coral reef | Sea Turtles

By Ann Wycoff

It’s five in the morning and we’re walking along a narrow sandy path in the pitch dark, enveloped by the sound of the pounding surf. Above, a mesmerizing blanket of stars reveals the Milky Way in all of her humbling glory. 

As our eyes adjust, we begin to see dark mounds populating Escobilla Beach, a nine-mile expanse that trims the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean in Oaxaca, Mexico. Moving closer we discover an olive ridley sea turtle digging in the sand, preparing a nest for her eggs. 

Utterly exhausted, she has miraculously carried her 100-pound body across the sand, having traveled thousands of miles to return to the beach of her own birthright where she will lay 80 to 100 eggs. 

Our WILDCOAST group has come to witness an arribada, a mass nesting of olive ridley sea turtles, one of seven sea turtle species. Once on the brink of extinction from being overfished and consumed, the olive ridley is now listed as vulnerable (though only one step above endangered), thanks to conservation campaigns and the work of groups like WILDCOAST. 

Over the past seven years, WILDCOAST, has worked to preserve the globally important coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife of Oaxaca. We have helped to preserve the fragile coral reefs, mangrove wetlands, tropical forests, and wildlife of Huatulco National Park as well as preserve pristine beaches backed by wildlife-filled mangrove lagoons, where millions of sea turtles nest each year.

Each year from July to January, the olive ridley turtles make their way to deposit some 15 million eggs along Oaxacan beaches such as Escobilla and Morro Ayuta. 

We watch the female, protected by her olive green, heart-shaped shell, sweep away the sand—her movements seemingly like the turtle version of a snow angel. After digging a hole, she’ll drop her ping-pong sized eggs and she will cover them, and then return to the sea, as reptiles such as these do not stay with their young. 

After incubating for 45 days, the little hatchlings break free from their shells and if lucky enough to make it, they, too, will head back into the ocean.  

As the sun rises and ignites the sky and cumulus clouds, the soft orange morning light reveals hundreds of sea turtles in various stages of nesting on this waterfront sanctuary. One of the most important nesting sites in the world, Escobilla Beach is now patrolled and protected by Mexico’s Protected Area Commission (CONANP), the Mexican Navy and local community members.

The magic of this moment doesn’t escape any of us as we recognize what a privilege it is to be here and witness this extraordinary moment in the wild.

For the past three days, 14 of us have traveled together, exploring the natural treasures of the Huatulco region in Oaxaca, guided by local WILDCOAST marine biologists. In Huatulco National Park we snorkel in the company of guineafowl pufferfish, angelfish and spotted eagle rays. 

Huatulco National Park is internationally recognized as a “Biosphere Reserve” by UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere program and as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. 

Established in 1998, the park includes 29,380 acres, home to terrestrial tropical mammals like jaguars, ocelots, jaguarondi, anteaters and more than 100 species of tropical birds, along with important marine ecosystems, including 113 acres of coral reefs, 10 species of coral, 58 species of marine invertebrates and 150 species of fish. 

After communing with nature underwater, we swim to the empty, powder-white Cacaluta Beach fringed by bright green mangroves, and dine under a palapa, enjoying fruit, vegetable ceviche, and fresh fish. 

Later, we raft past the tropical forests that envelop the Copalita River and brave a few rapids, while also spying ibis, herons, cormorants and kiskadees along the river’s edge. 

We are also fortunate to spend a morning releasing olive ridley turtle hatchlings at Morro Ayuta Beach where WILDCOAST biologist Luis Rojas Cruz works together with Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP), to monitor, record and protect the sea turtles during these arribadas

We learn that it is exceedingly important not to touch the babies (the oils from human skin can interfere with their imprinting process), so we are each given a coconut shell with a fresh-from-the-egg turtle who is eager to escape.  

After gently setting our adopted turtles into the sand, we stand back and watch them begin their inaugural journey to the sea, giving them space and a chance to imprint, so they, too, some 14 years later, might return to lay their own eggs on this very beach where we stand. 

Our group members cheer on these tiny adorable creatures, whose survival rate can be one out of 1,000 because of poachers, hungry crabs, feral dogs, black vultures, tropical storms, oil spills, fishing nets, plastics and more. Happily, our olive ridleys scurry off and all of them make it into the sea.

After releasing the turtles, we return to the Morro Ayuta Sea Turtle Camp for a beautiful feast prepared by locals from the village of Rio Seco, who share with us traditional fare like atole, a harvested corn and sesame drink, flor de calabaza (squash blossom) soup, locally caught, wood-fired huachinango (red snapper) and handmade tortillas. 

After breakfast, WILDCOAST Executive Director Serge Dedina speaks about the conservation project at Morro Ayuta and the partnership between WILDCOAST and CONANP, which Serge calls the “NASA of Mexico.” 

Scientist Maria Teresa Luna Medina from CONANP and WILDCOAST’s Luis Rojas Cruz give a fascinating talk on the arribadas that occur here at Morro Ayuta, usually 8 to 10 per season from July to January with peaks in September and October. 

Arribadas can be affected by the moon, currents and winds and we learn that these mass nestings only happen in India, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Mexico.

Thankfully, the olive ridley species is in the process of recovery as the Mexican government banned the killing of sea turtles in 1990, and established national protected areas, along with turtle management in 2000. 

At Morro Ayuta, WILDCOAST teaches local students about sea turtle conservation so that these communities will continue stewarding local ecosystems and wildlife.

At the end of our Oaxaca adventure, we all agree that it was an amazing experience to explore the coral reefs and brightly colored fish of Huatulco National Park  and witness the return of olive ridley sea turtles to the place of their birth to lay their eggs, an incredible act of nature that has occurred for the past 110 million years. 

Despite the extraordinary success of our conservation work in Oaxaca, WILDCOAST needs your support to conserve the globally important but fragile ecosystems and wildlife there. 

With the olive ridley turtle population decreasing in size and still under threat, we hope you will donate today to help us protect these magnificent yet vulnerable creatures.

WILDCOAST also needs your support so we can provide CONANP biologists additional ATVs for patrolling the beach and safeguard the nesting sites of these turtles, as well as to continue the educational programs for local children who are directly involved in the protection of Morro Ayuta and its olive ridley turtles.

Thank you in advance for DONATING to WILDCOAST. Every dollar counts!

For more information about future WILDCOAST trips to see the amazing and beautiful places we are working to protect, please contact ann@wildcoast.org.


Ann Wycoff is the Development Director of WILDCOAST. She can be reached at ann@wildcoast.org.