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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Sea turtles in Yucatán are hatching late. An expert explains.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Marine biologist and sea turtle expert Jesús Manuel Cuevas Medina tends to a turtle in distress at the Campamento Tortuguero Partmacy. Photo: Campamento Tortuguero Partmacy

A couple of weeks ago we published an article on what to do if you find struggling sea turtles on Yucatán’s beaches. This article prompted questions from several readers living on the coast. They wondered why so many hatchlings seem to be having trouble and emerging from nests out of season. 

Baby Carey turtles recently hatched, well out of season in Chuburna. Photo: Georg Basler

To answer these questions we contacted Jesús Manuel Cuevas Medina, Marine Biologist and Director of the Campamento Tortuguero Partmacy — Yucatán’s only turtle rehabilitation center and research camp.

Yucatán Magazine: So what is the current state of sea turtles in Yucatán?

Jesús Manuel Cuevas Medina: Well, as you may know, three turtle species are known to be endemic of the state, these being the Carey (hawksbill), the Caguama (caretta), and the Green. They are all endangered and face many challenges when it comes to maintaining their populations. There have been sightings of other species including the Lora, but these are outliers and likely the result of changing sea currents caused by climate change. 

YM: Why is that, what exactly are these challenges?

JMCM: There are several problems, but the largest is habitat loss. This has come as a result of human-caused phenomena including erosion and rising sea levels as a consequence of climate change. 

YM: Is there anything that can be done to reverse this trend?

JMCM: Not really. The best we can do is make sure we are doing our very best to protect the turtles that do manage to nest on our coastline by stopping irresponsible construction practices and ensuring that at least some areas are left relatively untouched for the turtles to be able to nest.

YM: What exactly do the turtles need to be able to nest successfully?

JMCM: Turtles dislike nesting nearby human activity but will do so if pressed. However, pristine areas lacking loud noises and bright lights are ideal. They also require areas with nearby coastal vegetation and a good amount of sand to be able to build their nest. This is important, sand is not just a preference for turtles, it’s a need. 

Sea turtles need large amounts of sand and vegetation to help ensure a successful nesting process. Photo: Campamento Tortuguero Partmacy

YM: What happens if these conditions are not met?

JMCM: Sea turtles are capable of delaying nesting up to a point, that is probably part of the reason we are seeing a growing number of hatchlings emerging out of season. But if left with no choice, female turtles will find the best spot they can, even if this is on someone’s beach facing home. But the worse the conditions, the less likely it will be that the hatchlings will survive as they need to travel a greater distance to the ocean and are more exposed to predators.

YM: What sort of predators are we talking about here?

JMCM: Sea turtles have evolved in competition with several other creatures and have always been under siege by a small number of predators native to the region. The real problem we are seeing these days has to do with dogs. This is why we encourage people to not allow their dogs to run without a leash along beaches and are working with the government to help decrease the number of strays.

Motor vehicles operating on the beach are also a significant hazard for sea turtles:  Photo: Campamento Tortuguero Partmacy

YM: Speaking of your involvement with the government, where exactly does your funding come from?

JMCM: Despite what many people think, we get absolutely no funding from the government. We rely entirely on donations and work from volunteers. This is a problem because local and state authorities, as well as private persons routinely call us to come over when a problem is reported. Sadly we lack the resources to respond adequately to all requests.

YM: Have you worked with any private or out-of-state organizations?

JMCM: Recently we sent two fully grown female adults to the rehabilitation center run by Xcaret in Quintana Roo. The turtles had been attacked by dogs and had to have limbs removed. They have really excellent facilities and have always been willing to help when possible. 

Sea turtle at Xcaret rehabilitation center in the Mayan Riviera. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

YM: Is turtle and egg poaching still a problem?

JMCM: This is one area in which we have achieved great strides over the past few decades. Stealing turtle eggs, turtles or nests is now a federal crime, so fewer people are willing to take the risk. There is now also a greater environmental awareness, so that is wonderful. But in short, yes, it still is a problem — though not as severe as it used to be. 

YM: Is there anything the public can do to help?

JCMC: As mentioned earlier, we depend entirely on donations, so financial assistance from private persons and companies is always welcomed and greatly appreciated. Our team is full of great people from a variety of disciplines, but we are always on the lookout for volunteers to patrol beaches at night and report back any issues they may encounter.

YM: Do these beach walking volunteers get any sort of training?

JCMC: Absolutely. We run courses and seminars to help educate our volunteers and ensure that the proper methodologies are followed. We will be putting out a call for new volunteers shortly, so we would encourage anyone who wants to participate to get involved.

To report a turtle in distress, donate or volunteer with Campamento Tortuguero Partmacy, please contact the camp via their Facebook page, or call (+52) 999 114 8347.

On Yucatán Magazine’s YouTube channel, see baby carey (hawksbill) sea turtles make their way to the ocean for the first time just after hatching.

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