Got a bucket list? Here’s an activity that needs to slide right into the number one slot: cheering on tens of thousands of sea turtles. Whether it’s the mums laying their eggs or the babies hatching and making their way out to sea, it’s truly an experience you’ll never forget.
And there’s no better place to do it than right here on the Oaxacan coast, at La Escobilla, Mexico.
“¡Ya están! ¡Ya están!”, said a voice on the other end of the line. ‘They’re here! They’re here!’
The caller was an Escobilla local who had promised to keep an eye out for the olive ridleys and give us a buzz when they were arriving.
‘They’ are the big mother olive ridley turtles that swim onto the beach at La Escobilla every year to lay their eggs. This group nesting phenomenon is unique in the animal kingdom and no one knows exactly when the event will take place, other than that the annual season is usually from June through December.
Females can swim around with fertilized eggs inside them for weeks before they have to come ashore to nest. They lay over a hundred eggs at a time and can do this twice in a season. 45 days later, the baby olive ridleys hatch and make their way back to the safety of the sea.
La Escobilla is one of the few places in the world that the olive ridley turtles use for nesting.
The Mexican government takes sea turtle conservation seriously, and for good reason. Turtles that go ashore away from the safety of La Escobilla often land up in harm’s way. While it’s highly illegal, many poachers are still drawn to sneak to the beach at night and steal turtle eggs.
Olive ridleys do nest solo, in the vicinity of a nesting site, but they prefer to be part of an arribada. An arribada is a Spanish word meaning ‘arrival by sea’, and in this case it refers to the group nesting sites where turtles visit en masse to lay their eggs. There are only 5 countries in the world where this synchronized nesting takes place: India, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Nicaragua. There used to be a few nesting areas in Mexico but now only La Escobilla remains.
Holy moly! So many turtles you can hardly see the sand.
On a quiet day around 10,000 turtles come ashore. Most wait, bopping up and down, just beyond where the waves are breaking until others on the shore are finished and headed back to the ocean. It’s like they’ve got their own queueing system to make sure they all wait for their turn. On a busy day there are anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 turtles, so to avoid bottlenecks on these days, waiting your turn is extra important.
Arribadas are a girls-only mission, as male turtles spend most of their lives in the water. The females only leave the sea when it’s time to nest. Once they hit the beach they move as quickly as they can with their noses occasionally plunging into the sand. They sniff the sand to check moisture content and toxin levels. Having found a spot they like, the digging begins. They curl their flippers as they dig, scooping out the sand till they are left with a deep hole to squeeze their eggs into.
Once done they wave their flippers about swishing the sand over the hole and burying the eggs with a thick cap. When they’ve patted down the sand they’re off, as fast as their flippers can carry them, back to their vast home.
Just a month and a half to “Baby on Board” time.
About 45 to 60 days later the eggs hatch. Most hatch late in the evening, usually around midnight. Baby turtles weigh only 1 ounce and are only 1.5 inches from head to toe. The temperature of the sand during the third trimester determines the sex of the hatchlings. Cooler temperatures will produce mostly males, warmer temperatures produce mostly females, and a fluctuation produces a mix of both sexes. The pivotal temperature is around 29 °C (82 °F).
New to the world, the hatchlings have to fight their way out of their egg shells and through 45 cm (18 inches) of sand to the surface. Sluggish and bleary eyed, they follow the white crest of the breaking waves highlighted by the light of the moon until they reach the sea.
As developments encroach on nesting areas it becomes increasingly difficult for baby turtles to distinguish between artificial light from buildings and the moonlight hitting the sea. This is one of the biggest threats hatchlings face in our modern world. A hatchling that heads off in the wrong direction is almost certainly doomed.
And now it’s time to run like the wind blows.
Once above ground the baby olive ridleys move in quick, short bursts overcoming fierce obstacles like vicious crabs, hungry birds, clumsy humans and strong waves. For those that make it this far, the quest for survival is just getting started.
The waters close to the shore are dangerously full of predators, so the little turtles must swim far offshore to ultimately secure their safety.
This period is known as the swimming frenzy. Fueled by their yolk reserves, the hatchlings swim for up to five days without rest until they are safely out of the reach of snapping jaws. Despite these efforts, only 1 baby turtle in 1,000 makes it to adulthood.
Sounds amazing. So how do I hook up a visit?
The egg laying season lasts six months and it’s very difficult to predict when exactly there is going to be an arribada, so when you’re in the area you need to check with the folks at La Escobilla turtle center to find out if the olive ridleys happen to be laying. Fortunately, hatchings are extremely easy to predict, as they take place 45 days after an arribada.
The road at La Escobilla is guarded by the military and visitors can only access the beach with a registered guide. Guides charge around 100 pesos, with this price including your entrance fee. You’ll be given an armband to wear and you’ll need to show your passport to register.
Don’t even think of heading down to the beach without a guide. There are several military checks on the way to the beach and guards at each end. You won’t get through, trust me. The restaurant on the highway-side of La Escobilla is used as the base by knowledgeable local guides. Pop in there and ask for a guide and they’ll organize one to come to the restaurant to meet you. You can also give them a call at 958 583 5320 (Spanish only).
Egg laying is usually done in the early evening so you’ll need to be there around 6pm. To view a hatching, the best time to be on the beach is 10pm at the earliest. The later you go the more babies you’ll see.
The local registered La Escobilla guides do not currently have an English speaker amongst them. For a higher price you can go to La Escobilla with a guide from nearby Puerto Escondido or Huatulco.
Many reputable guides such as Lorenzo from Deep Blue Dive or Gina the tourist information lady in Puerto Escondido are registered with La Escobilla and you will be participating in the official program where your tourist dollars contribute to the conservation effort.
Oh, yeah. And if you want to watch an incredible video that we made from our trip to the turtle sanctuary, you’ll find it here on our Facebook page.
Don’t be duped into supporting any of the artificial turtle release programs.
Be wary of tour groups operating from towns that guarantee you a turtle release on other beaches along the Oaxacan coast. Some tour operators illegally purchase eggs from raided nests and the hatchlings are kept in pens until there are sufficient tourist dollars.
The hatchlings only have 6 days’ worth of energy supplying yolk inside of them, and so this may mean they don’t have enough strength to swim out far enough during the swimming frenzy. If they can’t get beyond the waters with a dense concentration of predators it is almost certain they will die. Participating in these releases only perpetuates this problem. It is like releasing a kitten on a highway.
There are some legitimate conservation groups (like the Cooperativa de La Ventanilla) out there, helping to protect turtles that lay solo nests, but most of the turtle releases are simply tourist traps.
Stay with us and we can help you set up an unforgettable turtle-tastic experience (turtles willing, of course).
If you are looking for a tranquil place to stay during your La Escobilla tour, Gecko Rock is located a mere 10 km (7 miles) from La Escobilla off a quiet, tranquil beach. Being just a couple of beaches over from La Escobilla we have a few Olive Ridley mums who choose to nest solo on our shoreline.
Gecko Rock is an adult-only, intimate, boutique resort with a big pool and delicious food. It’s the perfect place to stay for a romantic sojourn with nature far away from the maddening crowd. Relaxation is what we do best!