On a stretch of protected coastline just north of Mazatlan, the sand seemed to quiver as dozens of tiny baby sea turtles scuttled toward the waves that rolled invitingly onto the shore.
Before long, their flippers reached the lip of the water as the waves licked them up and carried them out to sea.
It's a surreal feeling holding an endangered sea turtle in the palm of your hand mere minutes before it takes to the ocean, absolutely a bucket-list moment.
When released on the beach, the baby sea turtles head instinctively toward the ocean. Photo Credit: Meagan Drillinger
The Verde-Camacho Turtle Sanctuary was founded in 1975 to protect the olive ridley sea turtle, which lays its eggs on the beaches north of Mazatlan. The National Commission of Naturally Protected Areas has teamed with neighboring villages to provide a natural reserve dedicated to the preservation of land and wildlife. Today, the commission's programs offer opportunities to learn about area beaches and instruction in how to help preserve them.
We arrived at the sanctuary in the early afternoon for a brief lecture on sea-turtle ecology and conservation, after which we rode ATVs to take in the pristine and rugged beauty of Mexico's Pacific coast. The beach path leads toward El Verde Estuary, which is an important coastal ecosystem shrouded by mangrove forests. Here we hopped aboard a small motorboat and cruised off into the thick, overhanging mangrove vines.
After we returned to the turtle sanctuary we feasted on a lunch prepared by members of a local village, with fresh salsa, grilled tuna, rice, beans and tortillas. Feeling sated, it was time to release the baby turtles, an activity that happens every day from July through January. The eggs are rescued from the nests on the sand and brought to secure nests behind fences or into replica nests built out of plastic-foam coolers, which are kept safe in a nursery. The eggs hatch every 45 days or so, at which point it is time to take the turtles to the shoreline to release them.
Three babies were placed in a cup and handed to me, and I watched them squirm with frenetic excitement. At the conservationists' call we bowed our cups down to the shore and watched the turtles scramble toward the languid waves. Baby sea turtles, who have never seen the ocean before, will always head in the direction of the water, no matter which way you point them.
The sanctuary tracks the turtles and learned that every eight years the turtles will return to the same beach on which they were hatched. There's something comforting in seeing it all work out the way it's supposed to.