When I was younger, I used to have an obsession with sea turtles. All my friends loved dolphins – which seemed to be the most popular sea animal – but for me it was sea turtles.
I thought they swam gracefully in the ocean and how they came onshore to lay their eggs fascinated me. I watched a video of little babies hatching and then struggling to get into the ocean, and it was decided – sea turtles were by far my favourite animals.
Because of my love for the sea turtle – an animal I’d never even seen in the flesh – I spent hours working on a school project dedicated to them. I created a huge poster with a giant sea turtle in the middle of it, and wrote facts about sea turtles all around its edges.
Still to this day I can remember that school project (possibly one of the few I can actually recall!) even though I was only about nine when I made it.
Trying to glimpse sea turtles in Mexico
When we went to Mexico, we decided to spend a few days on an island off Cancun called Cozumel. It is renowned for its scuba diving, thanks to famous oceanographer and scuba diver Jacques Cousteau calling it one of the world’s best dive spots in the ‘60s.
We weren’t at all disappointed in the diving, and I got to take my first sea turtle selfie underwater there… the obsession with sea turtles was slowly creeping back into my life.
But what excited me the most was that when we arrived on the island we learnt that it was currently hatching season for baby sea turtles.
Sea turtle eggs incubating in sandy nests
Two months earlier, mama turtles had come ashore at Cozumel to lay their eggs. They dug really big holes, lay their eggs, and then covered them with sand to protect them from predators. Quite a feat!
The eggs incubate for two months, and there is a conservation group on the island that marks out the nests with wooden markers, warning locals to be careful.
But we were saddened to see many locals not taking much notice of the nests and some beaches even had rubbish strewn everywhere.
It seems that sometimes the sea turtles biggest predators aren’t seagulls or vultures who grab them as they make their new-life escape to the sea, but humans themselves.
Death before life
We were told that to be part of a group that can watch turtles scramble into the ocean, we would need to be at the beach at 5pm. We arrived early but there was no one around, and the conservation van was all locked up.
Disheartened, we got back on our scooter and headed along the coast, seeing if we could spot the conservation group.
Thanks to their uniforms, we soon spotted the volunteers digging holes to reach the baby turtles to help them to get to the sandy surface.
Without the volunteers’ help, sea turtles would have to scramble through the mounds of sand themselves, usually at night to protect themselves from predators. It can be quite a struggle, considering how small the turtles are and how deep the holes can be.
One thing that surprised me is how many eggs had already hatched, unaided. There were more than a hundred eggs in each nest, and hopefully the turtles that had left before had scrambled to the safety of the ocean.
Trying to help out
We made our way over to where a group of people were gathered to watch a number of sea turtles get released into the ocean.
Suddenly, a man stepped in our way. “You can’t go down here,” he told us in Spanish.
In my broken Spanish, I replied that the tour group operator had said we could come and watch the turtles being released.
“No, you can’t go,” he insisted.
Frustrated, I turned on my heel and climbed back to where the volunteers were digging the holes. I asked a lady if I could help her. She asked her supervisor and then walked back across the sand to me, shaking her head.
Apparently we couldn’t help if we weren’t volunteers.
Looking to hold a baby turtle
I rested back on my laurels and watched her dig, sweaty in the last rays of sun. Dave had gone off to take some photos.
Even though the sun was going down over the island behind us, the air was still thick and humid. I took pity on her. She was working so hard at digging this hole up and all I could do was sit and watch.
Suddenly, she pulled something out of the hole that wasn’t a squashed egg. I squealed in delight as I realised it was a precious baby turtle, his legs beating furiously in the air.
Smiling, the lady handed me the turtle. While I was feeling sorry for her digging her hole, it seemed she had taken pity on me for not being able to transport some of the little turtles into the ocean.
The struggle for the sea
I thanked the lady over and over as I took the precious cargo in my hands. “Gracias! Gracias!”
I called to Dave to come quick, as the little guy struggled between my fingers. Even though we were a hundred metres or so from the ocean, he knew which direction to head, and was desperate to get there.
Dave started filming as I took quick steps towards the sea.
I could feel the baby turtle’s little heartbeat hammering in his chest. He wanted to get into that water.
I finally let him go safely on to the shore and as soon as I did, a giant wave came and smashed him back. I gasped. “Is he going to be okay?” I asked Dave.
But to our surprise, he went back for more. Time and time again, he would get up and swim into the waves, even though they threw him back on to the shore.
Eventually he was successful and swam out into the ocean where we lost sight of his tiny body.
We wished him well. Hopefully he’d survive and live to an age where he’d be able to help make baby turtles of his own.
As for me? I couldn’t stop smiling for days. My childhood love for sea turtles had just been rekindled.
Have you ever had a chance to spend time with sea turtles?
It was the chance to do something I’d always dreamt about.
Our week on the island of Cozumel, off the coast of mainland Mexico, was coming to an end. As the sun set, we were given a unique opportunity – to release recently hatched baby sea turtles into the ocean.
The volunteers had been digging eggs up out of the nests for hours – tiresome work that was paid off each time they uncovered a baby turtle.
While the odd turtle was found still in the nest, there were hundreds of empty shells from turtles who’d already hatched, hopefully making it to the safety of the water on their own.
For those turtles who were helped to the shore, their work was just beginning as they battled the waves to get into the ocean.
And then it was my turn to help a turtle of my own.