Jaltemba Bay Releases Olive Ridley Turtle Hatchlings
Tara A. Spears
Watching a sunset over the ocean is always enjoyable but add hundreds of tiny dynamos racing to the surf and the evening becomes spectacular! Ever since seeing a sea turtle give birth when I was a young child, I have always been in awe of these creatures. Sea turtles lumber slowly on land but become wonderous, graceful swimmers in the ocean. For years I’’ve enjoyed watching sea turtles while deep sea fishing or when taking early morning strolls on the beach. It was very special to share the joy of sea turtles with my children, and it is extra special to see the eyes of grandchildren light up watching the baby turtles scurry off into the waves!
Sea turtles are one of nature’s treasures but now they need our help to survive. That’s why the Jaltemba Bay Hotel Association supports protecting the sea turtle nests. It’s a simple and effective plan: the oceanfront businesses identify new nests and notify trained personel who will come gather the eggs. The turtle eggs are transported to a protected area-nursery- until the babies develop. Weeks later, when the turtles hatch, they are kept contained until dusk. Releasing hatchlings just as night falls is much safer for the baby turtles because it’s main pedator, sea birds, are not swooping down the beach to dine on the hapless turtles. In addition, when the hatchling turtles can be released in from of a crowd, the babies are protected from other carnivores (such as racoons) that would eat them if people weren’t around. It is a very moving experience for the people, too.
While there are only five species of sea turtles, Jaltemba Bay beach is the nesting site for the lovely Olive Ridley turtles. Olive Ridleys are globally distributed in the tropical regions of the South Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In the Eastern Pacific, they occur from Southern California all along Mexico until Northern Chile. Adult turtles weigh 100 pounds (45 kilos); hatchlings weigh 1 oz (28grams). A mature adult Olive Ridley gets up to 22-32 inches (55-80 cm) wide; a hatchling will be 1.5 inches (4 cm). Babies are blackish with green tint sides. The Olive Ridley turtle’s diet consists of algae, lobster, crab, mollusks, shrimp, and fish.
The reproductive cycle of the Olive Ridley is noteworthy. This species reaches sexual maturity at about age 15. Only the female comes ashore to lay about 100 eggs at a time, one or two times a year. That is fairly typical behavior of all sea turtles, but what distinguishes an Olive Ridley is large group nesting at the same time.
“The Olive Ridley has one of the most extraordinary nesting habits in the natural world. Large groups of turtles gather off shore of nesting beaches. Then, all at once, vast numbers of turtles come ashore and nest in what is known as an ‘arrabada’. During these arribadas, hundreds to thousands of females come ashore to lay their eggs. At many nesting beaches, the nesting density is so high that previously laid egg clutches are dug up by other females excavating the nest to lay their own eggs,” according to 2014 research by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.
There are many theories on what triggers an arribada, including offshore winds, lunar cycles, and the release of pheromones by females. Despite these theories, scientists have yet to determine the actual cues for Ridley arribadas. Not all females nest during an arribada, instead some are solitary nesters. Some Olive Ridleys employ a mixed nesting strategy. For example, a single female might nest during an arribada, as well as nest alone during the same nesting season. Arribada nesting is a behavior found only in the genus Lepidochelys: which encompasses the Kemp and Olive Ridley sea turtles. Although other turtles have been documented nesting in groups, no other turtles (marine or otherwise) have been observed nesting in such mass numbers and synchrony. In the eastern Pacific, arribadas occur from June to December on certain beaches on the coast of Mexico.
Olive Ridleys often migrate great distances between feeding and breeding grounds. Using satellite telemetry tags, scientists have documented both male and female Olive Ridleys leaving the breeding and nesting grounds off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica to migrate out to the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean.
In the eastern Pacific Ocean, killing sea turtles and collecting their eggs has occurred for hundreds of years by the indigenous people. Little data on historical egg taking in Mexico currently exist, but egg collection has reached nearly 100% at solitary nesting sites. In many isolated Mexican coastal places, egg collecting currently continues at this alarming level when measured in 2007. Since moving to Mexico, I have witnessed locals taking sea turtle eggs and begged them to leave the eggs alone. When I asked the person gathering the turtle eggs why, the man responded, “I sell the turtle eggs to others that want to have better hard-ons. The turtle eggs make him more a man in bed.” (He included gestures to make sure that I was following the Spanish explanation.)
Fortunately, today along the Mexican coast most seaside villages and towns have organized turtle sanctuaries and sea turtle egg protection policies. The Olive Ridley sea turtle breeding populations on the Pacific Coast of Mexico are listed as endangered, whereas in other parts of the global range, the turtles are classified as threatened. It is through educating children and conservation efforts like those in Jaltemba Bay that the Olive Ridley sea turtle will be protected for generations to come.
Special thanks to Beto, Mateja’s Restaurant, and the Jaltemba Bay group that works to save the turtles.