep forward and she lurches powerfully forward, dredging the wet sand behind her.
There is work to do, a whole night’s worth, but in the moments before, as she drags her pregnant body ashore, the work is forgotten and I can’t help but shiver as lightning crinkles the sky and the moon is hidden once more.
YOU CAN VOLUNTEER
Be a part of the success of the endangered sea turtles of Akumal Bay by volunteering with CEA.
CEA has several programs in addition to sea turtle monitoring; check their website to see what program fits you best.
CEA requires a minimum of 2 months’ commitment to a program and charges 200 USD a month for foreigners and 100 USD for Mexican citizens. These fees go towards lodging, electricity, building maintenance and general expenses.
Applicants must be over 21.