Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Golfina - San Blas, Nayarit

It was pitch black on Playa Platanitos, a long stretch of isolated beach on the Riviera Nayarit. The sky was moonless and the stars were hidden behind clouds. To our right, Pacific waves crashed slowly and rhythmically onto the sand. To our left, the dark silhouettes of endless rows of coconut palms - ghostly remnants of a once booming plantation economy - loomed over us. Engulfed in such darkness, the sand sparkled as we walked through it, each step exciting thousands of tiny bioluminescent creatures trapped onshore by the tides.


We had began walking about an hour before, after the sun had completely set, searching for nesting sea turtles that had been using this beach to lay their eggs for thousands of years. At night, female sea turtles ready to lay their eggs swim onto land, crawl across the beach towards dry sand, lay their eggs in a hole before covering them back up, and crawl back towards the ocean only to return the following year.

Unfortunately, sea turtles and their eggs are considered a local delicacy. Poachers now hide in the trees behind the beach, waiting for an expecting mother to come onshore before taking her and her eggs with them. The populations of most species of sea turtles are sharply declining. To counter the poachers, CONANP - Mexico's equivalent of the National Park Service - runs a sea turtle protection program on this beach. Volunteers walk up and down the beach all night every night during the nesting season, hoping to find the turtles and their eggs before the poachers do.

The volunteers search for tracks of a large turtle leading out of the water up the beach. When they find the tracks they follow them to where the turtle has decided to make its nest. Once the eggs are laid, the volunteers take them all and incubate them in a protected enclosure, releasing the baby sea turtles into the ocean when they hatch. Sometimes, however, the volunteers follow the tracks only to find that they abruptly end with no turtle or nest in site. Sadly, this means that a poacher got to the turtle first.

The sea turtles were abundant on Platanitos a few weeks before our visit but we hadn't seen any signs of them yet. Earlier in the day we were told that the nesting season had passed and that we would be very lucky to find one that night. We had been fortunate enough to watch the release of hundreds of baby sea turtles that afternoon so our disappointment faded quickly when we decided to give up our search and head back to our camp for the night.

A baby Olive Ridley sea turtle

Baby sea turtles racing for the ocean

I walked ahead of everyone, hurrying to get back to the tent. I kept my flashlight off as I walked. I watched the lights of fishing boats on the horizon, appearing then disappearing again with the rise and fall of the waves. I looked ahead for a moment, trying to follow the tracks of a dune buggy that had passed by hours before. Suddenly, in the darkness, I caught a glimpse of a line through the sand, crossing the tracks of the dune buggy.

I walked hurriedly towards that line as it faded in and out of sight, excited that I might have found what we were looking for. Soon I was standing above it, reassured that it was in fact the track of a large female sea turtle leading from the water onto the beach. I turned on my flashlight and searched for the turtle but couldn’t see one. I raced up the beach, following the tracks, hoping to find a turtle or a nest. My excitement faded to fear as I realized that maybe I was too late, that the poachers had found her first.

What would I do if I found nothing at the end of the tracks? This was the last night of a long, perfect vacation. We began our trip a week before in Guadalajara, visiting the other volunteers that lived there and exploring the historic center of Mexico’s second largest city. We made a day trip out of Tequila – in all senses of the word – a small town that is the origin of its namesake beverage. We took a boat trip on Lago Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. We spent a day in the Bosque la Primavera biosphere reserve, birdwatching in the morning and bathing in hot springs in the afternoon.

Isla Isabel
We began our Nayarit adventures on Isla Isabel, a small island three hours off the coast of San Blas where we walked among thousands of nesting Magnificent Frigatebirds – large pterodactyl-like birds – and swam on a beach with hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies - the birds that you will see on postcards from the Galapagos. After trips to mangroves, a national park where we found jaguar footprints, and a shrimp farm, we made our way to Platanitos, the last leg of our journey. Would the disappointment of discovering that this sea turtle had been stolen and killed, its eggs never to hatch, ruin everything we had already done? What would I do if I found a poacher caught in the act? Would I or, more appropriately, could I, defend the turtle?

Thoughts of being a hero by fighting a poacher and saving the life of a mother sea turtle raced through my mind (although those thoughts were mixed with thoughts of writing about being a hero by fighting a poacher and saving the life of a mother sea turtle and how ridiculous that would sound in my blog).

Nestin Olive Ridley mother
Thankfully, no heroics were necessary. I soon found a Golfina – an Olive Ridley Sea Turtle – as it was beginning to lay its eggs in a hole that it had dug. My wife, Ana, caught up to where I was, wondering what I was doing. I shined the light quickly on the turtle to prove that it was there. Ana ran to tell the CONANP volunteers what we had found and I waited by the turtle with my light off, protecting it, hoping not to draw attention of nearby poachers. I waited nervously there for several minutes until the volunteers came and began taking the eggs as they were being laid. In total, they counted fifty eggs. When finished laying the eggs, the sea turtle used her flippers to cover the now empty nest before racing back into towards the ocean. The entire process took less than half an hour. There was no bitter ending to this trip.

The race for the ocean
Platanitos the next morning

Magnificent Frigatebird
Magnificent Frigatebird
Blue-footed Boobies

Isla Isabel

Videos from San Blas Mexico:


  1. Such a magnificent trip specially with the turtles...the highlight. I would have also enjoyed the experience. I'm glad that both of you enjoyed it. ABH. God bless.

  2. woo, que buena experiencia Jajean... bien compartida... espero algún día hacerlo... saludos. rdesch